With all of the busyness of Advent/Christmas season, I sometimes forget about the real meaning of Christmas and also lose some of the Christmas cheer. But once in awhile I encounter something that brings a smile to my face and warms my spirits. And this video brings me back to the ’80s at the same time. It’s Straight No Chaser singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:
For those of you who are not cultured enough to know the song that they are singing, here is Toto singing “Africa”:
So as I was about to take a few “golf” pencils from the back of the pew to poke my eyes and ears out as I sat through an excruciatingly laborious congregational meeting, I was stunned back to reality by two things. First, as I was about to put my head in my hands and stare down to the floor to find a sign that this will get better, I found a shiny penny on the red, just shampooed carpet below me. And secondly in that same exact moment, the elder who was about to take us through the budget for next year mentioned a name, Louise Mueller. Though I knew what the penny was and what it represents, luck or hope or even a sign of uselessness in today’s economy, I had no idea who Louise Mueller was. It was explained to us that Louise was a former member of this church. Because this church touched her so much over the years and because she continues to have such hope for this faith community, she gave a large portion of her estate in her death to our church. Hope comes from such unexpected places. As our economy struggles, so does our churches and the church that I serve is no exception. I believe it hits smaller churches the hardest. But just when things look bleak and the glimmer of hope begins to distinguish, hope arrives unexpectedly.
As I began to ponder the incredible gift of hope that Louise gave to the church in its time of need during Advent, my mind wondered to my experience of Advent just two years ago. In just a few months after a painful separation from a faith community I dearly loved and cared for, in my dark place of despair, my wife and I discovered that we had conceived our much wanted second child. It occurred during the beginning of Advent and it couldn’t have come at a better time. We were desperately needing and looking for any sign of hope, and joy came down to us in a form of a our beautifully growing child. As I reflect back, at the time without knowing it , this child became for us “the” sign of hope in our lives. But it was soon short lived when in early January, during an ultrasound, we found that our baby’s heart was no longer beating. Not only were we devastated because of the loss of our child, but also because of the loss of hope in our lives. It threw me into such a state of despair that the only way to express it was through a handwritten poem:
I Am Sorry
I am sorry for the way
I didn’t think about you during the day
I am sorry for the way
I didn’t talk to you each night
I am sorry for the way
I forgot about you in my life
I am sorry for the way
You are not here with me today
I am sorry for the lack of tears
And for my stoic face
All I feel is numb and cold
And a smile is a mile away
I am sorry that I did not think
About you, when you were alive
And I am sorry I try to forget
About you, now that you are gone
I am sorry for the way
I put my hopes and dreams on you
I knew it was unrealistic
But it’s what I needed to do
And I am sorry that my anger
Is over a damn bed that will not come
Instead of that my unborn child
Will cease to grow and be born
But I do think about you
Each and every night
Just how much I would have loved you
And kissed you good night
How beautiful you would have been
And a mother and brother who would have love you so
And now all I can say
Is sorry that you had to go
So we lay your beautifully forming body
In front of our loving God
May God hold you close and dear
Forever and today
I love you, Your Daddy
But in this darkness, hope came unexpectedly from so many places. There were many Louise Muellers in our life. When I had lost hope, there were others who hoped for me, carried me and even instilled hope in me once again. So in this Advent season as we celebrate the time of hope, I continue to think about how I can be an agent of hope to those who need it the most. And I think this is what the Advent Conspiracy is partly about:
Gluttony is the word that describes my last 6 day vacation in Reno. The days just flew by full of food, laughter, beers, wine, desserts, and more food, laughter, and yes even more libation. It was a whirlwind vacation with a Thanksgiving feast, family gatherings, my son’s birthday party, a baptism of my niece, pictures with Santa and ending with a hike into the mountains of Toiyabe National Forest to find our own Christmas tree. Here is a family pic (possible Xmas card?)
For six days my only focus was my immediate and extended family. It felt awesome. Of course it took me a few days to mostly unplug my life. I say mostly, since I did send a few twitter updates during the six days. Being an Internet junkie and a recent convert to social networking sites, it was difficult to completely unplug. It took all I had to hold myself back from checking all of the news/tech/digg/sports/facebook/google reader/twitter gadgets on my igoogle page as I stared at a beautiful 24 inch iMac screen in my sister-in-law’s home. It was harder still to ignore my emails on my blackberry which constantly reminds me of incoming mail with a tone only described as “caffeine”. My favorite blackberry button during the week was “delete on handheld”. Even in my SF home when our eldest is away in preschool, you would mostly find my wife and I in the living room with our laptops, browsing, checking emails and working while instant messaging each other sitting side by side. Geeky I know in a cute kind of way of course. And finally it took two days to completely unwind and leave my work life.
In the midst of my vacation, what I began to forget is the world around me: no news, no information, no emails, no status updates. I would not have known about the terrors in Mumbai, the bombing in Somalia, the continued economic downturn, and the possible Obama cabinet members if my news hungry father didn’t tell me about them when I called him to wish both my parents a Happy Thanksgiving.
But most of the six days felt like a Sabbath for me, a true Sabbath of rest and of basking in the life that I now live. It was a time to unwind from the world, work and information overload. This vacation gave me a chance to enjoy those around me, and God’s gifts and creation more abundantly. And it all culminated on our last vacation day while hiking through the forest on our 2nd annual Christmas tree finding expedition. Breathing in the cool crisp air with the crackling sounds of snow under our feet and with family and friends by our side, it was easy to forget my San Francisco and my cyber life. I drank it all in while watching my son and his cousin make snow angels on the ground, staring at my wife lovingly holding and kissing our daughter, smiling at my dog Chewy as he pranced in joy among the snow piles, searching high and low for our perfect Christmas tree, laughing while hearing awful jokes, and yes, downing another beer while holding, no inhaling a bowl full of homemade chili. It was a perfect way to celebrate and end my Sabbath.
The art of forgetting is difficult to master and so needed in life, and this week has reminded and taught me just how important it truly is.
I love games but am not an avid online gamer. So when a friend sent me an email to play Texas Hold’em on facebook, I decide to try a hand or two. It’s been years since I would get together with the guys on Friday or Saturday for poker nights. We would win some, lose some, eat some, joke some, and expletives would fly around the table faster than the cards or our chips. We knew each other and were all friends. Now we are all married, have regular jobs and yes, kids.
As I sat down to play with about 6 others on my laptop screen, I didn’t recognize their names let alone pronounce them. As the hands were played, we chatted with such niceties as “nice hand”, “good play”, “good one”, “I thought you may have that card”, etc. But as the game went on and the amount of the pot rose, the chatting became a little more venomous, until about 20 minutes into the game, the pot was as high as we had ever seen it. And with most of our chips in the middle of our imaginary table, I received the exact card that I needed on the turn and won. As I was celebrating while watching How I Met Your Mother, immediately the expletives came flying my way by people who I do not know and have never met. And for a brief moment, I remembered all of those names I was called as a young Korean American boy growing up in a small town in the Midwest, by people who did not know me or wanted anything to do with me.
I just read an article in Reuters about the new controversy surrounding Barack Obama’s faith. The controversy isn’t coming from those who think Barack Obama is a Muslim, though in a recent survey, 50% of devout Christians who were McCain voters thought that Obama is/was a Muslim. According to the Reuter’s article, the question of whether Obama is a Christian is coming from “those who think he’s a phony follower of Jesus Christ.” And the reason for this is because of a few of his answers to some theological questions in a 2004 interview with beliefnet.com. It just doesn’t jibe with their own theological views on which they stand. These detractors have never met or have had a conversion with Obama personally about his life or his faith.
Labels. Definitions. Can we ever be free of them. Can we ever free ourselves from a society, a world that wants to define us. I grew up with the words “chink” or “Jap” that dripped off my body as I walked the malls, the halls of my school, or the alleys of the streets in all my little towns, knowing that I fit neither of those ethnic groups but treated as less than all the rest. I was the invisible Asian but belittled nonetheless. I walked into churches where I was taught either I was a sinner or that I was better than most because I was a Christian. I walked into high school and college with instilled values that I needed to excel in math and sciences because that was what I was supposed to do to find a safe career. I was told to be good and act my best at all times because I wasn’t just representing myself in the world, but I was representing all Koreans to the community around me. I was and still am constantly bombarded by commercials on billboards, newspapers, magazines, websites, TV and Radio telling me that I am a consumer and have lots of needs. I receive ad emails and pop ups on websites by those who think they know me and what I want in life. And I am still haunted at times internally or externally, that as a pastor I should be “holier than thou” and can’t really be me.
In a 60 Minute story on the Obama’s, both Michelle and Barack are were very protective of their daughters as well as they should be. But more than that, they wanted to protect them from being unduly influenced by outside forces that will come just because they are the children of the President. Barack said that after 4 or 8 years, if his children stay true to who they are and not become jaded or changed because of this situation, then they would have done their jobs.
It has taken me until my mid twenties to begin to break out from under the weight of all of society’s labels of me and to truly be me. At times I felt like I wanted to scream and rant like these two women in the video. (Please excuse the strong language but not the sentiments)
For the past 13 years or so, I have begun a path to discovery to finally claim my identity as a uniquely created child of God. I am sure that no amount of Therapy or introspection and conversation can rid me of all of my labeled baggage, or would I want to rid myself of all of them, but I can be aware of them and at least try to make the world a better environment for my Son and Daughter to figure out who they are without all of the negative help. Wish me luck!
I just came across a video and a few articles about a church lead by Ed Young in Texas. Beginning next week, he is calling for a 7 day sex challenge for married couples. Click below:
My initial reaction is that this is a publicity stunt for a church that worships around 20,000 each weekend. One can readily see from youtube that he has been on CNN, CBS and who knows how many other tv and radio stations. And if it is not a publicity stunt, and this is truly the way the church wants to talk about this issue, then. . . ill conceived or dangerous at its worst. I don’t think I ever want to my parishoners to say to each other, “because my pastor challenged us to do it”. To me, it is a very male way of looking at sex and especially intimacy between a man and woman. I will just chalk it up to messaging gone wrong. My favorite quote “it’s time that we need to put the bed back in church and God back on the bed”. What???
We spent last Saturday morning perusing the sea of tables with information about different schools in San Francisco. In the almost three years that our son will have been in daycare and preschool, we will have spent more money than receiving my degree from University of Michigan where I attended in the late 1980’s. So we are taking the plunge into public school education which is full of choices, the anxiety, the information gathering, the waiting, and oh yeah, entering into The Lottery System that San Francisco uses to decide where our children will attend school. So in order to make an informed decision for our top 7 choices of schools, we spent an hour and half talking to school teachers, principals and parents. We already did some research before the enrollment fair and wanted to make sure to visit several school that we were already interested in, but also wanted a chance to see what other choices were out there. And we were pleasantly surprised that there plenty of good public schools in San Francisco that offer many different programs and teaching philosophies. Talking with those who were promoting their school of choice, one would have thought that all the schools were top notch, the best school out there, the most caring teachers, most involved parents, or “up and coming” and “jewel” in the rough. I think we have to take all of these with the grain of salt.
So today, as I was writing all the dates for school visitations, I began to think about the question, what and where is the truth. Do we take what these school promoters tell us at face value. Do we just rely on the comments, reviews and the school scores that we found on the internet. Or maybe do we just go with our gut. Today, I was directed to an online book called Proof Beyond Reasonable Doubt by Mark Kelly. I was interested, had some time, and it was very short read. The author wants to prove beyond the reasonable doubt, more than saying I believe because I have faith, that the true religion and the morals associated with it is the Christian faith. He wants to blast holes in the different world views that people hold, such as Skepticism which he abhors, to prove that the Christian faith is the true religion. But in defending the Christian faith and denying other world views and ideas such as the Theory of Evolution, he uses those same lens of the skeptic. Not only that, he defends Christianity as truth by using the Bible itself and using his interpretation of it. As a Presbyterian pastor, I was so interested in how he would prove his point, but after reading the article, I became a skeptic myself. And a few questions that lingered afterwards is what is truth and what exactly are the truths that the author was talking about?
What is the truth? Is the truth relative? As I study, pray, engage with the community around me, I know I hold truths and stances that are very different from another’s. Whether it is in the interpretation of scripture, philosophy of ministry, or my moral and world view, I know my beliefs are contrary to some. In my context, in the place where I am today, in my connection with God, in my striving to live in the way of Jesus, I hold and live with these truths, truths which may be very different from another Christian who lives across the street, across town, or across the table in the small group that I lead. To me, this is where conversations are so important. I enter into these conservations with my truths, not to change the other’s mind or beat it over someone’s head, but more to listen and to fully hear, and hopefully to be heard as well. And in our talking, listening and understanding, the truth becomes bigger than mine or theirs.
Whatever the case, the truth of Christianity is not only to know it but to live it in love. More than making the best oratory or written arguments for Christianity, wouldn’t it be better to live and show it with our lived life individually and definitely as a community. This morning, I posted a status update on facebook pondering “what is truth”. And one of the comments I received was, “the love in your family and in your community”. For today, that is the answer to my question that I was seeking.
As for our Son’s school choices, we will visiting no fewer than 7 different schools in the first two weeks of December. More than taking the word of someone promoting their school, we will experience the school ourselves. And we certainly hope that the truths that were told is indeed true when we make these visitations. And really, isn’t this the truth that Christians and non-christians alike are looking for when they enter our communities of faith. Just wondering.
Tuesday night will probably be one of those moments in life when people will ask where were you and what were you doing when Barack Obama became the President of the United States of America. I have to say that my answer is not very glamorous. I was actually in the bathroom helping my toddler try to fend off his bout with constipation, when I overheard that Obama passed the 270 mark on TV. I am sure that my son is glad to be part of history in this way. But the following morning as we were all beginning to wake up and gathered on our bed, as is our usual morning routine, we asked our son a question. My wife Theresa asked, “Today you can be anything that you want to be. What would you like to be?” He thought for a few seconds, looked up at us and said with a loud clear voice, “I want to be a dinosaur.”
After all the laughter, and the chuckles that I had throughout the day when I thought about my three year old slowly becoming a dinosaur, I began to think about the hopes and dreams that we all have for our lives. I shouldn’t have been surprised by his answer since he has been infatuated with Dinosaurs for almost two years now. But in his answer, he did not say, he wanted to be a paleontologist to study them, or go back in time to be with them, he actually wanted to be one himself. At this one moment in time, that is his hope and in his striving, he sees no barriers in achieving it.
At what age do these hopes become dashed for us. When do these dreams begin to fade. It may come from inside of us filled with doubts and comes also from external sources such as our parents and family. But as an Asian American, I know our society as a whole has a lot to do with it. As I see the world around us in my daily living, I see hopes shattered all across this country and all across the world. As I see injustices in many places and in California with prop 8’s passing, I feel and see anger and hopes drowning in tears.
As I ponder the gospel message in this week’s lectionary, Matthew 25:1-13, I read of the 10 bridesmaids, all dressed and ready in excitement to meet the bridegroom. They are waiting in anticipation, but their hopes are dashed in the prolonged wait and they all fall asleep. As I see hopes dashed again and again, I also fall asleep at times for extended periods. But in life, things happen that wakes me up, stirs me and points me in the way of hope again.
As I watched with tears in my eyes the new First Family walk out onto that stage at Grant Park in Chicago and heard Barack Obama’s speech to America and to the world, the single word that enveloped me was “hope”. Hope that we can reach for dreams again. Hope that a better America is possible, an America that is just, honest, not only thinks inwardly about its own well being, but works with others to make the world a better place. And an America that breaks down all barriers and injustices between people. In no way do I think Obama is the “One”, the “Savior”, the “great hope” who will bring all of this about, but for me, he is a symbol that points me again in the path of hope and that we can all work together to make change happen for a better world.
As for my son’s hopes of being a Dinosaur, who knows, sometime in the near future with enough genetic engineering and technology, maybe he really can be a dinosaur. But for now, I will continue to provide the environment and work to make the world a place where he and my daughter can dream dreams, see visions and actually make them happen.