Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

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. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Dangers of Being a Skinny Fat Asian

You know the type. This large slice of yellow humanity gorges itself on all kinds of cuisine and never seems to gain any weight. The demographic is characterized by slender forearms, chicken legs, and a delicate bone structure. You see them at the supermarket and Starbucks. You won't, however, find them at the gym. How to tell for sure? If it's a female, squeeze her upper arm. If it's a male, poke him in the belly. If either of these areas give like silken tofu, you know what you're dealing with -

A skinny fat Asian.

My first exposure to skinny fat Asians came from an extreme example - a middle-aged Asian American man. On a missions trip, a man, who had absolutely no discernible body fat on any of his limbs, face, or chest, took off his shirt. He looked like a fit male for his age but right there in his midsection angrily protruded a kangaroo pouch. It looked like a four-month baby bump. The bump was normally disguised by baggy clothes and bad posture but there was no mistaking its presence and I could not unsee it.

As I enter middle age, I am mostly grateful for my body type - the slender forearms, chicken legs, and delicate bone structure. But years ago, while juggling fatherhood, seminary, a full-time tech job, and church involvement, my health took a hit. My clothed body didn't look different from years ago and I didn't gain much weight but after taking a body fat composition test, it was clear I did not have the same body I had in high school even though I looked approximately the same.

Skinny fat Asians are more sedentary

Except for health care professionals, pretty much all the employed Asian Americans I know have desk jobs. And most of the Asian kids I know, including my own children, find a sedentary lifestyle of TV, mobile devices, and gaming very attractive. Not moving starts at an early age. A recent study indicates children of Asian immigrants are nearly three as likely to have lower levels of physical activity than US-born white children.

If you're a skinny fat Asian it's likely you spend most, if not all, of your time in the sitting position. If you're studying, you're sitting. If you're working, you're sitting. Even when you're relaxing, you're sitting. Having your neck slightly tilted at an angle for an extended duration is not healthy. Being hunched over staring at a screen for hours on end is not good for your back. Being in one position for long periods of time, compounded over years and years is not good for you.

You can get away with it in your 20s with little adverse effect but once you get into your 30s, things begin to catch up. A couple years ago, I had iliotitial band syndrome pretty bad. The outside of my knees all the way up to hips hurt like crazy when I ran, especially downhill. I had never had trouble running long distances when I was younger and I attribute years of sitting at a desk as causing my weak hip flexors.

Skinny fat Asians may be at greater risk for type 2 diabetes and other diseases

Being skinny fat does not protect you from diabetes and metabolic disease. Body mass index (or BMI - weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared) is the standard measurement to determine obesity. A BMI between 25-30 qualifies as overweight. A BMI of 30 or over qualifies as obese. These categories are confusing but the net is that Asian Americans are more susceptible to type 2 diabetes and heart disease at lower BMIs than white people.

This is why there are proposals to have different BMI cut-off standards for each ethnic group - not just for Asians as a whole, but for Asian sub-groups as well*.

It is well-documented Asian Americans are anywhere from 18-60% more likely to have type 2 diabetes than their white counterparts. The greatest factor appears to be a genetic predisposition towards the disease but that does not rule out other factors, such as the above mentioned sedentary lifestyle and nativity/acculturation.

Based on a study of Asian Americans from 1992-1995, the more years a foreign-born Asian spent in the US, the more likely he/she would be overweight and/or obese. Basically, the longer an Asian has been in the United States, the fatter he or she will be.

It gets worse if you're an ABC. If I'm reading the survey correctly, a US-born Asian American is almost twice as likely to be obese as his or her foreign-born counterpart (the ratio is almost the same between men and women). I'm confident that diet and lifestyle are big factors here.

Skinny fat Asians think they may be healthier than they really are

Asian Americans are, based on BMI, skinnier than white people. This is not news to anyone. But exactly what is the difference spelled out in numbers we can visualize?

Data from 2006-2008** indicate a non-Hispanic white adult males have a BMI mean of 27.1 (the survey does not distinguish men from women but it should be pretty close) and assuming an average height of 5'10", the average white man weighs 188 lbs.  With the same BMI mean of 27.1 and assuming an average height of 5'4", the average white woman weighs 158 lbs.

What is it for Asian American men and women? It's a little maddening because the National Health Survey only recently started including Asian Americans because we did not constitute 5% of the US population until ten years ago. And the information they report does not include mean BMI. But using the same data from the diabetes survey above, with a BMI mean of 24.3 and assuming an average height of 5'8" and 5'3" (the current average heights of an adult Chinese national male and female, respectively), the average Asian American man weighs 158 lbs whereas the average Asian American woman weighs 137 lbs.

So Asians are skinnier. As of 2012, only 11% of Asian Americans qualified as obese. This is easy to confirm anecdotally. The problem is it lures us into thinking we're healthy.

Unfortunately, being skinny doesn't mean we're stronger. In fact, evidence shows the contrary. Asian Americans are, pound for pound, weaker than our white counterparts, as measured by body fat percentage. From the Asian American BMI study:
Asians, although mean BMI was lower, had higher percentage body fat and more upper-body subcutaneous fat. In a meta-analysis which included data for three Asian groups, Deurenberg and others found that the percentage body fat was higher than predicted at low BMI levels for Chinese. Body fat was underestimated across all BMI levels for Thais and Indonesians. In a study of women in Hawaii, Novotny and others found that Asian women had a greater percentage of body fat than did White women with the same BMI.
We look skinny but we're actually fat, especially around the mid-section, where it's most dangerous. See, the distribution of fat also matters. The kangaroo pouch is dangerous for non-pregnant humans.

So what do you do if you're a skinny fat Asian? Don't assume you're healthy. Get checked out by your doctor. Sit less. Move more. Eat real food. Guard your sleep. Lift weights - for health and quality of life and not for shame purposes.

*The Asian American BMI study is fascinating. Of the six ethnic Asians groups surveyed (Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Indian), the skinniest group were the Vietnamese - both men and women had the lowest mean BMI. They eat lots of raw, fresh vegetables so there's that. I live near East San Jose and can't remember the last time I saw a fat Vietnamese person. Also not surprisingly, Indian men had the highest mean BMI (they eat tons of fried food) but Japanese and Filipino women tied for highest mean BMI. That may have changed in recent years as this data is from 1992-1995.

** Update: It's actually from 1992-1995. I wanted to use the 2006-2008 data, where the mean white BMI is 28.6 for men but there's no data for Asian Americans - it only tells you the obesity rate not the BMI.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Are Christians Supposed to Judge?

One of the most common complaints I hear from people about Christians is why are we so judgmental when the Bible teaches us not to judge?

The reality is Christians, and all people for that matter, make judgments all the time. We speculate on the validity of Obama's Christian faith. We give our opinions on whether so-and-so is saved. Asian Americans judge people who use the term "Oriental" to describe Asians. We definitely judge non-Asians who ask us: "Where are you REALLY from?" We judge people who listen to country music, don't recycle, or compulsively Instagram pictures of their food.

The idea of Christians making judgments about others highlights an area where teachings of the Bible feel contradictory. In certain passages, God tells us to judge. In other places, He tells us not to.  In almost all of these cases, the scripture passage is being quoted out of context. The Bible does not teach whether we are supposed to judge. That is a given because everyone judges. The question God answers through the Bible is HOW we are supposed to judge. There are at least four principles we apply when judging others:

1) Consistent standard: Matthew 7:1-5 (and its sibling passages in the other gospels) is the most frequently misinterpreted passage in regards to Christians making judgment. In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus says not to judge. However, reading on indicates he meant we apply standards of judgment first to ourselves and then to others.
Matthew 7:1-5 Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?   How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
Notice it's not wrong to remove the speck from your brother's eye but it is wrong to exercise judgment when your judgment is impaired by a similar issue. You work on your own mess before advising someone on how to clean up theirs. It doesn't have to be the exact same behavior nor do you have to be perfect. For example, if you're morbidly obese and you rebuke someone for being chronically tardy to church events, asking him "Can't you just leave 15 minutes earlier?" is akin to him asking you "Can't you just eat less?" You might first consider the complexity of your own negative habits - it will help you to have empathy and compassion (#4 below) for other person. You could express curiosity about what hinders him from being on-time rather than offering a trite solution.

2) Justice: It feels like it should almost go without saying but our ethical labels should be just. That means we make judgments according to what is true, real, and in proportion to what's most important. This means ethics is a continual, highly subjective process. We may differ in our ethical commitments and yet not all ethical values are the same. Bad ideas have bad consequences and good ideas have good ones. For example, it's hard to argue Hitler's conception of ethics as evidenced through the Holocaust was a good idea. It's not enough to say you believe your ideas and I'll believe mine and we can live together just fine - tolerance is not the highest virtue when it comes to how communities should function (and yes, I am making a judgment here).

Here's another example: When you compare the negative societal consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage with those of abortion and no-fault divorce, I assess an asymmetry in consequences. If life begins at or around conception, then abortion is the taking of a human life. This is far more destructive than the government-recognized union of two men or two women. No-fault divorce is similar. The dissolution of a marriage covenant is far more common and hurtful to spouses and their children than the detrimental effects of same-sex marriage. These implications are not easy to discern but it is vital we evaluate them.
Acts 15:19  "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas persuade the Jerusalem elders to stop judging Gentiles by requiring them to be circumcised and obedient to the Mosaic law. Their logic was based on accuracy - if God gave the Holy Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles by faith then surely circumcision and Mosaic obedience were not the most important. The elders encountered a new situation and based on the reality of the Gentiles' faith, recognized an inconsistency in their ethics and made the appropriate change.

3) In proportion to one's authority: Our judgments are limited to by our authority. A nation's court system has God-given authority to exercise earthly judgment with respect to a country's affairs. That's not a role a common citizen is granted. A parent or a close observer (SuperNanny maybe) has the authority to make judgments on what is best for his/her own children because he/she has been appointed by God as a judge on behalf of the family. Similarly, our judgment is restricted to the communities we have responsibility for. For example, church leaders judge those within the church. Our judgment is also limited to outward behavior because we do not see the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). We may speculate what is inside the heart but we cannot fully know it. 

Finally, authority comes from knowledge and our knowledge is limited. We don't have even close to complete information in any given situation. We are often ignorant of a person's context, background, and history. This is why the Bible constantly points to God the Father as the ultimate judge and lawgiver. It all starts and stops with him. He is the final authority, the one who is perfect in knowledge and wisdom. 

James 4:11-12  Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you-- who are you to judge your neighbor?
1 Samuel 16:7  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.
1 Corinthians 5:12-13  What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."
4) Compassion: Since God is the final and ultimate judge and God made himself flesh in Jesus not to condemn but to save us, we are implored to have like compassion on others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. 
Romans 14:4   Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
This chapter in Romans concerns accepting weaker brothers in Christ who have a scandalized conscience from eating food sacrificed to idols. Because we are each accepted in Christ - warts, weakness, and all - we apply the same standard of compassion to other that God applies in Christ towards us. 

The biblical teaching on how Christians should judge challenges me. I am quick to take specks out of people's eyes while a log remains in my own. My critical spirit jumps to conclusions. Although this behavior is endemic in both popular culture and the church, it doesn't excuse me. 

As Christians, we are called to judge by both withholding and exercising judgment in the same manner Christ did - with a consistent standard, with justice, in proportion to one's authority, and with compassion. Jesus often withheld judgment for the sake of love but when he judged, he did it well. May we go and do likewise.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Man Jose everywhere until age 35

Update: the charts ARE working correctly. Imagine the United States is the shape of a rectangle. And all the dots from the article are smeared together by a person who is left-handed and cannot color.

How there can be simultaneously more single men than women and more single women than men in the SAME city

San Jose long ago earned the moniker "Man Jose" because of the imbalanced gender ratio. This is likely due to the prevalence of men in tech-dominated Silicon Valley. Anecdotally, it's always been a running joke there are more single men here than women. 

The news gets worse for the West Coast and now there's data to back this up. According to this article, it should also be "Man Francisco" and "Man Diego". There are roughly 50,000 more single men than single women in San Diego (due to the military presence?) and 20,000 more single men than women in San Francisco (likely a similar tech-effect with San Jose). Note: the unmarried population includes those divorced, widowed, never married, and dating/living together.

The East Coast, on the other hand, favors single men. New York City has an estimated 230,000 more single women than men. That's a large discrepancy, with lots of anecdotal support. The article goes on to calculate the gender ratio, which is more helpful than the absolute numbers. In doing this, smaller metro areas get more attention. 

However, the story gets more interesting when you slice the data by age. I will summarize the article's results with some complex geographical charts I designed myself. Here is the key to reading this: where you see blue, the gender ratio is skewed towards men; where you see pink, the gender ratio is skewed towards women. For ages 18-34, here is what the data look like in the United States:

US Metros with More Single Men or Women Aged 18-34
If all you see above is blue, then you read this chart correctly. Everywhere in the country there are more single men than women in the 18-35 age range. This makes sense considering that men tend to marry later than women. 

For ages 35-44, the data are like this:

US Metros with More Single Men or Women Aged 35-44

The author of the article says the odds begin to favor single men in this demographic. That may be true, especially on the East Coast. Unfortunately, most single men in that range are not interested in women in their same range. They're interested in single women of the 18-34 age range. This is a well-documented phenomenon. If you further sub-divided the 25-34 age range, I suspect you would find more blue in the late 20s and much more pink in the early 30s. Now here's the data for ages 45-64:

US Metros with More Single Men or Women Aged 45-64

Everywhere in the country there are more single women than men in the 45-64 age range. In this age range, it is probably a little early to be widowed. I speculate men in that age range tend to get married at a higher rate than their female cohort. This may also indicate divorced women tend not to remarry (or stay remarried for very long) and divorced men tend to remarry at higher rates (or stay remarried longer). 

This data is not sliced by level of education and race, which would be even more helpful. The education level by age would probably be most helpful. I suspect Asians would hew pretty closely to the white stats. Beginning in 1981, the college gender gap began to skew in favor of women. Almost 60% of college students today are women. In the 18-24 range, I would speculate there's a small but growing education gap between single men and women - as half of that demographic has not yet finished school. I bet you would see the education gap broaden as you moved up the age range, especially in major metro areas such as NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. This education gap would likely fall in the 45-64 range because the effects of the gender education gap have yet to be fully realized. 

As mentioned earlier, my suspicion based on other sources is most single men from 18-45 are interested in the lower half of the female 18-34 age range. That's where mating competition is fiercest and helps explain why there's fewer single women in that age range than men. 

Based on this data, here are my recommendations for single men and women looking to get hitched, customized by age and level of education: 

Men: If you're under 35, it may benefit you to move to a city where there are more women. However, the gender ratio will improve over time, assuming you don't mind dating women around your age or older. If you're over 25, you'll reap greater benefits from moving to a city where the gender ratio is in your favor, again assuming you're open to women your age or older. The net for single guys in the 34-64 range is this: don't discount older women (as in around your age or just a few years younger). In the coming years, I would also encourage dating women who are more educated than you are - it will be the reality due to the gender education gap.

Women: If you're under 25, your mate value as a function of physical appearance is near or at its peak so it would be good to find someone sooner than later. You might also benefit from finding an older man, since it is unlikely most men your age will be interested in settling down. If you're over 25, this is prime territory to get married. You can invest more time in your career and education but it will be tougher not easier to find a mate later on. Again, the converse with men applies, once you're over 35, it's good to be open to either much older men and/or men who are not as educated as you are.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Celebration and Challenge of #Lovewins

Here's the link to the best Christian response I've found to the Supreme Court's 5-4 vote to legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. 

The Background: I first heard about about the decision through Facebook. A number of my friends and youth in our church celebrated the ruling through social media posting, with the most popular expression being rainbow-filtered profile pics.  

The conservative Christian response could not provide a starker contrast. There's a sense of loss and tragedy. There's a sense of hiding out and starting a commune. There's a sense of panic and consternation. There's a lot of fear, especially for our children. A friend of mine half-jokingly said we should move our families run off to a European country where laws follow traditional Christian sexual ethics. Like many in this camp, I too was initially saddened when I heard about the court decision.

But here's my conundrum: I have LGBT friends and some of them are mature Christians. At the same time, I also believe marriage is between a husband and a wife. 

So I feel torn between both camps. 

Much of the conservative Christian response  invokes war imagery ("central assault upon marriage"). The imagery is biblically accurate but not   helpful in public discourse. It is neither empathetic nor compassionate towards supporters of the SCOTUS decision. The rhetoric only broadens the yawning chasm between the two groups. 

I was searching for a response that captured the Christian sexual ethic without animosity and mistrust towards the LGBT community. And I think I found it. What Rosaria Butterfield and Christopher Yuan wrote captures exactly what I've been wanted to express. Here's why.

Celebration: There is genuine cause for celebration. Homophobia is real. It is damaging and repulsive. Discrimination against sexual orientation is also real. So there is cause for rejoicing the triumph of diversity and equality. I am excited for brothers and sisters who see this as a validation of their identity. I also rejoice that for many same sex couples, this decision offers stability they could not previously enjoy. I also appreciate the background of the writers - Rosaria Butterfield was a lesbian atheist and Christopher Yuan lived a promiscuous gay lifestyle (I highly recommend reading his memoir, written with his mom).

Challenge to popular culture and LGBT community: Popular culture idolizes romantic love. Your romantic partner defines you. Who you love romantically and sexually is your identity. Without a romantic partner, you lack personhood. That's why same-sex marriage proponents view their opposition as bigoted - they deny a fundamental aspect of one's identity. 

This is historically unprecedented. #Lovewins narrowly defines love to mean sex, romance, and marriage. Those are the highest virtues. Yuan and Butterfield challenge that notion by repudiating our culture's idolatry of marriage. Sex, romance, and marriage manifest love but they are not it's fullest expression. Marriage does not save you. Jesus does. Singles are not, as Justice Kennedy states, "condemned to live in loneliness". Only the gospel has redeeming hope in either singleness or marriage. 

Challenge to Christians: Jesus teaches his disciples to first remove the log in one's own eye before removing the speck in another's. If popular culture is guilty of idolizing romantic love, we are guiltier of idolizing marriage. This is especially true in the ethnic church, where we worship not only marriage but also having children. Full personhood is only recognized through matrimony and parenthood (and even then, it's questionable). 

I have close friends who have been stigmatized and alienated by their singleness from other believers. They're often treated like second-class citizens who are a more readily available labor source than their hitched brethren.

I'm guilty too. I think married people are superior. I behave as if the highest quality human connection can only come through marriage. I wonder what my single friends do with all their time. I act like marriage or parenthood is the end goal of every believer.

If we are going to offer the LGBT community a picture of the gospel that is positive rather than prohibitive, it starts with elevating Christ and singleness. And if doing so means we need to repent of our idolatry of marriage, let's get on with it. There's a tree blocking my view and it's time to get it out of the way.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Converse like a Boss: Ask Fewer Questions

Uncle Drew schooling a young blood
I am the Lebron James of nursing home conversation. Elderly people don't intimidate me, I intimidate them. When I swagger into the foyer of a skilled nursing facility, 90-year old women with walkers quake from paralyzing fear (or arthritis). They know what is coming next: talk smack-down. The grizzled love to sharing their lives with me. They tell stories non-stop and we laugh and cry together. I am the magician of geriatric confabulation, the Gandalf of gabbing with the gray, and the vicar of venerable vulnerability.  

Two weeks ago in Missouri, I went to two nursing homes with Asian Christian kids. Those young bloods did great. This post is not for them. It's for the adults who are still making young blood mistakes. We're taught to ask questions. Questions are good. They are the dribbling and passing of conversational skills. They are foundational. If you don't know how to talk to someone, asking questions is essential. And asking good, non-generic questions is even better.

Get buckets: But as NBA legend Bill Russell advises Uncle Drew, the game will always be about one thing: buckets. If you want to elevate your conversation game, you need to score the rock. 

Buckets in interpersonal communication translates into empathy, personal disclosure, and observational insight. This is the fuel of human connection. If you simply fire questions at another person, it feels like an interrogation. These conversations tend to be one-sided, awkward, and brief. It's not so much a dance but a forced march. 

Say something interesting: In the nursing home and on the court, you read the defense and take what they give you. As my friend Walt, a seasoned nursing home conversationalist, advises, speak LOUD and slow to seniors. Tread carefully around family questions because relatives might be estranged, dying, or dead. Rather, ask about a person's past as an older person has a treasure trove of memories. Move from general to specific. 

After you ask question, listen to the answer and formulate a response that, at minimum, demonstrates you were listening. Aim to say something thought-provoking: an observation about context, a brief personal experience that connects with what the person has been through, or offer a suggestion of what it must have felt like to be in their shoes. Volunteer something about yourself. After all, a relationship is reciprocal - if you ask someone a personal question, you can, in turn, offer something about yourself.

I posted up Howard Rizor, an 85-year old man who's been married for six years (married at 79!). He was reluctant to talk to me at first. I asked him about his work history. I could barely understand the guy so I moved closer. Physical proximity is important as conversation, like basketball, is a contact sport. He mumbled something about driving a truck for ten years. I have never driven a truck but I know about sharing the road with trucks so I said:
Something that bothers me which I'm sure you've experienced is when I see a truck is on the highway and there's a big gap between it and the next car ahead of it because a truck is so much heavier and you need way more stopping distance. And cars will see the big gap and cut in front of the truck so they have no room to stop. I've seen this happen to trucks and they have to slam on the brakes and burn rubber because they need more room. It must drive you crazy when cars do this. (I neglected to mention I sometimes do this myself - the gap is so tantalizing.
As I spoke, Howard's body language shifted visibly, he began nodding, started leaning towards me, and increased his eye contact. He had been giving brief responses up to this point but after I said this, he replied "Oh man, tell me about it" and then gushed forth a decades-ago story of how he survived his truck losing braking power over nine miles of downhill coasting. After that, I couldn't get him to stop talking about his collection of cars, how Ford pick-ups are unreliable, and the 1927 vehicle he owns sitting in his front yard. Now the toughest part was how to exit the conversation (also a very important skill like clutch free throws - if you make them, you can keep the game from dragging on forever).

Practice and feedback: As with acquiring any basketball skill, the best way to improve your conversation game is practice and feedback. Practice alone is insufficient because you may repeat the same mistakes. You need feedback from other people to refine what you say and it also helps to observe and evaluate how people respond to your statements.

Watch and learn from people who are good at making conversation and learn from their game. Watch what they say and how they say it. Most importantly, try saying different things during the conversation and watch how people respond.

Airplanes and nursing homes are great places to work on your communication skills. You have a captive (and attention-starved in the case of the nursing home) audience that you will never see anywhere else. You can make all kinds of mistakes with little at risk. It's like playing ball without keeping score. But you have to put yourself out there and go and meet new people.

Courage to take the shot: Here's another response upon finding out someone was a truck driver -
It must have been tough to stay awake after driving for a long time. If it were me, I would put the radio on blast and slip ice down my back. I'm sure every truck driver has a bag of tricks to keep himself from falling asleep.
Note the empathy, personal sharing/opinion, and implicit question. But don't worry about coming up with the perfect statement because there isn't one. My first thought when a guy tells me he is/was a truck driver is:
Wow, driving a truck sounds hella boring and you must have gotten obese from all that sitting.
That's probably not a response most people would want to verbalize but it's honest and provocative. Most of all, it takes courage to pull off that response. I've said stuff like that. Sometimes the person laughs and sometimes the person glares and clams up. After all, if a statement requires courage to voice, it's probably interesting and will generate discussion. My most memorable conversations were birthed out of someone (including yours truly) making controversial and/or offensive statements. The only way to find out is to try. In talking with people, I've thrown up a lot of air balls and I've shot enough bricks to build a mansion. But my percentages have improved and I'm no longer afraid to shoot. As in basketball, there are no guarantees in conversation but one thing is certain - you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Power of Outsiders

We sat at a table at a Sonic Drive-In in Warsaw, Missouri, trying not to move under the heat and humidity. A 13-year old boy walked around us, pressing buttons on various call boxes and, without waiting for someone to pick up, immediately proceeded to the next one. 

"So what's the theme this year?" asked the college student wearing a $2 Justin Bieber t-shirt.

"Unashamed" replied the teenage boy, slender in face and stature.

"That's . . . nice and generic" observed $2 Tee.

Her pause before the adjectives indicated she had more derogatory thoughts but she was able to suppress them and come up with a diplomatic response. I thought about telling her I came up with the theme but thought better of it. 

Christian retreats with the theme "unashamed" typically quote something in Romans or 2 Timothy about how followers of Jesus should not be ashamed of the gospel. The subject is the believer and the object is the gospel. It is imperative for a believer to live boldly on behalf of the gospel, to share it with others, and not to be ashamed of his identity. I'm cool with that but it wasn't what I was going for.

Mike and Jenny, the wonderful couple coordinating the retreat, asked me as the key note speaker to come up with the theme for this six-day long retreat attended by eighty youth. Kids hailed from Iowa, Illinois, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri. My friend Peter, who had spoken at this retreat in past years, told me many of the kids experienced racial discrimination as one of few Asians in their school and city. This factor made this camp unique from the typical California metro area Chinese church youth retreat because it was a spiritual and social refuge for kids who make up a small ethnic remnant in their own community. Most of the kids in the bay area attend schools where Asians make up 20-60% of the student population, compared to 2-6% for kids in the Midwest. It's a totally different ballgame. 

I tasted it during the year I spent attending North Springs High and Sandy Springs Middle in North Fulton County, Georgia. Coming from Asian-saturated San Jose, it was a culture shock. I have vivid memories of being bullied, overlooked, and embarrassed about my ethnic identity. It was probably worse to be invisible than it was to endure racial taunts. Interestingly enough, I experienced the worst discrimination from blacks and Hispanics. The low bully the lowest. It is painful to be an outsider.

And yet everyone can relate to being an outsider. We are all outsiders, outcasts, and exiles in some significant whether because of gender, socio economic status, mental/physical handicap, or ethnicity. As I brainstormed themes, I thought of three women who were socially alienated, foreigners to Israel, and possessed no rights, and yet were chosen to be part of the ancestry of Jesus. God is in the business of selecting outcasts to carry forward his redemptive plan. In Hebrews 2:11, Jesus sanctifies believers and is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. The subject is God and the object is the believer. That's the essence of the gospel - not what we do for God but what God has accomplished on our behalf. "Unashamed" does not describe our attitude towards the gospel as much as it describes the Father's sentiment towards his children because of the Son. This is what I was going for.

Of course there were more conventional "unashamed" moments. A 16-year old boy stood in front of a Wal-Mart in ninety degree heat and shared his testimony to complete strangers.  It was one of the first times he had ever talked about his faith in public. Many of the kids wrote out their testimonies for the first time. Students initiated spiritual conversations with nursing home residents. There were priceless images as they prayed for each other, hand-in-hand. 

Throughout the six days of camp, I was delighted to discover how friendly, mature, welcoming, and earnest the kids were. There was a little about the camp they took for granted. They were genuinely appreciative of my presence and I loved their curiosity. I especially enjoyed leading a group of older high school and college guys. They took initiative to lead, serve, and love all the attendees. When you experience the pain of being an outsider, you have a special empathy and gratitude for others. 

I wanted to ask the students about their experience of racial discrimination but the demanding schedule afforded little opportunity. This would be a painful place to explore. But during the campfire on the last evening, there were glimpses. The lakeside atmosphere was bucolic. Muddy buddies (or "puppy chow") were passed around. Benches collapsed. And a young man shared about the loneliness of being the only Asian kid in his school and how the camp was a sanctuary for him. It was a place for him to belong and build and learn and grow in ways the outside world could not encourage. Many kids shared about the power of the camp and the enduring fellowship, year after year, for the attendees. There is a tremendous power in being an outsider - a unique perspective and a capacity to bond with others because of shared pain.

Pastor Billy Ko started the Christian Witness Center (CWC), the organization sponsoring the camp, in 1980 when he realized there was a tremendous need to reach Chinese exchange students in the Midwest. There were few Chinese churches and the Midwest was an isolated environment for foreigners. CWC was started to reach outsiders and since then, the ministry has multiplied exponentially. Outsiders have a unique influence.

My prayer is for these young people to see Jesus neither as an extension of their parents' faith nor as the Caucasian ambassador for Western civilization but as an elder brother in pursuit of his outcast siblings. If Jesus favors a particular nation or group of people, it is the Jews. And these poor people have been outsiders throughout their entire history. Indeed, Jesus warned his followers to be wary of the relationship with larger society. We were never intended to fit in. God chooses outsiders. The Son of Man became flesh and went outside heaven's camp in order to bring His lost family members home. He is unashamed to call us his own.