Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Real World Devotionals

Every night, my wife or I read a devotional to my daughter from a book called "My ABC Bible Verses: Hiding God's Word in Little Hearts". It's a decent devotional book which is age appropriate for my five-year old, which provides faith lessons by providing a glimpse into the life of Bill and Missy, two Christian youngsters who are just trying to find their way like the rest of us. There's a passage or verse of Scripture which provides the core of the lesson, and there are even a few debrief questions to boot.

The thing is, we've read through this book around five times over, so sometimes when I'm tired and little bored in the evening, I decide to spice things up a little and take some liberties with the original text. Here's the original:
Missy and her friend Janet were playing with Missy's dolls. Janet said, "Let's put the dolls in the bathtub."
Missy said, "Oh no, Mom told me never to put these dolls in the water."
Janet became angry. "Missy," she said, "I'm going home if you won't give the dolls a bath! I'm not going to be your friend anymore!"
Before Missy learned Proverbs 15:1, she would have said, "Well, you just go home. I don't want to be your friend either." But Missy remembered "A soft answer turns away wrath." Then she said to Janet, "I'm sorry. I want you to be my friend, but I can't disobey my mom."
Janet was angrily stomping out the door, but when she heard Missy speak so sweetly, she turned around and smiled. "Oh Missy, I'm sorry. You're my best friend. It was wrong for me to ask you to disobey your mom."
Here's my version:
Missy and her friend Janet were playing with Missy's dolls. Janet said, "Let's put the dolls in the bathtub."
Missy said, "No."
Janet became angry. "Missy," she said, "Don't be such a poopy-head. If you don't put your doll in the water right now, I'm going to punch you in the face."
 (Sophia usually interjects, "That's not what it says.")
... and then since Missy forgot Proverbs 15:1, she said, "Go ahead and leave, Janet. Your breath smells and I know taekwondo so I'll just beat you up. And your dolls are ugly, just like you."
  (Sophia now usually really starts getting irritated, "Daddy, read it the right way!")

Then Janet ran out crying and Missy laughed. And then Missy's mom ran in and spanked her because she was so mean to Janet.
   (Sophia screaming, "Daddy, stop it!")

All right, it's probably not ideal for me to take so many liberties with these devotionals. In my defense, I always tie it up at the end and provide some sort of biblical redemptive lesson at the end of it. The way that I see it, life is not always simple and every scenario my kids are going to encounter is not always going to fit like a glove into the 26 stories that are in the book, so there's probably some benefit of providing some variations to keep the bases covered. Real life is messy that way.

And it make our bedtime stories a little more interesting. Well, at least for me.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Thanksgiving With Compassion

In 1984, Bob Geldof cobbled together a group of British pop stars to produce a hit-song as a means of raising money and awareness around the plight of African famine victims. This song, titled "Do They Know It's Christmas?" featured a cavalcade of future music hall of famers including a young Bono from U2, whose line was a puzzling "Well, tonight thank God it's them (the Africans suffering), instead of you," arguably the most inappropriate suggestion of prayer or schadenfruede in the history of man. Yes, I understand what the songwriter meant; that still doesn't hide the fact that the lyrics are awful.

The reason why I bring this up is that I think it's pretty easy to have the mindset of Thanksgiving shift into this "Well, today thank God it's them (other people who have crappier lives than I do), instead of me"-place. The backdrop of Hurricane Sandy makes this easy to do, when looking upon those who have lost their homes and endured unimaginable suffering and loss. Even globally, we are faced with yet another crisis in the Middle East where lives are lost and tensions mount.

As others fall victim to catastrophe and hardship, there is thin line between compassion and voyeuristic sadism. The most obvious difference is that true compassion is moved to action to do something to help those who are in need, whether that be writing a check, praying for relief, volunteering to help or donating goods and services. For those who do nothing, this is tantamount to those who rubberneck as they slow down and glance at a wreck on the freeway. This empty pity is at best useless, and at worst, insulting.

In the same way, there's a difference between between comparison and compassion in giving thanks. There is no pride in Thanksgiving, and no subtle gloating about the "blessings" one has supposedly earned or accumulated. Thanksgiving, as in its original origins, is done with great humility recognizing and giving thanks to a God who has given all things to those who are loved but are not owed anything. These blessings are free gifts from a loving Creator, or gifts of "grace" and thus there cannot be boasting. We can consider our blessings in the light of others, but the choice is ours whether our Thanksgiving yields the right fruits of compassion and humility.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Surviving Sandy

In late August 2011, Hurricane Irene pounded the northeast United States. The region, including New Jersey, was hit with strong winds and heavy rain which toppled trees and flooded houses in my own neighborhood. While we managed to escape without any lengthy loss of power, we had significant enough water damage to our basement for us to have the floors redone. Many neighbors endured even worse damage, and some were left without power for over a week.

The common refrain to that storm was that it was a “once in a lifetime event”. While I temporarily considered adding a backup battery to my sump pump and purchasing a generator, the shock of the event faded away and like many, the sense that the region would be hit by such a strong storm in the near future became remote. Wow, that was a miscalculation.

I was at an offsite for my job the week before Hurricane Sandy. The buzz around the coming storm was still faint by the time I was driving back on Thursday, October 25th. I heard some reports on news radio, but more of the buzz was still focused on the coming election. By Friday morning, I made the decision to buy supplies just to be on the safe side. I was still on the “first mover” side at this point. I took a few gallons of bottled water from a shelf which was completely stocked and purchased some non-perishables.

By Saturday, there was a strong sense from the general public of “Oh crap, this hurricane is actually going to hit us.” I managed to navigate my way through a forty person line to purchase a generator, only to find out that my purchase enable me to pre-order one that might (I stress might) arrive on Monday, the day of the hurricane’s arrival. By Saturday night, there was little to do than wait.

Monday started innocuously enough, and like waiting for in the dentist’s waiting room, there was a lingering feeling of “c’mon, let’s just get this over with”. By the afternoon the wind started to pick up and we passed time with watching Little House in the Prairie and news updates on television. By the time we ate an early dinner, the ferocity of the storm began to pick up and wind gusts grew increasingly powerful. We lost power at around 7pm and as we put the kids to bed under candlelight, things got bad fast.

I’m not sure how my kids slept through this, but the wind pounded the house as the windows and walls creaked. Our youngest daughter was freaked out, so I spent the night sleeping in my daughters’ room, and used noise-cancelling headphones to muffle the chaos outside. By the time the worst of the storm had passed us by, we realized that we were extremely fortunate. When all was said and done, we lost power for five days, we did one long trek to find an open gas station only once, and my train commute was wrecked for two weeks. But we escaped any damage to our house and we still managed to have heat and hot water. Most importantly, everyone in our family and our friends emerged safe.

But walking away from this experience, I tried to process some of my many thoughts:

  • Hurricane Sandy brought worst in people. Like any catastrophe, we started to get a glimpse of what happens when basic social order breaks down and we move into a Darwinian “every man for himself” world. There were reports of people pulling guns on each other in mile-long lines for gas. People were forced to place generators under chain and lock when reports emerged of people stealing these units. Looting and other opportunistic crime occurred in some of the harder hit areas, as police services were stretched and focused in rescue and recovery operations.
  • Hurricane Sandy brought out the best in people. My wife and I were able to experience a great deal of kinship with our neighbors, as people expressed concern about those who were hardest hit and people volunteered resources to those who had less. E-mails constantly went out from those who had power restored with offers to have people power up devices and phones. Even the local Kings grocery store opened its doors to refugees, letting people camp out in their cooking class studio to power up their devices.
  •  I’m starting to suspect that this is the new normal. Hurricane Irene was supposed to be the once in a lifetime storm, and Hurricane Sandy completely crushed that myth. Whether it’s due to global warming or another cyclical phenomenon, I can’t be comfortable thinking that this won’t happen again in the near future. I’ve heard the numerous friends and neighbors speak of installing natural gas-powered whole house generators. We’ll see if the resolve for these projects wane as time passes, but I don’t think it will.
  • There was a simplicity of life without electricity that was telling about our (okay, my) addiction to electricity, and by extension, electronic devices. My wife lovingly teased me about it, but it’s true. A life without electronics and internet access was paralyzing and inconceivable to me. I had to (gasp) crack open books and magazines and (double gasp) provide my absolute undivided attention to my family without mentally wandering if I had gotten an important e-mail from work which required my immediate attention, or having a bright idea which required me to either type out a reminder to myself or fire off an e-mail, tweet or Facebook entry. At some point, I surrendered to being off the grid and there was a lot of good to it.

Above all, it did serve as a reminder of the frailty of life. As my pastor said in a timely sermon the week after the hurricane hit, the past weeks were a stark reminder of not just of how fragile and precious life is, but the importance in trusting and viewing our lives in the context of an all-powerful and loving God. Our life of faithful dependence on God manifests itself in a life unencumbered by anxiety even in the mist of the biggest storms. We can, with much prayer, acknowledge His power and His love and not be afraid, come what may.