Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas and God Bless Us, Everyone

As I do each year this time of the year, I can't help but think about how the Christmas holiday has evolved as I've become an adult, and as I've gotten older, I find it harder and harder to get "in the spirit of Christmas"... whatever that means. As children, we have the allure and anticipation of gifts which can serve as a reminder of God's gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. As a self-sufficient adult, I wonder if that analogy subconsciously backfires and we suddenly find salvation as something that we need to provide and work for ourselves, a chore which becomes bothersome drudgery.

Earlier this week, as I dutifully read advent devotionals with my children, I was reminded that the obvious implication of Christmas is and should be the most meaningful one: God is Here. In a world where humans - regardless of whether they believe in God or not - cry out for justice, comfort and deliverance, Christmas is really about answering the question which in some way of form is asked by every person who draws breath in this world, "Is there a God?" and "What are the implications for me?"

Christmas is all about giving us an answer to this question. To a world which is fallen and broken where pain and suffering still exists, God is very much here. He isn't some fictional entity dreamed up by Hallmark, powerful scheming men, or Madison Avenue. He isn't the absentee father who created a mess of a world and decided to walk away and live His own life of leisure on a Caribbean life. God is here in the midst of our "everyday" lives and is ever-present in our world - interceding and working things out in ways beyond our wisdom and understanding. In Jesus Christ, God is here and desires relationship with those who He created, so that we might know Him and enjoy Him, and that even in our trial and suffering, we need not walk alone or in futility try to figure the messiness of life for ourselves. It is both an answer and invitation.

That's worth celebrating.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Materialism, Greed and Death

Last Sunday, a young couple in New Jersey left an upscale mall after an evening of holiday shopping and walked to their luxury sports utility vehicle, starting a chain of events which would eventually leave a 30-year old lawyer murdered and a wealthy suburban enclave shaken. The carjacking and murder of Dustin Friedland hit particularly close to home, because it took place in a town which was my home as recently as eleven months ago, and it made me reflect upon both the tragedy of the crime and underpinnings beneath it.

Short Hills, part of Millburn Township, has always had an uneasy relationship with the towns just to the east - such as Orange, Irvington and Newark - with the former being affluent, largely white neighborhoods and the latter being poorer with strong concentrations of minorities. There's a stunning contrast, with Short Hills being a haven for hedge fund managers, corporate executives and Ivy League-educated professionals drawn to million dollar mansions and nationally recognized schools with neighboring towns struggling with poverty, crime and failing schools.

In light of this, the wealthy suburbanite credo is to simply "isolate and self-protect", or put another way, keep away from the dangerous areas. What shook people was that this wasn't a matter of a yuppie couple getting carjacked while driving home from a Devils hockey game in Newark. This couple was in an area which was presumably safe - it was "a wealthy area filled with other wealthy people". Of course, if you've made up your mind that you want to steal something, you're probably going be drawn to places where (1) there'll be high quality, expensive things to steal and (2) victims will be less likely to fight back - in other words, places like the Short Hills Mall. 

Earlier this week, I went to an assembly held at our local elementary school here in Sugar Land, Texas discussing crime in our community and the police officer stated that the criminal element in Houston viewed Sugar Land as "the land of milk and honey", and my particular subdivision as being a favorite target. Why? The large Asian population in this area were profiled (stereotyped) by criminals in three ways:
  • Asians are small business owners with lots of cash
  • Asians own a lot of high quality gold
  • Asians are less likely to own or use firearms
But even more fundamentally, thinking about property crimes - and the tragic lengths that some will go to commit them - made me consider the fundamental origin of such actions. Or put another way, what compels a person to decide to commit such a crime? In thinking about this, I realized that some of this revolved around an exposed nerve. Predictably, thinly-veiled racial overtones were big hit. Look at the comments section underneath any of the articles pertaining to the carjacking and you'll notice a couple of key themes:
  • "Condolences for this heartbreaking tragedy."
  • "These 'animals' deserve to die."
  • "No surprise that the perpetrators were black."
  • "We need to allow NJ to become a 'concealed-carry' (gun) state."
  • "Why aren't Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson organizing demonstrations against this crime?"
Any property crime begins with the belief that one is somehow entitled to something (theologically, this can be described as a combination of pride and greed), and at some point, the desire to take possession of something outweighs to desire and imperative to act and live righteously. 

A culture of materialism teaches us that a man is worth the sum of his possessions, and as a society we glorify and value conspicuous contentment over humble contentment. Turn on the television for an hour during this season and you'll get a sense of what I'm talking about. A culture of greed means that the wealthy live contentedly in separate worlds and wealth disparity, in which the have's live contentedly while others both struggle with poverty while throwing gasoline on the flame of discontentment. A culture of death fundamentally cheapens the value and sanctity of life. From murder committed in the commission of a theft to abortion, this culture teaches us that the lives of others are considered dispensable to be discarded on the whim of one's selfish goals of convenience and pleasure.

It's sad to see these three cultures manifest in the shadow of Christmas. And even without committing felony murder, we're all still living those values in our own ways. We need the Savior to free us from these things that will cause us to destroy each other and ourselves.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Danger of Sacred Places

It's really easy to live in the past, and waste a lot of time doing so. Sports fans will always remember then-Celtics basketball coach Rick Pitino ranting after another frustrating loss for a franchise that was spoiled by success driven by a legion of Hall of Fame players and what seemed like a regular cadence of championships: 
Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hard-working, and we're going to improve. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off.
Of course, this phenomena isn't confined to sports. In fact, the more destructive habit is to hold on to places, things and seasons in one's own life. I recently heard some powerful words about this in a sermon from one of my former pastors, Charlie Drew (paraphrased):
We tend to be allergic to God being real. Sometimes so allergic, that we will turn good, even sacred things, into God-substitutes and as a result keep the real God away. We can perhaps all remember a good and satisfying time of community or fellowship in our past, say a particular easy and delightful time in our marriages or a wonderful time in a great church we were once part of a great fellowship group where everybody clicked and we were happily and healthily in each others' lives. But now perhaps, things are harder. Now perhaps, things are different. And we're spending too much time and energy either pining for what used to be - oh, for the good old days! - or trying to manipulate the present to be more like that past.  
God comes to us in real life in real time and speaks to us and says, "Stop it. Don't do that. Remember, what made that time and place and memories so good - if indeed they were as good as you seem to remember them - was Me. Me, the real God of real history including yours, and I am still here. Only now, the reality that I am serving up is different in some way. You have made an idol of that sacred time and sacred place, and it could be a future time of place. I can't wait for 'X' to happen, for my schooling to me done or for the kids to be out of the house. I am now giving you something new and different and I'm not doing this because I am cruel. I am tearing down that temple in your life. I am tweaking that custom in your life so you will remember to deal with Me." 
Sacred space is perhaps the most dangerous. Really good memories and really sound and lovely hopes are often the greatest enemies because they become substitute gods for us. And God knows that these substitute gods will hurt us. They will kill us. So in love He does what hurts, taking those things away and changes the game plan so we will be forced to deal with Him, the God of real-time, the God of today.
I think this really struck me because I tend to struggle with both living too much in the past and projecting and agonizing too much about the future. In terms of living in the past, part of this is driven by the grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side phenomena, where we tend to idealize what used to be, conveniently ignoring all that was difficult or frustrating about a past season of life. Our obsession with the future is garden-variety anxiety, hoping for and dreading the potential failure of not accomplishing an always changing set of goals and milestones which somehow comprise a vague definition of future success. 

And as Charlie Drew astutely hints, the bigger problem is that I'd just as soon not deal with God in the present. Or put another way, I prefer to deal with God and the present reality He has for me on my own terms - or not at all. But the truth is, each change in life - even the hard ones - are God's mercies. They are gifts which are opportunities to see how God works in new ways and new contexts in our own lives. For my family, we had a chance to see God work in our lives in New York City. With some sadness we left that and had a chance to see God work in our lives in New Jersey. And with some sadness we left that and are now having a chance to see God work in our lives in Texas. Life events happen, and our lives will change again someday, if not geographically then somehow else. The question is to what degree our eyes will be fixed on Him during those changes.

It's tempting to not live in the present. In times of trial and hardship, I can make the case that it's far more pleasant to drug myself with nostalgia and dream about an idyllic future. But I'd do so at my own detriment. As life changes, it behooves us to continue to walk with the God of today or else we run the risk of missing the sweetness of the power of God manifest in the present.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Conditioned Frustration

Like many others, I've found myself far less physically active than I used to be in my youth. There are a lot of reasons for this, between the time commitments devoted to family and kid activities, increasing responsibilities at work and of course I'll own up to some laziness on my part. Tennis was my sport growing up, having played it competitively in high school, and while I played occasionally in college, the opportunities to play have been few and far between.

Since we've moved to the Houston area, my wife and I have had a couple of changes to play tennis. The convenience of having nice courts in our residential subdivision minutes away have made opportunities to play easy, as has the nice weather which extends for much of the year. So while I've found myself terribly rusty, I've been able to work off some of the kinks and work on my groundstrokes and service game.

What I find interesting is that I still react to unforced errors, or "mis-hits" in the same way that I used to in high school, despite the fact that I'm more than twice as old as I was back in my high school days and my worldview has changed dramatically, between going through the life-altering seasons of marriage and parenthood as well as devoting myself to my Christian faith. But my reaction upon volleying a ball into the net or sailing it ten feet beyond the baseline is still the same. I bend my arms and clench my racket in one hand and fist in the other and scream, "Oh, come on!" out loud to myself. It's sort of silly, but I've done this since I started playing tennis in sixth grade. But it's interesting that I still do this almost twenty years afterwards. One might think that many years of maturity would help me to chill out a little or be it's somehow stuck.

I think there's this conditioned response to frustration that tends to be difficult to break out of. I think the shouting on the tennis court is obviously a specific reaction to a specific type of frustration, but is emblematic of how human beings react to any sort of trial or hardship. And like the shouting during tennis, getting older in of itself doesn't change how we cope with difficulties. As children we threw tantrums, withdrew, blamed others, or whined when things didn't get our way. As adults, we do very much the same things, except that we do so in a way which just seems more grown-up - we may use more advanced vocabulary in our tantrums or whining and we're a little more subtle in our blame deflection.

So God help me - I'm less concerned about me shouting at myself on the tennis court, but I certainly hope that over time my conditioned response to frustrating situations would be increasingly patient, gracious and wise.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Learning to Love Things for Love's Sake

Two of the major life events people experience are getting married and having children. Indeed, these two events have a profound impact upon how an individual makes decisions and prioritizes his or her time. Like how a little yeast leavens the whole loaf of bread, being married and having children colors every part of one's life.

A couple of weekends ago, I went with my son to a "Fun with Son" Cub Scout outing, a time where "scouts enjoy BB guns, archery, sling shots, crafts, sports, games, campfire, and more". For yours truly, a suburban guy who has bad seasonal allergies, is repelled by insects and nature smells, hates the outdoors and feels much more comfortable in front of a laptop, television and any sort of electronic gizmo, this outing pretty much seemed liked a lousy way to spend a Saturday. This is where the apple fell pretty far from the tree, because this is exactly what my son would dial up if he were to concoct a perfect day.

So trying to be a good dad, I drove the 90 minutes out towards the country with my son, and as always, I enjoyed time in the car just chatting about random topics and life in general. We talked about our life in Texas, how flat the landscape was compared to New Jersey, school, God, friendships and current events. We talked about friends, relatives, cars and houses. And as I've noticed, with each passing year where I've had a chance to enjoy lengthy alone time with my son in the car, our conversations have evolved to be more mature and thoughtful.

When we got to the ranch, I encouraged my son to get to know some of the other scouts in our pack, and in under blue skies and the gentle warmth of the Texas sun, I watched my son create and launch air rockets, hammer out a leather bracelet and fire a BB gun and slingshot. I rallied the scouts in our camping area to play a little two-hand touch football and joined my son in rubber chicken volleyball (don't ask). With the exception the touch football, would I opt to do these activities with these folks (a largely nice group of people, though you do have pockets of Ned Flanders-like and separatist militia-like eccentrics) as a way to spend a weekend? Not by a long shot. But given the chance to hang out with my son, I couldn't be happier.

Such is fatherhood. A father isn't going to share every interest with his son. And try as they may, no father can coerce a boy's heart (nor should they) to only gravitate towards what a father loves to do. And provided that my son's interests are legal and healthy, I'll learn to love those things out of respect and support for his unique personality. As long as he's willing to have me as his sidekick, I'll look forward to those long talks in the car.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sports and Life, Life and Sports

I'm a pretty big sports fan, and I've always found it interesting the degree that our society has grappled over it's place in our collective soul. In many ways, we send mixed messages around the importance of sports. Every time there's a tragedy such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina or the Sandy Hook shootings, we'll often hear sports pundits wax about "In the midst of all of the buzz around (insert sporting event or sports rivalry here); (insert tragedy or global event here) really puts things in perspective..."

And of course, you have a segment of the population that takes things way too far. Such as the case when San Francisco Giants fan Brian Stow was beaten within inches of his life in the parking lot of Dodgers Stadium and when Dodgers fan Jonathan Denver was stabbed to death a few blocks from San Francisco's AT&T Park. Most recently here in Houston, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub has had to deal with fans publicly burning his jersey and fans encroaching on his personal space at his family's home. These, of course, are prime examples of people taking sports way too seriously. They've lost perspective on the place of sports in their life and have reacted accordingly.

Why does this happen? I think this goes into the heart of why we like sports in the first place. People like the competitive aspect of sports, and it's likely that there's a more insidious Roman gladiator bloodlust which pervades some of our fandom. We like seeing people compete and exert their physical excellence against each other and to witness the crowning of a champion. But there's also a misdirected component of "vicarious communal conquest" which largely leads to irrational fan er... fanaticism.

Sports fandom often fills a void because life for many (or at least in their own estimation) lacks sufficient personal victories to one's satisfaction. The thirst to chalk up more "wins" - even riding on the back of something that one has contributed absolutely nothing to - pulls people towards sports team affiliation. It's a form of emotional wagering, which dictates, "I'm willing to emotionally place my bets on a certain team in the hopes that they win." Of course, the reality is that there is nothing truly personally materially won or lost if a fan's team wins or loses.

I'm wondering if it would be helpful if all sports fans occasionally reminded themselves of the very basics that our best youth coaches always told us, something that our 6-year old daughter's coach make clear to the team. When he was asked for the score during the middle of the game he said, "Score? I'm not sure but the most important thing is that we try our best, play a great game and have fun out there." And as a parent, it's pretty enjoyable to watch that, too.

I hope Matt Schaub can do just that, eat his orange slices at halftime and not have to worry about his family's safety.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Upward Mobility at What Cost?

Even since I joined the workforce, the phrase "work-life balance" has been thrown around like a football. Recruiters and human resource leaders would throw out statistics, figures and new programs all in the attempt to convince business-types like myself that they, more so than other companies, really grasped the concept that they understood that the longer-term benefit of reducing turnover and driving sustainable value by creating a workplace atmosphere where employees whose work fit nicely as a component and enabler of a richer and broader life with family, friends, with cultural, social and spiritual fulfillment. Throughout my career, I've seen some hits but mostly misses, and a couple of recent experiences caused me to pause and consider this topic in my own life.

I consider myself very blessed and fortunate to have done well in my career, and my latest venture has placed me in a business unit which is under a lot of pressure to perform in an industry sector which has large growth potential. The net result is that everyone on our leadership team is under a great deal of stress. A few weeks ago, I joined a number of fellow senior leaders in a conference room to discuss an update of our go-to-market strategy, and after three hours of going back and forth, one of my peers stopped and and stated, "I'm sorry, but I have to say that I'm not feeling well right now."

Initially, I (and others) misunderstood her comment to mean that she felt that our conversation had either turned overly negative or she was perturbed at what she perceived as a tone of criticism towards her or her team's performance. The truth of the matters that she was physically ill. After trying to mitigate the situation by offering her sugary drinks, things became even more disconcerting as she developed chest pains. With all of us - especially my colleague - frightened, we wheeled her from the boardroom to the lobby as we waited for the ambulance and helped her gulp down aspirin. The paramedics brought her to a nearby health center and thankfully, all was fine. But understandably, it left us all a little shaken and wondering, "Is this all related to the stress we're under here at work?" and "Am I next?"

Here's the thing about work-life balance which the human resource talking heads always make clear: at the end of the day, the responsibility lies with you (the employee). And they're right. When push comes to shove, nobody forces anybody to take on a more responsibility than one can bear, and nobody can compel someone to to burn the candle at both ends at one's physical and psychological detriment. Bosses and corporate forces can create expectations which are unreasonable and burdensome, but ultimately the decision lies with the individual in terms of how much of that burden is taken upon his or her shoulders.

In a rational world, a person can take a step back and say defiantly, "This is ridiculous. What are they going to do, fire me?" and "If they want to find someone else better, they can be my guest, because all I can do is my best." But rationality tends to fly out of the window when it comes to hyper-competitive and hard-charging types who have a more-pathetic-and-than-admirable trait which causes them to refuse to "fail" (whatever that means). So what happens? They obsess and stress over their work with little regard for the collateral damage done to themselves and the people around them. Brilliant.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with an individual who has been deliberating the pros and cons of pursuing partnership in a Big 4 consultancy versus taking a senior-level position on the client side, which would reduce his upside salary but would still be very lucrative. He confided in me that while he'd come to the conclusion that he'd be willing to take the pay cut to eliminate the 90% travel that was currently keeping him away from his wife and 18-month old daughter. But he also maintained that most of his peers thought him crazy to make this trade-off.

That baffles me. I quote Bud Fox's exchange with Gordon Gekko in the original Wall Street film:
Bud: How much is enough, Gordon? When does it all end, huh? How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How much is enough, huh? 
Gekko: It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a Zero Sum game – somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred – from one perception to another. Like magic. This painting here? I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars. I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has become real, and the more real it becomes, the more desperately they want it. Capitalism at its finest. 
Bud: How much is enough, Gordon? 
Gekko: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons – and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you, buddy? It's the free market. And you're a part of it. You've got that killer instinct. Stick around, pal, I've still got a lot to teach you.

First of all, Gekko never really answers Bud's question. Apologists will argue that it's because Bud's asking a wrong and irrelevant question, but I'd say it's because Gekko doesn't have a good answer. And bringing that back into the context of my conversation with this consultant, if your personal and family stress level increases two-fold, does it really matter that you're making $300,000 instead of $200,000 a year? Is the stress to the point of physical sickness worth the fact that you can buy a Lexus LS instead of a Lexus ES? Isn't there a law of diminishing returns, where at some point that somebody's life is "comfortable and luxurious enough" that it's simply not worth the personal cost of that next rung of the career ladder? 

That answer is 'yes'. Unfortunately, the people who need to heed that the most are generally those with the worst self-awareness in terms of this issue. 

How do I cope with this? In my better days, I just remind myself that I'm playing with house money in my Father's casino, per a previous post. Let's just say I need to a better job at keeping that front of mind.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Quagmire of Syria

From Trayvon Martin to Obamacare to the tragedy in Sandy Hook, there exist topics which generate a great deal of emotion and perspective from different sides. What's common with these aforementioned topics, you can largely (admittedly not completely) bifurcate opinions politically. Conservatives stand on one side and progressives stand on another. What's interesting is how the prospect of military intervention on Syria has created strange bedfellows across political lines, with Republican leaders in the House and Senate standing with President Obama opposed by Tea Party-affiliated members of Congress standing together with staunchly anti-war Democrats. This is a pretty good sign that this is a chaotic and convoluted mess with no easy answers.

To catch everyone up, there's a helpful summary on which summarizes the Syrian conflict as well as a Syria Conflict 101 cheatsheet, but in a nutshell, there's a conflict between the established, authoritarian government led by Bashar al-Assad and a rebellion comprised of a number of different factions, including ex-government soldiers, political opponents of Assad and Islamist groups. Reports of hundreds killed in chemical weapon attacks in mid-August further raised the stakes. President Obama had previous referred to the use of chemical weapons as "a red line" and with that being crossed, a debate rages on in terms of the appropriate American response.

I personally struggle with taking a clear position regarding our response because on some level, I recognize that I'm not privy to certain intelligence which President Obama and government leaders might have. But given what I do know, I tend to lean against a military response at this time. My reasons are similar to what many other people and pundits have already shared:
  • The Devil You Know. Assad is no friend to the United States, but any military response which tips the scales in the rebellion's favor brings us one step closer to an uncertain regime. There's little confidence that a unified provisional government is going to be well-prepared to take the reins upon a power vacuum. If Assad falls, who takes his place? A secular democracy? A Islamist theocracy? A Balkanized collection of loosely governed territories run by local warlords? Are we more comfortable with mass weapons of destruction being in the hands of one thug as opposed to twenty thugs? How about Al Qaeda-aligned militias? The fact of the matter is that not only are the rebels not unified, but there are a lot of "bad guys" on the rebels.
  • Going It Alone. For a universal horror such as a chemical weapon attack, you'd think that the United States would be able to rustle some sort of a international alliance to provide global credibility, which would both mitigate military and diplomatic risk. Instead, not only has the UN Security Council stalled in any type of anti-Assad resolution (granted, Russia and China have obstructed any progress here due to their own interests) we've seen our closest ally in Great Britain vote against military intervention. Does the United States really want to stand alone?
  • What Red Line? Another article from CNN hashes this out nicely, so I won't repeat it here, but a fair question is being asked on two levels. First, why doesn't any sort of action against civilians represent a red line? Is it any less horrific for a government to massacre an opposing faction with flamethrowers or bullets? Then on the opposite side, are there any red lines in the context of war? The United States, after all is a country that didn't think twice about killing 250,000 of its own people who opposed the government in a civil war. It's also the same country that to this day used atomic weapons of mass destruction against an opponent, and did it twice. Cynics argue convincingly that the main reason why the United States abhors weapons of mass destruction is that these are the great equalizer. In a conventional armed conflict, the United States will always hold an advantage. This disappears when weapons of mass destruction are introduced.   
  • No Clear and Present Danger. There's a clear and present danger component to our military intervention which is absent here. Traditionally, there's been a compelling narrative around how American citizens are in imminent harm's way. That argument was found to be spurious in the latest Iraq War, and the case to intervene in Syria is even a worse stretch. Assad has never sought to attack the United States or United States citizens. This leads to bigger question around whether such a conflict is in the United States' best interests at all. There is a nuance between an endeavor which is honorable and one which is worthwhile. Or put another way, there are plenty of things that the United States can do that are "good", but with limited resources, what are the endeavors which are most highly prioritized?
  • The "Remember the Maine" Syndrome. Right before the turn of the century, Cuba was seeking an independence from Spain which was conveniently aligned with United States' foreign policy and business interests. The battleship USS Maine was sent to Cuba and while in Havana Harbor on February 15th, 1898, an explosion ripped through the ship, killing 266 sailors. The event - at the time attributed to a Spanish mine - became a rallying cry for Americans with pro-war rallies screaming "Remember the Maine!", eventually leading to the Spanish-American War and subsequently American control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the the Philippines. While more fringe theories include Cuban or American sabotage in an attempt to draw the United States into war, most believe that an internal coal fire was the culprit. Going back to Syria, I haven't yet seen conclusive evidence that Assad is responsible for these chemical weapons-related casualties. Some (admittedly non-mainstream) news sources have gone so far as to report that the resulting casualties resulted from rebel mishandling of smuggled weapons. Or if I put it this way, few doubt that chemical weapons were used. The question remains: who was responsible?
So we all pray and hope for peace. And we hope and pray that men and women who know more and sit in positions of influence act justly and wisely with such high stakes.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In With the New, Out With the Old

A few weeks ago, we started the process of moving our possessions into our new home in Texas. In addition to a collection of boxes and furniture which comprised our belongings while we living in our two-bedroom apartment, everything else that we had to our name - our furniture, electronics, clothing, toys, books - came out of the local warehouse where it had been sat in storage over the past five months, awakened from a long journey back in March from New Jersey.

This is our fourth move as a family, so this isn't our first rodeo in terms of packing boxes and the general stress of figuring out how objects in one context ought to be presented in a new one. However, this is our first corporate move, our first move of significant distance, and consistent with a growing family, the largest move in terms of scale and scope.

In a previous post, I had waxed on the concept of home. Now that we've moved in and are settling into our new digs, I'll acknowledge that there's a greater sense of comfort and establishment, though my words still very much stand. And even as boxes are opened and trinkets are placed on mantles, it's heartening to see things which are familiar and comfortable, like that childhood teddy bear.

But not everything that we unpacked found a place in our new home. First of all, there were things that came out of boxes which fell into the category of "this-is-garbage-why-did-we-even-keep-this"; others which fell into the category of "there's-nowhere-to-put-this"; and the occasional "snow-related-items-aren't-needed-in-Houston" objects. Conversely, we found ourselves in Home Depot, Target and Walmart purchasing items which we realized that we needed and didn't have.

This led me to two main thoughts:

First, I mentioned the concept of home and comfort.  As nice as it was to get our furniture back and sleep on our familiar bed, familiar relationships are the things that really bring comfort. That regular weekly visit to the grandparents, the neighbor with whom you walk to the train station, the recurring Community Group potluck dinner - these are things that provide some degree of familiarity and comfort. We're grateful and blessed to see some of those starting to grow where we currently live and over time, those will too be sense of great comfort and familiarity.

Second, all of the things coming in and out of the house is a microcosm of life. As we move into different seasons, our lives change. Some things stay the same, but a lot of things don't. And as life gets uncluttered and slowly moves into focus, there's a balance between wistfully letting go of certain things and bringing into one's life things that will become increasingly prominent. But the good news is that the the greatest source of familiarity and comfort - at least to a Christian - is constant. Boxes go out of the house, boxes come into the house, but God and His love stay the same.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Small Town Grief

I grew up in a upstate New York suburb not too far from New York City which, I suspect, wasn't terribly different than many suburbs in the New York metropolitan area located in Connecticut, New Jersey or Long Island. The proximity to the city made us worldly and cosmopolitan enough to keep us from feeling "small-town", but at the core, the community marked by the Pearl River school district (comprised of Pearl River and parts of Orangeburg, Tappan and Nanuet) had that friendly small-town feel. My graduating class was less than 140 people and every student was at least acquainted with any other student, and by extension, parents knew each other. When tragedy struck, everyone in that town felt. And if you were a student, this tragedy was something that defined part of your time at the school, sort of a "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" or "Where were you when the space shuttle Challenger blew up?" sort of thing.

I remember three tragedies during my time at Pearl River. When I was in elementary school and my older brother had just started high school, a young lady named Paula Bohovesky was raped and murdered. When I was in middle school, Keith Savarese, the former quarterback of our football team, commit suicide during a visit home from college his freshman year. But what sticks in my mind most vividly is the death of Alicia Brady in a car accident. Because I was a senior at the time and her brother was a classmate, the impact of her loss hit home a little closer. I remember standing in a line for her wake which stretched for a half a mile down Franklin Avenue.

This came to mind recently when our small town was hit twice in recent weeks. I had read about the deadly Hudson River boat crash which killed the bride-to-be and best man-to-be on not realizing until a friend told me that the surviving groom was the brother of a girl who used to be in our high school social clique. And a week ago, we lost a classmate, Malini. after a heroic battle with brain cancer (and a little more than two years ago, we lost another classmate, Michael, to stomach cancer). 

I'm sure that this story isn't unique. Every adult has a school that they left behind and classmates with whom bonds still exist through Facebook or a network of friends. And even if I haven't talked to overwhelming majority of these classmates in years, I can't help but grieve when I think of their death and the families they've left behind.

I remember Malini as being the friendly girl who lived in our neighborhood on Fort Lee Place, the same street as young chums Jimmy Acheson, J.P. Yore, Neil Fabella and Alex Meyers. I remember warm conversations in the library and on the bus around track and school. As for Michael Bohn, I remember a happy-go-lucky guy always with a smile on his face. I also fondly remember him mooning the substitute teacher in 7th grade twice... and getting caught in the act the second time around. I'm also heartened, as I read through their respective battles with cancer, is that their faith in God grew and became all the more central to their lives even to the end.

And sadly, these stories won't be the last. My classmates and I are getting older, and the high school illusions of immortality are giving way to family responsibilities, work responsibilities and high cholesterol. I guess the challenge to the rest of us remaining classmates is: What legacy will we leave behind? And for those of us who are graced with at least one more year on this earth than Mike and Malini got, how will we be good stewards of these gifts?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Considering Trayvon

On the evening of Saturday, July 13th, George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter by a jury in Sanford, Florida, leading to high emotions from those who considered Zimmerman an upstanding citizen who tried to proactively protect himself and his neighbors and was caught up in a tragic confrontation, as well as those who considered Zimmerman and racist thug who initiated a violent confrontation with an innocent black young man. My Facebook feed was exploding on Saturday night into Sunday, and I couldn't help but notice a pattern. My black and more politically progressive friends were distressed about the verdict. A handful of other friends argued that while the incident was tragic, the verdict was sound. A couple of others applauded the verdict as a victory for law and order and the right to self-defense. But the vast majority of my other friends on social media - many of whom are Asian or Caucasian devout Christians - said absolutely nothing.

Part of me finds this potentially (more on this caveat later) troubling, because the case of Trayvon Martin shouldn't matter only if you're black. I would gather that in most African-American churches the morning after the verdict, prayers were lifted up for justice, healing and peace. How about those churches who are predominantly Caucasian, Asian or Hispanic? Did it even get a mention? Does anyone else care? And it's not as if nobody was using social media during that weekend. I had plenty of friends that shared delicious-looking photos of desserts, kids playing in the pool or other witty musings and quotes.

Of course, it's possible that nobody chimed in because (1) they wanted to process their own feelings about the verdict privately and not share those on social media, (2) they felt that their public endorsement of the verdict would give them the perception of being racist or otherwise insensitive or (3) they felt that, as a Christian, this was a political and highly flammable hot button which wasn't to be touched. Of course, the Facebook feed appropriately gets white-hot when there's an unjust development as it pertains to the defense of biblical marriage, the lives of those who are unborn, or news of house churches in Sri Lanka being torched.

But what would really distress me is if they didn't care at all. Only God knows our hearts, but I hope we all care, and care deeply.

To be clear, I'm not calling for a lynch mob to get George Zimmerman. I'm not even admonishing Christians to disagree with the verdict, as I think it's reasonable to deeply grieve this tragedy and the resulting aftermath yet still believe that the judicial process was done correctly. I'm just disturbed that there isn't more angst and concern - especially from non-black evangelical Christians - that a segment of our population feels disenfranchised and disrespected to the point that there's a sense of utter despair and hopelessness as it relates to how society views them.

To me, the case of Trayvon Martin, even if the verdict is legally sound, has provided an interesting window in to the state of race relations and how, regardless of what sociologists may think, we're far from a post-racial America. If anything, the case and the resulting blowback and reactions from many have illustrated that there's a major disconnect around the perception of racial fairness across different ethnicities. And if you're Caucasian or Asian and your response is "Race isn't a big deal," or worse, you flippantly quote Galatians 3:28, then you've just made my point.

If you're Caucasian, I don't think you can truly understand how demoralizing and disempowering it feels to live in the shadow of stereotypes and preconceived notions (even non-malicious and subconscious) of those who are largely in greater positions and authority over you. And for those of us who are Asian, we're not off the hook. Yes, we also live in the shadow of stereotypes and preconceived notions, which normalize a certain behavior and skew future perceptions (e.g. Asian women are stereotyped as being subservient and quiet, so when an Asian woman does speaks out, the clash against the stereotype makes her falsely seem angry and aggressive). But while there some negative stereotypes (e.g. Asians are weaklings who aren't strong leaders or innovative), they largely trend much more positive compared to black stereotypes. Ask a random group of people in our society to guess the ethnicity of the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. Now ask that same group to guess the ethnicity of the guy who got arrested for the suburban home invasion. If you still don't believe me, do a quick side by side inventory of positive or negative stereotypes. This is the societal shadow that our black friends experience. And while we can sympathize, no, we can't really relate.

I don't have any quick and easy solutions for this dilemma. I do believe that Jesus is ultimately the answer, because like any sin, racism cannot be merely legislated away, but needs to be dealt with a the heart level. Having people care and recognize that this sin exists is probably a good start.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

California Dreamin'

For our summer vacation this year, we figured it would be good to take out kids out to California. Why not? We were already halfway through the country which made the trip a little shorter, and with Carissa turning three earlier this year, this seemed like as good as time as any to finally give our three kids their first exposure to a Disney park.

Vacation came at a good time for all of us. Sarah and I could use the emotional rest after a hectic half a year. Between moving out of New Jersey and moving to Texas, house sales and purchases and transitioning our lives, it was a good time to step away from it all and clear our heads.

Like any vacation with children, finding rest and relaxation in the midst of vacation tends to be matter of how one interprets those things. Physically, the trip was exhausting, but I have to say that it was immensely enjoyable. The weather was beautiful, we had very gracious hosts (Sarah has an old friend from the music circuit with whom we stayed with) and we were able to provide the kids and ourselves with some nice memories of LEGOLAND (I'm just capitalizing it to respect the trademark), Disneyland and Disneyland's California Adventure.

Some random musings:
  • I can see why so many people love the SoCal lifestyle. The weather was terrific, the suburbs were pretty and the town centers were neat and tidy. Beaches are a short drive away and the restaurants are excellent. Sure, the cost of living is sky-high, but such is the law of supply and demand.
  • LEGOLAND was disappointing, at least to our family. If one thinks about it, there isn't really a "LEGO" theme or narrative per se, it simply hijacks various other themes and creates the backdrop out of LEGO blocks. So for example, you'll see safari, automobile, boat and fairy tale-related rides which have nothing to do with LEGO except that the vehicles and props look like they've been constructed by LEGO blocks, which would have been find except that the rides and attractions were underwhelming.
  • Both Disney parks were predictably excellent. With the advent of the FASTPASS system, the ability to minimize your time waiting on line (and by extension, go on as many rides as possible) has come down to how well you can plan your sequence of rides, knowing the proximity of rides, when to wait in line versus using FASTPASS while timing your "no more FASTPASS" expiration times with the securing of another FASTPASS at a nearby ride. There's seriously an application on the Apple App Store which provides wait times. At the end of the day, it comes down to how anal-retentive a parent wants to be in order to hit lots of rides without waiting in line (I'm raising my hand) as opposed to being laid-back and missing out on some of the more popular (and thus longest wait time) rides.
  • Disneyland's California Adventure Park, from what I could tell, is built upon the former parking lot. I haven't been to this place in almost 20 years, but I did remember that the parking lot previously was in front of Disneyland's Town Hall, facing Cinderella's castle. Instead, the two parks face each other. Apparently, some genius at Disney realized that they could make a heck of a lot more money with two parks instead of one, and they could instead build a multi-level parking structure off to the side with tram service.
  • Back to the parks: California Adventure is sort of a hodge-podge of rides and attractions you'd find in Disneyworld (e.g. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, It's Tough to be a Bug) plus some original rides (e.g. California Screamin'). Daniel and I spent Sunday afternoon together here and we had a nice time together. I love my daughters, but there's something about fathers and sons spending time doing "guy stuff". Riding rolling coasters might not necessarily be a manly art, but there's a certain machismo that exists when fathers and sons get to bond over things that females tend to find little interest in. We did do Disneyland together as a family, but split ourselves in the morning so Daniel and I coule partake in the more intense rides such as Space Mountain, Star Tours, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion while the girls took their time taking photographs and getting autographs from various Disney princesses. In the afternoon, we hit the age-appropriate for everyone It's a Small World and the didn't-realize-it-was-too-scary-for-the-girls Peter Pan's Flight.
We had a great time, but analogous to Disneyland, vacations provide a finite idealized escape which when done right, can inspire one to push forward with just a little more hop in one's step. With our house move just a few weeks away and a busy 45 days upcoming at work, I'm hoping that this vacation can provide that for us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fatherhood on a Wing and a Prayer

We celebrated another Father's Day a week and a half ago, and in the midst of the handmade cards, celebratory lunch and hugs from the kids, I was struck by how much of fatherhood is, well, "winging it". I also was struck how much grace there is in parenting, and how I'm praying that my best intentions of being a good father come to fruition despite my own limitations and mistakes.

There are no introductory courses that are offered before one becomes a father. There are no entrance exams to test for competency. Books have some value, I suppose, but my sense is books tend to fall short in that they either (1) provide guidance so conceptual and high-level that they lack value in the day to day decisions of being a father or (2) otherwise fail to account for your particular scenario of parenting because every situation and child is different. That's probably the point: parenting is more art than science. Take, for example, the relatively straightforward scenario of trying to comfort a crying baby. It's not something that one can solve with a cheat sheet. I mean, some of the television shows I grew up with, such as Family Ties, the Brady Bunch and Diff'rent Strokes can help with select scenarios. Even the Bible, which as the apostle Paul wrote is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" isn't an IKEA-like turn-by-turn instruction manual on good parenting.

I think most of the fathers in my age group, if we were to stop and think about it, would and should tremble of the awesome responsibility that we've been given. And most of us could pause and realize that bachelorhood and even childhood weren't that long ago for us. At least to me, it doesn't seem too long ago when I was the kid who was walking around the house bored or whining about school or the like. I remember having to deal with days where I didn't want to go to class or not wanting to get on that school bus. I remember times of loving summer vacation and days of worrying about tests at school. Now I'm in the position of being the father; the voice of wisdom, love and assurance.

And in the midst that responsibility, it's tempting for me to think, "My goodness, do I really know what I'm doing?" as if I woke up in a cockpit of a 747. I catch myself in the middle of a serious talk with my son thinking, "Boy, I really hope I telling him the right thing." My external assertiveness in parenting belies the fact that I'm constantly praying and hoping that each time I open my mouth, direct, comfort, teach or discipline, that I'm doing the right thing. After all, in parenting there are no referees and there is no instant feedback. 

If there's one thing that I'm confident about, it's that I love my children, and I suppose I could throw out something trite about love being enough, and as long as my intentions are loving, then that's all that matters. I just don't believe that's completely correct (as I've pointedly, though hopefully graciously told my own parents). Yes, none of my parental errors may be malicious, but those mistakes still might bring consequences and pain to my children that I'd just as soon do without.

Like all things, we look to God to equip us to do that which were are incapable of doing. I just pray that He would be particularly gracious in this area where the stakes are so high.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chance Encounters in the Plaza

One evening recently, our family enjoyed a dinner at the Sugar Land Town Square and afterwards spend some time in the Plaza, where the kids did their usual running around the fountain area while Sarah and I sat back and enjoyed the cooling temperatures which had settled from an oppressively scalding 98 to a merely hot 88.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young man who couldn't be older than 19 walking around with a notebook and pen in hand and a book bag slung over his shoulder. He walked tentatively towards individuals in the plaza, and by watching his interactions with a number of individuals, I deduced he was either soliciting for a charity or proselytizing. Now having experienced walking through New York City for more than ten years, I've become pretty skilled at using non-verbal cues to make it clear that I absolutely do not want to be approached, and if you do so I will seriously make you regret it. Conversely, I also know how to make myself more approachable so a solicitor or similarly motivated stranger would sense that I could be approached without risk of life or limb.

Being in a pretty good mood that evening, I decided to put forward the "feel free to talk to me" vibe. I looked up at him as he shifted tentatively in my direction, and made eye contact and he shuffled over and nervously recited his rehearsed opening:

"Hi there. I'm doing a project to understand people's views towards religion and spirituality and was wondering if you wouldn't mind if I asked you some questions."

I pretty much knew where this conversation was going. So a little background on myself; I'm a devout Christian but I'm also prone to being a mischievous wiseguy so at this point my mind was racing. There was a 90% chance he was going to go the Evangelism Explosion script and then follow up with a "If you died tonight, what do you think would happen to you?" or he might play it a little softer with the InterVarsity or Campus Crusade Spring Break contact evangelism route and simply see what my religious experiences were and play it by ear.

So here was my mischief dilemma and my options:
  • Option #1: I could play the hardcore atheist and tell him that I used to be fundamentalist before I got my doctorate in philosophy at Yale. I could pull some Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins militant atheist material out and make him work. Maybe I could throw out some perceived biblical contradictions - lack of harmony of certain gospel passages or perhaps some philosophical twisters around God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. Or I could ask him about the crucifixion and the inseparability of the Trinity. 
  • Option #2: I could play the non-Christian and let him go through his script while I would appear increasingly engaged and enthusiastic about this gospel that He was sharing. As he spoke, I would increase the pace of my nods and my eyes would narrow in deep thought and agreement. I would ask "softball" questions such as "So I see that I'm a sinner and I can't make it up by doing good things, but then how can I be saved?" and "Could God possibly love me after all of he bad things that I've done? Isn't being a Christian all about following rules?" and "But I'm not a Bible scholar. Don't you need to understand the whole Bible to be a Christian?" It was the evangelism equivalent of letting my son beat me at checkers.
  • Option #3: I could just be myself and be transparent about my own faith.
Options #1 and #2, while probably intriguing and darkly amusing, just felt too dishonest (and if done the wrong way, mean) for my conscience to take, even if I were to slap him on the back afterwards and tell him, "I'm just messing with you kid, thanks for being a good sport." Option #1 also had the danger of possibly introducing questions for which he might seriously not be ready.

So mischief aside, I played it straight and God was gracious in actually bringing to bear a really nice conversation. I invited him to sit down near me and we when he asked me how sure I was that I was going to heaven, I told him that my total assurance was based on the sufficiency of what Jesus Christ had done for me on the cross, securing my salvation by paying the penalty for my sins and cloaking me in His righteousness. At that point he put his pencil away.

Thankfully, he didn't just walk away to find someone "worth saving" (this actually happens occasionally when some contact evangelists meet Christians), but stuck around so I could ask him about who he was (a 19-year old college sophomore-to-be from Patrick Henry College home for the summer), what he was up to (joining his friends in trying to share the gospel through open question dialogue), where he went to church and what sort of Christian fellowship he was part of in school.

I shared with him about my own faith and my church, shared some words of encouragement and prayed for him and his evangelism project. He was effusive in his thanks as we parted.

But in truth I found the encounter really encouraging. Seeing faith in action, and a child-like enthusiasm to share about Jesus' love is something that was both challenging and humbling. There was something very pure about the way the young man carried himself; there was little evidence of cynicism or arrogance in his endeavor, but rather a humble determination to share good news and to be used as God's instrument in spite of his own nervousness, youth and inexperience. These are things I should aspire for more of in my own life.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Beaches, Sunburn and Humility

My wife has mentioned on a couple of occasions that our lives since we've moved has felt a little bit like an extended vacation, at which point I usually deadpan, "Well, a vacation where I need to go to work five days a week." I get her point, which is we've decided to throw ourselves into visiting and experiencing as much as the Houston area has to offer. Since we've arrived here, we've gone to the zoo, a few parks, a few museums, a seaside amusement town and most recently, Galveston Beach. We've also eaten out a lot during the weekends to explore the culinary breadth of all that Houston has to offer (I have to say that the food here is excellent and cheap), but also largely because roach and mice problems in our apartment makes cooking here unappealing and unappetizing.

Why have we thrown ourselves into full tourist mode? To Houston's credit, there's a bunch of things to do here and it really does live up to its reputation as being a great place for families. We're also in temporary housing (did I mention the roaches?) which doesn't necessarily encourage us to be homebodies. But the greatest driver, at least for me, is wanting to making the most of our time here, recognizing that I have no idea how long we'll be here. For example, I had assumed that our family would have stayed in the New York / New Jersey area forever after spending 34 cumulative years there. As a result, two touristy experiences of visiting the Statue of Liberty and the top of the Empire State Building went unchecked. Why? I figured those things weren't going anywhere and I'd have the rest of my life to check those out. Whoops.

So this past weekend, we went to Galveston Beach and had a great time. The beach was clean, facilities were decent, and good and inexpensive eating options were available. Our kids, probably thanks to swim lessons, showed much greater courage around water compared to last summer, with all of them being more comfortable in wading to deeper water and jumping waves they previously hadn't before. The weather was nice, with the sun comfortably heating the shore as it got cooled by a light breeze - which is why I stupidly eschewed the sunscreen and paid the price. By the time we were driving home, any part of my skin which was in contact with anything stung like the devil. And of course, I was as red as a lobster. So after I had unpacked the car and put the kids to bed, I took a drive to the 24-hour Walmart to find some substance to soothe my skin.

Now there are handful of things that you can ask for in a store which create some degree of embarrassment. Asking about birth control (or anything sexual in nature) and hemorrhoid ointment (or anything rectal or bowel related) certainly fall into this category, just because of the nature of the product. Asking for sunburn medication (or acne medicine or plus-sized clothes) is embarrassing because it immediately draws attention to yourself because the recipient of the question will immediately link your request to some sort of physical deficiency or attribute and say, "Oh yeah, you need that bad." For example, here was my exchange with the young lady in the pharmacy department:

Me: Excuse me, where could I find lotion or gel to treat sunburn?
Store Employee: (Pause) Oh my... wow.
Me: Yeah, I got a little burned at the beach today. Anyway...
Store Employee: That looks pretty painful.
Me: It hurts a little. Anyway, would that be in the seasonal section or skin care section?
Store Employee: (Look of combined intrigue and sympathy) They actually have these little tubes which you can use. I put it near my lips when I got sunburn, but wow, you have it all over. You probably need something bigger...
Me: Right. So where would you carry that?
Store Employee: (Still staring at my sun-scorched face) Oh. I actually don't work in this department. Maybe over there near the suntan lotion?

The big takeaway (besides the fact that Walmart in their fanaticism for low prices staffs far too few people in their stores) is that it's uncomfortable for people to draw attention to their weaknesses. People don't like acknowledging they've stupidly sat on a beach without sunscreen, and they don't like admitting that they have a weight problem, erectile dysfunction or poor complexion. It's related to something called the "look good" idol I heard about in a past sermon, where we like to be in control of people's perceptions of us, both physical and otherwise.

Most of our deficiencies, unlike being sunburned, are things that we can do a fairly effective job at hiding or finessing away. This is both something that relieves us but should also concern us. We don't go to store and ask the clerk for an "arrogance-reduction elixir" or "pornography-addiction therapy" or "anger-management cold-pack" or a "self-centeredness reversal pill". We don't need to air out our sin and interpersonal weaknesses to our friends let alone strangers because they're not as obvious as sunburn and weight gain.

Unfortunately, this leads to these things being unaddressed. And it's not because they're any less harmful to us, it's just that we can hide them, pretend they don't exist or delude ourselves into thinking that we can solve it for ourselves. I think that's where trusted authentic community comes in, a place where a person of faith can come forward with humility to a trusted friend and confess, "I have a problem which might not be obvious and I'd like your help and support to deal with it."

So while the obvious foibles in our lives like sunburn create awkward situations, it's the hidden problems in our lives which are the most dangerous.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Courage of Conviction and the Cowardice of Intolerance

Two weeks ago, a well-known black sports figure spoke publicly under the looming threat of ridicule, ostracization and condemnation. He wasn't out to be a crusader, but an open question loomed over his head and he felt he needed to answer. He knew that what he would speak of would be rejected and condemned by many, but what was paramount to him was to be sincere and forthright and to let his conscience be his guide. He spoke honestly and he subsequently paid the price.

Yes, ESPN basketball commentator Chris Broussard knew what was coming to him and the vitriol was harsh and unforgiving when he was asked point-blank about how he felt NBA player Jason Collins' gay lifestyle reconciled with Collins' self-professed Christian faith. ESPN was well aware of Broussard's devout Christian faith and stance on homosexuality and probably figured that swatting this hornets' nest couldn't but help ratings. So when asked the question, Broussard stated his belief that a Christian who practices homosexuality is rebelling and sinning against God and predictably, all hell broke loose.

Mainstream media and sports media tore into Broussard as being a bigoted homophobe. Columnists climbed out of the woodwork to rake him over the coals. For example, Deadspin published Why ESPN's Chris Broussard Came Out As A Bigot and The Daily Banter shared ESPN’s Chris Broussard is a Homophobe and a Bigot Whether He Likes it Or Not. This doesn't even account for the vitriol and hatred that Broussard got on message boards, where the name calling went beyond profane and "tolerance" groups calling for his head on a stake.

I'm not saying that it wasn't brave for Jason Collins to "come out" as the first openly gay athlete from one of the major sports league, and I appreciate that it must have been unspeakably difficult to live for so many years sliently and be the first to break their silence around their sexual orientation. But if part of the definition of courage is to face certain tribulation, adversity and ridicule, but still have the fortitude to push forward according to your conscience, I'd have to say that Chris Broussard clearly faced the tougher music. Notwithstanding his fears, Collins received phone calls and tweets and support from President Obama, the First Lady, NBA Commissioner David Stern, superstars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Was anyone really surprised?

Conversely, Chris Broussard got skewered and never got a phone call from President Obama for his courage of conviction, albeit unpopular. Again, was anyone really surprised? If we all could reasonably predict the responses of Collins' and Broussard's respective statements, which would you rather go public with given the leanings of the mainstream media and elite from purely a "fear of and approval of man" perspective?

Of course the reaction to Broussard was over the top, and part of this is how effective the radical LGBT lobby has been in manipulating the conversation. As I wrote in a previous post around the Chik-Fil-A controversy:
Part of this playbook is also feeding to media outlets like CNN soundbites of the most heinous outliers (see the Westboro Baptist folk) who say things like "kill the homos" and "incinerate the fags". Why? It accomplishes two purposes: (1) People on the fence react rightfully in horror, and think, "I'm not one of those people. I'm going to support LGBT!" and (2) People who are principled to support biblical marriage wince and instead of articulating their convictions and principles, are too busy disassociating themselves with the Westboro Baptist people. This is their playbook and strategy, and it works really well.
The ironic thing is, Chris Broussard is a Christian man who gets it right. This isn't a Westboro Baptist homophobic lunatic. This is a man who has a friendship with openly gay colleague LZ Granderson and has said, "LZ and I know where each other stand and we respect each other’s right to believe as he does. I know he’s gay, and he knows I believe that’s a sin. I know he thinks I get my moral standards from an outdated, mistranslated book, and he knows I believe he needs to change his lifestyle. Still, we can laugh together, and play ball together. That’s real diversity. Disagreeing but not being disagreeable.

Yes, you can love your gay friends and co-workers without agreeing with their lifestyle. As Rick Warren said, "Our culture has accepted two huge lies: The first is that if you disagree with someone's lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don't have to be compromise convictions to be compassionate." This ideal has failed too many times both by Christians who have failed to love homosexuals and also by homosexuals who have outright refused to be friends those who don't agree with the homosexual aspect of their lives.

Of course, this sort of détente is unacceptable to a surprising many who claim to be proponents of tolerance. Yes, in addition to those folks at Deadspin and The Daily Banter, there are legions of those who go beyond disagreeing with Chris Broussard (which is completely fair game). They are lobbying for his termination, insisting that such people of faith don't belong in the employ of organizations, and his kind ought to be pushed into a closet of obscurity and into the margins of society if not outright criminalized. And as the epithets are being thrown around and mobs being formed to malign an entire segment of people, I can't help but wonder...

Who's intolerant now?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Blessing and Judgment of Rain

This past Saturday we experienced our first big-time Texas thunderstorm, with heavy sheets of rain pouring down from the vast sky for multiple hours. The skies opened up and the thick streams started to form on the ground and streets, collecting in low lying areas which lacked drainage. I remembered a conversation with a co-worker my first week here, warning me to be mindful of the water-line markers at the pillars on underpasses, which were there to keep unsuspecting motorists from driving into submerged areas, where others had drowned in the past.

We thankfully emerged safe returning from dinner in the middle of the storm, but not before witnessing an underpass en route to home at which cars were slowly either detouring into the oncoming traffic lanes to circumvent deep water or making outright U-turns. Sure enough, the water in this intersection had risen to approximately a foot deep. Like much of the traffic, we followed a group of cars which slowly navigated around the water trap and made our way home.

This wasn't our first rodeo, having recently lived through Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. But the heavy rain made me reflect about how both rain (like water) is a symbol of life and destruction, and given how much change has occurred in the life of our family in the past four months, I found myself more sensitive to wonder whether there was a deeper symbolism or even a sign around this natural act. Even theologically, it's reasonable to wonder the relationship with our Creator and rain. Consider this quip from Saturday Night Live's "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey":
If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is "God is crying." And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is "Probably because of something you did."
It's good for a laugh - and is probably something that I'd say to one of my kids given my sardonic humor, but a from a biblical perspective, we can see that rain has had the dual purposes from God of both bringing judgement and bringing blessing, as seen in the account of Noah and the flood of judgment in Genesis and other passages which speak of rains causing the lands to yield fruit - and the rain being mercy and provision in the midst of great drought and famine.

But I think there's something that's analogous to rain in this day and age, namely money. Clearly the absence of money brings about great anxiety and the inability to pay for housing, clothing, transportation and other bare necessities leads to much rejoicing when money is found, whether by securing a job or by some another serendipitous means. This is akin to the rains coming in the midst of drought. It's clearly a blessing and the understandable response is praise and thanksgiving.

So how could a windfall of money be destructive? I don't think that's too much of a stretch. In the vein of too much of a good thing is a bad thing, I've seen too many times - even in my own life - where wealth, self-satisfaction and complacency are spiritually destructive and breeds the worse sort of behaviors towards God and others, including pride, greed, arrogance, self-sufficiency and selfishness. The judgment lies in God essentially releasing us to our own desires. It is the sinful heart that instead of humbly submitting "Thy will be done, Lord" insists that "My will be done." And in the same way the loving father released the prodigal son to live recklessly, we may find ourselves with a deluge of riches, yet spiritually bankrupt.

So perhaps the prayer is, as the Lord taught us to pray, that I ask for my daily bread that I might be fed, but not a crumb more that would swell up pride, arrogance or self-sufficiency in my own heart.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Different World of Evil for Our Children

One of my Facebook friends made an insightful observation when she noted how different our world was compared to thirty years ago, particularly in terms of the types of traumatic tragedies that we experienced from the eyes as children. She contrasted what might be the defining tragedy of our childhood - the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion - and compared that to what our children today have had to grasp to understand: 9/11, the Aurora theater shootings, the Newtown shootings, and now, the Boston Marathon bombings.

I remember the Challenger explosion as a middle schooler, and I'm ashamed to admit that among a lot of us, there was a great deal of intrigue and excitement that was intermingled with any sense of grief. I had heard that in another classroom which was watching the shuttle launch live on television, the explosion was followed by stunned silence broken by one youngster (allegedly Matt Reardon according to schoolyard folkyore) who jumped out of his seat, raised his fist and shouted "Yeah!" He was subsequently disciplined.

But despite our immaturity and the propagation of ghoulish and tasteless jokes (e.g. Q: "What does NASA stand for?" A: "Need another seven astronauts" and Q: "What did Christa McAuliffe say to her husband before she left for the space shuttle?" A: "Remember to feed the dog and I'll feed the fish."), we kids recognized that this event was ultimately a really bad and horrible thing. But it still seemed so distant from impacting us personally that we still were able to maintain a sense of security and invulnerability, and yes, it probably freed us to make those tasteless jokes.

Parents and teachers were asked to talk to kids about that tragedy, and it was usually an angle around how the astronauts were heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice in serving their country's quest for scientific and technology advancement. The adults talked about about how accidents happen and that most of us need not worry about a similar thing happening in our school bus or our family Honda Accord. They told us that evil corporations like Morton-Thiokol would someday have their comeuppance with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement for making faulty solid rocket booster "O-rings" (okay, they never told us that). But there was a theme of "it's terrible, but it'll never happen to you."

Not so with the tragedies of today. Our kids are growing up in a world where movie theaters are being shot up and individuals walk into a elementary school classroom and mow down the students with semi-automatic rifle fire. They are growing up in a world where standing in any crowd of people which nefarious individuals view as a "soft target" could eventually lead to being taken to the hospital or morgue chock full of ball bearings and nails from an improvised explosive device. Now when adults give the same talks to children, there are no more assurances that "it'll never happen to you". That's been replaced with "be careful and be vigilant."

The Facebook friend also followed with a point that I agreed with, and that was, "It's not about guns. It's about our society." The point isn't on the merits of gun control legislation, which is a separate post altogether - for what it's worth, I do think common-sense gun control legislature is something that should be pursued - but rather that the desire to do evil has seemed to have amplified and evolved over the years and that regardless of the mechanism, there's a raging desire to kill and harm without regard for the value of human life. Yes, sin and evil has existed since the time of creation, but there's a certain indifference to human life and dignity intermixed with a pervasive venom which just feels different.

This is why I believe that only the Gospel - applied individually - will ultimately save us collectively. There are lots of good solutions that can and should be pursued, but very few of these deal with the wickedness of the human heart in any sort of sustained way. It cuts to the evil of the human heart and prompts us to confess, "I'm a sinner in need of forgiveness and change, which is impossible without God's grace and power" and it embeds a core of humility of love, a love that is commanded to love your enemies, persecutors and those with whom you disagree. This is the talk I'll have with my kids. And above all it's a message of God's love and care for them, which endures even in a world of unspeakable evil.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Hunger to Learn

One of the things that I really appreciate about my children is that they embrace learning new things and find great joy in putting into practice that knowledge. Like most young families, there's a great deal of time in the car with parents in the front and kids in the back seats. In the search for squeezing out some quality time in the midst of those car rides, we play a lot of "games".

There are games are typically played during longer car rides, such as the picnic game, when you go around the car and state, "I'm going to a picnic and bringing an (food that begins with the letter 'A')." The next person in car then follows with "I'm going to a picnic and bringing an (the same food time which was mentioned earlier beginning with the letter 'A') and (a new food item beginning with the letter 'B')" It's a great time-killer and insomuch it sharpens our kids' memory skills, or mine, that's a bonus.

Another game that we play in the car is the "question game", where I alternate between Daniel and Sophia (Carissa isn't quite up for many of these games yet) random questions ranging from history, current events, science and math. To me, it's the equivalent of getting them to beg to eat vegetables because I'm pretty much drilling them on key facts and they actually find this fun. Maybe it's not such an odd concept, given quiz shows have always been popular and Jeopardy! has been around forever. Questions that I'll ask might be:

  • Name the first three United States Presidents
  • What is twelve plus eleven?
  • Name three kinds of reptiles
  • Name five Disney villains
  • Name five types of trees
  • What is eight times six?
  • Who is the current Vice President of the United States?
It's gotten to the point that they ask me to play this game in the car, which is pretty neat, and they're now making special requests around questions that they want to be asked. For example, Sophia recently was taught by Daniel the concept of multiplication by two, which Daniel explained was taking a number and adding it to itself. So Sophia asked to play "the question game" and asked me to lob a number of "times two" problems, most of which she got correct.

As I think of my children - and I think this might be true for children in general - I find in interesting how eager they are to learn new things, and how they embrace being challenged around these same new topics. It's almost an attitude of "I can learn that" followed by "bring it on!" In contrast, adults often view new things with great suspicion, and react with a mixture of fear, resignation and cynicism. I'm convinced that the axiom, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" was crafted by an adult as a cop-out refusal and unwillingness to learn and adapt to a new and changing world.

Perhaps this is because as adults, we'd like to believe that we "put in our time" and as people who are no longer children, we can claim intellectual mastery and the status of not needing to learn anything else. Of course this is not true, and if there is a cliché which rings true, it's the one that tells us that the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't know.

I think this also points to a broader perspective of life and how people deal with change, because any change in life requires tons of new things to learn - I know this first-hand. From making new friends to navigating through a new workplace, church and community to figuring the mundane things around the best place to buy groceries, housewares and gasoline, each day brings new things to learn. I hope like Sophia I can replicate that attitude of "I can learn that" followed by "bring it on!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Illusions of Stability and Instability

A few weeks ago, our family reached a major milestone when after only a month and a half apart, we were able to reunite together in Texas. The fact that this came to pass could only be explained by the grace of God and the tenacity of my wife, who to her credit managed to work with our relocation specialists to have our house sold in a span of a couple of weeks. Surely we were aided by a red-hot housing market in our previous location, but in retrospect, getting the family down to Houston in such short order was quite a feat. And while we're cooped up cozy in a two-bedroom apartment, it's awfully nice to be able to hug the wife and kids every night (well, sort of, but more on this later).

Of course, having our family together, while wonderful and uplifting, didn't and doesn't completely eliminate the sting of being away from extended family and good friends. What also didn't help is that within 36 hours of arriving in Houston together, I had to fly out for a week-long business trip to Ohio. While out of my control, it certainly had the bad appearance of, "Family, it's so great to have you here... now please excuse me as I leave..."

The truth of the matter is that I had spent quite a bit of time on the road over the past few weeks. For a ten day period, I was in Houston, then Chicago, then New Jersey, then Houston, then Ohio, then Houston. I suppose there's a silver lining in my United MileagePlus account. Part of this is due to the nature of my job, part of it is due to some specific dynamics of my current position at this time and part is due to the current transition. It's almost as if I entered a time warp and have returned to my management consulting days. Well, not quite not that bad. But it's not the clockwork daddy's-home-at-6:30 life that we used to have.

So with the family now more or less settled in our temporary apartment, we're in a better place than we were a month ago when we were living apart with me in my apartment and the rest of the family shuttling between my parents' house and a chaotic house in the midst of being sold. My wife's hyper-organization got the kids registered for elementary school within the first two days, and they were in swimming, baseball and math enrichment activities within the second week. That being said, things are far from stable. We still don't have a house, and it's conceivable that we might have to transition to a new town, school district and activities when all's said and done. And with my company suffering a terrible blow two weeks ago (a loss of a major customer which caused our stock price to plummet 8%... to the pain of my stock signing bonus), it's not out of the realm of possibility that my unit can get shut down, spun off or I could get canned in a drastic cost-reduction move. So while it might seem like a good time to sit back with hands behind head and smoke a victory cigar, there's still a ton of uncertainty.

On a more deeper level, what exactly is instability? If we recognize our role as sojourners in this world who base our security not on our bank account, house equity or even the supposed "stability" of a home, a permanent address or a stable job, are our lives any less stable than they were a year ago? God hasn't changed. God's character hasn't changed. God's love for our family hasn't changed.

So it behooves me not to fall into the same trap as the Israelites as they grumbled to Moses during the Exodus, questioning God with, "Why have you brought us away from New Jersey and family and friends to Houston to be miserable and die in this wilderness? There are no jughandle turns! There are no good Italian restaurants!" Levity aside, it's good to constantly remind myself of the truth that I am not in control, and it should be well with my soul that God is in control, and under His steady hand He leads this family. There is no better "stability".

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Yearning for Home

I think it’s safe to say that every member of the human race who has undergone some sort of transition in which there’s a change in community and family dynamics can relate with the phenomenon of homesickness. Child and adult alike has lamented either in thought or voice, “I want to go home.” But what exactly is home?

It’s more than a house, apartment or condominium. There are things about a particular building which may represent good memories of joy and reverie, but the structure plays a relatively minor role in those memories. It’s more than a geographical location, even though like a given house, a city or town may be the backdrop for moments which capture the happiness and comfort of being “home”.

Many people would say that “home” is people. There’s a lot of merit to that, given that family and friends play such a central role in a person’s comfort and happiness. One proof point for this perspective is that the preschool version of “I want to go home!” is “I want my mommy!” Clearly the company of certain people who help us to feel “at home” is a big part of the core.

I personally think that “home” is a state of being, one where we are safe, accepted and not alone. In some ways, I think “home” is the place directly opposite of “loneliness”. In loneliness, you feel isolated, unsupported, misunderstood, unaccepted and on your own. At home, you feel safe in community, fully accepted and embraced and celebrated with those who have you back.

In my own recent feelings of homesickness, I’ve tried to challenge myself and be introspective around the sadness of leaving family and friends from whom I’ve received many of the positive vibes above, such as community, acceptance, love, loyalty and camaraderie. I think there are two key findings that have emerged.

First, I can be confident that I will find a similar sense of “home” in Houston, but it will be different. Not better, not worse, but different. It would be an insult to my friends and family in New Jersey and my friends to be in Houston to assume that blessings of community will be identical. Friends aren’t replaceable and interchangeable like auto parts. Because each individual has been wonderfully and uniquely fashioned by the hand of God, my serious, casual, social and playful interactions with new friends will be very different than friends I’ve had for many years. And there will be learning curve which at times will be frustrating, but largely exciting and fun. I am confident that over time, there will be a sense of “home” that exists in Texas in the same way that I currently identify New Jersey as “home”.

But more importantly, neither New Jersey nor Texas will or should be the pinnacle of the feeling of home. If home is the place where we feel safe, accepted and loved, our laments of “I want to go home” is more accurately translated to “I want to be with Jesus”. Hebrews Chapter 11 captures the right perspective around home. After the author recounts people of faith who trusted in the promises of God and uses their lives as an example waiting patiently for that which eventually would be fulfilled in Christ:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Here the faithful are referred to as foreigners and strangers on earth. Other passages and translations refer to the faithful as pilgrims and sojourners. The premise is clear: as much as we may try to make ourselves comfortable and find peace in joy in our lives (which is not necessarily a bad thing at all), this world is not our home. Rather, it is in our relationship with Jesus Christ where we are most safe and accepted and where we are in that place of security when we look out to a scary world and not be afraid - for there nothing that this world can take away which isn't infinitely outweighed by the power, love and providence of God.

The trials which cause us to long for home is wonderfully redemptive. It reminds us that we're just passing through and while it's all well and good to devote ourselves to hospitality, fellowship and healthy and happy friendships - the ache of disappointment and sadness that these things will never bring total perfection is mercy which points us to the place - or more accurately, the Person - where that perfect peace lies.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Finding Spiritual Growth When the Sun Shines

Even as I continue to plug through my transition, I realize that the concept of some of the greatest blessings coming about during hardship is not unique or new. I fact, I can say fully tongue-in-cheek that Christian songwriters have made millions of royalties on talking about the redemptive nature of brokenness. These are the songs that speak to us powerfully in the midst of our sadness, despair, trials and pain.

I recently met up with a good friend who had a gone through a exponentially greater life change than the one I'm going through right now, which included leaving the United States and becoming a missionary with his wife in a "closed" Middle Eastern country. As he graciously sympathized with the feeling of leaving a life of family and friends behind, I asked him how he processed some of his most difficult "What have I done, and what am I doing here?" moments. His answer included meditating upon some Scripture and rolling up in the fetal position while listening to certain songs over and over while weeping.

I can totally relate with that. He offered up Ginny Owens' "If You Want Me To", with lyrics such as:

So when the whole world turns against me
And I'm all by myself
And I can't hear you answer my cries for help
I'll remember the suffering that your love put you through
And I will walk through the darkness if you want me to

In the past week, God has not coincidentally placed into my path two songs which are similar in that message: Natalie Grant's "Held" and Laura Story's "Blessings", which muses:

What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise

But if you ask me, the song which is on the pantheon of the "pain is spiritually redemptive Hall of Fame" and also importantly gives reminds us that our faithful response is to praise and bless God's name is "Blessed be Your Name" by Matt Redman, with the lyrics of:
Blessed Be Your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name... 
Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there's pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name
Now here's the thing that I find interesting. As mentioned in my earlier posts, I can look back at the hardest times of my life, and those also correspond with my times of greatest growth - the times that I've felt closest to the Lord.  If we assume that closeness with Christ is paramount, should I actually embrace, even pursue trial? Of course that sounds ridiculous, but I think part of the overall equation needs to includes how God is glorified in how He brings grace and blessing to His people. I think part of it is my own spiritual discipline in terms of drawing close to God (as opposed to complacent) during the good times. Note that in that same Matt Redman song the following lyrics:

Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name 
Blessed be Your name
When the sun's shining down on me
When the world's 'all as it should be'
Blessed be Your name
The point being that it doesn't need to be pain and difficulty which draw us closer. Notwithstanding C.S. Lewis' brilliant and completely accurate, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world," I need to be better at hearing God as He whispers and speaks in the midst of plenty and happiness. Otherwise, I risk missing out on far too many lessons and experiences which also emphasize His goodness and faithfulness.