Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

Friday, November 6, 2015

Why I Enjoy Halloween

A friend in my church asked recently "What is our church policy regarding Halloween?"

As this is my personal blog, I will speak for myself. My family enjoys Halloween. It doesn't mean other Christians should. In fact, we have the freedom in Christ to participate as we choose.

We participate by dressing up. I attend Halloween costume parties. We take our kids trick-or-treating in the neighborhood.

Why do we do that?

I understand Halloween has roots in the past as a pagan holiday. I haven't researched its full history but I know there's some evil and occult stuff out there. Halloween also has roots as a Christian holiday - somehow the two traditions became mixed together over the years.

I also recognize there are overtly disturbing elements of Halloween - demons, zombies, witches, ghouls, skeletons, and other gory, goth, and decidedly non-Jesus-y type things. I know the purpose of a haunted house is to scare people. One of our neighbors builds one with pop-up tents in their front yard. It's always pretty scary.

Lastly, I understand that as a Christ follower, I am called to be in the world but not of it, to live counter-culturally, and not to be conformed to the thinking of this world. I also understand that as a Christian leader, I am a role model for others.

In light of the above, I believe one's participation in Halloween is a matter of conscience. Our motivation matters just as much as our behavior. There is no absolute right or wrong, there is a wide range of permissible options, and above all, there is freedom in Christ (this also happens to be our church policy).

Here are some possible options for how Christians can celebrate Halloween: 1) No participation in anything Halloween-related: no dressing up, no listening to ghost stories, not even attending Halloween alternatives. 2) Halloween alternatives such as a "Harvest Festival"; "Trunk-or-Treat", and other opportunities to reach out to the community 3) Limited, non-compromising participation: Handing out candy to neighbors, dressing up and acting in ways that are honorable to Christ.

I choose the last option. My wife and I see Halloween as an opportunity for our children to enjoy our neighbors and for the children in our neighborhood to enjoy us. We brought our dog, Kodi, trick-or-treating with us and one neighbor, upon seeing him dressed up as a pirate, gave him a dog treat. There is something gospel-redemptive about neighbors walking around greeting each other. 

As far as the occult and pagan history of Halloween, I have not discussed this with my kids nor do I feel it important to do so. At least not yet. In the limited way we participate, I don't see any linkage with idolatry or pagan rituals. There may be a connection but I would rather help our kids respond well to the messages popular culture sends 365 days of the year through social media, music, movies, and gaming. I understand Halloween is representative of popular culture but the holiday itself is towards the bottom of the list when it comes to deconstructing the secular worldview. 

However in the future, I would like my kids to think through the gospel implications of Halloween - how can this holiday be an opportunity to love others? Keep in mind I don't view Halloween as a major outreach opportunity. It's simply one way to join my neighborhood in community. Here are Tim Challies' words:
I think Halloween is a time that you can prove to your neighbors that you care about them, that you care about their children, and that you are glad to be in this world and this culture, even if you are not of this world or this culture.
Additional reading:

Monday, October 19, 2015

My happiness is dependent on circumstances

A friend emailed me that Weight Watchers stock, which I own, jumped 80% today because Oprah was announced as a board member. The news gave me a distinct feeling of pleasure. Like I just won something. Like I had just accomplished something worthwhile.
Up to that point I wasn't feeling so great because Mondays are typically tough for me. Like many preachers, I felt like my sermon the day before could have been better. It's the same as the Monday morning quarterback syndrome - I review game decisions that I wish I could do over again. 

As a preacher of the gospel, I tell people their happiness is not dependent on circumstances but rather God's unconditional love expressed through Jesus Christ but most of the time my emotional life does not respond that way. I'm happy when things go my way and I'm unhappy when they don't. 

I know I'm not alone in having my personal satisfaction depend on my surroundings but it's disturbing when it violates what I stand for as a believer and a minister.

As a man, my happiness is dependent on expressions of masculinity and physical health. I'm fairly healthy right now but have been having some joint problems and that's depressed my mood somewhat. 

As a father, my happiness often depends on the behavior and accomplishments of my children. It's easy to go on an emotional roller coaster based on well our kids are listening to and obeying Judy and me. I also wonder for parents whose highest goal for the children is "to be happy" if they are consigning them to an idolatry of control - to pursue the utmost influence over circumstances so that no event would threaten their personal satisfaction. I fear I implicitly communicate that to my kids when I derive greatest pleasure over positive events and sadness over negative ones.

As a husband, my happiness often depends on the emotional well-being of my wife. As they say, "happy wife is a happy life". Truthfully, I'm probably most affected when she's unhappy with me but otherwise her moods don't affect me that much.

As a pastor, it is easy to spiritualize bad moods because they reflect my commitment to preaching the gospel well. But it is really just a thinly veiled excuse to place worth in my performance. Apart from my performance, my emotional well-being also feeds off others' perception of me. When I discover I may be disliked, things become very stressful.

I'm not saying that my life should be this constant, steady upward trajectory of contentment but there does seem to be some basic level of peace and joy that is missing.

What's exciting about these realizations isn't that I have so far to go. That's a humbling realization I always need. Rather, I have a tremendous opportunity to believe the gospel for myself.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Short Term 12: Why I became a pastor

I watch movies to relax and be entertained but every now and then a movie comes along that grabs my attention and feels so compelling that I can't help but watch. Short Term 12 (now on Netflix) does that for me.

It is a breakout performance for Brie Larson and she is fantastic. She plays supervisor at a foster-care home for at-risk youth. She is incredibly competent but she carries painful baggage that become exposed after a new girl joins the center. That's pretty much it as far as story arc. There is drama and tension built up but in the end, it's about a woman changing lives while working out her own personal life change. That pretty much summarizes what being a pastor is about. I work on other people's issues as I wrestle with my own.

Here's why I loved the film:

1) Trying new things = laughter

The humor in the movie is provided by Nate, the new staff person at the group home. He tells the teens he is taking a year off from college because he always wanted to work with "underprivileged kids". His tone is patronizing and not so tactful. In another scene, he's told to be tough on the kids and initially refuse their demands as they will try to take advantage of him. A couple young girls ask Nate to jump rope with them and he dutifully turns them down. Classic.

It's easy to laugh at Nate as he commits all kind of rookie errors. Most of us would make the exact same mistakes if we were put in Nate's shoes. The laughter diffuses the tension from the tragic element of these kids' lives. It's hard to imagine a greater pain than being unloved by one's parents. The comic relief is indeed cathartic and reason why having a sense of humor is so important to survive and thrive in this kind of work. Nate is overwhelmed by the chaos and is an empathetic proxy for how we as outsiders would experience the group home.

An aside: When I was young, it was easy to try new things and be laughed at because I wasn't expected to know better or appear competent. But as I've gotten older, there's greater social (and perhaps internal) pressure for me to appear competent. It is absolutely a barrier to trying new things and putting myself in foreign situations. I hope I never stop trying new things and am always willing to laugh at myself. Sucking at stuff is also a good way to crucify pride.

2) Keeping race real

The kids at the home are like a Benetton ad - there's every color under the sun. And yet there is no sense of tokenism in assembling this group of teenagers. Race is not directly addressed in any way nor does it feel like there's a "diversity" agenda. At the same time, I believe the writer/director, Destin Daniel Cretton, went to great lengths to cast people that reflect the true racial diversity of the Los Angeles area. It's so real that watching Short Term 12 makes you feel like you're watching a documentary. Cretton worked in a group home for two years and the stories in the movie reflect real-life experiences of foster kids he encountered during that time or through later interviews of staff and adults who went through group homes.

What makes the movie particularly poignant to me is Cretton wrote the movie for a very narrow audience. He wanted to send out a "thank you" to the people who work in group homes. It explains why he worked so hard to portray the group home experience accurately because he wanted to fully appreciate the demanding and emotionally draining nature of the work.

3) The beauty of shared pain

There are a couple indelible moments when two teenagers in separate scenes express their pain artistic ways. These moving emotional tapestries leave one speechless. After one of them, the staff member present says after a pause, "I don't know what to say to that, man". In moments like that, words don't do justice. 

The original cut of the film was two hours long and apparently, "made you feel pretty depressed about humanity". Humanity is pretty depressing. There's a lot of pain out there. And yet there is something beautiful when a person has the courage to become vulnerable and express their pain through poetic means. Throughout the years, I've been privileged to participate in this kind of heart sharing from all kinds of people and there's nothing like it.

4) Life change is the hardest, most fulfilling endeavor

It's not a movie that hits you over the head with its message and I appreciate that. The plot turn is positive but it leaves many unanswered questions - for instance, you don't know whether Brie Larson's character is going to overcome her baggage but you do see her taking steps towards addressing them. That's how life works. We keep going, in the direction of the light, despite the darkness.

What I appreciate most is the way Cretton portrays life change. It is the hardest work. Life change is like squeezing water from a rock. Most people don't respond. Most people don't want to be helped. Most people don't see a need to change. Most people would rather suffer on their own than try to face problems that feel impossible to fix. Because of these factors, people in helping professions often make no discernible impact in others' lives. It's not that we're not trying, it's because the nature of life change is subjective, interactive, and complex - it's hard to know if we're helping, it's totally dependent on how the other person responds, and it's extremely challenging to overhaul a person's thought patterns.

And yet in those rare moments when you actually help another person, there is nothing like it. It is the greatest thrill to witness a person's transformation and to know you played a role in it.

Being a pastor means helping people to see their need for life change and point them towards truth. Being a pastor also involves being oriented towards that same truth and experiencing life change for myself. That's the message of Short Term 12. We help others as we grow ourselves and we grow ourselves as we help others. Success isn't judged solely by the tangible outcome of helping others out of darkness, it's determined by our willingness to journey with others towards the light.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

You're not Angelina Jolie

I enjoy confrontation but my emotional reactiveness can often get in the way of being helpful.

This article by Evan Marc Katz, a dating coach, is an example of effective communication and its limits. He is passionate, logical, and empathetic in making his point. And yet even the most helpful communication will fail when the hearer doesn't want to understand.

Effective Communication

What I admire about Katz is his ability to call a woman out on her issues in a way that is sensitive, compassionate, and rational and yet makes his point forcefully and clearly. I wish I could do that.

This woman complains to Katz that her boyfriend doesn't think she's as beautiful as Angelina Jolie. It's not a comment he made in passing or because he was dissatisfied with her looks - it's something she brought up with him - likely when they were watching a movie and he made some comment praising Jolie's looks. The woman then asks if her boyfriend's inability to correctly assess her hotness is a deal-breaker.
Just wow.

So many things wrong with this. The woman's question is delusional and reeks of insecurity and self-absorption.  My response to her would have sounded something like this:

"WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? You are an irrational lunatic. I can't even talk to you right now." 

And then I would have tromped away in disgust. There's passion but no effectiveness.

Which is why I admire Katz's response. It's so baller. He affirms the question, explains objectively the differences between the way men and women communicate, and then systematically dismantles her question and exposes what it reveals about her. He's like Lebron singlehandedly breaking down the Warriors defense. He's putting on a clinic here.

1) Disarm the receiver: She is defensive and he does two things to break that down a) affirm and appreciate the question b) tell a story that is decidedly neutral in its tone and point (how men and women communicate differently) c) expresses something positive about her communication 

"In fact, suffice to say, women are largely better and more sensitive communicators and men should really learn take a page out of women’s emotional playbooks."

And then slips the dagger - 

"Except for this one thing… Because women are so kind and supportive, they don’t always speak their minds. They obscure the truth to be sensitive, but fail to communicate their true feelings."

2) Analyze the delusional elements: He talks about her three delusions - expecting her boyfriend to be infatuated with her, insulting her boyfriend's look in retaliation, and her persistent desire to be found objectively more beautiful than most Hollywood celebrities.

He then turns the tables on her and asks her how she would feel if he felt offended that she didn't objectively think he was as creative as Steve Jobs (not exactly what he says but close). The men out there who would compare themselves favorably to Steve Jobs are either on Steve Jobs' level (Larry Ellison comes to mind) or completely irrelevant and dismissed. (Actually, there probably are a lot of guys out there who think they're as creative as Steve Jobs but I doubt they would demand their girlfriends share the same assessment. If they're crazy enough to assess themselves that highly, they're probably not too concerned about what people think about them. When guys go delusional, they go full delusional.)

In any case, Katz's argument is masterful and okay, a little bit harsh, but he's so good at helping her see this from a different perspective.

When communication breaks down 

What's crazier is, based on the comments, there are women who believe their significant other SHOULD OBJECTIVELY THINK SHE IS THE HOTTEST PERSON ON THE PLANET otherwise he must not be in love with her. If he doesn't feel that way, he must therefore think of her as a "consolation prize". That is just insane.

What's crazy is - in the comments (450+) is that several women 1) insist they want to be lied to. 2) confuse physical attractiveness with enduring affection of love. There's even one woman, whom many commenters agree with,  who insults EMK and his marriage. Honestly, it's crazy to me that there are people who even when shown something communicated well, refuse to understand. He expresses his viewpoint on her question and someone attacks him for it. Catty much?
That being said, even when you communicate something well, to men or women, there will be significant number of people who will still NOT GET THE MESSAGE. They will misinterpret, misunderstand you, etc. Even yes, even the Lebron James of dating coaches has his limits. 

So here's the thing: People do not truly value honesty. They want an idealized version of love that does not exist. It is the idolatry of romance. If a man falls in love with you, then he must objectively believe you are GOD'S GIFT TO MEN. Otherwise, he must not love you. He must think of you as second-class. Do Disney movies actually promote this? I know popular culture is crazy on this. This conception of romance is what props up the self-worth of women and renders them unable to hear truth.
Refusal to acknowledge truth

But there's a deeper point than the idolatry of romance. We are being dishonest when we ask to be compared with others. Where we seek comparisons reveal how we seek approval and in what ways we are vulnerable to deception. I have often asked Judy to compare me with other people in areas that I strive to excel in. Recently, I asked Judy to critique another pastor's preaching. Implicit in my question was the not-so-innocent motive of wanting her to affirm my ability to communicate. I wanted her to compare me favorably in regards to an area where I'm insecure. Obviously, physical appearance is one of these areas for many women.

Implicitly, I wanted Judy to lie to me for the sake of my self-esteem. I place higher value on covering my shame than acknowledging reality.
Judy was aware of what I was doing, made some neutral comments, and conspicuously avoided making any comparisons. She didn't call me out but she refused to play my game. Thankfully, I realized what I was doing and stopped forcing the issue.

As long as my self-worth is propped up by a given perspective, I will have no incentive to change my lens on reality unless I have an alternate means of deriving worth. That's why the gospel so powerful. Jesus meets our deepest longing to be validated and in doing so, enables us to receive truth.

Michael Lewis, in one of his books about the financial crisis, talks about how courageous insiders tried to get mortgage brokers to understand the implications of what they were doing. The facts were obvious and yet none of them changed their behavior. They were, after all, making tons of money off high-risk collateralized debt obligations. The problem wasn't the message. That was loud and clear. The problem was the receiver couldn't handle the message. To paraphrase him:

Beware persuading someone of a truth when their livelihood depends on the lie.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Road to Nowhere: Loss of the Christian Dating Script

I was joking with a friend who recently starting dating about how we should help arranged marriage make a comeback. She felt some anxiety around her dating journey and wondered how she could tell if her relationship was progressing "correctly". Her comment reflected a common anxiety I hear about Christian dating.

One might compare it to making travel plans in a third world country. You're trying to decide how to leave the airport while all kinds of people are trying to get your attention - rickshaw drivers, travel agents, bus people, beggars, taxi drivers. And you have questions in your head like: Am I doing this right? Where should I be going? How do I know if I'm getting there? And most significantly, how do I safely disembark from the vehicle if the need arises?

It is certainly easier to outsource this decision to interested and more experienced parties. And the travel analogy breaks down because marriage has far greater implications than tourism. Spouse selection is one of life's biggest decisions. Marriage is a journey requiring forethought, preparation, and planning. And to further complicate things, marriage is not just a destination but also a starting point. 

Who you marry and your life together has far greater influence on life trajectory than your career choice, which university you attend, or where you live. Physically, marriage often determines whether you have children and the quality of your marriage will definitively impact the kind of upbringing your children will experience. Emotionally, our culture views marriage as the pinnacle of romantic love and personal fulfillment. Spiritually, marriage is, as Tim Keller puts it, "gospel re-enactment" because matrimony reflects the union of Christ and the church. 

That's a lot of expectations to place on marriage. So if there's any area where the church would benefit by offering a script, it would be in the area of spouse selection.

Unfortunately we don't have one.

The most compelling attempt came almost twenty years when Josh Harris introduced modern courtship through his seminal I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I would characterize it as "dating with a purpose". In his book, he argued conventional dating promoted intimacy and emotions over commitment and created an artificial environment to evaluate another person's character.

I remember listening to his cassette tape series (before he wrote the book) and agreeing with him. And I still do. After all, his counsel worked out well for me. I got to know Judy during college through our campus fellowship. We were both upperclassmen living in the same dorm and led dorm bible studies. We had many mutual friends and multiple contexts in which to get to know and observe each other. Before we started dating, I met her dad so it was only mildly awkward to ask her father for his blessing to start a romantic relationship. We had strict physical boundaries. We talked seriously about marriage and wed a year after I graduated from college.

Fast forward a couple years and I began working with youth and college students in the church. I took a group of them to the park and introduced them to modern courtship and its principles.

They stared at me like I was from another planet.

Some of the college students tried the approach. It received mixed results. Harris' teaching generated anxiety and pressure around casual dating. If dating was supposed to lead to marriage and men were supposed to initiate dating, it raised expectation levels to impossible heights. Men not only had to overcome the fear of rejection but also be emotionally, intellectually, and financially prepared to pursue marriage from the get-go. Women had to assess a man's mate potential with little to no information. In addition, involving parents who were not Christians or who didn't have good relationships with their children made that aspect of courtship very challenging. Dating became a hyper-spiritualized activity meant to resemble marriage in all of its seriousness but have none of its benefits.

It's no wonder the book has been so highly criticized - it was treated as a script but was never intended to be one. Critics viewed his principles as some kind of formula for romantic success. They followed them like a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. You take the ingredients, mix them together, throw it in the oven, and the end result is something tasty. But relationships don't work that way. They are messy, unpredictable, and never complete in the way cookies in the oven get golden-brown. The nature of his principles also made them difficult to apply in varied environments. And yet I have yet to hear anyone invalidate the wisdom behind the principles. Many Christians have no purpose for romance outside of self-gratification. There is such thing as emotional promiscuity. Most types of dating are self-centered. The things Harris decried are real.

In the end, Harris' purpose-driven dating book sparked important conversations about how Christians get to marriage. There is no Christian mating formula. There has never been nor can there ever be a truly Christian dating script for two reasons. First, dating isn't in the Bible. It is an embedded part of our culture and due to the confluence of technology, feminism, and birth control, dating is quickly becoming a cultural relic. Second of all, dating is inherently un-script-able. Following a script (i.e. arranged marriage) means removing an individual's decision-making and preferences. Dating is the result of emphasis on individual autonomy and personal desire. We date because we want the ability to choose. Dating is, by nature, improvisational. Each person makes choices that alter the outcome. It is inherently unscripted.

A script tells you where you're going, how to know if you're getting there, and guidance for the journey.  Without a Christian dating script, there is no destination, sense of movement, and outside counsel. I call these missing elements: ethical guidelines (where we're going), progress markers (how do we know we're getting there), and community (our guides).

Loss of ethical guidelines: where are we going?

I'm not wringing my hands over the downward moral spiral of today's culture. Every generation has faced its share of ethical challenges and we are no exception.

The loss of ethical guidelines is not in a reference to sexual immorality or even the struggle to define what is appropriate conduct in a dating relationship. Those concerns are factors, especially the latter but I'm talking about relationship inertia and the absence of a goal in dating. The problem is this: Christian dating does not have a clear, agreed-upon destination in mind.

Our society provides a broad moral goal for child-rearing - helping one's son or daughter become happy and independent - but there's no such common vision in dating/mating. In mainstream culture, couples date out of self-gratification ("it was natural and felt right") but Christian dating often lacks even this specific of an objective.

And if the goal of dating is indeed marriage, as noted above, it's a massive expectation that generates a lot of stress and anxiety. It feels too lofty and inaccessible for most Christians, especially college students and young working professionals, who have been trained to put career and financial stability ahead of marriage and child-bearing.  In order to defuse impending marital doom, Christians will pursue romantic relationships while eschewing the label of "dating" in order to avoid marriage pressure.

Loss of progress markers: how do we know if we're getting there?

For the parent-child bond, we track all kinds of milestones  - when an infant starts crawling, walking, the first day of kindergarten, lost teeth, driver's license, etc. But we don't have anything like that for dating.

Physical intimacy is hardly a barometer of relationship health and/or progress towards marriage. Our casual sex culture aided by technology has ensured that. In Western society, you can sleep with someone without knowing their name. Whereas in the Ancient Near East, it would be normal to hold hands for the first time on one's wedding night. Actually I have no idea what normal physical intimacy looked like for that time period. Maybe they never held hands.

The same goes for emotional intimacy. Telling someone your deepest, darkest secrets might qualify your significant other as a potential life partner but people do that all the time via blogs and social media so that's not worth much either.

Some view living together as a milestone towards marriage but research indicates cohabitation positively correlates with long-term marital stability only when marriage was already the intent BEFORE the couple moved in together. As with travel, one's dating destination and purpose  matter. Otherwise, it's sliding into, not deciding on, marriage.

One advantage of the courtship model was involvement of the couples' families provided a means of community support for the relationship. In the past, meeting a significant other's parents was a marker of how serious a dating relationship had advanced. Indeed, a man's ability to win over his future in-laws was a strong indicator of progress towards marriage. Parental and peer support is important. A village not only raises a child, it raises a family. That's the last point.

Loss of community: who will guide us on the journey?

Regarding community for parents, we have a tons of mom support groups and the public education system provides all kinds of peer support for parents. On the other hand, there are no dating support groups. Our society provides all kinds of resources for the parent-child relationship but none for courtship/mating.

The local church informally performs this vital social function - that of helping men and women meet, date, and marry. The church is the sina qua non for Christian dating principles. One cannot have ethical guidelines and progress markers apart from Christian community. If you're not part of the body of Christ, you have no tangible example of what Christian relationship formation looks like. The church is a community where one can witness couples who are married, couples who are dating and/or on their way to marriage, and all other types of relationships - healthy and otherwise.

This is especially helpful for Asian Americans. We naturally want community support and want to honor our parents. And one's parents are also part of this community, even if they're not Christians. They have been ordained by God as a spiritual authority in one's life. Seeking their involvement in mating is crucial. But as Christians leave the nest to go to school and find work, relationships with mom and dad fade into the background. Peer relationships become more important. But that's not the greatest change.

Technology has replaced community's most important function. Less than a century ago, one's ability to meet new people was limited by geography, language, social class, and economics. Most importantly, who you met was a direct function of the community you lived in - you dated your own people, if you will. With dating apps, every person on the planet with a laptop or smartphone can be "your people". Except "your people" may not share the same ethical guidelines, progress markers, and community as you do. So we have this immense dating marketplace with a dizzying array of options but everyone in it has different destinations, different ways of assessing how they're getting there, and different guides for the journey. And through all of that, we somehow want to end up on the right train with the right person going to the right place. In the past, one's community ("your people") served as a filter for shared ethical guidelines and progress markers. Now, there is no filter and we are way beyond broadband. 

For Christians, it's not at all like being an American visiting Cuba. It's more like being a tropical forest native from Papua New Guinea and visiting Tokyo. We're visitors from an undeveloped country trying to navigate the Japanese high speed rail system. We can be anywhere we want faster than ever before but we're uncertain it's any place we want to go.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

We need multi-class churches more than multi-ethnic ones

Yoga: multi-ethnic but not multi-class
Robert Putnam's Our Kids was a quick but sobering read. His main contention is the growing divide between social class of families - distinguishable not by race but by education. Children coming from high school educated homes (versus college educated homes) are far more likely to be raised by a single parent, fail to attend or graduate from college, be alienated from social institutions like the church, lack formal/informal mentoring, have lower participation rates in extracurricular activities, and spend significantly less time with their parents.

Putnam's narrative form makes the book easier to read than most sociological texts. He tells stories about kids. Each chapter begins with the portrait of two families of the same race but in completely different social classes. He talks about his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio and how black children received opportunities a generation ago that do not exist today. He writes about two Hispanic families in Orange County, California - separated by a couple miles, the educational experiences of the kids could not be more different. One family's kids attend school in fear of their safety. Academics are barely a consideration. The other family's kids feast on a buffet of AP classes and extracurricular activities - the peer pressure of the school pushing towards achievement. Putnam paints similarly contrasting portraits of two black families in Atlanta and two white families in Bend, Oregon.

Putnam describes the divide between high school educated homes and college educated homes as the opportunity gap. This opportunity gap expresses itself in increasing alienation from social support especially with the church. In this interview with Putnam, he says: 
And [the opportunity gap] shows up in the amount of support that kids get from their communities. So that, for example, church attendance is down for all kids in America, that's a more general trend, but it's down much more rapidly for working class kids, so working class kids are quite unlikely to be regular church goers, so the kids are increasingly detached from the support of a religious community, and other communities, too, I'm using that as just one example.
Teaching and modeling healthy marriage is one way to effect change, but it's more than that:
Religious communities are really important. I've written a whole book about how important religious communities are, as a source of social support. I think the fact that working class people and working class kids have fallen away from religious communities is really unfortunate. So, I think there is a major role for churches to play, and not just with respect to family structure and marriage, but also with respect to helping these kids. They are desperately alone, these kids are.
This rings true for me. In my work with Asian Americans recovering from substance abuse, I've befriended a couple men who had no college education and little prospect of attaining one. Their perspective of life is radically different from their college educated peers. After graduating from the eighteen-month residential rehabilitation program our church partners, one of the men asked me to help co-sponsor his overseas wife's visa to come to the United States. Given the financial implications, I asked for time to consider his request. He did not respond well. Angrily, he told me friends don't ask questions and that my reaction confirmed the rumor he had heard about Christians - you can't rely on them when the chips are down.

At first I was incensed because he misunderstood my position. Later I felt saddened because over time he had built up an implicit distrust of institutions. He saw me as one more talking head in a long line of authority figures who have slammed the door in his face.

I wish I could tell you there was a happy ending. The reality is neither I nor my church are well-equipped to bridge the opportunity gap between the haves and the have-nots. The question I'm wrestling with is this: 

Are we truly allowing God's kingdom come when we elevate the ideal of the multi-ethnic church where everyone is affluent and educated at the expense of reaching the socially outcast, the poor, and the broken?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why Men Need Friends

I write a lot about marriage because I think it's important. But I often neglect the greater subset of which marriage is contained, that of friendship. I am fortunate to have married my best friend but she cannot be my only friend nor does she even remotely understand significant aspects of who I am (and the same is true of me to her). In Jack Donovan's words, I need a squad that will hold down the perimeter with me. I need a group of brothers who can walk with me and I them as we roll through the bumps of life.

I need male friends. 

I've never been good at being friends. It's difficult for me to keep in touch with others. I'm a here and now person and when I don't see a buddy regularly, it's easy for me to either forget about him or be unwilling to expend the effort to hang out. Even worse, when I do see people regularly, I tend to get bored of them. Judy was concerned when we first got married that I would get bored of her (after seventeen years of marriage, we now we seem to bore each other equally). I was never like my brother - the kind of person who could spend 24/7 with another friend.

Given the above, I have realized the value of abiding friendships. I also realize I have been tremendously blessed to have some seriously awesome guys in my life. They initiate with me. They reciprocate when I initiate. They accept who I am. They listen to me. They get in my face. They call me out on my stuff. They're not afraid to laugh at me and help me not take myself too seriously. They enjoy talking about ideas and challenge me to think. They listen to my struggles and share theirs with me.

I just got back from a backpacking trip with a buddy and it was a blast. We suffered through steep trails, blazing sun, and poison oak everywhere. While wading in the pond of a dried-out waterfall, I felt something sucking on my toe and let out a yelp of fright. It was likely a young trout that was so starved it mistook my toe for a bug. My buddy absolutely cracked up. I hated his guts for laughing at me but it was pretty funny. We talked about life, philosophy, marriage, and leaving a legacy. It was so good and so life-giving.

It takes work to maintain a friendship. I have neither the energy nor desire to nurture many friendships. As I've gotten older, it's increasingly difficult to arrange logistics to meet up with friend groups. Most of my significant conversations occur in a 1on1 context. It's not that they can't happen in a group; it's just that group dynamic is not easy to cultivate and if it's already hard for two people to get together and connect.

As I enter my 40s, I have a renewed appreciation for friendship. I know a lot of middle-aged fathers who are lonely and have few friends. I absolutely get lonely. I often feel no one understands me. I get disconnected from my wife and wander in the desert, thirsty for affirmation and attention. Not only so but I have strong impulses to fight, compete, and argue in ways that my wife is simply not wired for. And I've seen, time and time again, men get beat down, discouraged, lonely, depressed, aimless, just going through the motions because life didn't turn out the way they imagined it and they feel like they are alone trudging the sand.

There was a time when male friendship came easily and naturally. Being single, in school, and involved in extracurriculars such as sports makes it easy. Having fun neighbors and a younger brother close in age makes it easy.  Friends move apart for school and jobs. Getting married makes it harder. As people start to have kids, it gets even more challenging. Interests diverge. Time is scarce. Life is tiring. 

There are many reasons men have trouble making and keeping friends as they get older but it all seems to boils down to one thing: pride. Men are fiercely independent. We only see doctors and therapists if the women in our lives force us to. We loathe being perceived as needy. We believe seeking help is a form of castration. We don't like to initiate with others because it makes us appear needy. We hate being told what to do. We resent having to ask for directions. We want a strong sense of control and autonomy. We value the freedom to do what we want and not to have to rely on anyone. 

It's really hard to ask another dude to hang out. It can feel desperate and weak. It's so much easier just to have it happen organically or spontaneously or whatever it is that makes it looks like we've expended the least possible effort.

It's ironic that, based on my observations, men feel like it's okay to be needy around a woman but not ok to be needy around other men. It really works much better the other way around. We've been conditioned to be vulnerable with our mothers, likely because they've nurtured and cared for us when we were weakest - sick, depressed, etc. On the other hand, our fathers modeled for us how to be stoic, unyielding, aloof, and tough. That stuff needs to be turned around. Vulnerability should characterize all of friendship but particularly the community of men. We can only hold the line if we are brutally honest about our weaknesses. Others cannot strengthen what is neither shared nor acknowledged.

In a real sense, I need the companionship of other men more than I need my wife. I had male friends before I got married and they made a huge impact on my life. Guy friends are what led me to Jesus and what helped me grow in my faith. I am nothing without the influence of male mentors and friends. And I need my brothers now more than ever - there are fewer instructions and guidance for the later years in life and I value the wisdom and insight that only older men can offer. It's not that I don't value my wife - she is irreplaceable - but my wife is one person and my male friends are a community. I need a community more than I need any one person. The apostle Paul acknowledges this when he says it is not good for men and women to be married - we don't need marriage but we do the body of Christ. Marriage re-enacts the gospel through an exclusive covenant, child-bearing, and sex but friendship is the ultimate thing. It is the sina qua non of marriage. It is the thing that marriage is ultimately after - the connection, belonging, and nurture of a community. It takes a village to raise a man.