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 d├ętente 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.