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 Amazon.com 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.