Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Peace, Hope and Joy

The Christmas holiday is often flooded with words such as “Peace”, “Joy” and “Hope”. You’ll see these words plastered on Christmas cards and storefront and municipal banners. They’re relatively non-controversial words which secularists and the faithful can similarly appreciate, even if the deeper meanings of these words are points of contention. While secularists will raise their glass at the general notion of these three things (after all, who doesn’t like peace, joy and hope?), Christians will point out that these words should appropriately be tied to the birth of Jesus Christ, whose coming and later death and resurrection was the watershed moment in redemptive history which brought those things to bear. Which brings me to yesterday…

I woke up very early yesterday morning and unable to go back to sleep, so I switched my iPhone on and checked messages. One of the e-mails I received was an update from a friend who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer this past year. It was quite a shock, as she was about the same age as me and my wife, and she, her husband and their young daughter are active parishioners at our old church – just a wonderful family. By the grace of God, her treatments went well (though not without a lot of pain and discomfort) and she seemed to be on the path to being cancer-free.

Last Friday, she went to the hospital for a hysterectomy and during that procedure, the doctors found that the cancer has returned in the form of tiny seeds covering the insides her abdomen. The discovery of this peritoneal carcinomatosis came with the prognosis from her doctors that she will only have about three months to live. Given the prognosis and their oncologist’s assessment that aggressive treatment would prolong life for only a few months at the expense of quality of life, they’ve made the difficult decision to opt for palliative care so the family can best enjoy the rest of their time together. Our friend and her husband are now praying and planning on when and how to tell their daughter the news, which they’ll do after Christmas.

Where is the peace? Where is the joy? Where is the hope? Does it even exist?

It does. And amazingly, my friend gets it even when it would be understandable for her to despair and to lash out at a God that has thusfar chosen not to free her from cancer. But she understands that “peace” does not mean absence from hardship. She understands that “joy” is not the absence of things in this life that will cause sadness. She understands that “hope” is not primarily about a cure for cancer.

She articulates this in the aforementioned email to her family and friends:

(My husband) and I cried together and consoled each other. We are concerned about how (our daughter) would take the news and my eventual death... But God gave us strength to trust Him and His love. We are so grateful to know that He knows best and that He is sovereign. I know that God will lead (our daughter) forward and help her overcome the grief and fears. I know that God will help (my husband) to raise her and live without me. I know that God will help my parents, sisters and brothers, and friends...

I believe our God is good and able. He is wise beyond all measure. He helps me overcome my sadness and fears. He makes me excited to meet Him face to face soon. I believe Heaven is more glorious than our wildest imagination. I believe some of my best friends are there, waiting for me. I hope I will be waiting for a very long time from Heaven, but that I will see you one day, too.

I am so glad I had the privilege to know you and be a small part of your life. You made my life rich and wonderful. I don't want to sound like this email is the last of my communication because it's not. Of course, God may pull a miracle and extend my life (I ask that you would all pray for such a miracle) and that would be wonderful, too, if that happens. :)

She understands and declares – with much more credibility than almost any of us can – that the peace, joy and hope that we celebrate on Christmas is built upon the foundation of a covenant promise with Almighty God through Jesus Christ and goes far beyond our superficial definitions of what those words mean. It is the promise of relationship with the Living God where we have an inheritance in heaven which not even death can take away. It is the imperishable promise of love from a God who knows all and will somehow redeem terrible and tragic things for good, and will envelop the brokenhearted with comfort and peace.

Please pray for my friends and their daughter, and may all of us grasp the peace, hope and joy of Christmas as well as my friend does.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Trauma of Being Lost

I went into work late one day last week because of a dentist appointment, and during my usual walk crosstown, I noticed a little boy walking around with a scooter looking around nervously in front of Grand Central Station. Within a few seconds, it was painfully obvious that the child was lost.

A small group of other bystanders on the sidewalk also paused and saw the little boy push his scooter around almost in circles as his eyes futilely tried to scan the crowds for his mother. When it was clear that no adult nearby was his parent, I walked over to him as did a Grand Central Station security guard.

The child started to cry for his mother, and I squatted down next to him and tried to assure him that things were going to be okay and we were going to find his parents. As the security guard radioed for police and as we waited, I tried to engage and comfort the boy. Between sobs, he told me that his name was Max and after flashing him some different age possibilities on my hand, I found out that he was three years old. I told him that I had a daughter about his age and kept reassuring him that people were on their way who were going to make everything okay.

In a few minutes, a police officer came and tried to asked the still sobbing boy for his mommy's name and if he remembered from which direction they came from. The officer began to walk westbound with the boy and within minutes, another security guard came running up with his radio: they had found the mother who had been further east on 42nd street frantically looking for her child. I saw the mother running quickly towards us pushing a stroller with tears in her eyes.

I ask her if she was Max's mother, which she confirmed, and I told her that he was fine and was going to be brought back shortly by the police officer. I explained that we found him alone on the corner of 42nd Street of Vanderbilt but besides being scared, he was fine. The grateful mother asked me for my name, but I smiled, told her that I was just grateful that Max was okay, just as Max approached with the police officer. I slowly walked away as the mother was joyfully reunited with her son.

I walked another two blocks to my office, shut the door and sat silently at my desk for a few minutes, with a tidal wave of emotions swirling within me. Was I projecting one of my own children being lost? Was I struck by the enormity of a scenario where one of my children was at the mercy of a handful of strangers, hopeful that they'd encounter one who would be benevolent and not malevolent? Was I living vicariously through the boy's mother, terrified of the thought of losing my own young son or daughter in the city? Was I vicariously living through the little boy who was understandably terrified out of his mind? Perhaps it was a combination of all of those things.

Something else dawned upon me around how traumatizing it is to be 'lost'. The little boy didn't know where he was, didn't know where he was going and had no presence to guide him or protect him. He was in a scary place full of potential hazards and thoroughly unequipped to deal with his surroundings. It's arguably one of the most traumatizing feelings in the continuum of human emotion, perhaps only matched by a parent who has lost or is looking for a child who is lost.

I suppose it's no wonder why Jesus uses this imagery in Luke 15, when he tells the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. Perhaps it's fitting given the depth of human despair that exists in those who are lost (regardless if people know it or not), and the depth of longing and yearning from God to bring those who are lost back to him, borne out a love which is described as higher than mountains and deeper than the seas.

On an ordinary Tuesday, a scared little boy pushing around a scooter became for me a heartbreaking picture of those of us without Christ who have been given the grace to realize just how lost we are. And on that same day, a tearful reunion between a mother and child became a window into the joy of those who come back to the Father.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Celebrating Freedom of Rudeness

Many years ago, I remember hearing a story about an immigrant who was visiting the United States and was learning about our Constitution and system of government. In a conversation with his American host, the visitor spoke glowingly about our democracy but expressed concern that like a ship, there seemed to be so much sail, but not quite enough anchor. His point being, does our rightful embrace of individual rights sometime cross the line in which we are willing to sacrifice the greater good? Did we run the risk at elevating the individual and individual whims at the expense of agreed upon community standards and norms.

I thought about this when I read about the big blowup around a teen's irreverent "tweet" (Twitter post to all you who aren't social-media savvy) in regards to a visit to the Kansas state Capitol. In a nutshell, Kansas teen Emma Sullivan decided it would be funny to tweet the following to the world:
"Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot."
Governor Sam Brownback's public relations team subsequently caught wind of tweet, and in what can only be called a big-time overreaction, made Ms. Sullivan's tweet known to the principal of her high school. To compound that overreaction, the principal proceeded to overreact, allegedly calling Ms. Sullivan an embarrassment to the school and disrespectful, and demanded that Ms. Sullivan write a letter of apology to Governor Brownback and his staff.

Ms. Sullivan's parents (who like their daughter are proud liberal progressives) responded in outrage and before soon, the whole incident was on the national media. Ms. Sullivan refused to apologize for her tweet, citing her first amendment rights, much to the cheering of the liberal left.

Did Governor Brownback's staff and the principal grossly overreact? Absolutely. What I think is alarming that Ms. Sullivan is being hailed as some civic-minded first amendment hero in certain circles. Are we seriously lauding this girl's behavior as the standard at which we want our children to engage in political discourse? Do we want kids who don't recognize the distinction between respectful disagreement and dialogue with political policies and immature teen rudeness? "He blows a lot?" Yeah, that's a really insightful starting point for a discussion around policies and alternative legislation.

What's laughable is that Ms. Sullivan actually buys into the "I'm a crusading role-model" baloney. When she releases statements like, "The issue is relevant and, if anything, is a starting point of dialog with the governor about his policies and how our First Amendment rights can be taken away." Give me a break. "You suck" is a fascinating way to start a dialog with the governor.

But maybe that's emblematic in the soul of a country which has some lost the discipline and value of civil discourse. It's tragic on both sides. Conservatives and liberals both rightly united after Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot, taking a stand against inflammatory language and rhetoric in the political arena. But underlying all of this is a common foundation around respect, acknowledging that people can disagree with the best of intentions and understanding that while those who disagree politically aren't evil, neither do they suck nor blow.

Freedom of speech is the right to not be prosecuted for views, but it doesn't isolate us from rightful consequences of our actions. When language is improper, derogatory or inflammatory, the perpetrators should be told and corrected. What's troubling is that common decency is taking a backseat to whether a certain type of rhetoric plays on people's worst divisive nature. The first filter isn't whether something is rude or inappropriate, it's whether one happens to agree that the subject criticized is worthy of attack or not. The knee jerk reaction of progressive bloggers and pundits is to observe that the slight is aimed towards a socially conservative Republican, and then scream, "Freedom of Speech!" Of course, if the target was President Obama, they'd react in outrage. Both sides of the political fence play this game, though - the target somehow legitimizes disrespect. It's ridiculous.

And we have a real-life example of this, when country singer Hank Williams, Jr, who upon comparing President Obama to Hitler was fiercely defended by progressives for his freedom of speech and lauded as a champion for being a politically aware musician. Oh, wait, that didn't happen. He was roundly criticized and rightfully censured and had his pre-Monday Night Football intro cancelled. I just mixed him up with the Dixie Chicks, who took shots at President Bush instead and called him "a dumb f*ck" and were roundly defended by liberals for standing up for her freedom of speech. Of course, that the target was good 'ol 'W' made it okay.

Let's be consistent, shall we? Let's stop applauding inappropriate and disrespectful talk and opinions in the name of free speech.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Despair in the Suburbs

The idyllic life of the suburbs has been a concept that has been constructed and destroyed many times over in our culture and media. People tend to move out from city centers to suburban areas with the good intentions of providing their families more space, better schools and as a escape from the hustle, frenzy and crime in the city. Of course, scratch the surface and you see that all is not hunky-dory in the suburbs, either. This whole premise has been captured in movies such as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road (apparently, director Sam Mendes really had a bad suburban upbringing and has devoted part of his career to fight the machine).

On occasion, this rears its head in close proximity when it hits my town, as it did a few weeks ago when rush hour trains were suspended after a man allegedly commit suicide at our neighborhood train station. It hit home not just because it happened in my town, but it actually suspended the train I was taking back home (the incident occurred 10 minutes before my train was going to pull into the station) and I saw the aftermath many hours later, first with the emergency vehicles and the sand presumably covering any residual human remains on the track the next morning.

The police haven't officially ruled it as such, but with an eyewitness account that the man dived on the tracks towards an oncoming train, the deduction seems reasonable. Interestingly, the comments section below that same article led to an interesting exchange which perhaps is emblematic of the culture of coldness in suburban life. Here are some of the entries:

Wow! This is becoming a commonplace. Very sad and selfish way to end it.

I think it is unfair to call this man selfish. He clearly had major problems in his life to do this, ones he could not cope with. We won't know what those issues were but regardless, its still not right to add a "selfish" label to him. This was an act of desperation and mental illness. Its very sad that there was no one that he could have turned to for help in working out whatever issues he was facing.

There was a whole train crew that had it a lot worse than being "late for Jeopardy". So yes, committing suicide by jumping in front of a train is an act that no amount of depression or mental illness excuses. And the horrible consequences on others from the act should be the prominent factor in any discussion of the event.

I would say that even the most depressed understand the implication of jumping in front of a train and its extreme impact on others (and I mean mostly the impact on the crew) and do not deserve any kind of a pass for making that particular decision. Jumping in front of a train is a willful decision to make the maximum impact, its effect on others be damned.

I just have compassion primarily for the train crew and any others who saw what happened. They are the only victims here and they are the only ones who need and deserve sympathy and expressions of concern.

I have no sympathy for the victim, but I do for his family. To have the options available to take care of business in private and disrupt only their immediate family/friends merits sympathy. To do it in a public place where innocent bystanders are horrified witnesses, to traumatize the engineers/conductors who are unwillingly facilitating their death and to then hold up thousands of passengers coming home from work is the definition of selfishness. What other reason would they go out this way other than to get attention? I do not need to be a shrink or have a PhD to know when someone is being a dick, most people can tell right away.
There was a mix of people who were outraged that the man was so selfish to kill himself to the distress and inconvenience of everyone else, and those who were outraged that people had the nerve to call suicide a selfish act. What is universal is that nobody is surprised in the least bit that this happened. There's no illusion that upper-middle class suburbia is paradise, and even our little community of good schools and relative financial plenty is somehow immune from despair which drives someone to end their life. Accounts like this simply become additional sad fodder for the reality that there's nothing that money can buy or human hand can fabricate to replace the God-shaped hole that resides in every soul.

As far as the harsher reactions of some of the fellow suburbanites, I'm not sure this is proof positive that suburbanites are any more or less insensitive or callous than your average city dweller. The knee-jerk (and probably unfair) deduction is that suburbanites, by their choice to live in a suburb, value convenience, privacy, self-order and the accumulation of material possessions at the expense of shared community, human interaction and spontaneity. Thus the focus on the inconvenience of thousand of suburbanite commuters instead of a sympathizing with a tormented soul who felt that ending his life at the wheels of a train was the best option.

I don't think it's that simple. I think a bigger part of it has to do with the human condition and how we're all plagued with sin. We're terrible at putting other people's needs above our own, and have lost the discipline and the culture of the Good Samaritan. Today's American version of the Good Samaritan too often ends with the Samaritan furious that the beaten traveler is reducing property values by drawing attention to rampant crime in the area. As far as the suburban idols of convenience, privacy, self-order and accumulation of material possessions? I'd say those are American cultural, if not universal idols prevalent no matter where people live.

Then again, would the reaction have been the same in suburban Indianapolis? Maybe it's a New York metropolitan suburban thing.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Next Stop, Commercializing Arbor Day

As I've grown up, I've developed an increasing appreciation for the holiday of Thanksgiving. As a child, Christmas was always at the top of the list when it came to holidays, which made sense because it offered:
  1. Getting stuff, namely stuff that I couldn't afford to buy myself
  2. A full week or more of vacation
  3. Good vibes that I've partaking in a spiritually uplifting experience
As twenty years have passed and I've grown to adulthood, these three benefits have been tempered by the respective realizations that:
  1. I'm capable of buying anything I really need, plus any gift big-ticket items is being taken out of my own bank account
  2. With young kids, work is arguably less physically less tiring than staying home. Also, a smartphone culture puts me "on call" even when I'm on vacation
  3. What happened to Christ being in Christmas? As Charlie Brown and Linus lamented, the commercialism has overwhelmed the holiday. I vaguely remember seeing a New Yorker-type print cartoon with a man asking his spouse in front of a card kiosk asking, "What the deal with all the religious stuff on these Christmas cards?"
Thanksgiving, at least relatively speaking, kept the focus on the universal importance of giving thanks. Regardless of religious belief or philosophy, it was universally held that t take time to give thanks for all that one had and experienced was a good thing, so logic followed that society at large could agree to keep commercialism out of it. In theory, we'd all agree to make this a holiday about friends, family, and reflection and acknowledgement of all that we have to be thankful about.

But then came Black Friday, and what was once a small afterthought in post-Thanksgiving tradition has become a behemoth worth hundreds of millions of dollars in American commerce. Black Friday is becoming dangerously central to the holiday to the point where Thanksgiving dinner is merely the meal to gear up for the shopping marathon. Black Friday has become a week-long event. Not only are people getting increasingly absorbed in finding sales, people are resorting to violence to ensure they get the best deals.

Of course, there are some people who are trying to fight this machine, and I'm oddly finding myself cheering for the Occupy Wall Street crowd as they blast the idiocy of the Black Friday obsession and craziness. In fairness, I root for OWS in this case more because I think Black Friday madness has gone to far, but not because I begrudge companies' right to maximize their revenues for the benefit of their shareholders. If their point is to inform shoppers that there's a better use of their time and money than to stand in a line at midnight and join a mob to buy a $5 copy for Green Lantern, then go for it. But the stores aren't completely to blame for the gullibility and stupidity of consumers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Living and Dying Well

Last week I came across an article about the fatal shooting of a Newark cop in Paterson, NJ:
Police released grainy images today of two "individuals of interest" and a vehicle that may be linked to the shooting death early Monday of an off-duty Newark police detective outside a Paterson strip club.

Detective Michael Morgan, 32, was the last officer to leave Sunrise Gentleman’s Lounge on Straight Street after a birthday party for another Newark cop on Sunday night, authorities said. When Morgan and a dancer from the club walked outside around 3 a.m., they were approached by a man in his 20s who tried to rob them at gunpoint, police have said.
I want to make absolutely clear that I think that this is a tragedy, and I hope those thugs who took this officer's life are brought to justice. I have a great deal of respect for those who serve in law enforcement and I'm mindful that these men and women put themselves in harms way to protect and serve the citizens in which we live and work. The account makes it clear that the officer wasn't looking for a fight when he was in the parking lot, and got jumped by two men who were looking to score some quick cash.

That being said, is it at all troubling that the officer was walking out with a stripper at a dance club? I'm not going to question the legality of his actions or conduct. It's completely legal for a person to pay money to drink and watch people take their clothes off and dance seductively. It's also completely fine for men to escort strippers out to their car. Maybe Detective Morgan wanted to ask the dancer out for dinner or to take her home to show his baseball card collection. It's all completely legal. We'll probably never know his intentions that evening. It's possible that Detective Morgan was just at the strip club as a community outreach, and was talking to the dancer about self-worth, and how she didn't need to objectify herself to the lusts of men.

There's no need to trample on someone's grave or dishonor those who have been victims of violent crime. From all accounts, Detective Morgan was a highly respected member of the force. An article after the shooting spoke of him as being a highly dedicated member of the force who was "a role model at the precinct and at home".

But what I don't get is whether it's the desire to paint the deceased in the best light (fine and understandable) or the changing values in our society (not so fine and understandable) that spins the story. For example, I don't want my son to see someone who goes to strip bars to be a role model. I'd like him to have a much higher view towards women and a more elevated view towards sex.

The point isn't whether Detective Morgan's death was tragic and whether we should mourn his loss. It clearly was, and it should outrage all of us that he was a victim of violent injustice. It doesn't at all detract from all the good he's done in society and in the line of duty. But at least to me, getting killed in a robbery outside a strip club he was patronizing isn't exactly the best way to go. Dying while saving kids from a burning building or slain while providing cover for innocent bystanders under a hail of gang-related gunfire probably would have been preferable. It's possible that Detective Morgan doesn't care either way, and felt no moral hesitation around attending strip clubs. But at least for me, I'd prefer not to be recognized posthumously as a hero while foiling a robbery at a porn theater or at a KKK meeting.

Maybe there's a lesson here that given that life is so fragile and death can come at any turn, we ought to be careful on how we conduct ourselves. But even more so, I wonder if there's a lesson around how we live our lives supposedly in secret. I remember visiting a church classroom where Sunday school was taught and on the wall was a poster which said something along the lines of:
Don't say anything you wouldn't say if Jesus was standing in front of you.
Don't do anything you wouldn't do if Jesus was standing in front of you.
I think the point was that if you believe in an omnipresent God, this is the reality. If people who are Christian live with the sincere belief that God is in their midst, would we sin as brazenly or flippantly as we do? If "just because it's the right thing that God commands of us" isn't sufficient reason for living rightly, maybe leaving the right legacy might provide a little more incentive.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Loss of Innocence at State College

There's something that just seems especially wicked about pedophilia. Maybe it's the concept of corrupting those that are innocent, or the brutality and injustice of someone who is powerful using force, coercion and manipulation to abuse one who is vulnerable. Maybe for parents, it's the projection of such crimes being done against children who we hold so dear and place under our own care and protection, swearing that we'd even give up our own lives to keep them from harm.

On the other hand, you have the Penn State football program, one of the most storied college athletic programs in existence. At the head of this program is Coach Joe Paterno, who at 85 years old, has been steering the ship since 1966. This iconic coach is the all-time winningest coach in Division 1 history and a two-time National Championship winner whose success in the field is actually overshadowed by the esteem he is given as a person of the highest character. Joe Paterno, otherwise known as "JoePa", has been recognized for his integrity and his leadership in the community, ranging from his charitable giving for educational causes to his high standards placed upon the young men in his care. Many former players have cited Paterno's positive influence in the lives as being crucial to their own success.

The violent collision and unwelcome juxtaposition of these two things has rocked the sports world, with the news that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children in Penn State facilities on multiple occasions, using his Second Mile charity for underprivileged children as a conduit to victimize underage boys. The accusations attest that Sandusky lured young men with access to the football team and the promise of free sneakers and equipment, and on multiple occasions would would sexually assault them in the locker room shower area. The "smoking gun" occurred when a graduate assistant apparently witnessed such an act to Coach Paterno, who reported it to university administrators. The fact that university administrators did nothing about it - and Paterno didn't follow up - are drawing charges of institutional cover-up and malfeasance. So beyond the question of "What did Sandusky actually do?", another question that is looming is "What did Paterno know, and what did he do about it?"

I have to admit that I like Joe Paterno and what he stands for, so part of me was immediately defensive around accusation hurled at him. My defense ran somewhere along the lines of:
You can't blame Paterno for doing what he was legally required to do. He reported it to the administration and you can't fault him that the administrators dropped the ball on the follow up. If he goes public, escalates the problem or continues to unilaterally press for an investigation, at what point does it become a witch hunt or a lynching without trial? After all, pedophilia is NOT one of those crimes that a "false accusation" is easily washed away, so if you're going to accuse someone, you'd better have some evidence. Isn't a person innocent until proven guilty? Was Paterno wrong is assuming that administrators did their due diligence and found that the charges against Sandusky were baseless since no action was taken? Would it have been fair or just for Paterno to ban Sandusky from the facilities without proof or a criminal charge?
Maybe some of that thinking is valid, but the reality is that like any sort of crime against children, there does seem to exist a higher standard around ensuring the health, safety and well being of victims or future victims. It's entirely possible that Paterno was protective of Sandusky's reputation. It's entirely possible that Paterno was blinded by loyalty and naively believed that he was innocent and merely a victim of a vindictive young man. Cynics will point out that it's possible that Paterno was motivated to not cast a shadow over a football program with a reputation for integrity. None of those factors should have kept Paterno from doing the right thing. And the right thing would be to err on the side of caution, and to insist and personally ensure that everything was duly investigated and cleared before Sandusky was allowed access to Penn State facilities with these children he was alleged to have seen sexually abusing. JoePa was dead wrong in the way that he handled this, and it will tarnish the ending of what was otherwise a stellar career.

But maybe the problem is us. I can't help but notice that greater rancor is pointed towards Joe Paterno than Jerry Sandusky. I get that there's wrongdoing in the lack of active vigilance towards evildoing, but are people seriously equating moral equivalency with the man who lured young men into locker shower rooms and physically sexually assaulted them? Isn't it telling that there's less bile aimed towards the pair of Penn State officials who Paterno alerted around the alleged assult, who did absolutely nothing? Let's be honest in saying tat that Paterno is largely getting blasted from all sides because of what he stands for, and because we made him an icon without blemish or fault. We made him into something that he's not.

In a great article for about the how this tragedy will change everything at once-idyllic Penn State, Michael Weinreb wrote this about Paterno:
Sometimes we (the fans) were guilty of regarding him as more deity than man,4 as if he presided over us in mythological stand-up form. He was as much our own conscience as he was a football coach, and we made that pact and imbued him with that sort of power because we believed he would wield it more responsibly than any of us ever could. (The irony to this, of course, is that Paterno tried so hard, at least in the media, not to present himself as anything more than a common man. And yet this only elevated his public stature.)
Paterno was placed on a pedestal which nobody could stand on. He's not perfect, in the same way that devout Christian Jim Tressel wasn't perfect. Neither is any football coach or athlete who we try to hold as a beacon of integrity and character. There are great teachers and civic leaders in the midst, but they're not perfect either. Neither are the brave troops who defend our country overseas. We have much to admire about these individuals, and we rightfully laud them for great characteristics and actions. But at the end of the day, the only one I can really trust not to be tumbled off a pedestal in a scandal or a failure is a man who got hung on a cross.

Where does Penn State go from here? My guess is that Paterno at earliest resigns this week, and at latest "retires" at the end of the year. Some pundits are already anointing Rutgers Greg Schiano the heir apparent, but at this point, they'll try to find the coach with the cleanest hands. The program should survive, which is ironic because you'd think the sexual abuse of children is worse than giving free cleats to a recruit, but whatever. Perhaps a silver lining to this is that grown men who are into sports will have gotten a big-time wake up call in dealing with child endangerment at work, at school, in their places of worship and in their community: Never, ever downplay the hint or suspicion of child abuse. Deal with the awkwardness of an unconfirmed accusation and make the welfare of the children paramount.

No matter how this plays out, this is going to get messier before it gets better.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Maybe Uncool, but not Unexpected

Tim Tebow is someone whose popularity and press are incommensurate with his professional football track record. While Tebow has been spectacularly successful in college football, having won a Heisman trophy and two national championships, his performance and projected performance at the NFL-level doesn't warrant him the amount of newsprint, internet buzz or blogger space that is afforded him.

The reality is that the biggest part of the intrigue around Tebow is his "good-guy" and "clean-cut" image which founded upon his devout Christian beliefs and lifestyle. Tebow hasn't been shy about professing his Christian faith either, weaving it casually into interviews and putting Scripture references in his eye black. Of course, there was that oh so controversial (sarcasm) pro-life commercial that he filmed with his mother before Super Bowl XLIV.

ESPN's Jemele Hill recently wrote an article criticizing the Detroit Lions for mocking Tim Tebow's faith after the Lions crushed Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos last Sunday. In what was a 45-10 whipping, the Lions defense exposed Tebow's inability to make good decisions from the pocket, and by closing any running lanes, they hit him hard - a lot. Tebow was continually taken to the ground, and in what became a controversial move, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch brought Tebow onto the ground, and then proceeded to drop to a knee in mock prayer, imitating Tebow's own actions after his Broncos had secured a comeback win against the Miami Dolphins a week earlier.

Hill captured the spirit of much of the criticism leveled towards Tulloch, insisting that the linebacker had crossed the line by mocking Tim Tebow's faith. Her reasoning had some merit, after all, would such actions be tolerated if Tulloch celebrated a sack by mocking a players race or non-Christian religion? Or if there were to be a homosexual player who came out in the NFL, do you think that taunting using a mock homosexual gesture would be tolerated? Of course not, the offending player would be banned for six games.

All that being said, I'm actually not overly worked up about Tulloch's gesture, which might be surprising given how central my own faith is to me. But at some point, I think that any sort of post-play routine or celebratory action becomes fair game for turnabout doesn't it?

Mocking and taunting players' own in-game displays is hardly news. Then Eagles wide receiver famouly mimicked Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' celebratory dance upon scoring a touchdown many years back. San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson makes a cross armed gesture whenever he saves a game, and when Dodgers third basemen Casey Blake hit a clutch homer off of Wilson, Blake proceeded to imitate the gesture, much to Wilson's ire. Interestingly, Wilson noted that his faith was in part driving the gesture:
"It shows no disrespect toward anybody. It's all positive praise. It's not for showboating. It's not to start an epidemic. It's just me getting a quick message out to the world and to Christ and that's it. I just thought, `What more perfect time to display my faith than at the end of a game?'"
So if Wilson's gesture (which doesn't look remotely like a religious gesture, but something you'd see at a heavy metal concert) is a nod to his Christian beliefs, does it mean that mocking that move is out of bounds, too? When a wide receiver torches a defender, scores a touchdown and points to the sky, are we going to call it a hate crime when the defender picks off the pass and runs it back and does the same thing?

On another note, let's be honest about a big part of what's going on here. A lot of players are jealous of Tim Tebow. Tebow's track record for a professional QB is thus far abyssmal, and he has the second highest selling jersey behind Super Bowl winning QB Aaron Rodgers. He has endorsements up to his neck and gets interviewed ad nauseum because of who he is and what he stands for. In the gladiator culture of football, there's certainly some resentment towards a player, who hasn't earned the fame on the field. But the more insidious aspect is that players personalize it, thinking that they themselves are more worthy of the fame and glory than Tebow is. When Stephen Tulloch unleashes on Tim Tebow and mocks him, he's taking out his frustrations that a man who has started two games (and played terribly in both) has already received more adulation and fame than a solid six-year veteran middle linebacker will ever get in his lifetime. It's jealousy, and any opposing player than says otherwise is lying.

As for Tebow, I think he's going to have to suck it up and realize that this is going to be the new normal for him in this league. As a devout Christian, Tebow would know that what's going on here isn't surprising at all. Maybe Tebow should consider painting Matthew 10:22 on his eye black.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Counter-intuitive Right Answer

I have a friend at work who is a student pilot, and we recently were talking about some of the challenges of flying an airplane. Anyone who has played Sega's Afterburner or Konami's Top Gun arcade games as a kid gets the general premise that when you pull back on the stick (or push down on the controller pad), you're actually causing the flaps to move in a way which points the nose upwards. So one of the counter-intuitive thing that an arcade-game-playing kid learns is that pressing down makes you go up.

For student pilots, it becomes pretty natural that, generally, when you want to ascend, you'll pull up on the controls. The one major exception to this is when your plane begins to stall. I'm probably going to screw up the true engineering or mechanical explanation here, but generally speaking, when a plane's engine begins to stall, what's imperative is to gain airspeed, and that is done by pushing the nose of the plane downwards. Gravity becomes the plane's friend, and as the plane descends and picks up airspeed, the engine will move out of its stall and hopefully restarts, much to the joy and relief of the pilots and passengers.

Talking to my pilot friend, he confesses that this is easier said than done. When you're in a plane and the plane begins to descend suddenly due to a stall, the instinct is to pull back on the controls in an attempt to ascend. That's the worst thing that a pilot can do, as this will further kill airspeed and the plane will drop like a rock out of the sky. As my friend told me, more seasoned pilots aren't immune from this, as a regional plane in 2009 crashed in Buffalo in part due to a similar pilot error, killing all 49 passengers and crew. Training helps, but sometimes instinct overwhelms the counter-intuitive right answer.

I was thinking about this recently as I consider my extremely busy life right now. There's much up in the air with my life between work and church, and the human instinct is to seize more control. But ironically, that's probably to worst thing for me to do. The desire to control, often termed euphemistically as "grabbing the reins" is often thinly disguised manipulation or obsessive compulsion. At some point, being proactive and responsible becomes an obsession to do whatever it takes to control and manipulate a situation to bring about a result that we think that we want. Judgment becomes clouded, and before soon, we are single-minded focus to achieve our goal, without any regard for the unintended consequences.

From a faith perspective, the challenge is to understand when my responsibility ends, and when to let God reveal His sovereign will. When does one, as the cliché goes, "let go and let God?" I submit that there's discernment that goes into this, and I acknowledge that every person needs to work this out for themselves, but as for me, I know where my natural instinct and inclination leans, and for me, the counter-intuitive thing - namely, to let God - is what I need to do more of.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Angry Without Solutions

I'm trying to follow the happenings of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but while part of me is intrigued, a part of me is also confused and bored. While I have no doubt that a large number of people are participating because they sincerely want to leverage an act of civil disobedience to highlight a need for economic and social change, others are largely there for less than heroic reasons, raging from nothing better to do, cheap drugs, free food and easy sex. It's clear that the reaction to the movement is polarizing. Even my friends (or at least acquaintances) on Facebook are highly divided between those who are actually participating, and those who have taken photos of the protesters camping out with the commentary "stupid protesters.. get a fu--in job."

While I don't begrudge members (however amorphous that definition might be) of the movement from their right to protest and have their voice heard, my main criticism is that after many days of protests, a number of interactions with news media and countless articles and commentaries from talking heads from all sides of the political spectrum, I still don't know exactly what they want. In other words, if the American government and business leaders would proverbially give them a blank sheet of paper, what exactly would they ask for?

Even Congressman John Lewis, who has been outspoken in his support of the movement had this to say when drawing comparisons with the Civil Rights marches that he himself participated in:
"When we marched on Washington 48 years ago we marched for jobs and freedom. But we spelled it out. We said we wanted a civil rights bill. We said we wanted that bill to contain a ban on discrimination and public accommodation and employment, and we got it a year later. But these individuals all across America are saying, in effect, that the banks and other businesses are holding millions and billions of dollars and they need to invest in the American people. They need to put people back to work."
Lewis draws the big problem with the movement in that there isn't any thing equivalent to the civil rights bill that they're asking for. If you go to the "official" Occupy Wall Street Site (by the way, this is a movement that insists on being a leaderless movement in principle), there's a massive webpage which looks more like a wiki, with hordes of people insisting on demands which contradict a host of others. It's a mess.

I get the fact that people have been adversely affected by the economic downturn. I also get that people are upset that the financial services industry has recovered in part due to a taxpayer-funded bailout, and that many people have not. But standing around wearing a sandwichboard with a clever phrase engaging in group bitch-sessions about how Wall Street sucks, how the Republicans are Satan's minions and how President Obama has failed his base aren't all that productive. Please let me know when the occupying masses have developed a cohesive objective and a feasible blueprint on how to get there. And if at that point people aren't listening or giving the ideas due consideration, get your tent and canteen ready.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Little Scholar Factory

A little more than a week ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit my son's school for "Back to School Night" and it what struck me what just what a big deal this was to the administration, teachers and most of the parents. It was quite a production, with spread of hors d' oeuvres on the back table and the principal up there with his wireless mic, working the crowd like Jerry Lewis at an MDA telethon. Actually, the analogy of President Obama at the fundraiser might have been more apt, with him punching out accomplishments of the school, each punctuated with raucous applause by parents. I was tempted to stand up and chant, "FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YEARS!" but my wife would've kneecapped me right there in the school gymnasium.

After the general session, we walking around and trying to come up with witty and insightful questions to the school librarian and music teacher who obviously barely knew our son. During this 45 minute block, we spoke to two teachers and ten other parents, almost all of whom were people known by my wife but not me. It sort of helped me appreciate my wife for putting up with my work-related social events and the awkwardness of not knowing anybody. On the plus side, I did manage to have a chat with another husband who didn't want to be there about our respective fantasy football teams.

Eventually, we did get to my son's classroom where his teacher gave a little presentation of the typical class schedule and her philosophy of education. All of the parents nodded politely, suppressing the instinct to be provocative and argumentative and question why she would place math in the morning instead of the afternoon despite recent studies from Teachers College at Columbia making it clear that early development specialists contend that math is better retained after the kids have been fueled by an afternoon snack of juice and cookies. Okay, I made that up, but it would have been interesting to see how she would've reacted if I tried to call her on that.

My highlight was actually hovering over my son's desk and rapidly writing notes on pieces of paper and paper towels and cramming them in his books and desk so that he might find them later. Notes which said things like:

  • "Dear Son, Your mom and I love you very much and we're very proud of you. Listen to the teacher and learn. Love, Dad"
  • "Dear Son, Listen to the teacher and play well with your classmates. You only have one chance for 1st grade. Enjoy it! Love, Dad"
  • "Dear Son, Study hard. If you don't get into an Ivy League school, we won't pay for college and you're out of the will. Then you can look forward to a depressing and lonely life eating government cheese. Love, Dad"
Okay, I made up the last one. Leaving notes for my son in his desk was probably the only worthwhile part of Back to School Night. As far as everything else, I'm not convinced it wouldn't have been as effective or more convenient for me to get a newsletter. And the parent-teacher conferences where you actually get to engage with your kid's teacher for 30 minutes or so seemed to make this redundant and unnecessary. I didn't need to nibble on brie cheese while the principal held a rally for the PTO.

Granted, this is the first time I've done this as a parent (my wife had to go solo last year when our son was in kindergarten), but the whole thing struck me as a little over the top. I do wonder whether the "vibe" of these things have changed since my parents used to go to mine. Maybe I've been scarred by too many movies about education, but at my school, the rigor and pressure seems almost palpable. Maybe because I can sense that administrators and teachers are singing for their supper, convincing parents of a challenging educational path that will enable their children to get into Harvard. Maybe it's because I see so many parents taking this so seriously. Who knows? Maybe I'm not taking this seriously enough.

I just hope his day to day experience at this place is a lot more enjoyable that my three hours.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Suburban Family Guy's 2011 MLB Playoff Preview

As I look back at my 2011 MLB Season Preview and prognostications, I actually did okay in choosing four out of the eight playoff teams, which would have been five out of eight if the Red Sox hadn't choked in historical fashion. The Yankees, Rangers, Phillies and Brewers are all heading to the postseason, leaving me a little off on a couple of teams (Giants and Red Sox) and gigantically off for the other (Twins and Dodgers). But what's done is done, and now I'll see if I can look into the proverbial crystal ball for our playoff results.

ALDS: Rays vs. Rangers. The reality is that the Rays haven't played excellent ball in recent weeks, and their ticket into the postseason had more to do with the Red Sox collapse than any sort of torrid streak on their part. The Yankees practically handed them a couple of games in the last series of the season, and the fact that they fell behind in a matchup of Jeremy Hellickson vs. a barely functional Bartolo Colon and 7-0 with David Price on the mound in a must-win game doesn't give me a lot of confidence in their pitching beyond James Shields. The Rangers are much better than advertised, and in addition to an underrated pitching staff and home field advantage, they're mashing the ball. Rangers in three.

ALDS: Tigers vs. Yankees. A lot of Yankee fans shudder at this matchup, and rightfully so. The reality is that this Yankees team is way too similar to the infamous 2004 team which blew a 3-0 lead in the ALCS. If success in the playoffs comes down to starting pitching, the Yankees are in big trouble. The Yankees only "no worries" starting pitcher is going to face off against an MVP candidate and best pitcher of the year in Justin Verlander, and then follow that with an untested rookie with a great record but bad peripheral stats and a Freddy Garcia who barely hits 85 on the radar gun. The Tigers pitching is slightly better, but isn't exactly pressure-tested with Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. The Yankees home field advantage means something, and that's enough to give them the edge. Yankees in five.

NLDS: Diamondbacks vs. Brewers. The home-field advantage battle came down to the last game of the regular season, and that matters to a Brewers team which plays much better in Miller Park than on the road. Having the extra home game helps, and a better pitching staff of Yovani Gallardo, Zach Greinke and Shawn Marcum manage to squeak past a strong Diamondbacks team. Brewers in five.

NLDS: Cardinals vs. Phillies. Here's where I go double-contrarian. I've noticed that there are a number of pundits that are picking the Cardinals to beat the heavily-favored Phillies in an upset, and there's merit in those arguments. The Cardinals are the hottest team in the league while the Phillies have struggled, enduring an eight-game losing streak over the last couple of weeks. The Cardinals, because of their fight to the finish to get the wild card, have been playing with playoff intensity for a few weeks now, while the Phillies have been focused more on setting their rotation and getting some of their players healthy. I understand all those points, but my gut still says that the Phillies prevail, more easily than people expect. Phillies in four.

ALCS: Rangers vs. Yankees. Yeah, yeah, I know that the Rangers have a bunch of left handers which are supposedly the Achilles' heel for a left-handed Yankees lineup and I know that the Rangers offense has been smoking hot of late. But the key left-handers in the Yankees lineup like Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson aren't fazed by left-handed pitching. The Rangers can mash, but the Yankees can mash more. Yankees in six.

NLCS: Brewers vs. Phillies. The Phillies have owned the Brewers in the regular season and it doesn't stop in the playoffs. The Brewers ride great playing at home to steal one game, but the better pitching and offense ends up carrying the day. Phillies in five.

World Series: Yankees vs. Phillies. This rematch of the 2009 World Series also matches up two of my favorite teams. The difference is that the Yankees actually had an excellent 2nd starter in Andy Pettitte (well, third starter if you consider that A.J. Burnett was remotely reliable back then) and the Phillies staff was comprised of Cliff Lee, a washed up Pedro Martinez and a totally-gassed-from-2008 Cole Hamels. The Phillies' advantage in starting pitching proves too much for the Yankees bats to overcome, and the Phillies get to celebrate another parade down Broad Street. Phillies in six.

Bonus Musing. As a New Jersey resident and Yankees fan, I share the irritation of many when the Mets blocked the Yankees from using Riverfront Stadium in Newark as a temporary home while their AAA team's stadium is Scranton, PA is being renovated. In a well articulated piece in the Star Ledger, an op-ed blasts the move as petty and hurtful to the city of Newark, the Yankees and ultimately the Mets. Newark and Newark residents clearly could use full stadiums of baseball fans to help drive local commerce, which they will miss out on. Yankees fans in New Jersey would benefit by being able to see future or rehabbing stars without taking out a second mortgage. What exactly the Mets gain? They gain the disrespect and disdain of both the aforementioned groups. News flash to the Mets: The presence of local Yankees minor league baseball isn't what keeps people from being fans of your franchise. It's because your team stinks, and manages to alienate people along the way.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kids and the 24-Hour Suicide Watch

A few years ago when I was a younger dad of one child, my boss, an older man with two older children remarked to me that until kids reached a certain age, maybe 7 or 8, parents pretty much had to keep their kids under a "24-hour suicide watch". His point was that leaving kids that young unsupervised for a second left the door open for them to do something stupid and harmful to themselves, included but not limited to touching sharp objects, power tools or electrical outlets and eating and/or choking on mothballs, legos or marbles. Of course, this doesn't remotely capture the gamut of ways that young kids can unwittingly get themselves hurt or killed.

I experienced this firsthand this past Sunday when my four-year old daughter inexplicably decided to hop out from her seat in the car and cross the street to throw away some stones she had picked up earlier. Of course, I didn't see this. From my vantage point, I was putting away the baby stroller and I heard the screeching of brakes and my wife screaming bloody murder. Thankfully, a driver who was driving down the street had seen my daughter in time to slam on the brakes, but it was clear that this was a tragedy narrowly averted. My wife and I were simultaneous shaken, furious at my daughter and unspeakably relieved that nothing happened.

It made me mindful of the rest of the conversation that I had with my boss many years ago. Yes, young kids needed to be kept under the "24-hour suicide watch". But the danger doesn't end when the kids celebrate their 8th birthday, or their 12th or 16th for that matter. My boss and I both recollected our own recklessness as adolescents. There were plenty of pyromaniac exercises, impromptu science experiments with flammable and explosive materials, trees and tall heights climbed and other reckless stunts that could have ended as a tragic story in the local section of the newspaper. Those events didn't end that way, obviously. But at some point, you realize that there's a thin line from stupid childhood actions and disaster. Most people can look back at their own experience and acknowledge that they were fortunate.

I think some of this goes back to a previous post I wrote about the stewardship of our children. As difficult as it is, I need to recognize that I have a responsibility to my children to care for them and shepherd them (which might mean admonishing them further not to do stupid things like run across the street), but also recognize that our children are not ultimately our's, but God's (which means that heart-orientation that understands that each and every day with them is precious, and not something that I'm entitled to).

As much as I try to be, I will not always be there to keep her from running across the figurative street. She will grow older, and I will not sitting in the car with her as she considers whether she should drive just a little faster to impress her friends. I may not be with her as she debates at a party whether she should accept and offer of alcohol or drugs. I may not be with her when she's offered a ride home from another person who may or may not be intoxicated. And of course, there are the instances and freak accidents that are not even addressable by any amount of wisdom parents can try to pass along.

So it seems to me that the choice comes down to either being depressed that I can't lock my children in a impregnable box which will shield them from every possible harm. Or I can be obsessed trying to do so (and ultimately despair when I realize it's impossible). Or I can prayerfully do the best I can in equipping my children to make smart choices, and pray that God's providence would shine upon them - and that I would ultimately trust and rest in that same providence spoken about in Jeremiah 29 and Romans 8.

The last options seems most wise, but I acknowledge it's not easy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Choosing (Your Kids') Friends

There was an interesting article on CNN titled, "When you can't stand your kid's friend", about dealing with situations where your kids have, for lack of a better word, bad friends. It's something that we're dealing with now, as our two older kids are starting to form friendships at school and a desire to interact with certain people and not others. Based upon their personalities and interests, they've been drawn towards some people and not others, and for the most part, we try to respect that and not force close friendships when there's a divergence of interests.

I struggle sometime with the degree I push or don't push. For example, our son can be quite content playing by himself. There are some contexts where a crowd of boys will be running around and playing, and he'll be quite content doing his own project with Legos. Should I encourage him to engage with the activity with the other kids, lest he fall into a pattern of being anti-social? Or do I support and validate that he knows what he likes to do, and there's no need to coerce him to partake in a group activity that he has no interest in?

The same thing can be roll into the types of friends that he has. Should I let him make whatever friends he wants unless the kid isn't blatantly encouraging or modeling disrespectful or destructive behavior? What does exercising proper parenting and good stewardship over my children (per an earlier post) look like? Am I being overly controlling by trying to influence my who my children befriend? I'm inclined to think the other way, that I would I be negligent in not being duly watchful and involved in the same way we ought to control what our children watch on television or eat. After all, there will be a time where they will decide what they make independent adult decisions, and that time isn't now.

At the same time, I'm also hopeful that our kids are the sort of kids that parents embrace and support having our children befriend. While I don't want them to be a pushover for other kids, I encourage them to be thoughtful when they have play dates with others, explaining to them that if their friends have a happy time with them, they're more likely to ask for another playdate. If they're abandoned while you do your own thing, they're probably not going to ask for an encore. We also try to remind our children to be polite and respectful to people when they're at other people's homes.

I suspect that it really comes down to my children's character, and how we nurture their them along the way. If, at the core, my wife and I can cultivate the right characteristics of faith, goodness, kindness, respect and honesty, hopefully that will necessarily influence the kind of people that they choose to befriend, and the kinds of people they don't click with. Culling bad friends is sort of the last line of defense, at seems, and if possible, I'd just as soon equip them to make the right decisions up front in terms of knowing how to stand up for righteousness and turning away from evil.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

9/11 as History

At our church service this past Sunday, our associate pastor noted that while most of us could view the September 11th terrorist attacks as a defining moment in our lives, there was a large number of children in the congregation who saw 9/11 as history. These children were either not old enough to comprehend or remember the events of that day, or weren't born yet to experience first hand what it was like to be transfixed to the television for 24 (or more) hours straight watching real-time updates which were simultaneously terrifying and devastating.

All three of my children were born after 9/11, and my son asked me recently about the significance of the date. He wasn't oblivious to the fact that every time we turned on the television, there was this reference to the event - in addition to every major network, channels such as ESPN were doing special presentations on "How the Sports World Forever Changed with 9/11" and the Food Network had a feature on "Best Recipes of the First Responders". Okay, made the last one up, but you get my drift around how every network seeming had an angle on this.

I answered my son the best that I could, telling him that there were "bad people who hated the United States" who did some terrible things to kill Americans, and they did so by taking over airplanes and flying them into buildings. Of course, he had the usual follow-up questions as most 6 year-olds do, around how they got in the cockpit and why people didn't stop them, and I tried the best that I could to answer those. He seemed satisfied enough by my answer, and went on doing whatever he was doing.

The whole concept of "9/11 as history" is an interesting one. It's intriguing to think how someone who reads and hears around 9/11 processes it differently than someone who lived through it. To use some parallels, I never lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I read about it and learned about it in class. One who actually lived through the crisis may have been understandably far more cynical and nervous about Soviet nuclear proliferation than I would. It's one thing to read about practicing bomb fallout drills at school, but another thing altogether to help your dad build a concrete bomb shelter in your backyard anticipating an attack. But who's the one who's biased, and who is the one with the more rational and correct read of things?

In the same token, I wonder how living through 9/11 will contrast the way my son and I view the world. Will he be less jumpy when he hears a low flying airplane, or perhaps be less inclined to racially profile when he boards an airplane? I remember talking to a Korean friend many years ago who told me that there was a fundamental values clash with the Korean generation who fought and endured the Korean War, and the younger generation that did not. "The younger generation tends to be much more pro-unification, and some even blames the United States for driving a wedge between the countries," he said, "but the older generation who lived through the Korean conflict has a much more cynical and darker view to their countrymen in the north, having experienced their aggression firsthand." The point here isn't who is right and who is wrong, it's just illustrates how experiences color the values of a generation.

My children, thank God, have not had to live through an event as traumatic as 9/11, and I hope they never have to - though I have my doubts that this will come to pass. My hope is that their faith and their character will ultimately be strong enough to absorb whatever soul-marking experiences they may live through, learn and be shaped wisely and thoughtfully, and then keep walking hopefully and faithfully without being entangled in cynicism, apathy, pessimism, fear or hatred.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Merit-Based Redemption

When somebody commits a crime and "does the time", has that person fully paid their debt to society? Should that effectively expunge and record of illegal activity, poor character and bad judgment that individual's slate? That seems to be the argument of Marc Lamont Hill, who laments what he sees as the injustice that Michael Vick - an ex-con who happens to be a supremely gifted athlete - had an opportunity for a redemption worth $100 million over six years, while other ex-cons find themselves permanently branded with a scarlet letter, unable to get the second chance that Vick has seized.

I suppose much of this has to do with one's frame of reference. Is an ex-con who has served time entitled to full restoration, including being viewed without distinction to those who haven't commit crimes? I don't think so. I absolutely am in favor of the rehabilitation of those who make egregious mistakes in the judgment in committing crimes, but to not differentiate them at all with those who have who have not been convicted of a felony seems terribly unfair to those who have opted to conduct themselves lawfully with respect to the rest of society.

For some reason, Hill doesn't seem to think that the distinction of being convicted by a felony as being a big deal or something that might speak to one's character or judgment. He writes:
The task of finding employment in this shaky economy is made infinitely more difficult for former convicts because of the pesky and often unnecessary "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" question that sits on most job applications. Such a question makes it nearly impossible for a person's slate to be wiped clean after leaving a correctional facility. In addition to employment, former felons are also systematically denied access to public housing, education loans and, in many states, the right to vote. These conditions, which scholar Michelle Alexander refers to as "The New Jim Crow," reduce former felons to permanent second-class citizens
It's almost as if Hill somehow misses the fact that the ex-con had something to do with getting convicted as a felony. There's culpability there, and before I place someone in employment, why wouldn't it be relevant (not "pesky and often unnecessary" in Hill's words) to know that the job applicant formerly held up a liquor store with a semi-automatic handgun, or beat his wife? And to brand ex-cons as "The New Jim Crow" is ridiculous, if not insulting to blacks who suffered under Jim Crow oppression during the Reconstruction era. Blacks had no choice in the color of their skin, criminals made choices to commit crimes.

As for Vick, clearly there's merit-based redemption here, but he's not the only who is the beneficiary of this. Former disgraced junk bond king Michael Milken managed to find great success in his life running a large philanthropy after serving 22 months for securities fraud. Ex-con redemption, like opportunities in the first place, come to those who are immensely talented and resourceful. Right or wrong, the capitalist merit-based system will always find room for a second chance to those who can benefit a team, corporation or cause, regardless of whatever skeletons might be lingering in the closet.

I suppose the sort of "full redemption" that Hill speaks of is available only for those who whose skills and talents are found worthy, at least on this side of glory. From a Christian theological perspective, it's a good thing that salvation and eternal life is a gift from God given by grace. And the beautiful thing is that grace is a gift, offered freely to the spiritual equivalents of Michael Vick as well as the spiritual equivalents of those ex-cons that never seem to get a break.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Surviving Irene

In what was the biggest hurricane event in the tri-state area since Hurricane Gloria in 1985, people all along the Eastern seaboard lived through a tumultuous 72 hour period beginning with the preparation for and ending with the cleanup from and return to normalcy after Hurricane Irene.

Like many families, we did our part to try to get prepared in advance of the storm. With forecasts prognosticating that our region would be hit on Saturday night and Sunday morning, I brought my son to the supermarket on Friday and Saturday and used the event as an educational tool, explaining to him why we were getting jugs of bottled water, canned food and Steno cans. And it dawned upon me that the activity of preparing for the hurricane was actually sort of exciting and fun for my sun. It was akin to the movie Hope and Glory, where a young boy finds the blitz of London during WWII simultaneously terrifying and electrifying. And it was hard not to see the energy and anticipation as we filled the bathtub with water, bottled up extra clean tap water, cleared away loose toys from outside, and locked down our bikes on the porch. We charged up all the electronics and had extra batteries ready, and checked all of our flashlights.

And after we prepared, we waited. And we waited. And we waited some more, to the point that it started to feel like the way you would wait for an upcoming dentist procedure. You know it's coming, you've done all you could to prepare for it, and now you just want to get it over with.

When Irene rolled through Saturday evening, my wife and I sat in the living room watching a DVD waiting for the power to go out as the rain grew progressively harder and the wind blew increasingly stronger. By the time we hit the hay, both of us had trouble sleeping - maybe it was the paranoia that we could be waking up in a couple of feet of water, or the "pre-leaving the house before vacation"-phenomena of mentally agonizing over forgetting something important. By 2am, my wife had found leaks coming from our chimney into our fireplace, and when I woke up early the next morning - even with the sump pumps running every 15-30 seconds and miraculously not losing power - water had seeped into our basement carpet.

As the hurricane itself departed the area, we were able to take stock of our personal impact, and while it wasn't zero, it wasn't bad considering the fate that many of our neighbors and friends in the area endured. Yes, we'll need to get more effective waterproofing done in our basement, and we'll likely tear up the existing carpet and install floors and we did need to deal with not having potable water for a few days. However, we never lost power the amount or endured significant amounts of damage to our house. We lost no basement or kitchen appliances, and most importantly, nobody got hurt.

There are some other positives I drew from the experience. I appreciated how members of our church rallied around each other and look out for each others' needs. There was a great degree of care offered in word and deed as people reported different degrees of impact. I saw similar attitudes among people in our neighborhood. As a family, I thought we did a good job in terms of all pitching in to do our part, which gave further credence to my belief that crisis is fundamentally energizing and exciting for kids. Okay, maybe many of us adults also get energized by crisis, too.

As I look back at our Hurricane Irene experience, I think it was a good wake-up call around everyday things that we take for granted, and assessing our preparedness to live without those things for several days if necessary. Power and clean water are things that almost all Americans can rely upon without fail, but Hurricane Irene provided just a small sample of the reality of life for many in the third world. We ought to be grateful, yes, but there's probably an opportunity to increase our own preparedness.

Beyond that, the power of the hurricane and the powerlessness that we felt in the midst of it is a humbling, yet healthy reminder of our mortality. With all our technological advances, we still very much live under the mercy of a sovereign God, which was abundantly merciful to many of us last week.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stewardship of Our Children

Many Christians will often throw out the phrase "stewardship", which generally is used to emphasize that during our lives here on earth, nothing truly belongs to us. Everything under the sun belongs to God, and even those things which we seemingly have possession of - our houses, our cars, our money, our jobs, even our opportunities and talents - have been given by grace from our Creator. We are simply stewards holding temporary oversight and responsibility over something that isn't "owned" by us. We are to wisely manage (or shepherd, for lack of a better word) these things which have been placed under our stewardship, but these things do not belong to us.

This is a difficult discipline, and as someone who has a lot of room to grow in this area, I can attest that it's really hard to not see all of these things (money, talents, possessions) as being your own. A few years ago, I gave a talk some students about the concept of stewardship, and I had told them that our failure to truly grasp this concept manifests itself in the following ways:
  • Entitlement – “I deserve X because I’m so hard-working / smart / etc..”
  • Misplaced Ambition – “As long as I’m glorified / happy / rich / respected…”
  • Apathy – “I don’t care.”
  • Ego-Centrism – “If I can’t be the best, I don’t want to play.”
Clearly, this concept is difficult to live out. I know because I struggle with the above things. And the struggle with the concept of stewardship isn't always rooted in greed or vanity. Sometimes it manifests itself in well-intentioned and completely understandable - even honorable - feelings gone too far.

Take, for example, the case with our children. I love my children deeply, and this is a good thing. But to hold on to things as our own has the potential to cross a line into obsession, entitlement and idolatry in which we fail to acknowledge that our children ultimately belong to God and not to us. This clearly isn't licence for parents to be neglectful or irresponsible, but there comes a point in which I as a father need to acknowledge that while I can do my best to guide and shepherd my child's heart, I don't have control over that heart. And as much as that pains me, my child belongs to God before me - and someday they will leave the nest and depart from me and my wife. We are not entitled to hold on to them forever or dictate the futures that they will have.

This struck me recently when reflecting upon a couple in our church whose unborn child was diagnosed with a condition which doctors said would likely end the baby's life in utero. If the baby survived, they were told, he would likely only survive a few months. This was obviously devastating news, but what amazed and humbled me was the faithful response of these two congregants.

Instead of lashing out in anger or burying themselves under a blanket of "why me?", they responded with great humility and faith. The depths of their sadness is beyond anything I have experienced in my lifetime. As a person who has recently had multiple friends go through miscarriages, I was struck by the weight of tragedy when one of the afflicted parents mentioned to me that in a healthy delivery, there's a lot of physical pain which gives way to the immeasurable joy of welcoming a new member of the family, with all the hopes and dreams that come along with it. In miscarriages, there's a lot of physical pain... and then a much worse pain and grief. What would be arguably worse (some would argue better, but that's hardly the point) is that there would be no sudden end, but rather this large anvil waiting to fall - a sense of impending doom.

But our friends made heart-decisions which I think exemplified great stewardship. The thought about aborting their child was out of the question. Instead, they embraced their responsibility of stewardship of their child and were steadfast in their commitment to love and nurture their son for as long or little as they had time with him. That included doing what they believed was their calling to make every effort to bring him safely into the world and nurture and grow him enveloped by the love of a family. In a prayer request in early August, they shared that while they was a lot of sadness and they continued to pray for a medical miracle and stated "we are so grateful for every day we have with our little boy and continue to pray for God's mercy." About a week ago, the Lord brought that unborn child home to Him. And even in the deep sadness and mourning, there is hope and great faith in a God who redeems, a Father who understands the indescribable grief of the death of a Son.

As a father with three children, I hope I can have that attitude of faithful stewardship, never taking for granted the days that I have with my kids. I must remind myself that despite my own subconscious assumptions, I am not entitled to see my kids go to their prom, graduate from high school and college, get married or have children of their own. Each day with them is a new day I am given stewardship over them, and each day I am to love them and care for their hearts and souls. But ultimately, they belong the Lord and that should put my soul at rest.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Simple Life

As I mentioned in my previous post, we spent a few days of our summer vacation in Amish country, and one of the things that struck me was the beautiful simplicity of life out there, the same sort of lifestyle which served as the backdrop (sort of) for that great pinnacle in American television, The Simple Life, where socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie take a break from their lavish Beverly Hills lifestyle and spend time at a farm in Arkansas.

We chose to stay at a "homestead" owned by an older Mennonite couple which hosted a number of visitors, but had a nice yard adjacent to a cornfield, plus an animal pen with chickens, peacocks, sheeps and goats. Our days at the homestead were pretty nondescript. We woke up, walked over to the kitchen to get breakfast, which usually included fresh fruit, baked goods and egg casserole and spent some time in the early morning reading while the kids played out in the yard, occasionally feeding the animals. We'd do our day's activities (either at Dutch Wonderland or some other touristy venue) and then returned home after a smorgasbord dinner with the kids resuming their play outside, the sun setting behind us in an red sky. And my wife and I would just sit on the swinging bench and read and the sun set, illuminating the sky with new and wonderful colors.

A day free from television, meetings, conference calls or constantly having to check my Blackberry for messages was nice. The kids were content - at least during the trip - not playing "Angry Birds" on the Nook, watching DVD's or playing games on the laptop; they couldn't have had a better time frolicking on a wooden jungle gym adjacent to the large farm animal grazing area, while chasing each other in front of a large cornfield.

I have no doubt that the quiet rural lifestyle may get old, but I wonder how much complexity and noise exists in our lives by choice. Maybe we've forgotten the good discipline of being still without living life artificially stimulated with smartphones, tablets, laptops, cable television, reality shows and Page Six. Maybe the experience of walking into a general store with goods and handmade crafts that you can sample and touch is sometimes better than the super-efficiency and convenience of or big box superstores. I suspect that for the folks that live out there, people work to live, and they live life at a slow pace where everything can be soaked in, like a wine connosieur allows a fine pinot noir to settle over his tongue - and I bet they wouldn't have it any other way.

For a four day vacation, I certainly didn't mind the simple life. I just don't know if my current life affords me the luxury of having one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Right Kind of Vicarious Living

While on vacation last week, it dawned upon me just how much my enjoyment of activities is tied into the amount of fun that my kids are having. Up to a point, we're very content and happy doing things that we normally would consider boring or a waste of time. The joy comes not from our direct appreciation or stimulation of the activity at hand, but our joy comes from observing the happiness of our children, and that warm and fuzzy feeling knowing that we've done something good which has provided our beloved children a slice of good, clean happiness.

In our trip to Pennsylvania Dutch country last week, I spend a large amount of time walking with my kids hand in hand walking to kiddie rides in a theme park called Dutch Wonderland, which can be best described as DisneyWorld for kids between 3 and 8. In fairness, I like theme parks, but Dutch Wonderland isn't exactly at the top of the list, with rides ranging as tame (or lame) as the coin-operated ones in front of the grocery store to the flagship ride, the Kingdom Coaster, probably comparable with Six Flags Great Adventure's Rolling Thunder. Similarly, the family entertainment wasn't exactly Shakespeare in the Park, with a kid-friendly aquatic diving show with a loose Disney-esque plot of Princesses and Frogs.

But I had a great time, just watching the kids get so excited as they stepped onto new rides or as kiddie shows were just about to start. And the funny thing is that at some point, I think the line between "I'm enjoying myself because you kids are having a great time" and "I'm enjoying myself because I'm enjoying these activities" started to blur, because it really didn't matter. We were spending quality family time and laughing together, with minimal complaints and arguments over which rides to go on next.

I wonder if this is a small projection of God's own character and His love for His people. There are constant biblical references of God delighting and rejoicing over us, and His desire for us to have the full measure of his joy. At the deepest level, this joy is found in relationship with Christ, of course, but I suspect that my own experience sitting on a spinning plastic turtle also provided a glimpse of the kindness and love of a Heavenly Father who lavishes good things to His children. For a sovereign Creator of the universe to care deeply about the joy of His creation is something that's worth reflecting about and being thankful for.

As a father, I'm encouraged by the fact that I had a great time doing something that otherwise I wouldn't enjoy. Insomuch it really isn't the activity but the company, it reinforces that I really do love my kids. Either that, or I haven't quite worked out all of the latent amusement-park-love in my own inner child.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

For the Love of the Game

A couple of Saturdays ago, my son and I joined a friend and his son to catch a Newark Bears baseball game. The Bears play in the Can-Am League, which could be called Minor League baseball only in the most generous sense of the word. The teams are independent, meaning that they have no affiliation with any Major League Baseball franchises. The salary cap keeps costs down, and the maximum salary cap for a rostered player is about $4000 for every 1 to 2 months. To put that in perspective, Alex Rodriguez makes more than $185,000 per game ($30 million divided by 162).

I had attended a game last years, and as I had mentioned before, the experience is good for fans who want to get good seats while avoiding traffic jams, terrible parking, obscenely overpriced food and good baseball (okay, nobody want to avoid good baseball, but that's the trade-off). Unfortunately, we didn't even get the pleasure of seeing Carl Everett or Eric Munson, as our only token MLB washed-up veteran was Daryle Ward.

But it got me thinking, why do these guys play? For the money that they're making, it's clearly not for the money. They would certainly make more money if they got an professional office job or doing union labor, and it's not inconceivable that they would make more money doing stocking and clerk work at a Wal-Mart or Shop-Rite. And it struck me that they're probably some of the select few athletes that legitimately do what they do purely because they love the game.

It reminds me of that scene from the movie Office Space:
Peter Gibbons: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you'd do if you had a million dollars and you didn't have to work. And invariably what you'd say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you're supposed to be an auto mechanic.

Samir: So what did you say?

Peter Gibbons: I never had an answer. I guess that's why I'm working at Initech.

Michael Bolton: No, you're working at Initech because that question is bullshit to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there'd be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.
I can relate with Peter Gibbons, but also with the spirit of what Michael Bolton's logic. The point is that it's not simply about what you love to do, but a willingness to accept all that goes along with it, include the struggle to get there and the "downsides" when you don't.

Or to illustrate the point, my philosophy in terms of my children's aspirations for their careers is to try to provide as much information as possible to help them make a decision, and exert stronger disapproval should there a moral aspect to it. If my son wants to become a stand-up comedian, I would ask him about how he felt that would benefit society and then ask him if he was willing to deal with the very likely possibility that he wouldn't be the next Seinfeld, being forced to live a "struggling actor" life. If he wanted to be an investment banker, I'd similarly ask him about societal value and if he thought that how he would deal with the intense work-life balance challenges with a family and if how he would not be unduly influenced by a culture of greed. At the end of the day, I'd just want him to go in eyes wide open.

But for the independent minor league ballplayer who chooses the gig - even with the lack of pay, long bus rides and crappy motels - you can't help but admire their dedication to their craft, and their integrity in terms of doing what they do simply for the love of the game.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Curious Case of David Wu

The women have Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Dole. Blacks can look to J.C. Watts and Charles Rangel. Hispanics point to Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez. And while you can look to any of these individuals and malign their records or service in public office (especially depending on what side you sit on the political fence), no demographic group has an more awkward trailblazer than Chinese-Americans, who point to their own David Wu as the first of their own to serve in the United Status Congress, having been elected in 1998.

After a seemingly quiet first 12 years in office where he won a special election in 1998 and then four re-elections afterwards, things started to get weird. His election success and novelty of being the first Chinese-American elected to Congress made him a mini-celebrity in Asian circles. But then the honorable David Wu seemed to go nuts.

He put on a tiger costume and circulated it to his staff. The photo, in the aforementioned link, depict David Wu holding up both arms, uh, paws and laughing like a maniac. This was accompanied by a phase where Wu would have bizarre and angry outbursts, prompted by the resignation by six of his staff members. Does this seem like the guy you want to represent your district in Congress?

Most recently, Wu was accused of having sexual relations with the teenage daughter of one of his donors. Amid mounting pressure from Democratic colleagues and staffers, Wu quit. His legacy? The most common Google search term associated with David Wu is "tiger". And that's not in an Amy Chua way.

For the Chinese-Americans hoping that they had their "Jackie Robinson of American politics", keep looking.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Religious Fundamentalism, Radicalism and Terrorism

Last Friday, 32-year old Anders Behring Breivik orchestrated one of the most heinous atrocities in Europe since World War II in coordinated attacks on both a government building in Oslo and a youth summer camp, killing 76 people. In the investigation since the attacks, Breivik has allegedly confessed that he was motivated in his hatred of multiculturalism, convinced that his actions were necessary in the face of what he believed was the "colonization" by Muslims. For a country largely known for its peace and serenity, Breivik's actions has shaken the core of of a people who have largely been free from large-scale attacks foreign or domestic.

When news of the attacks first emerged and Breivik was apprehended, the media was quick to label Breivik as "a Christian fundamentalist". As a person of the Christian faith, I was initially both shocked and dumbfounded at Breivik's reprehensible and illogical doctrinal logic that led him to massacre 76 people. When it later came to light that the "Christian fundamentalist" label was way off base, I found myself more than a little irked at the media's ineptitude and irresponsibility.

The truth of the matter is the Breivik is no more of a Christian fundamentalist than, let's say, Saddam Hussein was an Islamic fundamentalist. The evidence for both is that their motives were secular and political, not religious or faith-driven. There's nothing that speaks to Breivik's devout Christian faith or how he was motivated from his diligent Bible study. There's no evidence that he was an active parishioner in his local church and played guitar on the praise band while serving as a deacon, caring for the elderly members of the congregation, and in the course of a Bible study, decided that God wanted him to kill 76 of his own countrymen. I suspect that for the media, it was just easier to slap the "Christian fundamentalist" label on Breivik to provide a sense of balance after too many media outlets initially theorized that "Islamic fundamentalists" were behind the attacks.

And let's be clear that not all religious fundamentalists are terrorists, either. If we define a fundamentalist a strict adherence to a belief or doctrine, can we agree that people are entitled to have these until they start bombing buildings or hijacking planes? The terrorists who are indeed religious radicals are those who believe and adhere strongly in their faith or doctrine where that faith or doctrine is the key driving force - not a peripheral justification - behind violent acts.

For the the 9/11 terrorists, referring to Westerners as "Crusader infidels" while flying a plane into a skyscraper alone doesn't make one a radical Islamic terrorist. A life lived in devotion to Sharia law while attending a mosque which has cultivated a belief that it would please Allah to kill those who did not share a believe in Allah and His prophet, Mohammed - and ultimately carries out those beliefs in the killing of others... that's an Islamic terrorist.

I find that the distinction is important. I get that people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris would like everyone to believe that religion is the root of all evil, and their ilk wrings their hands when meaty tid-bits like this can give proof to their cause. Are there religious radicals that commit terrorism? Absolutely. But let's not make false stereotypes and generalizations which are both lazy, incorrect and more ultimately more polarizing. Not every atrocity committed by a Middle-Easterner who happens to be Muslim is an act of an "Islamic terrorist" and not every atrocity committed by a Gentile Caucasian is a "Christian terrorist".