Friday, January 29, 2010

Hoping for Good Super Bowl Commercials

Notwithstanding ESPN columnist Bill Simmons' belief that any of the Super Bowl possible matchups given the final four teams in the playoffs would've made for an intriguing matchup, I'm personally lukewarm around the upcoming Colts vs. Saints Super Bowl.

This past October, I had the chance to witness a World Series where two of my favorite teams got to play each other, thus limiting the "downside" of seeing a team I detest win the championship. The Super Bowl matchup is similar in that I really don't dislike either team that much so I won't mind either team winning. But unlike the World Series matchup, I don't particularly have strong positive feelings for either team either, so either team's victory won't excite me much.

The Colts on one hand, are a classy organization. I think Peyton Manning's a funny guy who can even be a little self-effacing in his humor (his SNL "United Way" skit which pokes fun at his "good guy" image is classic), Coach Caldwell is a classy man who's cut from the same faith and integrity cloth as his mentor, Tony Dungy. There's no obnoxious jerk that on the team, at least not one that I'm aware of (I hated Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Bucs had Warren Sapp and the Raiders had Bill Romanowski). Plus, fans of the New England Patriots detest Peyton Manning and the Colts, and given the New York vs. Boston sports rivalry, there's the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" logic.

On the other side, you have the Saints, a long-suffering franchise famous for fans wearing paper bags over their heads and the nickname, the "'Aints". You'd like to see the city have something to rally around after Hurricane Katrina. There's a great backstory around linebacker Scott Fujita the caucasian son of Japanese-American adoptees who has very much embraced his heritage. I'm a big Bobby Jindal fan, even though Mitch Daniels from Indiana seems like a good guy, as well. The Saints are largely a team of classy players like the Colts. However, they do have Jeremy Shockey. Edge, Colts.

Without a strong rooting interest in either team, I'll just hope for a good (competitive) game, good guacamole and wings, and good commercials.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Favoritism Forbidden

The New York Jets' surprising playoff run appropriately highlighted new head coach Rex Ryan, who most pundits agree has brought a swagger and winning attitude to a team painfully accustomed to heartbreaking ways to lose, notwithstanding its breakthrough Super Bowl III upset back in 1969. Rex is neither (football) politically-correct or afraid of providing "bulletin-board material" for opposing teams, pronouncing that he wasn't here to kiss (three-time Super Bowl winning head coach) Bill Belichick's (Super Bowl) rings and exhibiting surprise at the start of the playoffs that his 9-7 team (which frankly only got into the playoffs due to a series of lucky breaks) wasn't tabbed as the favorites to win it all.

But interestingly, what clinched things for Ryan's hiring was the overwhelming positive response from his previous employer, the Baltimore Ravens. That in itself might be surprising, except that it wasn't just Ryan's fellow coaches and the front office that he reported into - it was everyone, including the guys in video, I.T., security, P.R. as well as the groundskeeper. The reports came in from Ravens employees that Ryan was down to earth and consistently treated everyone well regardless of their "rank" in the organization, and that integrity engendered loyalty:

From the Ravens' IT Director: "He treats me great. Always has, and even as he moved up the ladder he's never changed, he's always been the same."

From the Ravens' Director of Operations: "I hope you don't (hire) him (away from us). Players love him and go through brick walls for him. Able to keep defense together and playing at high levels, even through injuries -- next-man-up-type philosophy."

I think that's definitely a key mark of leadership and have been able to witness this firsthand. It's easy to suck up to people who you think can help your career. But how do you treat everyone else in the organization? And employees aren't blind to this phenomena - people know and word gets around quickly regarding people who treat, for example, administrative assistants as stupid sheep as opposed to valuable employees and interesting human beings who have real lives outside of work. I personally love shooting the breeze with the admins on my floor - we share stories about kids, church, furniture, etc - and they're all (by nature of their work) very good people-persons with senses of humor. I also find that belittling colleagues is stupid because (1) it wrongly assumes an over-inflated view of yourself (2) it wrongly assesses the value of people based on a grade-level of paycheck amount and (3) it makes people less willing to work hard or well for you.

From a biblical perspective, this is also reflected in James 2:1-6. The passage deals specifically with differentiated treatment based on wealth, but the principle can clearly be applied to differentiated treatment based upon organizational status, corporate hierarchy, or any other sort of sense that you'll direct good behavior or respect only to those who can further your own career. Incidentally, that's not respect at all, but rather a self-serving currency of manipulation. The sycophant who curries favor isn't providing his or her boss any sort of respect or consideration - simply selfish acts of exploitation.

There's a series coming up on CBS titled Undercover Boss, and I'm guessing that this phenomena will be explored, either by abusive managers being "outed" and by nurturing and respectful managers being rewarded. Consistently treating all people with respect is something I look for in others and something I expect from myself.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Knowing When To Quit

In the past month, two elite, national championship-winning college coaches have been forced to step down due to health reasons. In December, University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer announced he was going to quit citing health concerns and that he wanted to re-prioritize his faith and family, only to change his mind a day later and term his stepping down as only a temporary leave of absence. Last week, University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun, a three-time survivor of cancer, announced that he too would be stepping down due to health concerns, but with the understanding that his hiatus would only be temporary.

Both men's decisions have been scrutinized and dissected by a number of sportswriters, with writer Seth Davis writing an editorial essentially begging Calhoun to retire because "the sideline is no place for a good man to die", while recognizing that the hyper-competitive nature of Calhoun and other sports coaches is a large impediment in walking away, even when it's painfully obvious that this is the right and logical decision. Or as Davis writes:
But the reason coaches have so many health issues isn't because the job itself is so stressful. It's because it attracts a certain type of animal who is so intensely driven that he puts his desire to vanquish his foes ahead of more important things like family and health. The only thing more common than coaches getting sick is coaches getting divorced. It's hard to be an attentive dad and husband when you're constantly on the road, watching game tape and fretting about getting fired. Coaching is the perfect vocation for the hypercompetitive man.
Urban Meyer's decision is just as mind-boggling. Did he simply decide to override his doctor's advice and rationalize away legitimate medical concerns that he would he would suffer a cardiac episode because his lifestyle was slowly but surely killing him? How about his professed desire to put "faith and family" first? Did he rationalize that, "Hey, I don't need to choose. I just need to tweak things here and there." Or as the parody sportsnews site SportsPickle observed, maybe Urban Meyer realized that his family is incredibly annoying.

For the pundits and fans that are saluting Calhoun and Meyer's decisions as somehow a triumph of honor and perseverance by "courageously" fighting through their ailments to lead their teams to victory, I'm wondering if too much credit is being given. Isn't it possible that both coaches are addicts unable to walk away from the thrill of the battle, and have essentially made the decision to (continue to) sacrifice their health and possibly their families to do so? That doesn't strike me as courageous at all. And if Calhoun or Meyer go the way of former Wake Forest coach and heart-attack victim Skip Prosser, there will be plenty of blame to go around, from Athletic Directors, friends and family members, who didn't do more to save these coaches from their own bad decisions.

I think there's a lesson in this for "average Joes" like me. When it comes to my career, who am I doing this for? The pressure of corporate America might not be nearly as magnified as it is in Division I sports, but the pressure to perform and the desire to succeed is still real. Advancing up the career ladder brings perks and failure brings hardship. People in the workforce who are parents can easily hide behind their family as they pursue their own career ambitions. "I'm working crazy hours so my family and my kids can enjoy a life that I never had," might be the refrain. But when that very job is either taking you away from your family, either by the deterioration of health or by make you and absentee parent, maybe true motives are being revealed.

I remember being at a parenting conference where the speaker shared how a father made a decision to ask for a demotion in order to spend more time with his family, an act which completely floored his boss, who had never seen such an act in his long career. The man who made that decision to step down in the career ladder many years later looked back at his decision with no regrets, stating, "My children have never once lamented how we couldn't afford fancy vacations, a bigger house or other things. What I do hear constantly from them is how glad they were that I was around while they grew up."

That's something for us to think about as we ask ourself the questions of "What comes first in our lives?" and "Do our decisions and investments in our time reflect that?"

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Worst Pain in the World

Last week, I read news stories on consecutive days which made me think about what is arguably the worst pain that one could suffer in the world - the loss of a child. On Monday night, a 16-year-old boy, Michael Cisternas, from Hauppauge, Long Island was killed in a car crash in a car driven by a friend. The friends were on their way back from a church youth group meeting when the car hit a mailbox and slid into a tree.

A day earlier, I read about the death of Vikas Parikh, a 16-year-old from Rocky Hill, CT, who died as a result of a school bus accident Saturday on I-84 in Hartford on his way to a robotics competition with 15 other classmates from the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science.

My heart and prayers go out to the parents of Michael and Vikas. I can't imagine the pain that they're experiencing at this moment, and it's a stark reminder of the frailty of life and the preciousness of each moment that we have with our loved ones.

Losing anyone that you love is tremendously difficult, but there's something about losing a child which just seems all the more unbearable. In the movie Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, I remember watching a scene where Théoden, King of Rohan, tells Gandalf in despair and angst over his son's Théodred's grave, "No parent should have to bury their child." I thought it was pretty moving scene, but as a man without children at the time, I don't think I appreciated the horror of such a loss as much as I do now, having two children who I love dearly.

I know of people who have experienced this tragedy, and some of the sentiments shared go along the lines of "you never really ever recover from something like that" and "there's just a sense of loss that remains - it's not that God doesn't heal, but part of the pain never goes away". People who have experienced this tragedy and have who have also experienced things such as job loss, sickness, and divorce maintain that the loss of their child being much worse than those other calamities.

And it's the gravity of the loss of a child which perhaps gives us an ever better understanding the depths of God's love for us. As Christian personal finance guru Dave Ramsey once shared in a video I watched, he had one day gone downstairs early in the morning to his study to read his Bible, and was soon joined by his young son who asked if he could sit with him. After some time reading the Gospel of John and looking at his boy sitting in his pajamas, Ramsey broke down sobbing as a truth dawned upon him: He had read the same passage about "God so loving the world and giving his only begotten son" numerous times and embraced it, but it was at that moment while looking at his son did he realize the power of that act and depths of the Father's love. "Give up my son to die for others?" said Ramsey, "I don't think I could do it. No deal."

Could it be that that sending One's Son to die for others is even more mind-blowing than laying down One's life for others? Somehow our Triune God has done both.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What Mark McGwire's Confession Can Teach Us About Grace

Last Monday, former baseball slugger Mark McGwire made big news with his confession that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, including steroids, during his career, most notably during that "magical" 1998 season when he broke Roger Maris' record for home runs in a single season. The news of his indiscretion in of itself wasn't all that revelatory - almost all sports fans pretty much assumed that McGwire had taken steroids based on his weak responses when questioned about the practice, punctuated by his embarrassing and disgraceful "I'm not here to talk about the past" testimony in front of a congressional panel five years ago.

People will weigh on all sides of McGwire's confession. Some will salute McGwire for the courage to come clean, notwithstanding his many years of silence until now. Some, including me, will say that the "confession" didn't go far enough, and that McGwire's lame insistence that his steroid-taking had no effect on his home run numbers is laughable. Some will blast it as insincere and insufficient penance for any possible McGwire candidacy to the Baseball Hall of Fame. ESPN columnist Rob Neyer interestingly criticized McGwire's regret of taking steroids in the first place:
There's only one thing about McGwire's statement that bothers me: The part where he says he's sorry and wishes he hadn't done it. I don't mean to read McGwire's mind; perhaps he really is sorry. I just wish that players like McGwire didn't feel compelled to apologize, when we know that many of them would do exactly the same thing again, if they were in the same position. Most of them -- and I don't mean this as an insult -- are sorry about getting caught, but not sorry about doing what they had to do (or thought they had to do) to get healthy or gain a competitive edge.
That might be cynical, but I'd like to believe that McGwire really does regret it all. From all accounts, McGwire is a rather private man and not a glory hound, and never reveled in the fanfare and microscope placed on him during the quest to best Maris' record. I think that if given the choice between a solid slugging career with, let's say, Jay Buhner's numbers with relative anonymity sans steroids versus the hero-worship and subsequent public acrimony that McGwire eventually received with the juice, McGwire would choose the former in a heartbeat.

But what I think is really intriguing is what precipitated the confession in the first place. Why now? The article seems to address this:
McGwire's decision to admit using steroids was prompted by his decision to become hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, his final big league team. Tony La Russa, McGwire's manager in Oakland and St. Louis, has been among McGwire's biggest supporters and thinks returning to the field can restore the former slugger's reputation.
Interestingly, it seemed to be Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa's never-wavering support and recent offer of a batting coach position to McGwire that led to him coming clean. In the past five years, while the rest of baseball fandom and media condemned McGwire as a fraud who deserved to be cast out of the game, it was LaRussa who defended McGwire's character and maintained his innocence.

Maybe McGwire's conscience got the better of him as he watched LaRussa constantly insist that McGwire was clean as others snickered. I'm not implying at all the LaRussa orchestrated all of this and manipulated McGwire into doing the right thing, but what I do find interesting is how overwhelmingly more effective LaRussa was than the angry public was in terms of getting McGwire to confess. Or put another way, it was LaRussa's love, support and acceptance, not the public's anger and not sportwriters pronouncements that they would never vote him into the Hall of Fame, that ultimately led McGwire be truthful about his past.

And so it is when Christian community works at its best. Tim Keller wrote in his book The Reason For God that "the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints". It is when people know they can freely come with all of their baggage and blemishes and still be loved and accepted where these baggage and blemishes and be dealt with and healing can begin. It's not a perfect analogy, and I would submit that unlike LaRussa, we should acknowledge (not ignore) and lovingly point out the wrongs of our brethren. That being said, those of us who call ourselves Christians can use the McGwire situation as a reminder that for a brother or sister who is struggling with sin, love and support tend to work far more effectively than threats.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti, God, and Our Response

The recent catastrophic events in Haiti have had an incalculable human toll as survivors and rescue workers try to sort through the devastation while doing whatever they can to keep the survivors alive in the midst of shattered infrastructure and the absence of basic necessities such as clean water, medicines and electricity.

Our first response should be to do what we can in the short-term to alleviate the suffering. My wife and I have given to World Vision's earthquake relief efforts which are aimed towards distributing life-saving relief supplies – including food, clean water, blankets, and tents — to children and families devastated by the earthquake and aftershocks in Haiti. Of course, there are many other worthy places to send support, such as the Red Cross, Mercy Ships, and Doctors Without Borders. If you have the means, please consider giving to any of these groups which are dedicated to helping those who are most in need.

There has been much talk about God in the midst of this tragedy. Some of it has been incendiary, such as Pat Robertson's comments (by the way, I recommend Christine Flowers' excellent editorial from a Christian perspective, pointing out that (1) Robertson doesn't speak for most Christians and (2) it's irritating how the media tends to shamelessly pull out the most over-the-top examples when it comes to representing that particular faith) that God was, in part, bringing judgment upon Haiti for historical sins as a country. Others have been inspiring, such as reports how how the Haitians' faith have been unshaken, even strengthened by the catastrophe. Some of it has been cynical, as was an Op-Ed column which expressed perplexity on why Haitians would believe in God who (in the columnist's mind) either hates Haitians or has deserted them. And then the contributor arrives at the cynical (at best) or extremely condescending (at worst) conclusion that the Haitians simply have no other options.

The topic of God doesn't even escape readers' reactions to news of the tragedy. I was looking at some comments on the Internet following a news report on the disaster. One person has posted: "God be with the Haitian people. I will be praying for all of you." Another person felt the need to counter-post something along the lines of: "Prayer = Doing nothing for a god who doesn't exist. Don't waste your time, do something meaningful to help." Ah, that's nice.

Some of the God-talk has been sincere soul-searching and questioning from those who count themselves as religious. Even a Christian friend asked me, "Why would God allow such a tragedy to befall a country that already has so little?" The person wasn't hating on God or doubting His existence or love - it was a agenda-less question. It's a complicated answer, one which goes to the heart of "Why does a loving God allow suffering?" I won't get into the response here (many authors such as C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey have written whole books about this), but I'm sympathetic that those answers can at best difficult and at worst unsatisfying given our limited human wisdom and sense of justice. But it would be wise to cling onto the promise that God is good, loving and redemptive even as we grapple and mourn over these things.

For people of faith, I believe our best response is to do what we can to help - that can include giving to groups who are on the ground providing relief, going there to help first-hand (if that's a possibility) and yes, praying for healing and comfort for a people who are shattered. There may be a time to understand what a particular tragedy might mean from a theological / redemptive history sense, but my sense is (1) now's not the right time and (2) it's probably best left to the afflicted to take the lead on that.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Breaking the Racial Barrier at Church

Great article in TIME magazine on Willow Creek Community Church is taking proactive steps in bridging the racial divide in an attempt to address Dr. Martin Luther King's devastating yet true assertion 40 years ago that "11 o’clock on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing… we stand in the most segregated hour in America." I couldn't help but reading the article and juxtapose the metamorphosis at Willow Creek with what has (and hasn't) happened at churches I've been to or am presently going to.

Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor at Willow Creek, has led his congregation through a litany of intentional actions aimed towards racial reconciliation within his own church, ranging from organizing race-related small group meetings and seminars to adding black, Hispanic and Asian to roles at the church where they were prominent and visible. Hybels was also intentional in ensuring that the topic didn't escape his preaching.

The change wasn't without its challenges and certainly wasn't a case of "sticking with what's worked". From the outset, Willow Creek grew largely under an umbrella of homogeneity:
The gurus of the megachurch explosion were church-growth consultants, who endorsed the "homogeneous unit principle": people like to worship with people who are similar to them — in age, wealth and race. Hybels, while denying intentional exclusivity, says that "in the early days, we were all young, white, affluent, college-educated suburbanites, and we all understood each other. When we reached out to our friends, it became self-reinforcing."
And change for a congregation which is used to a certain way of preaching, a certain flavor of praise and worship, or certain types of human interaction can be threatening:
To some white congregants, naming a person of another color to tell you what Scripture means, week in and week out, crosses an internal boundary between "diversity" (positive) and "affirmative action" (potentially unnerving). Daniel Hill, a former Willow young-adult pastor who founded his own fully multicultural River City Community Church in Chicago, says, "There's a tipping point where the dominant group feels threatened."
And if there was any grumbling from the congregation that Hybels was trying to "multi-culturalize" the church stealthily, that was dispelled when he pretty much told the congregants to either get on the bus or find another church:
(Hybels) threw down the gauntlet, telling his flock that the church's racial outreach was "part of who we are, and if it can't be part of who you are, you probably need to find a church that doesn't talk about this issue."
Having been part of three different Redeemer churches, I'd say that the challenge still very much exists, and it's not clear to me that much is being done - and as a member of the Session in one of those churches, I personally don't get a free pass if criticism is warranted. Even when I was at my InterVarsity chapter, I remember being in an Exec Meeting where we were having an argument on whether we needed to diversify our almost exclusively Asian worship team to include an African-American member who was sporadically involved, but who had a great voice and was slowly starting to develop a friendship with one of our IV staff members. I argued against her inclusion (and 'won'), and can now say that I was horribly wrong, having missed the forest from the trees.

A common refrain around the frustrations of intentional church racial integration is "We are who we are." (or said more spiritually, "This is how God has uniquely gifted us"). If I'm an Ivy-league educated white man who grew up in the midwestern United States, I'm not going to try to preach like T.D. Jakes, because I'd come off as ridiculous. You can't tell a bunch of Asian people to try to play gospel, because they'd stink at it. Case closed. The result is essentially saying (for example), "Welcome to our church my black friend, I hope that you enjoy our overwhelmingly college-educated white and Asian congregation, sermons and praise & worship style. Hope you stick around."

The other action that usually given as an "peace (or guilt) offering" alternative is "we can reach out to blacks and Hispanics in other ways, such as in partnerships with predominantly black or Hispanic churches or through our 'mercy ministries'" (ouch... the implication is at best condescending and at worst, racist). To be clear, most if not all of these actions are well intentioned - and some effort is better than no effort at all, but maybe we can do better.

Another argument is one that the article touches on. Even if a pastor was so bold as to try to cater his delivery and content to a different demographic, and church leadership made a conscious effort to shift its praise and worship style, isn't there a risk that (gasp!) people will leave the church to find one that's more (ahem) comfortable? And if they lose those people and the attempts to cross cultural boundaries fail, then will we left with a church without people? You can't make everyone happy, right? In the end, this fear ends up paralyzing churches into non-action.

There's plenty of room to be defensive about this topic. "Racial reconciliation is not the chief end of the church... (growth and evangelism of people leading to) worship is!" some will argue. Some will insist that racial reconciliation progress shouldn't be narrowly defined as "diverse people going to the same church", but instead how the churches can inspire diverse peoples to love, respect and support each other outside the church. Other will insist indignantly that they feel no need to apologize for homogeneous congregations who are making disciples and growing in number due to the "comfort" provided in a, well, homogeneous environment.

Maybe. But I think a little soul-searching in this area will probably do us all some good.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pirates and Bearcats at the Rock

My buddy Paul and I were able to go to a Seton Hall basketball game last Saturday, courtesy of friends of mine who are boosters and season ticket holders. While the arena had pockets of empty seat no doubt due to Seton Hall students still being on winter break as well as a New York Jets playoff game going on at the same time (in addition to score updates being given, there actually was an impromptu 'J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets' cheer led by the arena MC), there was a still a pretty good crowd at the Prudential Center, also known as 'The Rock'.

The seats were great - four rows from courtside at center court, so we could hear players whining and Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez screaming at his players and the refs. Coach Gonzalez's uh... loquaciousness is already somewhat notorious, recently necessitating Gonzalez's recent denial that he had cursed at fans who were heckling him during a game. Having been to Saturday's game, there's no doubt that Gonzalez is a "screamer". He was constantly yelling at his players and the refs, whereas I never heard a single peep from Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who was presumably coaching his players but didn't feel the need to be heard by the entire arena.

Gonzalez is a bit of a hothead and come off as a but petulant. Take one example from Saturday, when a ref under the basket called a ball out of bounds during a scramble going back to Seton Hall. A sideline ref ran up to confer with the ref who had made the call and Gonzalez, red-faced, jumped up screaming, "Don't you make him change the call!!! Don't you make him change the call!!!" As fellow fan 'Uncle Al' murmured, "What's the point of that? All (he's) going to do is make the refs mad at him."

As for the game, I have to say that Jeremy Hazell can put up points in a hurry and he has NBA 3-point range and then some. There was a play where he corralled a loose ball about six feet behind the 3-point line, squared up and drilled it from downtown. As far as Lance Stephenson, the guy who arguably has the greatest NBA potential, he was unimpressive. He looked sluggish and a little lost when the team would run a structured offense, and on more than one occasion he played a bit out of control.

But the one thing that stuck with me from my experience is just how ridiculous fan complaining and heckling is when you step back and think about it. As I was sitting there, I couldn't help but notice all of these out of shape middle-age and older fans with beer screaming at athletic 19-year old men things like, "C'mon Eugene, stop the ball, stop the ball!" or "That was just awful, you gotta go up strong with that!" as if they would be able to step on the court and do any better. Of course all of us fans are guilty of this. I'm sure the players, insomuch they hear the unsolicited coaching, are tempted to say, "Hey, the fat balding guy in Row 2, Seat 12 - you get over here and try to box this 300 pound center out while I sit in the stands with everyone else and laugh at you."

In any case, I was thankful for the diversion and a chance to see two teams who are trying to break out of the pack in the Big East.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fear of Flying and Comedy Killers

In an interesting story which I think illustrates how the attempted Christmas Day flight bomber has completely heightened anxieties around flying in general, a man who in a fit of humor and nervousness scrawled a monologue about Gilligan's Island on a customer feedback card is now facing federal criminal charges, after his note concerned the flight crew enough to turn the plane en route to Hawaii back to its origination in Portland, Oregon.

Joseph Hedlund Johnson, who apparently had flown only four times in his life, raised suspicion because he was agitated not being allowed to store his bag under his exit-row seat, and then wrote the following on a comment card:
I thought I was going to die, we were so high up. I thought to myself: I hope we don't crash and burn or worse yet landing in the ocean, living through it, only to be eaten by sharks, or worse yet, end up on some place like Gilligan's Island, stranded, or worse yet, be eaten by a tribe of headhunters, speaking of headhunters, why do they just eat outsiders, and not the family members? Strange ... and what if the plane ripped apart in mid-flight and we plumited (sic) to earth, landed on Gilligan's Island and then lived through it, and the only woman there was Mrs. Thurston Howell III? No Mary Anne (my favorite) no Ginger, just Lovey! If it were just her, I think I'd opt for the sharks, maybe the headhunters.
Johnson told investigators later that he "thought the card was going to be taken back to an office somewhere, opened, and everyone in the room would 'get a laugh' from it, and that perhaps he'd even get some frequent flyer miles out of it." I think that both the rambling note as well as the response to investigators are pretty funny, actually. I can understand heightened anxiety in light of what happened on Christmas Day, but talking about Gilligan's Island and then noting which of the women were his favorite doesn't strike me as awfully threatening. And that point about headhunters is pretty insightful, too. Unfortunately, this guy's smart-aleck act just got him in some legal hot water.

In fairness, I probably sympathize with the guy because I can be prone to being a wiseguy with feedback forms as well. I remember that for one of my business school classes, I spent at least 25% of one form breaking down how one of my professors was a dead ringer for MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, and how he ought to open his lectures with "In the best interests of the game, I've decided to..." as well as other times where I devoted a good chunk of feedback around how I liked their ties and shirts. Of course there's the upward feedback that I gave for one of my project managers in the former consulting firm I worked at that stated that he ought to consider a regular routine of the "Mr. Miyagi breathe-in, breathe-out" system because he was way too wound up and I feared he was going to have stroke someday.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that to humor and airplane flying don't mix. Unless you're watching Airplane!.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Does Turning the Other Cheek Help or Hurt?

Harvard basketball star Jeremy Lin has been getting some well-deserved publicity recently, the latest article from Time highlighting Lin's torching of Big East and ACC teams, his love for basketball passed on from his immigrant father, and how people on and off the court can't look past his ethnicity for both good and bad reasons.

It's not surprising that taunts from opposing players and fans have crossed the line into racist slurs:
Everywhere he plays, Lin is the target of cruel taunts. "It's everything you can imagine," he says. "Racial slurs, racial jokes, all having to do with being Asian." Even at the Ivy League gyms? "I've heard it at most of the Ivies, if not all of them," he says. Lin is reluctant to mention the specific nature of such insults, but according to Harvard teammate Oliver McNally, another Ivy League player called him a c-word that rhymes with "ink" during a game last season. Just last week, during Harvard's 86-70 loss to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., McNally says one spectator yelled "sweet and sour pork" from the stands.
The article goes on to reference his taking the high road in the face of such adversity, much to the admiration of at least one teammate:
In the face of such foolishness, Lin doesn't seem to lose it on the court. "Honestly, now, I don't react to it," he says. "I expect it, I'm used to it, it is what it is." Post-game, Lin will release some frustration. "He gets pissed about it afterwards," says McNally. "I have to tip my hat to him. I don't know how I'd react. The type of dude I am, I might not be as mature as Jeremy."
I'm sure that Lin's attempt to turn the other cheek is noble and well-intentioned. It certainly wouldn't benefit him, his team or anyone else if he were to go "Ron Artest" on opposing players and fans by charging into the stands launching haymakers at some idiot hecklers. But one could certainly argue that Lin's actions are actually perpetuating the racial stereotype of the weak Asian who will get pushed around who doesn't do anything about it. On the other hand, sports history tells us something different.

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, he too faced racist taunts from opposing players and fans, and also did so with additional weight of a the backdrop of immense societal oppression of basic civil rights for blacks. It's probably safe to say that Robinson not only encountered heckling, but played under the pressure of physical threats and hatred from some of his own teammates. Interestingly, the strategy that the Branch Rickey, general manager of the Dodgers, developed with Robinson was similarly one of graciousness, not retaliation:
"I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back," Rickey told Robinson, and he acted out situations that Robinson might encounter: He pretended to be a foul-mouthed opponent shouting racial epithets. He swung his fist at Robinson's head. No matter what happened, Rickey said, Robinson must not react.
It took some time, but Rickey and Robinson's patience paid off. Along the way, people also emerged a great supporters of Robinson during the most difficult times, such as teammate Pee-Wee Reese, who famously put his arm around Robinson in a sign of solidarity and support while he was being showered with racial taunts. Hopefully Lin's teammates are doing likewise for him. Hopefully Coach Amaker is doing his own thing behind the scenes, talking to other coaches and making sure that opposing players' ignorance is being dealt with.

And then hopefully, Jeremy Lin will simply be recognized as a great basketball player. Period.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Longing for Home

Sarah and I are slowly packing away the last of our possessions in preparation for the closing for the sale of our house, and while it's been a tremendous marital bonding time (pulling late-nighters doing manual labor with good music playing in the background does that), I have to confess that it's somewhat heart-wrenching. This was our first home that we purchased together, and it was at this house where we bought our newborn son and daughter home from the hospital. This house, in a mere five years, has seen the entire lives and growth of our two children and holds a great deal of wonderful memories.

Add to this the current situation of not knowing when (or even if) we'll be able to finalize the purchase of our next house. I won't get into details here, but contractual snags somewhat typical of a complicated sale have left us somewhat in the dark. Add to this a layer of uncertainty around a possible job move, and it stands to be a time of uncertainty for our family. At very least, we're inevitably going to be relying upon temporary housing as we wait for our purchase to resolve, and in the interim we'll be living with nearby relatives. For how long, we just don't know.

It's dawned upon me that this empty feeling of "homelessness" (I'm hesitant in using this term, but I'll get into this later) may very well be inherent in all of us - or put another way, each of us as humans longs for a sense of "home". Each of us desires to find that place of safety, comfort and familiarity and there's surely a sense of accomplishment owning your own little domain.

In the past year, the loss of home has been all too familiar for many Americans. Between the crumbling job economy and the plunging housing values, many people are finding themselves in houses that they can no longer afford. Many people in each social class have needed to "downgrade" their housing to financially survive, and some have needed to move in with relatives or into shelters on a semi-permanent basis. Foreclosures have been plentiful, and even the most affluent communities haven't been spared. For many, the American dream has become a nightmare. This is not the situation which my wife and I find ourselves in, and for that we are both grateful as well as sympathetic to those who are suffering far more than inconvenience and some degree of uncertainty.

I think the concept of "home" is illustrated well in the movie "Munich", where a Palestinian militant named Ali engages in an argument with Avner, who unbeknownst to him, is actually an Israeli operative. When Avner downplays the importance of the Palestinians having their own homeland, Ali answers "You don't know what it is not have a home. You say it's nothing, but you have a home to come back to. Home is everything."

For those of us who count ourselves to be Christians, I would submit that our whole concept of "home" should be molded by the truths that we are sojourners in this world, walking by faith in what will be an important, yet temporary, stay. Furthermore, understanding that we are truly stewards, not owners, of the things around us ought to bring us to the understanding that if "home" is the place where we ultimately find shelter, refuge and safety - "home" is in its most truest sense God Himself. He is where safety, refuge, and security is most profoundly experienced, and He is unforecloseable, to boot.

So while this season is admittedly difficult, I hope and pray this will be a good time for my wife and I to be reminded of where our hearts ought to find "Home". It'll be valuable for us to recognize God's grace even in our current situation, especially in light of many others for whom "homelessness" with much less comfort is a long-term reality with no end in sight. I can talk a good game about putting my trust in God and not finding my identity in a house full of possessions - I think it'll be good to test that at least to some degree.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Musings on Urbana 2009

I spend most of this week at the Urbana Missions Conference to help man a booth for Synergy Ministries, an organization that I founded that sends short-term teams of professional and students to provide pro-bono business and technology consulting to Christian businesses and ministries in the third world. It was my second time at Urbana as an exhibitor, and I have to say that I benefitted from my time there. Some musings:
  • The conference has taken place in St. Louis for the last two years (2009 and 2006), but since it's seared in people's minds as "Urbana", having been held at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign since its inception, InterVarsity has opted not to mess with that. I did ask a couple of InterVarsity leaders why they didn't move the conference to a warmer weather central US city to mitigate winter weather problems (Dallas or Houston, anyone?), I was told that St. Louis was also favored due to its status as a economically struggling city, which could really use the local economic stimulus of a major multi-day conference. Fair enough. David Bing (mayor of Detroit), I think you need to make a phone call to InterVarsity headquarters.
  • Signs of the weak economy are evident everywhere, and Urbana was no exception. The attendance was down to 17,000 from 20,000 three years ago, and if my "finger in the air" sense was that exhibitors were perhaps a tad more reserved in terms of their free giveaway "flair".
  • I couldn't notice 3000 less attendees when in the Edward Jones Dome, where the main sessions, including the praise & worship sets, were held. Praising and singing with so many people is something amazing to experience, and I was thankful for yet another chance to do that.
  • Personally, it was a spiritually refreshing time for me. I struggled in the beginning of the conference with feelings of condescension, even disdain, towards the students and fellow exhibitors. I think much of it was a "you guys are so incredibly naive and/or stupid and your giddy enthusiasm makes it obvious to me that you have no concept of the real world" attitude towards others. I think God was gracious in revealing just how wicked and arrogant my heart was, even leading me to ask for prayer from conference people who were doing prayer ministry - that I wouldn't simply just go through the motions as a "salesperson", but genuinely be encouraged, challenged and admonished by God as a participant of the conference. I think that happened.
  • As more of an explanation than an excuse, I think being in the New York metropolitan corporate workplace and living in the Northeast tends to ramp up the cynicism (and associated confidence-bordering-on-arrogance) factor, which is particularly deadly if you're already a predisposed cynic as I am. I think God really spoke to me in many of the talks and the large group studies of the Gospel of John, and I felt as if there was some healthy "re-calibration" of my mindset and heart. Put simply, the "real world" isn't evidence of the irrationality or inaccuracy of biblical joy and hope - no, I'm not smarter or more savvy than everyone else. If anything, I'm neck-high the foolishness of the world when I fail to anticipate or expect God's redemption in places I may least expect it.
  • While all of Ramez Atallah's expositions of John were excellent, including a hard-hitting talk about social justice and wealth and stewardship, the best talk I heard was York Moore's altar call. Powerful, powerful stuff.
  • One of the way that this metamorphosis manifested itself took place the last night I was there, where a "Business as Mission" (a.k.a. BAM) reception was being held at the hotel. I had some great conversations with students and I found myself really loving the people who were there. Students kept picking my brain about both Synergy as well as the challenges of being a "corporate workplace Christian" and I was happy to share my own thoughts and experiences. By the end of the conference, I think my attitude towards them had changed from "disdainful arrogance" to "older brother kinship".
  • I had dinner with Patrick Lai, a tentmaking guru of sorts, and enjoyed hearing his perspectives on Business as Mission. He clearly has a great deal of experience in this area and wasn't at all shy about his points of view on the concept of "full-time ministry", the word "missionary", the emergence and effectiveness of "BAM" over other missionary contexts, and so forth. I didn't necessarily agree with everything that he said, but his experience and passion for the Kingdom demanded and earned my respect.
  • Something that came up in more than one conversation was what I'll call the commercialism of missions. That is - missions becoming an industry, with people in one clearly having incentives to "beat the competition", thus leading to the hoarding of best practices and even the not-so-subtle marginalization of a competing missions organization so that short-term missionaries' or donors' precious dollars will flow to your organization. It would sadden me to think that the "Global Connections" exhibit at Urbana is essentially no different than a software convention - just a bunch of vendors who will collaborate selectively, but is clouded by an understandable desire to win while crushing the competition and thus put food on the table for one's own family. Patrick hinted that BAM has less of this phenomenon, since a BAM unashamedly seeks to profit and self-finances their "ministry". I personally think there's a place for a variety of means of reaching the unreached.
  • One of the things that I enjoy most about Urbana is the opportunity to meet up face-to-face with friends who work for InterVarsity. As one staff worker put it, "Urbana is usually mandatory attendance for all InterVarsity staff unless you're nine-months pregnant or getting married, but waivers were granted a little more liberally with the bad economy." It was particularly sweet to meet with Shannon Lamb, who along with her husband Dave were my staff workers at Penn, and two of the most influential people in my journey of faith. We talked about mutual friends, what we've been up to in the past ten years, and (particularly important to me) I had the opportunity to tell her how much I appreciated her and Dave's shepherding and discipleship, and that whatever ministry fruit that I've yielded as an adult have been largely influenced by their teaching, example, and care.
  • One of the things that I think InterVarsity, and by extension, Urbana does very well is the getting the "whole picture" when it comes to the holistic nature of God's work, and thus the holistic purpose of missions - not simply to see souls saved, but to see God's redemptive work manifest across the board, with hungry fed, naked clothed, and enslaved free. One thing that Ramez said summed it up well in one of his talks, referencing a great quote from John Stott - "If we love our neighbors as God calls us to, yes, we must them about Jesus. But if we truly love them as much as God call us to, we will not stop there."
A great experience. God-willing I'll have another chance in the future to experience this yet again.