Thursday, December 23, 2010

Our Hearts to Follow Our Voices

I remember that during my early college days, one of the music leaders from InterVarsity Christian fellowship prefaced the singing of "Shine, Jesus, Shine" by sharing about how this song had become particularly meaningful to him over the summer, and he admonished us not to sing the song if we really didn't mean it.

That experience made me think, "Is that the standard that we ought to hold? Is that a good examples of how we should exhort others?" And for a while, it shaped my perspective around how I should approach worship (which I think was healthy) and how I felt others should approach worship (which I think ended up being unhealthy). Let me explain.

I think it was fine for my to examine myself and challenge myself to "own" the words that I was singing. I think what was unhelpful was to use it as tool of judgment. This mindset turned me into the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who would disdainfully judge the unworthiness of my younger brother. I would have friends on the periphery of the faith who would come to fellowship and really get into praise and worship, belting out lyrics while raising their hands and instead of celebrating that I saw glimpses of them encountering Jesus in a real way, I was overly caught up in the misalignment of their singing of praise and worship and other parts of their lives. It turned me into the Pharisee which stewed while Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors.

This comes to mind when people are singing all over the country are singing Christmas Carols. If you take a look at many of the lyrics in these traditional songs, they're no joke - they speak explicitly and reverently about the coming of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And because of the tradition of the holiday, those with little or no inclination towards Jesus are singing these songs - even harmonizing if they have some vocal skills. So if you're a person of devout faith, you can either be frustrated of the seeming incongruity of them singing songs which declare and celebrate the coming of the Lord; or you can hope that something this Christmas season causes them to pause and think when they sing of the the "Newborn King" along the lines of "Newborn King... King of what? Who is Jesus and why did he come, and why should I care?"

Our singing isn't to be treated like communion in the PCA, where you are calling judgment upon yourself if you partake without believing. For the believer and the non-believer alike, the things that we sing are always going to be a little misaligned with the reality of our being at the moment. Even for the devout Christian, we don't sing with complete sincerity our praise due to our own sin and fallenness - the lyrics are aspirational to some degree, with a implied prayer that God would mold our hearts to meet the very lofty words that we sing. Christians can pray the same prayer for their friends and neighbors who will be belting out Christmas carols this season.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Living the (Real) Dream

The question is often asked: What's your dream job? The answer, of course, changes over time as your tastes get refined and you become more and more familiar with the downsides of jobs you once thought of as being blissful. And then one day, you wake up and may find yourself perfectly content in your present state in a job which looks nothing like the "dream job" answers you gave when you were young. This dawned upon me as I read about the interesting story about Keith Fitzhugh, a former college football standout and NFL hopeful to recently turned down a practice squad roster spot on the New York Jets to keep his job as a conductor, citing family considerations, notably his ailing father.

Fitzhugh has deservedly gotten plaudits from many members of the media, but I think what's most admirable is that he doesn't portray his situation with any tinge of bitterness or resignation. He's not a train engineer because life stinks, and he has to accept it. He legitimately likes the craft and gets his engine revved up for the prospect of being an engineer. In many ways, he's living the real dream - a job which he likes with reasonable job security, and a chance to closely support the people that he loves.

So if push comes to shove, what's the most important thing in our lives? If we would say that we'd like to be able to spend a reasonable amount of time with our family, have a life outside of work, not living in material need, while having a stimulating job working with decent people which helps provide the aforementioned things, it's possible that many of us are in the vicinity of living the dream. Heck, Andy Pettitte doesn't see his family seven months of the year (hence the retirement talk) and Derek Jeter despises the co-worker who plays to his right. Scratch under the veneer of the typical "dream jobs" (Hollywood star, professional athlete, government leader, world traveller), and you'll find that there are always downsides.

Maybe we can all learn a little from Keith Fitzhugh around a healthy perspective around what's really important. If we did that, we might find ourselves a little more grateful and content around the current work of our hands than we are.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sympathy for the Fraudster

I had written a post more than a year ago when Bernie Madoff went from being an obscure wealth manager to a notorious swindler whose pyramid scheme ruined scores of lives, decimating retirement accounts and lifetime savings of victims. When it was revealed that the charade had done little but provide Madoff a lifetime of opulent living and had bilked his victims out of their money, there was understandable rage towards a man who had lived on the hog at the expense of others.

The constant refrain when Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison - essentially a life sentence for the 72-year old man - the constant refrain was that the penalty wasn't enough. How could life in a minimum security prison possibly serve as restitution for the lives that he had shattered, forcing hopeful retirees back to the workforce or to live with relatives, even driving one man to commit suicide upon realizing that his entire life savings had been wiped out.

Somehow, this past weekend's news about the suicide of his son, Mark, has somewhat quieted those voices, and fairly so. Insomuch that it's true that there is no greater punishment to see your loved ones suffer, I'm not sure if there's anything worse than to know that your own son's blood is on your hands - that your misdeeds have marginalized, shamed and terrified your son to the point that he would hang himself with a dog leash with your 2-year old grandson sleeping in the room next door. Even the most embittered and vindictive victim of the Ponzi scheme would find no satisfaction in such punishment. In fact, most have spoken up lamenting Mark's suicide, noting that while it doesn't at all bring back the funds squandered, it simply adds more victims to the crime, such as a son who will now grow up without a father. In the loneliness of his jail cell, what can Bernie Madoff be thinking besides: It wasn't worth it. Of if I could only take it all back.

I can't help but see a deeper message here about the toxicity of sin. Whether it's a massive Ponzi scheme or my own pride - there's something about sin that tends to aggressively take out more and more victims beyond what the eye can see or the mind can conceive. The short-term gratification is exactly that - short-term, and the negative ramifications tend to linger and spread in unexpected places. And like Bernie Madoff, our own misdeeds probably beg the rhetorical question in retrospect: was it worth it?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Falling off the Cliff

Big news rocked the baseball world Tuesday morning around the word that free agent pitching ace Cliff Lee would spurn larger contract offers from both the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees to return to the Philadelphia Phillies, the team which he helped lead to a National League pennant in 2009. While I root for the Phillies, my allegiance is ultimately to the Yankees, so I have to admit that this left me with some mixed feelings. Here are some of my thoughts:
  • Yes, Cliff Lee is still going to make a lot of money ($120 million over five years), but the fact that he left up to $28 million on the table to return to the Phillies is amazing. $28 million is still $28 million (an amount which most us will never see in our lifetimes). The thought only six years ago that someone would take less money to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies would have been inconceivable. Whatever happened to reputation of those "horrible" fans?
  • Apparently, Cliff Lee and his wife really loved Philadelphia, and Cliff felt that his time as a Phillie was the happiest he's ever been as a baseball player (maybe he liked the cheesteaks, too). There's a lot to be said about liking your co-workers. I recently had a conversation with my boss (who I like) where we agreed that given the choice between a crappy job working with good people and a great job working with jerks, you'd take the former all the time. Cliff Lee's playing with guys who he likes and a manager he likes - oh, and he still gets $120 million.
  • That Phillies rotation is pretty scary. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels present a ridiculous starting four where the fourth starter is a World Series MVP. Heck, if they keep Joe Blanton as a fifth starter, you now have a fifth starter who used to be the ace of the Oakland A's three years ago.
  • I have to wonder if there's going to be any jealousy from Roy Halladay. As good as Lee is, Halladay will probably still take his place as the ace of the staff, and the Phillies held the line on a three year, $60 million contract extension for Halladay last year. For Lee, they made an exception and broke the bank. Sure, Halladay isn't exactly sweating the welfare rolls with his $60 million, but wouldn't there be any jealousy (see Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez)? Apparently not, according to some sources.
  • It's a great signing, but wasn't everyone crowning the Phillies the World Series champions last year before they fell to the San Francisco Giants? And doesn't everyone remember the killer Braves rotation of the 1990's with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery/Denny Neagle, which won only one World Series as opposed to the predicted dynasty? Those "unbeatable" rotations were taken out by my Yankees (twice) and by less heralded rotations led by Kevin Brown, Sterling Hitchcock and Andy Ashby (Padres). There's no guarantee.
  • As for my Yankees, I'm oddly not too bothered. For one, I'm not convinced that Lee will live up to his contract, thinking that $150 million is a lot to pay for a non-power pitcher. If Lee is somewhere between Andy Pettitte and Tom Glavine, that's impressive, but I'm not sure I'd put him in the Top Five over the next five years.
  • As I wrote in a previous post, there's something "just" about the Yankees losing out on Cliff Lee. I had written that in light of the abuse that a handful of obnoxious Yankees fans heaped on Cliff Lee's wife, part of me hoped that Lee would stick it to the Yankee fans by proverbially spitting back at them.
  • But yes, the Yankees are pretty much screwed next year. With the Red Sox getting Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and the Yankees countering with a signing a formerly non-tendered Russell Martin, let's just say the rivalry momentum has turned in a big way. The reality is that unless Phil Hughes becomes vintage Josh Beckett (possible), A.J. Burnett goes back to at least 2009 form (hopeful) and Ivan Nova turns into Ubaldo Jiminez (highly improbable), the rotation is going to be the third best in the division.
  • But it's even worse to be a Mets fan. Let's see, the Phillies, which have completely dominated this "rivalry" in the past three years, just signed the best free agent pitcher to set up a historically good rotation. The Mets, on the other hand, were unable to re-sign long-reliever and spot starter Hisanori Takahashi. They did however get some good news when their closer pleaded out an assault charge.
So go Phillies. I hope that your historically good rotation fares better than the Braves of the mid-90's. Unless you're playing the Yankees, of course.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

With Friends Like These...

I can't help but find it interesting that the knee-jerk reaction from a political party which just got their clocks cleaned in the latest election is to entrench towards the most radical elements and fire their guns at the President who is not only the leader of their party but also their most important ally. I lean towards to the right politically, but I'm not sure how this makes any sense if you're a progressive who wants to advance your agenda.

The latest example of this is rumblings from the left wing is that they'll mount a primary challenge to an Obama presidential reelection campaign in 2012. How is this going to help a President who is desperately trying to hold a fragile coalition together of moderates from both parties to accomplish as much as he possibly can to address current economic and diplomatic crises? Weakening their own candidate will do nothing but increase the chances that a Republican candidate (which they'd despise far more than Obama) would win. Do they seriously think that somebody like Russ Feingold or Howard Dean would even be competitive in a national election? Or is it more likely that this is posturing to force Obama to put the priority back on progressive pet issues ("Get us a single payer system goshdarnit!") which decimated their party in the past election in the first place? How is this helping your cause at all?

I suppose it cuts to the hearts of the political inner-conflict. Is it better to compromise on your principles and win or to stand firmly on your principles and lose? Of course, the question comes down to determining which parts of your platform are non-negotiable and which are nice to have. The farther you go out to the ends of the pole, the more non-negotiables there tend to be, and in conjunction with the plethora of non-negotiables on the other side of the political fence, you inevitably have gridlock in the government.

Despite my conservative leanings, there's actually a lot that I like about President Obama. I may disagree with him on a number of positions, but I respect that he's making an effort to govern from the center. If progressives are correct that the Republicans are evil nihilists who are hell bent on stalling the government while holding the country hostage as part of a singularly focused conspiracy to make sure that Obama loses in 2012, how does essentially doing the same thing to him on the left solve the problem? Take the tax deal brokered by the President and Republican leaders, for example. If the Democrats undercut the President and drive the country towards an impasse leading to tax hikes for everybody, it further adds fuel to the fire that President Obama is an ineffective leader and should be replaced ("Heck, he can't even govern his own party!" the pundits will crow.)

There's plenty of guilt on both sides of the aisle here. Even if basic game theory doesn't convince the Democrats to get behind their President, I hope that the desire to do what's best to the country will. Yes, they might be frustrated by the perception or reality of Republican intransigence - but their own intransigence will do nothing to advance their cause.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

In College Football, Winning’s Not Everything, It's the Only Thing

University of Miami head football coach Randy Shannon was fired after another sub-par year for the Hurricanes, a once proud program which has never quite recaptured the mojo from the days of Jimmy Johnson and Butch Davis (sort of). What I thought was telling is the common theme that resonated in almost every news article about the firing, namely that Shannon brought a once scandal-ridden program back to respectability, he instilled discipline and academic accountability leading to a team which played by the rules, didn’t get in trouble, with much improved graduation rates. Despite this, he was canned.

I’m not naïve, and I realize that you can’t ignore mediocrity on the field. The University of Miami still believes that given its history, attractive campus and location in the heart of fantastic football recruiting grounds, they can still command national (or at least ACC) championship contending teams, despite not having the resources of a public university. 7-5 won’t get you’re the big bowl payouts and it doesn’t get you the publicity that you need to boost recruiting and raise the profile of the school.

It bothers me less that Shannon got fired that other coaches seem to have their horrible records off the field overlooked. I get that winning’s critical, but aren’t school administrations and athletic departments going to give more than a token weight towards the conduct and graduation rates of student-athletes? Too often it seems like winning covers a multitude of sins, and who can blame coaches for responding in kind to behave in a way which served their best interests? For all the talk from university presidents that "all of these factors matter", their actions seem to indicate otherwise. Lose and you get fired without question. Have pitiful graduation rates and half your team arrested for sexual assault leads to the follow-up question of "But you did win the conference championship in the past three years, right?" Aren't college coaches sadly but understandably going to conform to this incentive model?

Or put another way, unless Randy Shannon has tremendous character (and it seems that he does), why wouldn’t he be tempted to essentially say, “Okay, not going to make that same mistake again. Next time I get a head coaching gig, I’m going to deprioritize character, disciple and academics. We’re going to bring in the best football players notwithstanding character issues and focus on football instead. Forget about making them go to classes (or better yet, we’ll just hire a tutor to do their work for them), because we don’t want them to be distracted from what’s really important. Get arrested? We’ll sit you for the opening drive – but we have a championship to win.

Yes, I know that it’s supposedly a false choice, and that a handful of coaches have been able to win and have held the players accountable to succeed in the classroom and off the field. But they just don't make 'em like John Wooden anymore.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

To Be Sheep Among Wolves

A good friend and mentor of mine, the Urban Christian, recently posted on his blog a reasonable challenge for Christians for us to revisit prejudices that often are held around those with devout faith entering fields which have been traditionally difficult for Christians to navigate a good intersection of faith and work, such as entertainment, the arts, politics and investment banking. He correctly cites the importance of Christians having a “leavening effect” upon those who are in those areas, noting that abandoning those fields without sending and supporting those who might bring the gospel. Indeed, the gospel must be brought to the ends of the earth, and to those vocational areas in which salt and light are scarce.

I largely agree, but I think there’s a balance that needs to be made here. When I was an undergraduate at Wharton, I saw with alarming frequency devout Christians from campus fellowships who with more than a little arrogance believed that they were going to be the one person (who despite the failures of those before them) didn’t compromise their faith – that they would evangelize the trading desk at Goldman, would boldly prophesy against the idols of greed, debauchery and gluttony. At least that was the said ambition. But that's what rarely happened.

Time and time again, the entry-level grunt would fold like a wet suit under the intimidating gaze of a managing director or SVP within a year. Maybe it started the first week when he was asked to work on a Sunday (well, I can always download an online sermon, right?), or asked about religious nut-jobs (gosh, I don’t want to lumped into those people, maybe I’d better keep quiet). Then separated from fellowship and accountability, said fellow comforms to their workplace culture of workaholism and pride, eventually stops identifying himself or herself as a Christian altogether while looking disdainfully back at that “devout” time in college as a naïve and idealistic phase.

Of course this isn’t the case with everyone who enters these “difficult” fields. But in my experience there are far more people who tend to want to minimize the dangers of walking as a sheep among wolves in these fields, as opposed to people who are truly being called by God who need to be prodded. Or put another way:

1) By our sin nature, we are naturally inclined to conform to this world.
2) The people who are gifted in these fields, regardless of spiritual state, tend to be driven and achievement-oriented and ambitious.
3) Given this achievement-oriented nature of Christians who are gifted in these fields, they are more likely to err on the side of “rashly going for it, because I want it all" as opposed to “over cautiousness” These are the ambitious-types, after all.

For the past ten years when I’ve counseled college students who are seeking business careers, and when asked about the challenges of being a Christian in particularly “difficult” business fields, I tell them the following:

1) There are people who God has gifted to be evangelists in these areas who are particularly gifted to be bold about their faith without fear of the disapproval of man, proclaiming the gospel though actions and words while not compromising or conforming those the often idolatrous and fallen culture in that field. They can interact freely and comfortably with people who are inclined to ridicule and hate Christians and still speak naturally about the work of Jesus in their lives in a way which resonates with others.
2) You need to be brutally honest with yourself and seek from Christians who know you well because there’s a good chance that you are not one of those people. I can appreciate that you hope you are and you wish you are. But that may not be you.
3) If you think that you are the exceptional person who can stand strong without compromise, read point #2 really carefully again.

Coining the phrase of my friend, I agree that Christians shouldn't "look down upon" these professions at all - we should support those and pray for those in these fields. However, we need to call a spade and spade and recognize that rationalization is often rampant (though not universal) in those Christians who wish to go into these fields and that the lives that are often most changed are those the well-meaning Christian - for the worse. I think have credibility when I say this because it's possible I've been (to a degree) guilty on both counts. But as yet another testament to God's overwhelming grace - yes, I've been blessed see God's redeeming in work with co-workers firsthand, notwithstanding my shortcomings.

But lest this seem like a downer, I certainly wouldn't advocate analysis paralysis around "calling" (this is another topic altogether, go read Charlie Drew's book on calling if you'd like). While I call for brutal honesty when discerning a vocation, I think the bigger imperative is for Christians in the workplace to consciously and deliberately "have a leavening effect" on their office and their field., regardless of whatever field that is. The individual challenge to each of us is this: If you're not praying specifically about this and can't articulate a strategy around this, maybe you should start. You may say that you want integration of your faith and your work, but your actions say otherwise.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Conditional Praise

In a recent game between the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, wide receiver Steve Johnson flubbed an easy catch in overtime which would have given the Bills a stunning upset win against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers. What ended up getting the most press was his reaction after the game.

Making game-costing mistakes happens all the time in sports. Usually, sports reporters will get trite sound bites from regretful athletes along the lines of “I just didn’t make the plays I needed to” or “I take responsibility for this loss” or “I didn’t do my job and it cost my team.” What was unique and newsworthy about Johnson’s reaction is that he went to his Twitter account and blamed God:


The rant was interesting on a number of levels. I appreciated the candor and honesty of Johnson’s tweet, because I think it says a great deal about the misunderstanding of God’s work in the midst of athletic competitions and more importantly, the propensity that all Christians (including myself) have to subconsciously expect some correlation between our devotion and “success” as defined by the world.

Tackling (no pun intended) the first point, I find it interesting when athletes give glory to Jesus Christ after sports victories when talking to sideline reporters. This is, for the most part, all well and good. We should absolutely give glory and thanks to God and recognize that He is the source of our gifts, talents and opportunities. However, what never happens (or at least I’ve never seen it) is giving thanks to God in the midst of a tough loss. For example, I’ve never seen a boxer say after losing by split decision, “First of all, I’d like to thank God for giving me the strength to be a contender in the IBF. Even though I lost a tough fight, Jesus kept me and (opponent) Dedrick Tatum more or less healthy after a 15 round fight and I’m still as strong as a bull. See y’all at the evening service.” God equips and God enables, and for that we should give thanks - period. The results - whether it’s an outcome of a competitive event or admittance into a program or job opportunity - are things that with faith we can look and trust in His sovereign grace - but we should never assume that worldly 'success' is what will inevitably happen.

The related second point is that Steve Johnson makes the telling, but honest, connection between his praise of and devotion to God and the results of the game. This is painfully evident in the "I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!"

Lest we pile on Steve, I need to say that Christians do this all the time. I do this all the time. It just tends to be subconscious and manifests itself into bitterness as opposed to angry tweets.

I remember that I had started business school in the fall of 1999 and was going through a rough patch, when I heard the single most impactful Tim Keller sermon during my time at Redeemer. Reverend Keller said something along these lines:
You can be completely obedient yet profoundly rebellious in your relationship with God. How? We do this when our obedience leads to a sense of entitlement where our natural tendency is to question why God hasn’t given us the relationship, job or life circumstances that we think we deserve in light of our spiritual obedience and service. You’re not in a loving relationship with God; you’ve put yourself on the throne and have made God someone who you can manipulate into giving you what you want. How will you know if you have this sort of relationship with God? You're bitter and resentful of your circumstances.
That sermon hit me like a ton of bricks. And that’s why I sympathize with Johnson’s tweet with more empathy as opposed to harsh judgment. But yes, Steve, just as you tweeted, you actually will learn from this, just in the way that I have learned from my own difficult seasons in life – not the least of the lessons is that God’s faithfulness doesn’t mean we’re immune from us making mistakes at inopportune times, but it does mean His grace is sufficient to carry us through the aftermath of those mistakes.