Monday, February 27, 2012

Top 10 Ways You Can Really Help the Poor

          Earlier, I mentioned Christianity Today's article on finding biblical and effective ways in helping the poor. Part of that cover story is now available for reading online, where global economists rate the ten most effective (and ethical) ways to help the poor, mostly overseas.
          I noticed that water wells is at the top. The counter-cultural organization Advent Conspiracy has been rightfully pushing that one each Christmas.

          "Today, thanks to economic globalization and the Internet, those who want to care for the poor overseas enjoy a plethora of attractive options: sponsoring a child, donating a farm animal, making a small loan to a budding entrepreneur, installing a well in a village, getting a morning caffeine jolt with fair-trade (instead of free-trade) coffee—among others.
          "But what are the best ways to help those living in developing countries By 'best,' I mean most effective: things that actually help people rise out of poverty, and that carry with them a sizable 'bang for your buck'—programs in which the impact on the poor is significant per donated dollar."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Fun: The Ol' Fashioned Ministry Blooper

          A clever member of our congregation, with a sense of humor, left this on my office door this week. It's now on my bulletin board. I do enjoy a good bulletin blooper, and I thought some of you might enjoy this, too.
          Also, I lived in Highland Park for a year. It only has a few churches, so I'm curious what name-withdrawn minister spoke this little gem.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hospitality Comes From the Heart, Not the House

          I’ve occasionally seen the gift of hospitality discussed in the Christian blogosphere. Hospitality is arguably the most underrated form of ministry that was mentioned in the New Testament, as it’s where Christians have the opportunity to impress biblical Truth and love to the poor, estranged and unreached in a seemingly otherwise impersonal world. As I watch people discuss their developing skills in hospitality, they sometimes doubt their qualifications, namely based on the size and orderliness of their house. There’s a few things I need to clarify.
          The inner skill of hospitality has just as much to do with the square footage and appearance of one’s house as one’s inner skill in music has to do with how many bells and whistles are on his/her instrument. Not that much. While it’s nice to be hosted in a comfortable, open and clean space, the people with “advanced” skills in hospitality don’t rely on their house, or even their stronger familiarity with any location where God’s people are gathered or going. Their hospitality is mobile.
          I learned this important aspect of hospitality from a mentor in grad school. My wife and I wanted to host more people from our Chicago-area church plant, but we felt inadequate to the task with our barely-affordable 1br apartment. My mentor brushed that aside and said, “That doesn’t matter. You can be hospitable here at the church building.”
          I didn’t know the church building that well, but he continued. “Hospitality is the ability to make someone feel welcome and at home . . . anywhere. If you’re truly hospitable, no matter the situation or the location, you’re deeply caring about how someone you’re with is feeling, and you’re willing to do something to help them.” This is a rough paraphrased definition of mobile hospitality. Not to be smothering and overbearing, but to make people (e.g. the poor, strangers and other guests mentioned in the Bible) feel truly cared for. Hospitality, when you think about it, is an integral part of community-building, discipleship and evangelism. One of the very first records of the early Church comes from a positively fascinated atheist, who points out that Christians “offer a shared table” and “love everyone.”
          In our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbors, the poor, estranged and unreached, let’s think about how we can strive to be this holistic and biblical definition of “hospitable.” Let’s not worry so much about, for example, how recently the bookshelf was dusted. In some cases of hospitality, you’d be amazed how much the thought counts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Some Fun(damental) Facts About Lent

          Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lenten season. The Lenten season originates from the churchgoers' preparation for baptism, as baptisms were popularly desired and sought during Easter services. It, at first, consisted of the candidates preparing their testimony, moral fitness, and the ability to explain the creedal statements of the Church. The ascetic elements of Lenten season (fasting, abstinence from a sin-less recreational activity, etc.) developed in the Middle Ages. Lenten season is 40 days long, in honor of Christ's 40-day fast in the wilderness before His temptation.
          The etymology of the word "Lent" (shortened) mostly refers to longer days (longer times of daylight) and spring (referring to the transition from winter to spring). As this Lenten season begins, we may not be fasting, giving anything up or getting baptized, but are we making an effort to let the special meditation and celebration of Christ's foundational sacrifice and victory, continually bring "spring" into our lives?

Monday, February 20, 2012

C. Ben Mitchell Speaks on Freedom of Conscience

          C. Ben Mitchell, a scholar in bioethics and once a professor of mine, is honored to give the opening statement before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing. He makes a good point in that, even if you're pro-contraception or pro-choice, it's a spooky thing to have laws that coerce an individual's conscience.

          “Contrary to the portrayals in some of the popular media, this is not just a Catholic issue. All people of faith, and even those who claim no faith, have a stake in whether or not the government can violate the consciences of its citizenry.” 

          Watch the rest.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Fun: Top 10 Signs You’re a New Dad

This is a list that’s somewhat been a longtime coming. These are signs that the post-college adventurous life is fading, no matter how young the new dad is. I’m guilty of all of these.

10. You show off the storage room in your new apartment to all your twenty-something grad school friends.
9. You’re no longer bored out of your mind at videogame-less hardware and office supply stores, and are actually tempted to buy more things than you need.
8. You only look to cars for gas mileage, durability and affordability. Appearance or image never enters the equation.
7. You get your “squat” weight-lifting exercise by bending your knees to pick up a diaper while holding your child on your shoulder with the other hand.
6. You’ve had toys or bottles spill out of your brief case or coat pockets.
5. You like to take family trips wearing the old fad cargo pants because you can pack so many diapers, toys and sippy cups in the pockets.
4. You can’t stay awake through the 10 o’clock news or any late movie showing.
3. You use your Best Buy rewards gift certificate to buy an egg boiler.
2. Kids’ programming (on Netflix and rented DVD’s from the library) is far and away the dominant use of your XBox 360. 
1. You win a $50 debit card from an NFL sweepstakes and spend it on diapers at Walmart.

This is my list. Feel free to add your own!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Truth, Love, and Follow-Through: Jessica’s Story

          My wife and I once had a neighbor named Jessica, an impoverished and car-less single mom who would occasionally stop at our apartment door and ask for bus money or to borrow the phone. We eventually learned her backstory.   
          She was the daughter of a upstanding woman who was highly involved in a small local church. Jessica got pregnant in high school, and gave birth to her son, Justin. When we moved in next-door to Jessica’s place, Justin was 7 years old. Their room and board was being paid by Jessica’s grandmother, and Justin was going to the local elementary school. I mostly remember seeing Justin playing alone in the driveway when I came home from work.
          My wife wanted to be very neighborly to Jessica. On occasion, we lent her our phone, gave her a ride to the doctor, or gave her some money. Our daughter played with her son in our shared yard. Jessica expressed some interest in attending our church. 
          We had to be gracious and discerning, though, because my wife could tell when Jessica was lying to get a handoff from us. Her grandmother was continually paying the rent and taking her to the grocery store, while Jessica was, sadly, taking no initiative in acquiring a job, maintaining the house or even playing with her son. Thus, we wanted to help her and also help her to help herself. She was a self-isolated homebody with, seemingly, no friends and an emotionally-distant family. And she didn’t want to go back to the church where she was raised and where most of her family attended. After all, they know of her sinful past. To some, perhaps, Justin (her non-aborted child) was her scarlet letter.
          My wife and I moved to another (and bigger) rental community to accommodate our growing family. As my wife said good-bye to Jessica, she lovingly wished her the best, encouraged her to find a job, recommended a certain good, biblical and welcoming church within walking distance, and told her that, though we lived farther away, our phone number’s still the same and our door’s open if she ever wanted to talk. Jessica told my wife (truthfully, as she discerned) that we were the “best neighbors ever.” 
          A few months later, Jessica’s landlord emailed us that she was found dead in her apartment. She had overdosed on drugs. My wife attended her funeral at the church Jessica never wanted to go back to. She said it was a depressing funeral because few people seemed very saddened. It was as if Jessica, the never-wed single mother with no work ethic or job prospects, was a lost cause. Justin, now an orphan, lives with Jessica’s grandmother and still attends the same school. Jessica’s apartment was well-cleaned by the landlord and, because of its prime location, found a new tenant quickly.
          This true story (the names have been changed) shows a reality that, I feel, is known by few churchgoers (and also pled in a recent Christianity Today editorial): the battle for the sanctity of human life doesn’t end when the baby is born. Credit should be given to Jessica for not aborting her son, but it seems that’s where most the discipleship and grace from her family and church ended. Justin, the valued soul that pro-lifers were likely fighting for, lived at least 7 developmental years impoverished and virtually mother-less. Imagine if her church family had given her grace in the form of relational investment and encouragement, all the while developing her work ethic, maturity and motherhood skills. I can’t guarantee that it would have prevented her death and given her story a fairy tale ending, but it might have helped. My wife and I, just learning about her situation almost a decade into it, were too little too late.
          As we look to another national election season, tempted by passionate and heated tirades, let’s remember that the Church’s unique weapon in graciously helping the poor and the broken is not governmental stake or wealth. It’s Truth and biblical love. If we think the battle of pro-lifers is over once laws are passed and babies are born, I fear that stories like Jessica’s will become more common. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Once Upon A Time: Keeping Convictions, Breaking Curses and Longing for Justice and Peace

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          For the past few years, my wife and I have given up cable channels and grieved the loss of high-quality TV programming. There hasn't been anything close to the creativity, realism, complexity, philosophical depth, didacticism and overall professionalism of our former favorite TV series, Lost. As a pastor, I could blog for weeks about the countless biblical and hermeneutical parallels found in this six-season drama (feel free to check it out on Netflix and Hulu).
          But this post isn't about Lost. It's about Once Upon A Time. It's on the verge of saving my wife and I from our aforementioned depressing quandary.
          Once Upon A Time has two distinguished screenwriters in common with Lost (Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis), and there are aspects of the show that are Lost-esque (as well as a few common actors). However, whereas a thorough understanding of Lost's main objective was mostly elusive (losing the faithfulness of many impatient fans), the main objective of Once Upon A Time is fairly clear in the first few episodes. Snow White's evil stepmother queen, in an act of genocidal vengeance, invokes a curse upon the fair princess and the entire fairy-tale-character community where their memories are erased and they're transported to a small town in Massachusetts, where the evil queen, supposedly the only one with preserved memory, is the hard-nosed and dictatorial mayor. It's therefore up to Snow White's daughter, Emma, who was so transported before the curse, to somehow restore freedom to all the oppressed and memory-robbed fairy tale characters. This is difficult, because Emma doesn't really understand the significance of who she is and she doesn't really believe in fairy tales.
          Warning: There are spoilers in the following paragraph.
          Thus far, Once Upon A Time has shown more didacticism and moral absolutism than Lost's first season, at least. One recurring theme we see in most villains and conflicts is the true notion that corruption can snowball from desperation. It's a true test of one's faithfulness to his/her own convictions when the proverbial chips are down. Are you willing to compromise your values? For many characters, the answer is sadly yes. Cinderella, for example, is so desperate to escape her life as an emotionally-abused housemaid that she, unknowingly, signs away the life of her first-born child to Rumpelstiltskin (who gets a lot of power from contracts from frantic souls). The evil queen kills her own beloved father as part of the price to obtain the great curse that's the basis of the TV series, all because of her insatiable need for bitter revenge upon Snow White.
          Whereas most evening programming tends to assume decadence and relativize morality, this is a show where desperate compromise breeds corruption, and characters dig their own graves. Once Upon A Time is realistic and acknowledges the occasional complexity of ethics, but the axes of good and evil are pretty well understood. It's also a show where family and honesty come first, and all curses can be broken (kind of like grace). And, like most fairy tales do, Once Upon A Time develops a longing for justice and peace in the story from its viewers.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Seeking a Biblical and Efficient Way of Fighting Poverty

         It seems there's a lot of burdening and delaying debates within the American churches right now about why/how to combat poverty. Sometimes the call is a just brushed off as a political agenda or a guilt-trip. Others wonder what the government's role should be (if any), while others argue if the amount of doctrinal/evangelical content in the charity. Still others check motives for potential egoism. Some people are just too intimidated by the daunting call. 
          I give props to the latest issue of Christianity Today, particularly how, in the cover story, these questions are well-answered and we can be rightfully inspired.
          "The church can never match the sweep of national and global initiatives. But if the poor will be with us always, until the Second Coming, it is also true that bureaucratic and impersonal government will be as well. When it comes to caring for people as individuals in their uniqueness, the government is the clumsiest tool imaginable.
          "Ah, but people—those precious individuals embedded in a unique family and community—they are right in the church's sweet spot. No government can touch what the church can do here.
          "So while the government makes needed sweeping changes, the church is there to pick up the inevitable pieces of people trampled by government regulations, of people who get left behind, of people whom the government treats as mindless sheep, but whom the church knows have a Shepherd."
          You can read the rest of the story here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

It Sometimes Helps to Give Our Daughter Her Veggies

          Age 3 can be very pivotal. At least it was for me. It was when I was 3 years old when I first asked my mother from the front yard, with a tone of intense curiosity, "Is God real? And He can see me right now?" My older daughter is 3 right now, so I'm little apprehensive as I prepare myself to answer the craziest (yet sometimes significant) questions and continue to mold myself as a parent, since her permanent memorability is developing. We pray with them, and prayerfully teach them, discipline them and inspire them.
          Still, I sometimes see a little hope. We watched VeggieTales: Rack, Shack & Benny recently (a children-friendly version of the persecution of the Biblical characters Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the 3rd chapter of Daniel). We came to the apex of the story (around 1:45 in this video), when the protagonists get dropped into the furnace and they're saved from the flames. As the fire went out and was replaced by the radiant white glow of God's glory, intimidating "Mr. Nezzer," my older daughter gasped, smiled and said, "God is saving them."
          So, in a world where people (rightfully) fear the growing media and other cultural trends having a negative impact on the youngest of children, some Truth is being learned by our older daughter.  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Little Known and Underrated Resource for Worship Music

          When I was in intern at a jingle shop in Nashville, I attended a Reformed University Fellowship group (RUF for short) at a nearby Presbyterian church. It was led by the RUF leader of Nashville's Belmont University, Kevin Twit. He's a theologian and a Top 40 guitarist to boot, and he introduced me to Indelible Grace Music.
          Indelible Grace Music is a ministerial music movement that takes the text of classic hymns and adds a beautiful acoustic accompaniment (and often a new melody). It is very popular, for example, among Christian college students who yearn for the dense theological poetry of hymns with a more musically "organic" feel. Indelible Grace has released seven CD's (and they're on iTunes) and has free audio samples and sheet music on their website. Being based in Nashville, they've also featured some known names in Christian music (e.g. Jars of Clay's Dan Haseltine, Derek Webb).
          I've involved Indelible Grace's songs as offertories on occasion, and it's always been a worshipfully meditative time for many. More info can be found here.

          P.S. Kevin Twit also was the one who introduced me to Settlers of Catan . . .  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Random Thought: Christians are to Be Inspirationally Boring

          Occasionally, I wonder if I should apply for the weight-loss reality gameshow, The Biggest Loser. I could stand to lose a few pounds, and if I was willing to share my calorie-burning journey on national television, it might be a great opportunity to lose some weight and maybe make some money. 
          However, I somewhat doubt I’d get accepted, namely because I wouldn’t provide the drama they’re looking for. I’ve been through intense body composition programs before, so I know how to grit my teeth and get through tough workouts. If the show’s producers are hoping the boot-camp-style program will provoke and film an emotional breakdown or any emotional vulnerability from me to help garner ratings, they’ll be sorely disappointed. I’ll fail workouts, but I won’t cry.
          It seems that readers and viewers somewhat enjoy scandalous failure, drama and depravity. You don’t often see breaking headlines about how happy celebrity marriages are, or even highlighting even the littlest good news (especially in the tabloids). This is why and how mature Christians can be inspirationally boring.
          In a chaotic world of cynicism, drama and failure, Christians‘ lives should be exuding lives of righteousness, contentment, hope and joy. During difficult times, Christians show diligence, perseverance and selflessness rather than complaints and types of abandonment. Christians should be willing to take such Christ-like values of love and selflessness to the martyrdom of their reputation, if necessary (better that than a publicized scandalous fall from grace), being tried and tested and being known as the “real deal.”
          May we all continually strive to be boring together.        

Monday, February 6, 2012

Please Pray for Romania

          I want to encourage prayer for the country of Romania right now as it seems they are going through some of the worst political turmoil since the revolution against communism in 1989. The prime minister and his cabinet have stepped down to help "defuse the tension."
          Three years ago, I had the opportunity to do mission and charity work in Romania, serving in children's camps, performing in orchestras and preaching the Gospel. I spent a few nights in Bucharest, including the first church built since communism's fall. I still remember the look and size of the main capitol building.
          More details here.  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Congrats to the Giants.

I wanted to post this before, but it seems more appropriate now.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Today's Silly Friday: Vegetables Vilify Vicious Vigilantes?

Below is the trailer to the upcoming VeggieTales DVD, Robin Good and His Not-So-Merry Men. Could be interesting if they take a small (but rightful) stand against vigilante-ism, seemingly rebuking a popular hero. I know I'm interested in seeing the DVD.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Probably the Best Bumper Sticker in All of History

 . . . but it could only be rightfully be purchased and toted by one couple in all history.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Super Bowl: Making the Most of the Most Football-less Game

          I . . . don’t completely enjoy the Super Bowl. And this is coming from a guy who reads sports blogs everyday, organizes NFL draft parties, and even wrote of my NFL addiction a year ago. Granted, part of it is that I cheer for an NFL team that’s lost four Super Bowls and hasn’t been to one in decades.
          I love watching football. Unlike other professional sports, it has just the right level of captivating intensity. The playoff rounds are in singular games (not series) that occur on weekends, so there’s a low commitment level. I think those reasons alone are why the NFL (at least in the regular season) is the most profitable professional sport.
  And then there’s the Super Bowl. To me, the Super Bowl is the grand finale of the dramatic storyline of the season. But it more seems, at this point, like a circus of glitz and pop culture kitsch. If the Super Bowl was a NASCAR automobile, the glare of the plastered ads would blind people from seeing the car doing any racing.
          Just last night, as my wife and I were enjoying and one of the ads was its voting event on the best upcoming Super Bowl ad, with the opening tagline (slightly paraphrased): “You won’t remember the game, but you will remember [the ads].” The ads have become more sophomoric and raunchy. I remember many more Facebook posts on Christina Aguilera’s botch of the national anthem or the Black Eyed Peas‘ disappointing half-time show than anything football-related. (Also, my musical side has never enjoyed the halftime show, save for U2’s tribute to 9-11 victims and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s brief swing revival). Yet, all these caricatures (and even social/political platforms) jump on the bandwagon to attract more viewership of a 60-minute game further expanded beyond three hours.
          I really just want to watch the game.
  Also, the amount of money that gets poured into this Bowl is extreme. There is no contest between what people spend (in money and viewership) on the Super Bowl and what people spend on the NBA Finals, World Series and Stanley Cup combined. Its nearest competitor is NCAA Football, and at least a portion of the profits go to the school’s underfunded programs. There’s been economic analyses after this past Super Bowl that don’t paint the NFL quite as charitable.
  Nonetheless, it is the clash between two very talented football teams, and I won’t want to miss it. I will, however, want to miss everything else. And I’ll strive to have a streak of biblical stewardship in my celebration of the big game.