Monday, December 29, 2008

Faith and Africa

I read a couple of fascinating articles about faith and Africa today, one which was forwarded over to me from my pastor and friend, the other which I stumbled upon while looking through the New York Times online. The articles don't necessarily contradict each other, but one focuses on Africa being an exporter of faith, and the other being an appeal for Africa's need for God.

The first is an interesting column by Times Online writer Matthew Parris, who states plainly that "As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God." That seems paradoxical doesn't it? But on the surface this could easily be addressed by a supposition that while the concept of God is mythical, the zeal that (albeit misinformed) Christians bring to the table in terms of their charitable works. The argument goes, let the Christians believe in the tooth-fairly if they want to, the important thing is that their belief system is spurring them to care for poor and needy people.

But surprisingly, it's the atheist, Parris, who debunks that very argument. He states, "Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing." He goes on to observe, "their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others."

As a Christian, there might be a temptation of pompous reactions such, "Of course, Matthew. Why would you expect anything less from Christians who have received such amazing grace from God?" I'm actually more humbled and challenged - because I'm both convicted and concerned that an objective observer, like a Matthew Parris, could watch me for weeks and not see the same characteristics as was seen in my breathren in Africa. So the questions I ask myself are: Does this faith of mine tranfer to my flock, my family, or at least those under my care at church? Has my faith liberated me from the anxieties of the rat-race, parenting and the financial crisis?

As for Matthew Parris, it's amazing how he captures and appreciates much of the power of the Christian faith. He is eloquent in differentiating the results of that faith with those of well-intentioned humanism and even the fruits of faith from faith itself. I only wonder if he lacks the critical link that the Christian faith is not an optimal human philosophical contruct, but rather something is engendered and cultivated by a God that at present he doesn't believe exists. I hope that those dots are connected in the future.

The other article that I read with great enjoyment was the story of Rev. Chrispin Oneko, a Kenyan priest who tended a flock in Kentucky (after ministering for a short time in Jamaica), reflecting a growing trend of priests from other parts of the world covering the shortage of priests in the United States.

It's simply a wonderful true story of how faith has transcended a myriad of differences and how incarnational ministry really works. It's a story of love received and returned many times over - from an American missionary going to Kenya to a Kenyan missionary going to Kentucky; from a priest caring for a flock to a flock caring for their priest.

I am grateful for brothers like Rev. Oneko. I do find it interesting how seeds planted in the past end up feeding those who had harvested them. Who knows? Someday a young man in Rev. Oneko's church may grow up to find himself a missionary in Africa.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Religious and Rich... in Turkey

A recent New York Times article reported the emergence of a new class of rich, yet devoutly Muslim Turks in Istanbul. Most of these people have risen of the rural and religious merchant class and looks to emerge as a significant social force at the surprise of the urban upper class "White Turk" establishment. This has led to some frictions between a strong tradition of secularization and a devout new class which is gaining influence.

I found it interesting that many of these "nouveau riche" describe them as Muslims with a Protestant work ethic, and say hard work deepens faith. Similar to wealthy Christians in America, they struggle with contextualizing their personal abundance with a faith that commands them to care for the poor, and how tasting luxury becomes an intoxicating addiction to other forms of greed. Like their devout Christian counterparts in the West, they are often distrusted and scorned by their wealthy secular counterparts. But they continue to press on and embrace their faith.

I can't help but wonder if this is a snapshot of America's past or the future? Is what we're seeing in Turkey an analogy of the generation of Christian businessmen and their families in the 19th Century like D.L. Moody? Or is it a forshadowing of what we'll someday see as a generation of evangelical Christian leaders grows older and gains influence in business and society? If the next generation (which might include me) doesn't step up - it won't be because we lacked the pedigree or opportunties. Many of us have had the Ivy League degrees, the experience at top companies, and the support and training of churches and even exclusive groups such as Christian Union at our disposal. Time for the next generation to answer the call.

Turning Away From Profit and thus Performance

Another interesting piece by Nicholas Kristof which discusses the self-inflicting wounds that charitable organizations place on themselves when they eschew such standard business tools as advertising, risk-taking, competitive salaries and profits to lure capital. I can sympathize with Dan Pallotta's angst and frustration with what he sees as a ludicrous self-limiting policy which hamstrings organizations with the most important missions to wallow in what he sees as mediocrity at the expense of the end goal.

But what is the "end goal"? In some of the examples given in the article, fundraising amounts seemed to be the solitary metric. If it's clear that a firm was producing fundraisers that did a phenomenal job of bringing donations into the coffers of a client organization, it seems reasonable enough that a firm and its employees would be rewarded accordingly for that good work. It's a matter of aligning objectives and incentives.

However, such an "end goal" is not always clear. As a church, we keep an eye on our finances, which help fund our general operations, discipleship programs, overseas missions work, and charitable donations to those outside the church, but it would be wildly inaccurate to categorize our balance sheet as the singular metric for the health of our church. I would shudder to consider making attendance a primary variable for incentive compensation for a pastor of a church. Why? Because the danger of incentive compensation, when misaligned, might trigger negative behaviors which may adversely contribute to the overall health of the church. Using an absurd example, a pastor could project illegal recently-released movies and NFL games during on a huge screen and sell beers and snacks while charging a nominal fee as a proxy for Sunday Service. Membership and revenue may increase, but surely you wouldn't say that the pastor is doing a good job.

I do think that charitable organizations and churches can learn a great deal from corporate best practices and disciplines. As for Mr. Pallotta's argument, I tend to agree that there's no harm in making a profit while helping people as long as there's clear line between organizations which profess to be non-profits and those that are not. If you run an organization that primarily aspires to make a profit to the benefit of the employees and stakeholders, go for it and play by the same tax rules and employee churn that other for-profits experience - plus I'm probably not going to cut you a check to help support you. In other words, your reward has already been paid in full. For a non-profit which is primarily focused on the need of the mercy recipient, I consider my donations to be my way of rewarding the selflessness of the company and employees who have opted to put others first. I think there's a place for both models.

Mr. Pallotta also makes this point which I wholeheartedly agree with:

“We allow people to make huge profits doing any number of things that will hurt the poor, but we want to crucify anyone who wants to make money helping them,” Mr. Pallotta says. “Want to make a million selling violent video games to kids? Go for it. Want to make a million helping cure kids of cancer? You’re labeled a parasite.”

I know this all too well. Work for an investment bank, and you're allowed to make as much as you want because you're smart and you've earned it. Work for a pharmaceutical and suddenly you're preying off the misery of other people. Why the double standard? A bank isn't expected to give away money or free loans to people in the third world - but drug companies are presently doing this. Automobile manufacturers aren't expected to give cars away to people who can't afford them - but drug companies are presently doing this. As I mentioned earlier, non-profits and for-profits should be held a different standards. I'm less convinced that there should be a different standard for companies within those bands.

Brutally Honest, and Lacking a Little Grace

Daniel is starting to become a little more familiar and polished when it comes to the Christmas holiday. He's fully aware that Christmas is a time of gift-giving, and his excitement around gifts encouraged Sarah and I to continually reinforce the true meaning of Christmas: "Why do we give gifts for Christmas?" "To remember Jesus." "And Who was the most important gift that God gave to us?" "Jesus."

Something that we need to teach Daniel is how to be gracious when he receives gifts that he doesn't like. A few weeks ago, he received gifts from cousins of mine. With anticipation he tore into the wrapping paper with relish, only to find to his chagrin that the box contained clothes. To our horror, he quickly tossed the box aside and walked away to play with his trains. The next day, Daniel received a harsh rebuke and lecture from both Sarah and I. Sarah firmly said, "No matter what you get, you need to say 'thank you' because the person was doing a nice thing by giving you a gift," which was probably more effective than my, "If I ever catch you again being rude when you receive a present, I'm throwing your trains into the garbage." Okay, I'm kidding about that last part.

A couple of days ago, we opened presents at my parents house. Daniel opened numerous boxes of clothing for which he said "thank you" (albeit prompted at times) and then opened an Crayola art set for which he quietly said, "I don't like this one" (but still said 'thank you'), and then got a Thomas Tank Engine bicycle helmet and bicycle, for which there was joy and completely earnest and sincere gratitude. As for Sophia, she was too busy playing with the wrapping paper.

For better of for worse, Daniel's speaks honestly about what he likes and doesn't like. He'll say outright whether he doesn't like a particular gift or excitedly exclaims "this is just what I wanted!" as he did when he received a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD and toy. I can't be too hard on the boy. After all, he's not even four years old yet, and Lord knows I hated receiving clothes even more than Daniel did. Plus, it's not as if I'm looking forward to the day my son turns into disingenuous two-faced phony.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Your 2009 Suncoast League Champion Millburn Mustangs

In a dominating performance, I'm pleased to announce that my Fantasy Football Team, the Millburn Mustangs, have won the Suncoast League Championship by a score of 120.50 to 76.50.

Millburn Mustangs (8-5)
QB Jay Cutler - 18.00
WR Hines Ward - 11.00
WR Antonio Bryant - 10.00
WR Wes Welker - 9.00
RB DeAngelo Williams - 29.00
RB Pierre Thomas - 8.00
TE Jason Witten - 10.00
K Rob Bironas - 8.00

D DeMeco Ryans - 5.00
D Lance Briggs - 3.50
DB Quintin Mikell - 3.50
DB Kerry Rhodes - 2.50
DL Justin Tuck - 1.50
DL A.J. Hawk - 1.50

The PlayMakerZ (7-6)
QB Tyler Thigpen - 20.50
WR Calvin Johnson - 3.00
WR Braylon Edwards - 1.00
WR Donald Driver - 3.50
RB Steve Slaton - 4.00
RB Brian Westbrook - 5.00
TE Dallas Clark - 11.00
K Ryan Longwell - 5.00

D Calvin Pace - 1.00
D Chad Greenway - 1.50
DB Cortland Finnegan - 2.50
DB Nick Collins - 6.00
DL Barrett Ruud - 3.50
DL DeMarcus Ware - 9.00

I had written in a previous post of how your rooting interests can get crossed up when you play fantasy sports, specifically when you have a player on your team (who you want to do well) is playing against your favorite team (who you want to win). My stud running back was DeAngelo Williams of the Carolina Panthers, who was up against the New York Giants in an important game which would determine home-field advantage for the playoffs. When push came to shove, I definitely was rooting for the Giants win, but the outcome couldn't have been better: DeAngelo Williams rushed for four touchdowns but the Giants still won the game in overtime after a clutch performace by Derrick Ward, and thus clinched home-field advantage for the playoffs.

But naturally I'm going to savor this great fantasy football championship, my second in the past three seaons I've played.

Terry Bradshaw, Former Quarterback and NFL Announcer: Suncoast League Champs! How does that sound?

Mike Kuo, GM and Owner of the Millburn Mustangs: It feels great, Terry. I want to give glory to Jesus Christ for our great season. It was a tough league and these guys really played their hearts out. I really want to give a nod to some of our new guys who joined the team midway through the season and became true Mustangs... DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Bryant and Rob Bironas all were fantastic down the stretch. Of course, I'd like to thank myself for those shrewd pickups. The Mustangs are blessed to have such a brilliant GM.

Terry Bradshaw: Uh, right. What can say about the performance of DeAngelo Williams?

Mike Kuo: DeAngelo was phenomenal as he has been in the past but today he really put on a performance for the ages. You couldn't keep that young man out of the end zone and it was indicative of just how important this team felt this game was. We also had a contributions from everyone on the offensive side of the ball - our receivers and backs each found their way into the end zone and Jay Cutler was solid as well. I just would again like to point out that yours truly was the sharp mind that started Cutler over a Kurt Warner who did absolutely nothing against the Patriots this weekend. Was that a stroke of genius or what? Kudos also to the GM for...

Terry Bradshaw: (Interrupting) So now that you have the trophy and the champagne has been opened, what's next for you and the rest of the team?

Mike Kuo: I'm going to Disneyland! Oh, who am I kidding? I'm going to put the kids to bed.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Responsibility For All Of Us

Great column by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, who in his self-confessed transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable, makes a number of interesting and good points which ultimately lead to an imperative for all of us.

The article outlines a number of facts and figures provided by Arthur Brooks, author of "Who Really Cares" and a study by Google, some which I was aware of and some which I was not. Liberals tend to push for government spending which benefits the poor both here and abroad, but tend to not be generous as individuals. There are a number of other cuts of data that are shown, such as taking into account how "religious" or the income level of the givers, and the destination of the charitable contributions.

It's a responsibility for all of us to care for the needy. Regardless of political leaning or socioeconomic class, providing clothes for those who are naked and food for those who are hungry is not a matter of charity, it's a matter of fundamental human rights. If you count yourself as a Christian, the charge as seen the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) makes this even more compelling. If we're not caring for the poor, we're not simply being lazy - we're being disobedient. Need ideas? Consider giving to or volunteering at the Goodwill Rescue Mission or Bowery Mission.

I also find it amazing and humbling that the working poor are the most generous segment of our population when it comes to giving as a percentage of income. I wonder if part of that is due to the blindness of so many of us who are upwardly-mobile, upper-middle class and above, who are so self-focused in our perspective that we can only see how "poor" we are in comparison to the people who we sometimes aspire to be - those who we believe are "really rich". Could it be that contentment and not having eyes fixed on achieving the next income band might free us to be more charitable and generous?

Now whether charity should be a matter of government coersion or personal liberty is another issue altogether. I can appreciate the arguments on either side, and I touched on some of this on a previous post around the purported immorality of Social Security.

Kristof also writes, "When liberals see the data on giving, they tend to protest that conservatives look good only because they shower dollars on churches — that a fair amount of that money isn’t helping the poor, but simply constructing lavish spires." Whether this is what Kristof believes or his representation of what liberals think, it's a gross cynical misreprentation of the truth. Having visibility into our own church's finances, we don't spend money constructing lavish spires or any sort of analogous lavish spending despite my continued efforts to get us to purchase a foosball table for the church office (kidding). We do devote significant amounts of funds (as well as time) for mercy towards those inside and outside our church and a core tenet of our theology admonishes our members to do likewise.

The largest bulk of our funds goes to making and growing disciples inside and outside our church - helping people to grow in faith and become disciples who are loving their God and their neighbor in word and deed. Is this helping the needy? I think so - I'd argue that there is no greater need to be addressed.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Our Son, the Stand-In Shepherd

It's a wintry wonderland here in New Jersey, and the weather this morning was particularly bad. Despite shoveling the snow twice in the past 36 hours, I could only stand helplessly as heavy snow fell from the sky early this morning. Unable to make it out to our church in the city despite the snow tapering off, we decided to see if we could attend service at the local Presbyterian church in our neighborhood. Unfortunately, we found that the church was closed due to the snow and were on the way home when I saw out my driver's side window that another local church, Community Congregational Church, had just begun service and we could still catch most of it. So we pulled into the parking lot and scurried in.

As we stepped into the hall near the sanctuary, we were welcomed warmly by an Asian gentleman, who turned to Daniel and said, "Hey there! Would you like to be a shepherd?" Before I could open my mouth, Sarah was enthusiastically volunteering our son and removing his jacket, hat and mittens. Daniel was then escorted to the chapel to be dressed in his full shepherd garb and given his plush lamb toy to carry, where other kids of all ages were similarly adorned in Nativity character outfits.

The service was fantastic and was similar to our annual Lessons and Carols service. There were children presentations and choirs performances interspersed with Scripture readings and a sermon. The music, which was led by a full-time worship director who had graduated from Juilliard (according to Sarah), was excellent. Daniel was quite a trooper marching down the aisle with the other shepherds holding his plush lamb in his arms and then stepping onto the stage as the older kids acted out the 2nd chapter of Luke.

I have to hand it to Daniel and his personal flexibility. He had barely walked into an unfamiliar church when he was volunteered to get dressed and play a role in the Christmas Pageant. It was actually a very welcoming thing to do by the kind folks at the church to allow our son to not just be a spectator, but allow him to dress up and be part of a story which he's heard so many times. I just wonder if I'd feel similarly welcomed if I stepped into a church as a visitor and someone thrust a guitar into my arms and said, "Hey there! Would you like to lead praise and worship?" Knowing me, I'd probably say yes.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Chip Off the Old Block

Today I had the pleasure of bringing Daniel to work for our company's "family day" open house holiday party, which is easily one of my favorite days of work in the year. Sarah and I agreed that the train and subway commute into the city wasn't going to be good for little Sophia, so my co-workers were deprived from meeting the two special women in my life.

Daniel loves trains and he was thrilled for the chance to ride on NJ Transit's spanking new double-decker trains. We managed to get seats on Daniel's preferred upper deck with Daniel propped on my computer bag to give him a better view, and his eyes just gazed out of the window the entire time on the trip into Penn Station, the silence broken only with occasional excited whispers of "Daddy, look! Another doubler-decker train!" or "Daddy, look! Switching tracks!"

As soon as we stepped off the train into a crowded Penn Station, I sternly reminded Daniel that under no circumstances should he let go of my hand. A devious thought came across my mind. Almost ten years ago, I was on a missions trip in El Salvador and was responsible on the first day of arrival to e-mail all of our team members' parents to let them know that we had all arrived safely. Upon returning from the Internet Cafe, I told my good friend Don, "I wrote to your father and said 'Dear Mr. Kim, I regret to inform you that your son is dead.'" Don's eyes widened like saucers and he said with a voice with alarm, "You did not just do that. My father has heart problems." I assured him that I was kidding, and he proceeded to call me a "dork" and he also might have punched me a few times. In a similar vein, I was thinking that maybe it'd be funny if I called Sarah and in a panic said, "I can't find Daniel! I just left him alone at the newsstand for ten minutes while I was buying my latte!" and then tell her I was just messing with her after she goes into hysterics. Then I realized that maybe it wouldn't be that funny and I'd surely pay for it with my life.

I first took Daniel to see the Macy's window displays, which detail scenes from the movie Miracle on 34th Street. We got to my office, and Daniel had a blast doing rings with my office chair, playing with some of my trinkets (foam sports balls and Star Wars models) and staring out of my 8th story office window towards the intersection of 42nd and Third scolding the taxis "come on, let's go!" We went to the Conference Center where costumed Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Shrek, Raggedy Ann & Andy waved and exchanged hugs and high-fives with employees' kids, while stockings full of candy were being handed out. In the middle of the room, Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted kids as they sat on Santa's lap and made their requests known, with a photographer snapping a picture which was then put in a frame and given to each visitor.

We returned to my office where he met some of my colleagues, continued some of his artwork on my dry-erase board, ate some more cookies and apple juice, and then we head back home on the train in the middle of a Winter Wonderland.

So Daniel got to do what his dad does every day - if you just swap out hugging children's characters and being fed juice and cookies with facilitating meetings, creating PowerPoint presentations, and doing e-mail - plus add seven more hours to your day, you could hardly tell the difference. Oh, to complete the simulation, I did make Daniel shovel the snow with me when we got home. Being the man in the house is tough, son.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Music Hacks versus Music Professionals

Music is arguably one of the greatest unifying forces in the world. The love of music transcends history, geography, racial and socioeconomic lines, and while people may have diverse tastes and talents in music, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who has absolutely no affinity for tones brought together to create some sort of rhythmic harmony.

Strangely and sadly, music is something that also divides. You see this in churches all the time, and I've had a front row seat in some of the conflicts that people in a church will have around worship styles, lyrics and genres as well as the philosphy of who is "permitted" to perform music at a church service and whether those people should be compensated financially or not. I've noticed that some opinions around especially the last point are largely correlated around the "professional" musicianship of the person - whether that be in the form of formalized training at a conservatory or a record of performing as a paid musician in clubs, orchestras, or festivals. People with these background tend to have very different opinions than people who I will affectionately call "hacks" - folks who are lawyers, doctors, contruction workers or otherwise ordinary Joes who simply like to sing or play an instrument decently well. For better or for worse, these conflicts are not confined to the church.

I came across a recent article about unrest at the New York Philharmonic due to the perception of the orchestra members that not only was a guest conductor incompetent, but the invitation to conduct was made only because of generous donations given in the past. Depending on your point of view, you can either view Gilbert Kaplan as a wannabe egocentric hack who has bought his way onto the conductor's lectern at the expense of a more well-deserving conductor who actually has formally studied the craft and has a depth of experience of the subject matter. On the other hand, you might view the complaining orchestra members as elitist snobs who hold thinly veiled resentment that they're being conducted by someone who hasn't required the same years of blood, sweat and tears to be a competent conductor and who has more wealth than most of the orchestra members could ever dream of.

My wife has a piano performance degree from Juilliard, so I've experienced some of the mindframe differences firsthand. When planning our wedding, I had suggested Twila Paris' "How Beautiful" for our special music, which was something that I enjoyed hearing at a number of my friends' weddings. Sarah might have been less outraged if I had suggested that we serve McDonald's Extra Value Meals at our reception. I remember at the time being a little miffed at that, feeling there was a little "musical elitist snob" in her response. Thankfully, we've come a long way in terms of mutually appreciating each other's point of view - she recognizes my musical opinions, albeit untrained are valid and important; I recognize that music is something that is something that she knows, loves and appreciates deeply - and much more than I do. Sarah, while being a big proponent and defender of classical music, also acknowledges that musicians can be immensely self-focused and elitist.

And that elitism does bother me. There's nothing more irritating that the implication that a layperson "can't understand" the transcendant power of song or "can't appreciate or identify truly good music" simply because I didn't go to Juilliard or Curtis or perform at Carnegie Hall. I've even heard classical musicians lament that popular music "isn't good music" despite the fact that it is loved and purchased is large volumes by the masses. Before soon, there emerges a bitterness that classical music performers are paid so much less than Kanye West or Beyoncé (nevermind Kobe Bryant and Adam Sandler), and by extension, a bitterness towards an "unsophisticated" public that hasn't created a supply and demand market where everyone who studies classical and jazz music graduates with job offers galore with $200K annual salaries.

To be fair, do insane misalignments exist for the salaries that are offered in American society? Absolutely. I find it absolutely mind-boggling that, for example, educators are paid so little compared to entertainers. But generally speaking, all of us go into a field eyes wide open knowing what our likely financial upside is going to be (e.g. you don't become a librarian for the money). Going back to the issue of hacks versus professionals - if professional musicians want to engender public interest and appreciation around their craft, maybe building a figurative wall between by "those of us who get it" and "those of you who never will" isn't the smartest thing. Specific to the issue with Gilbert Kaplan: here's a guy who loves and appreciates classical music and has been a generous donor - and you're going to encourage his love for the arts by tearing him apart and belittling him? Not the best way to treat your most passionate fans.

By the way, our wedding special music was a Schubert piece by sung by Thami Zungu, a Juilliard classmate of Sarah's. It was incredible.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What Happens When the Megastar is Gone?

There was some alarm recently when Apple announced that Steve Jobs would not be attending the upcoming Macworld conference. Rumblings began circulating on blogs that Jobs, who is a survivor of pancreatic cancer, was in failing health, with some rumors reporting that he might be dying. I also remember that initial news of his cancer actually caused Apple stock to dive. The questions (again) began to arise: what would happen to the global leader in consumer technology innovation when the person who is considered the face and soul of the company was no longer around? Or taking the question from another angle, how should Apple prepare for the inevitable day when Steve Jobs is no longer around?

There's a parallel of sorts in New York City Church circles, specifically in Redeemer Presbyterian Church where Tim Keller has a tremendous following among urban Christians all around the metropolitan area. Tim is no doubt a tremendously gifted preacher, a person who I'd say is the most eloquent teacher of the Word that I've had the privilege of hearing speak from the pulpit. He has a superb ability to interlace his biblical exposition with pop culture, everyday anecdotes and editorials from the New York Times without it coming off as contrived. He has an incisive wit which will cause you to laugh first, and then be convicted after the fact. Perhaps most impressive, he has the uncanny ability to capture the attention of both Christian and non-Christian alike, though a fellow PCA elder remarked that while he thought highly of Tim's sermons, the basic lessons are essentially the same after a three-year cycle.

In an article in the New York Times, Tim was referenced as Manhattan's leading evangelist and spoke of his remarkable effectiveness in building a multi-thousand member church amongst a sea of urbanites better known for their worship of money, fashion and fame. But was there a downside to the "cult of Tim"? I attended Redeemer as a business school student and saw some of it firsthand. For one, it was apparent that there were tons of people who would come in and hear Tim's sermon and otherwise not get involved in the life of the church (these people tended to greatly outnumber those who were also engaged in fellowship groups, etc.) because the only thing that drew them into Redeemer was the preaching. Second, I found it alarming that people would literally come only to hear Tim Keller preach. I was sitting in a service during the summer where after the praise band finished, and Terry Gyger stepped up to preach. On cue, as many as twenty people got up out of their pews and walked out of the church, apparently making up their mind that only a Tim Keller sermon would justify the investment of their precious time.

It wasn't just remarkably rude and inappropriate, it's a small scale example of what may happen in a post-Tim Keller Redeemer. I don't think this is necessarily a given, as I know that Redeemer constantly encourages their members to get plugged into the church beyond sitting in on sermons. Whether people are heeding this exhortation or not is a different question entirely. I understand that John Lin (who was Sarah's former English Ministry pastor back in Connecticut, by the way) preaches with increasing frequency, and I can only hope that he never had the unfortunate occurrence of being walked out on simply because he wasn't Tim Keller.

The reality is that there's so much more to Redeemer than just Tim - I know people who love their music and arts ministries, Hope for New York provides care for people all over the city, I have a friend who is in their Gotham Fellows Faith & Work program, I have friends that absolutely love the fellowship groups, and they planted an absolutely amazing church in the Morningside Heights area (wink). I just hope that the people within and outside of that church recognize and embrace those things before they have no choice but to do so.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fantasy Super Bowl 2008

After a hard fought regular season and two rounds of playoffs, I'm happy to say that my Millburn Mustangs have made it to the big one - the championship game of the Yahoo! Fantasy Football "Suncoast League" run by my B-school buddy's brother. The championship game is the matchup of the #1 and #2 seeds, and the fact that I won the regular season with an 8-5 record says something about the parity of the league, which I had anticipated before the season started.

Here are the rosters for this clash of titans:

The Millburn Mustangs (8-5)
QB Jay Cutler
WR Hines Ward
WR Antonio Bryant
WR Wes Welker
RB DeAngelo Williams
RB Pierre Thomas
TE Jason Witten
K Rob Bironas

D DeMeco Ryans
D Lance Briggs
DB Quintin Mikell
DB Kerry Rhodes
DL Justin Tuck
DL A.J. Hawk

I made a decision to pick up running back Pierre Thomas of the Saints, who was actually a free agent, opting to sit both Marion Barber and Clinton Portis, who have racked up some nice stats through the season but are injured. I also gave the nod to Jay Cutler over Kurt Warner as I'm not bullish on how Warner's performance playing against a tough New England Patriots defense at Gillette Stadium, especially after a mediocre Vikings defense ate him up at home last week.

The PlayMakerZ (7-6)
QB Tyler Thigpen
WR Calvin Johnson
WR Braylon Edwards
WR Donald Driver
RB Steve Slaton
RB Brian Westbrook
TE Dallas Clark
K Ryan Longwell

D Calvin Pace
D Chad Greenway
DB Cortland Finnegan
DB Nick Collins
DL Barrett Ruud
DL DeMarcus Ware

This is a good team, which I think has a slight edge over mine in every position except quarterback. The PlayMakerZ defense is definitely stronger as well, with DeMarcus Ware and Calvin Pace being two players who can rack up sacks. I think it'll be a good matchup.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Leaving Bethlehem After Finding Space at the Inn

For our aforementioned trip to Bethlehem, we weren't forced to find shelter in a manger, but instead stayed in a Microtel Inn in nearby Allentown. I've experienced the entire spectrum of overnight accomodations in my lifetime, from motor lodges through the Four Seasons, and I found the stay pleasant enough, with clean new beds and the free continental breakfast handy for feeding the kids. We have not, however, mastered how to get our family of four to sleep well together in a single room. If either of the kids wakes up, the other kid will wake up, and then putting them back to bed in an unfamiliar environment becomes a massive challenge akin to drinking water with a fork.

So we eventually made our way to the Christkindlmarkt, which I had already had less than high hopes for as mentioned in my previous blog. It wasn't so bad, and actually brought back some family memories. Growing up, my mom found (and still finds) antiques and trinkets charming and enjoyed browsing and splashing down some money when something tickled her fancy. My father, on the other hand, absolutely hated (and still hates) not just the pastime, but what he saw as a completely irresponsible waste of money. At some point, he'd lose his temper, get red-faced and yell at my mom, at which point my mom would get infuriated and shout at my dad (tirade of "how I can possibly live with this man" optional), and we'd all drive home in tense silence. Good times.

Thankfully, I've learned to internalize my conviction that antique and crafts shopping is a waste of time and waste of money, and channel my anger into something positive - namely retaliating by secretly spending the mortgage on personal electronics, sports paraphernalia and vintage comic books. But seriously, family time is rich simply because it's family time, and there's so much around us which is seemingly mundane that's quirky, funny, and enjoyable just because of the company I'm keeping. For example, as I was trying to stroll Sophia to sleep, I got to hear a trio of septagenarians from the North Penn Singers (what did you expect in Bethlehem, PA, Andrea Bocelli?) sing The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late). It was absolutely hilarious - intentionally or not. Daniel and I got to watch an artisan with a chainsaw make ice sculptures, during which I kept making comments to my son like, "Don't you try that at home," and "If he starts walking towards us with that chainsaw, Daddy's running away."

So one way I decided to find balance in the universe, or at least make up for whatever money Sarah was spending, was to become a sample "mooch", a skill which I've refined at Costco. I innocently made my way towards the herbs and seasoning booths and ever so subtlely picked a generous handful of pretzel sticks and sampled every single dip two or three times, rotating between booths making sure that I returned only when someone else was manning a particular section (Note: this is very hard when you're one of four Asians in a sea of caucasians). Naturally, I came armed with some good questions like: "Now would you recommend sour cream or mayonnaise for the base?" and "Mmm... that's really good - is that taragon that I'm tasting?" and "So it seems like this Texas Ranch seasoning works great as a dip. Any other ways you'd use this?" I think I consumed at least fifty or so samples when the day was done. Lest you think I'm a complete monster without virtue, I did end up buying a $4 packet of Mexican seasoning.

The excursion ended with us visiting a local Railway Museum, which I'm certain was Daniel's favorite part of the trip, and an exhausted and not-well-rested Daniel repeatedly crying "I don't want to go home, I want to stay at the hotel" for an hour as we drove home, to which I replied, "If you like hotels, you can become a management consultant just like Daddy was. Believe me, it gets old really fast."

All in all, it good clean family fun and we got to bond with some friends. I probably should have gotten the Zesty Garlic seasoning.

Friday, December 12, 2008

O Little Town of Bethlehem, PA

After getting a glowing review from a friend of Sarah's, we've decided to get into the Christmas spirit by making our way to Bethlehem... Pennsylvania. It's actually a charming town which has a tradition of having a downtown chock full of the Christmas spirit. Along with some friends also with young kids, we drove a little less than an hour to our destination, ate dinner, and walked through an avenue of pretty lights with brass band Christmas music blaring from overhead speakers.

Main Street, which serves as the heart of downtown, is littered with artsy shops and cafés selling overpriced handmade goods. We walked around in the crisp winter night, but what seemed to appeal most to the kids was the trolley ride which shuttles visitors from the parking garages to various points of interest, including a large lit Christmas tree in the center of town to what might be the main attraction - Christkindlmarkt, which we'll be visiting tomorrow. Christkindlmarkt looks like a massive bazaar of sorts, hawking all sort of trinkets, antiques, hand-made toys, gourmet foods, and various other things that I have absolutely no interest in. In other words, I'll be spending the time surfing on my Blackberry, daydreaming, memorizing Scripture, and brainstorming clever blog topics.

That being said, it's such as blessing to be able to take this little overnight trip. To break from routine and experience another slice of American life is something I definitely appreciate. I hope that I don't spend the lion's share of tomorrow fighting with Daniel around his obsession around a wooden figurine which I'm certain will end up at the bottom of his toy bucket in less than a week.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pray For Dong Yun Yoon

Pray for Dong Yun Yoon, who suddenly and tragically lost his wife, mother-in-law, and two children when an F/A-18D Hornet crashed into his house near San Diego.

I can't imagine the anguish of coming home from work to see your house destroyed and your family gone. I'm sure Dong Yun Yoon didn't leave the house that morning thinking that as he kissed his wife Young Mi, 15-month old daughter Grace, and 2-month old daughter Rachel goodbye, that those moments would be the last he'd share with them. Again, as someone with a wonderful wife and two beautiful kids, I personally can't even fathom the pain and grief he's experiencing - the thought of it chills me.

In an amazing act of grace and selflessness, Yoon said he bore no ill will toward the Marine Corps pilot who ejected safely before the jet crashed, but instead said "I pray for [the pilot] not to suffer for this action. I know he's one of our treasures for our country."

There's a video which which captures Yoon's words about the tragedy and his plea for prayer for the pilot. If you're not moved by watching this, you need to get your pulse checked.

So please pray for him - and consider even sending him a card or note of support:

Dong Yun Yoon
c/o Rev. Kevin Lee
Korean United Methodist Church
3520 Mount Acadia Blvd
San Diego, CA 92111

Amazing. Only someone who lives under such amazing grace could exhibit such amazing grace.

Shark Fin Soup, Anyone?

A recent article in reported on the popularity on what used to be a rare delicacy, but is now threatening to have a significant impact on the ecosystem. The delicacy is shark fin soup, and incrasing demand for these fins are threatening to scuttle an already struggling shark population.

I've eaten shark fin soup a few times (feel free to consider me food ecologically uncouth, as I'm also a big fan of foie gras and order it whenever I can), usually during Chinese wedding banquets, including a couple I attended while in Taiwan. I've always found it to be decent enough, but nothing to write home about. As the article states, the taste of shark fin is almost non-existent. People sometimes call clear rice noodles "fake shark fin" because that's exactly how it tastes. Naturally, one with a more sophisticated palate would be aghast at such a comparison.

I personally don't see the appeal of spending so much money on something that doesn't taste and has such negative ecological impact. Then again, I'm the guy who whose favorite culinary pastime used to be taking advantage of Taco Bell's "Taco Tuesday" 2 for 99 cents special.

The article is a real eye-opener and I do find it tragic that sharks are having their fins cut and dumped back into the ocean to die. We all know that the more humane way to harvest seafood is to use massive nets to collect schools of whiting. This, in addition to amazing batter, is naturally why I'm such a big fan of Long John Silver's.

C.C's Coming to New York

I was surprised and frankly a little disappointed by the news that free agent ace C.C. Sabathia has agreed in principle to a 7 year / $160 million contract with the Yankees.

Don't get me wrong - Sabathia's a great pitcher and while I'm not sure anyone can reasonably live up to a contract of that size, my guess is that he'll do well, average between 15 and 20 wins a season and be in the Cy Young race for years to come.

What bothers me is that it's abundantly clear that he doesn't want to be a Yankee. Or better put, he'd much rather be a Dodger or a Giant. It's evident that he'd prefer to pitch in the National League where he can hit, and it's even more evident that he much preferred to go to back home to the Bay area, or to SoCal, where he's building a house. There were reports that he expressed misgivings about raising his three young children in this area.

I have no doubt that Sabathia will be a bulldog of a competitor, but at the end of the day, you'd like someone who is pitching for a team and a city that he's passionate about, as opposed to the team that simply offered him overwhelmingly more money than any other team.

On the other hand, you have a guy like K-Rod, who I have the sense is relishing the chance to be in the spotlight to close games for the Mets. If you're a Mets fan, you have to like this signing for two reason. First, it's a relative bargain for the single-season saves record holder who at one point was looking for a 5 year / $75 million deal. Second, you no longer need to go through the pain of watching Luis Ayala and Aaron Heilman try to close games.

But welcome anyway, C.C. Get us another World Series title and both you and the fans will be quite happy that you chose to don the pinstripes.

Monday, December 8, 2008

At Least It's a Handy Excuse to Be Ornery During the Holidays

A constant refrain that people have heard from me since October is how much I've disliked the weather and the current seasons. I'm of the conviction that unless there's snow falling or on the ground, I'd just as soon the weather be sunny and 70 degrees. I could do without falling leaves, plummeting temperatures, and rain. Like most people, I like long sunny days instead of short overcast ones. I don't like waking up when it's pitch black and coming home when it's pitch black. Does my antipathy for the autumn and (non-snow producing) winter seasons cross the line into being an actual physiological or psychological condition?

A recent article on detailed seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which apparently affects 4 to 6% of the population in the U.S. There isn't a lot of research around SAD, but some scientists believe that a genetic mutation in the eye could play a role in seasonal affective disorder, by making a person with SAD less sensitive to light. So as the seasons change brings less light, the depression and mood swings result.

I don't know if I completely understand or even agree with the existence of the condition, but it sure beats "the holiday blues" as an excuse to be a grumpy man. I'll try that the next time I'm ornery towards the wife or kids: "Drat - there's that seasonal affective disorder kickin' in."

Praying for God's Bailout

A recent New York Times article spoke about churches in Detroit who are praying for deliverance in the midst of an economic downturn which has been particularly difficult for them. While I have, in a previous post, spoken of my disdain for the Big Three automakers, I have a lot of compassion for the workers and citizens of metropolitan Detroit, who are now bearing a large burden due to a poor economic climate mixed with some corporate stupidity.

I actually applaud how churches are addressing the real needs of their congregations and pointing to God as their hope in the midst of this. I believe strongly in God's redemptive work in all areas of a person's life and while I have a strong aversion to the preaching of a "prosperity gospel", to not pray for financial help in the midst of the crisis might either infer (A) God doesn't have the power to help people who have no jobs or (B) God doesn't care that people might not have the ability to pay their mortgages or put food on the table. Either premise is ridiculous.

To be fair, many Christians have been so incensed by "prosperity Gospel" preachers who routinely insist that "blessings" means that you'll get huge cash rewards and a luxury car of your choice, and that when Christ died in his poverty we became rich (2 Cor 8:9) ... and we should become rich to the tune of $200K with compounding 8% interest. For the follower of the prosperity gospel, God has been turned into Santa Claus, who we approach with our wish lists for flat-panel LCD's and Cancun vacations because we've been good. There likely is some over-correction to the point that to pray for material needs feels dirty, and that shouldn't be the case.

I framework that I use for myself is that I pray for my daily bread - "what do I need?", not necessarily "what do I want?" I can pray for God to give me abundantly as He pleases, while at the same time praying that he withholds any abundance which might become an idol or temptation that would draw me or my family away from Him. But the fundamental premise is that our God is good, and it is His good pleasure to give gifts to His children.

The tenor of the article is about people appealing to God to save jobs that would be lost, so mortgage payments can be met and food can be put on the table. I don't sense that people are seeking excess, but instead asking God for their daily bread in light of the dire situation that exists with the local economy and the automobile labor base. That being said, if you look at the photo above the article, I think having the SUV's on stage with the choir is a bit over the top.

The article mentions a factory worker named Mike Young, who seems to get it. “We’ve got to keep the faith," he said. He's hopeful of a government bailout but states, “But you can’t count on that. All my hope is in God.

Your hope is in the right place, brother.

I Hope the Speaker of the House Can Pronounce Your Name

Congratulations to Ahn "Joseph" Cao who with his victory in a Louisiana congressional runoff race, became the first Vietnamese-American elected to the House. It's a thrill to see more Asians become politically active, and along with Bobby Jindal, is now an acceptable answer to "Who would you least likely expect to be elected by the voters of Louisiana?" But seriously, it's a good day for Asians who are politically aware. It's a great day for Asians who are socially conservative, politically aware, and tend to think highly of Jesuit seminarians.

What's stunning is that he beat William Jefferson, who despite being neck-high in an ethics scandal, is a Louisiana political powerhouse who has been active in government since 1979. Poor William Jefferson is still probably looking at Ahn Cao and thinking, "How in the world did this guy beat me?"

Cao is indeed a rookie, and in my estimation, he already made a rookie mistake with some of his seemingly contradictory statements.

On one hand, Cao says he hopes his win will push more young people to become politically active. On the other hand, he said, "We were hoping for a low turnout because it would provide us with the greater chance of winning. Based on the demographics of the district, a high voter turnout would have gone to our disadvantage." Hmm... maybe you don't want to thank "low voter turnout" for your victory.

So to recap, he'd like young people to be more politically active - as long as you don't vote for the other guy.

When Unity and Conviction Conflict

A a Christian, one of the most hardest things to swallow is the proliferation of deonominations as a result of theological schisms within the Church. In the light of Jesus' prayer in John 17:23 that all believers would be "brought into complete unity to let the world know that [the Father] had sent [him]," why do we see so much activity contrary to this plea?

I thought of this as I read about the decision of a number of conservative evangelical Anglicans to create a new Anglican Church of North America. The decision to split I'm sure was one that was not taken lightly, and conservative evangelical Anglicans have battled with the denomination around a number of controversies, including the consecration of an openly homosexual bishop. The new church affirmed the Jerusalem Declaration, which condemns "overt heterodoxy" as well as the lack of discipline against anyone teaching a "false gospel."

I remember having a conversation with a brother a few years ago about authority of the church, and he chafed at what he saw as the lack of respect towards church authority and discipline. The proliferation of churches, he observed, meant that if people didn't happen to agree with the teaching of a church or if they didn't like the accountability or discipline that came with being part of that community, they would simply leave that church and find or create a church which fit their needs or personal value system.

My smart-aleck remark was: "You mean like what Martin Luther did in 1517?"

Naturally, he proceeded to clarify that his point was that to defy the discipline of the church needs to be done with the utmost humility, gravity, and prayer. Of course I agree with that. To leave a denomination, and certainly to create a new one, requires deep soul searching, discernment, and submission to prayer and the Scriptures. It's clear that such an act cannot be done flippantly and should absolutely be done as a last resort should there be a clear conviction that to maintain the status quo would be to participate in a community which worshipped outside of the bounds of the universal Church, and would thus somehow pervert or foil the gospel and the redemptive work of the Church. Clearly Luther felt this way about the church in Rome and it seems that this is the case with the Anglican reformers.

But the preferred course of action would be to speak truth in love and attempt to engender change from within. Again, this was the case for Luther, and I believe this was the case with this group of Anglican reformers.

"In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; In All Things, Charity." This is a quote which is often attributed to Augustine, but speaks to the heart of the issue of when Jesus' clear mandate for unity and the sanctity of the gospel conflict. What are the essentials of our theological understanding which, when violated, are legitimate grounds to pursue reformation and, if necessary, a schism? The simple answer is to make Scripture the only authority, and to bind no conscience beyond those words. The more complex reality is that there are a large number of denominations that are built upon a foundation of sola scriptura which can trace their origins to a split from another sola scriptura denomination. What is "essential" is often very much in the eye of the beholders, or at least those who are looking to leave.

When I was at InterVarsity, we used to since this praise song called "One Voice" ("Father we ask of You this day...") which appealed to God to unite us as, well, one voice. Two observations:

1) I've sung this song much more often in interdenominational fellowships and conferences than at any church I've been part of
2) In the chorus, there's an odd F# chord that goes with the lyrics " love and harmony" which is almost never sung in harmony

Pray for purity and unity. Pray for unity and purity.