Saturday, June 21, 2014

Homesick Holidays: Why Long-Distance Relationships Are Good For You

(This post was originally posted on www.evangelicaloutpost.com on December 12, 2013.)
One of the hardest things about life is being away from the people you love. This sort of pain does not heal with time; it only gets worse. However, one of the best ways to grow, as a person and as a Christian, is by being away from those same people.
You are bound to experience the pain of separation at some point or another – so you might as well make the best of it. For example, when you’re growing up and trying to figure out what kind of a person you are, it helps to have physical distance between yourself and the people who have always defined you. If you’ve only ever lived relying on your family or close friends to help you make decisions, then maybe it’s time for you to leave home and learn what it means to rely solely on God. Don’t be afraid of forging a new path for yourself, whether by going off to college, moving to a new job, or you getting a fresh start in a new place.
Because the world isn’t perfect, Jesus had to spend time separated from His Father. It was painful and unpleasant, but it was necessary for our salvation. You feel some of that pain when you’re separated from loved ones, and you become more like Jesus because of it. Thankfully, as Christians, we can never be separated from God; we will never experience the same pain that Jesus felt. Striking out on your own somewhere, even if just for a little while, allows characteristics you’ve never seen in yourself to come out. It requires you to build your identity around Christ. Yes, we were made to live in a loving community of fellow-believers, and I’m not suggesting you go live by yourself on a deserted island. You need people around you who will go see new movies with you, who will spontaneously bring you food from your favorite restaurant, and who know when you’ve had a good or bad day. You need those relationships no matter where you are. But when you’re always around the same people, when relationships are easy, how well do you really know the people you’re spending time with? How well do you really know yourself? If a relationship, any relationship, can last through hundreds of miles between two people, than the bond that keeps them together can only grow stronger.
I had many childhood friends that I went to school and church with who I felt close to growing up. Only one friend stuck with me through the years and asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. She was the one who lived 800 miles away and I only saw twice a year. We went to school together from kindergarten to second grade, and then her family moved away. But we wrote letters to each other and her grandparents lived down the street from my house. We relished the time that we could physically spend together, and it made both of us appreciate the friendship all the more.
As the holiday season approaches us, I’m reminded of the distance between my family and me. We measure that distance by time – I’m three hours away from my parents and oldest sister, nine hours away from my other sister, and sixteen hours away from my third sister. This distance, though painful, has actually brought us closer together as a family and has brought each of us closer to God in our own way. It forces you to put effort into a relationship, to actually take time to talk to someone and understand how they are doing, not just casually ask them “how are you?” at the end of each day. The distance isn’t permanent, and I’m not suggesting your relationships should always be long-distance. Jesus was only separated from God for three days. We learn something different about people when we are constantly living beside them, and we need those people. But we shouldn’t be afraid of long-distance relationships, either. Relationships can survive and grow through the distance.
So go to another state, another country. See new sights. Experience new adventures. Email, Skype, and call the ones you love. And when you get back to them, your relationship will be stronger because of the distance that was between you.

Why We Can’t Understand Ten Thousand

(This post was originally posted on www.evangelicaloutpost.com on December 9, 2013.)
Friday, November 8, began as a normal day for Eduardo Jabulan and his wife, but it ended with tragedy. They live in the Philippines, and when Typhoon Haiyan hit their city that day, they struggled to survive along with many others. They lost their three daughters that day, aged three, seven, and eight, but they also lost their way of living. They’ve been unable to grieve properly because they’ve been trying to find food and water and simply survive for the past two weeks.
This horrific typhoon wounded and affected millions, while the number of dead was feared to be more than ten thousand. I read the news and my heart ached for these people that I didn’t know – what a terrible tragedy for them to deal with. But then I went back to my homework or Facebook and moved about my day. I imagine that many people were able to move on, considering that my day proceeded normally and not as if a part of the world had just been shattered.
When a tragedy affects this many people, it’s harder to feel personally connected to those people than when a tragedy only affects a small number of people. When we’re able to see faces with names, we feel the need to mourn with the grieving families and offer any help or assistance that we can give. But when all we see is a number, we can’t process the tragedy in the same emotional way.
For me, ten thousand is too big of a number to grasp. It’s hard to get your head around a number that big. You can raise your eyebrows and say, “Wow!” but do you really know what ten thousand means or what ten thousand looks like?
Ten thousand dollars buys a diamond necklace with 14k white gold. Each neuron in the brain is connected to ten thousand other neurons. There are approximately ten thousand different species of birds. In the Pixar movie Up, Carl attaches ten thousand balloons to his house to make it fly. A mobile home weighs about ten thousand pounds. Multiply ten thousand by 390 and you’ll get the number of people living in Los Angeles.
Though knowing these facts may help, ten thousand can still just seem like a large number. When we’re faced with a staggeringly large number of people affected by a tragedy, it’s important to remember that these are people we’re talking about. They each have a name and a face and a story. Ten thousand stories. Ten thousand laughs. Ten thousand smiles. Ten thousand hands to hold. Ten thousand first steps. Ten thousand first kisses. Ten thousand awkward teenage years. Ten thousand dreams. Ten thousand lives. And they all died in an instant.
Thankfully, the ten thousand originally estimated dead was wrong. As of this writing, the estimate was around 3,500 dead. Though considerably less than ten thousand, this number is still an unattainable number. We can’t put faces and names to all of those people, but even so, we have to remember that they were people, too, who lived with their own hopes and dreams that the typhoon took right along with their lives.
When we’re faced with an impossibly large number like this, we still need to mourn and grieve with the families, even if we don’t see their faces or know their names. We can pray for the unnamed, and the stories that were cut short. Even though ten thousand people did not die, more than eleven million were affected, including Eduardo Jabulan and his family, in physical and emotional ways. There are ways we can help them. Though not everyone can travel to the Philippines and lend a physical hand, everyone can donate a few dollars and help others to lend hands. My sister has worked with the organization Kids International Ministries in the Philippines on a number of missions trips. KIM is sending a team of nurses along with other aid and relief to Tacloban, the city most affected by the typhoon and the city where the Jabulans live. You can donate to their causehere. There are also a number of other organizations you can donate to in order to send support to those in need. Check them out here.
Maybe we can’t quite grasp the number ten thousand. But we can remember the lives of those lost by helping those still living, like the Jabulans, who do see the faces and know the names of the dead. And maybe if we learn a few of those names, we can come to a better understanding of ten thousand.

God the Storyteller: Why We Should Value Happy Stories

(This post was originally posted on www.evangelicaloutpost.com on December 4, 2013.)
Have you ever read a poem or a story, eagerly awaiting that climactic, often tragic, moment, only to find it never comes? Most likely you thought How boring! and quickly moved on from the happy tale. There are not many of these happy stories in existence, mainly because it’s easier to write tragic stories. It’s harder to make a story interesting when it’s about a happy ordinary person, than when it’s about a troubled or sad ordinary person.
It’s like Leo Tolstoy’s opening line in his great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
When people are happy, it’s usually for the same reasons – they have a great job, their family is still together and loving, they have great friends, everything is going well. But people who are unhappy, those who we write tragic stories or poems about, they are never unhappy for the same reason – and that’s what makes the story interesting.
When I was younger, I used to wish that something tragic would happen to me – a car accident or a kidnapping (always with happy endings, of course) – because I wanted my life to be more interesting. I wanted my life to be a story that other people would want to read. I had a pretty normal life growing up, so I thought that if something unusual happened, my life would be better. I was dissatisfied with living a happy, normal life, and I suspect I’m not the only one who has ever felt that way.
But what does this feeling say about our view of God?
We don’t like stories that don’t have some tragic element in them, yet God is the ultimate storyteller, and He is writing each of our lives’ stories. Each life is unique, but there are those that aren’t tragic – the ones that we think are boring. But God is deeply interested in even those boring stories. He wrote them, so how can He think they are boring? How can any of our lives be boring or dull or normal with God as the author?
Have you ever thought that you could write your life story better than God can? This is just because you do not know what coming. Think back on the past ten years of your life. Did you ever see yourself where you are today? Chances are, you didn’t, and maybe you see that as a good thing but maybe you see that as a bad thing. Either way, you could never have orchestrated your life to land you where you are today. And you can’t work out all the details and direct your life to where it will be in another ten years. You don’t see how your life relates to other people’s live or how their lives relate to yours – you don’t see the big picture. You can’t know the best way your life can play out. Only God does. And you can’t judge His writing because you don’t know the ending yet. Your favorite part in the story could still be yet to come.
So how can we trust God to write our stories in the most interesting way possible? I thank God that I haven’t experienced any major tragedies in my life, but sometimes I still feel like my life, if written down, would make a boring story. Trust is hard, especially when you feel disappointed with life. But perhaps it would be easier if we realized that all of those happy families that Tolstoy mentions arenot all alike. They may be similar, but God has made each one unique in some way – and He is interested in each one. If we were more interested in the stories and poems that describe happy, normal people – if we tried to figure out what made them unique in their happiness – maybe then we would also be interested in our seemingly mundane lives. God wants us to be happy; it’s not a bad thing, yet we treat happy people as if they weren’t interesting people. God doesn’t create boring stories, and He has authored each of our lives. We should live life trusting God with that job, and we should treat other people’s lives as a manifestation of His great creativity.

Villainy and Valor: The Superhero Obsession

(This post was originally posted on www.evangelicaloutpost.com on November 5, 2013.)
From Batman to Iron Man, Superman to Spiderman, our society has become obsessed with superheroes. It’s not just a kid thing anymore. Whether it’s because of the special effects or the romantic elements, people flock to the theaters for any movie that involves a caped (or suited) crusader risking his (or her) life to save those he loves. The good guy always learns responsibility and self-sacrifice, and, though all hope may seem lost, he always wins. So why is it that everyone loves these somewhat predictable  and unrealistic movies so much?
Perhaps people love these movies exactly because they are predictable and unrealistic. The way the good guy saves the day might not always be the same, but the fact that the day will be saved remains true. Even the bad guys are usually pretty similar – they all feel betrayed and persecuted in some way and sulk behind a cloak of lies while they plot for some kind of world dominion and power. These movies provide two and a half hours of escape from an unpredictable and depressing world. Real life can be disappointing for many people, and reading the news every day can be discouraging. Superhero movies give people the chance to feel optimistic about life. The day can be saved and the villain can be conquered; that promotion can be acquired and that bully can be put in his place. But then they go to work the next day and remember that superheroes aren’t real and that if they want the day saved, they have to do it themselves.
The obsession with superheroes has only increased over the years as more and more people want to have something, or someone, to put their hope in as they live in this selfish and sad world. Each new day seems to bring a new tragedy – school shootings, terrorism, shipwrecks, car accidents – or just the everyday heartache – insufferable bosses, unattainable goals, lost love, too many bills. No one swoops in to carry them away and solve all of their problems. Yet they don’t want to lose hope that that could happen. What they don’t realize is that they do have a hero they can put their hope in, and while he may not be the typical superhero in a flashy suit and  cape, he is very real and most definitely will save the day. Of course, I’m talking about Jesus Christ.
I know it may sound cheesy to you, but think about it. All of these superheroes are based on Christ. He fought the first villain and has already won – we just haven’t seen the fruits of it yet. Satan invented bad guys; he challenged the King’s authority and desired world dominion and power for himself – the first to ever do so. Every villain since then has only been an imitation of Satan. Aliens trying to destroy the human race? Satan wanted humans to die, too. Evil genius trying to sneak unnoticed into a position of the upmost power? Yeah, Satan tried that one, too. Powerful manipulator attempting to rule by force? Satan used his legion of fallen angels to try that one. Villains always fail because Satan failed. They can’t win. What makes a villain interesting in the story is the fact that he is human and thus has a chance for redemption, whereas Satan has already sealed his fate.
Likewise, the superheroes are modeled after Christ, though not as perfect. Jesus did not make mistakes, but the superheroes usually do. However, they learn from those mistakes, and, in that knowledge, they become more like Christ, learning to sacrifice and use their gifts for the good of mankind. Superman is perhaps the most obvious hero that is like Christ – not being raised by his real father but still speaking to him, being superior to the human race, always stepping in to save the humans. Thor, too, is seen as a god with superior abilities yet does whatever he can to save the human world. Even those without superpowers eventually take the weight of the world and put it on their own shoulders, promising to do whatever is necessary to save humanity. Sometimes these heroes are even able to come back from death, just like Jesus did, or seeming death (though none are ever dead for three days).
So why do we obsess over superheroes? Perhaps these stories are more realistic than they at first seem; they remind us of our need for a Savior – Jesus Christ. Every human being was created to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and have him be our Savior. When we don’t feel the effects of that, we turn to the next best thing – superheroes. They remind us that good will always defeat evil by doing what we forget Christ has already done. The victory has been won; the enemy has been conquered. Though we don’t know how the day will end or in what ways the villain will attack us, we know that good will prevail over evil in the long run. So when you go to see the new Thor movie or tune in to the new episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and you find yourself wishing you lived in a superhero story, remember that you already do. Christ is the ultimate hero, and he will swoop in and save the day – all you have to do is let him.

Loving Your Enemies in Ender’s Game

(This post was originally posted on www.evangelicaloutpost.com on November 1, 2013.)
Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. How can we love them if we don’t understand them, if we don’t take the time to know them? In the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Ender Wiggin unintentionally learns the best way to love one’s enemies, and he never forgets it. Though just a child deprived of a family’s love and friendship, Ender does what most adults can never do – he loves those that society tells him he’s supposed to hate.
Ender’s Game takes place in a distant future, when our world had been almost destroyed in two invasions by an alien race called the buggers. In the second invasion, the humans were able to force the buggers to retreat, though at great cost. They’ve had peace for about 70 years now but have been expecting another attack from the buggers. In preparation for this third invasion, the leaders of different countries created the International Fleet – an army that trains children to fight battles in zero gravity on a spaceship. All children on Earth are closely monitored to see if they are eligible for this Battle School. At age six, Ender, the youngest of three young geniuses, is chosen to leave his family and train to save his world, and the book details his life through training to the end of the war.
Ender always looks at life by thinking three steps ahead, even at age six. His brilliance flourishes in the Battle School, and he quickly advances, accomplishing many feats that children twice his age can’t do. This, of course, causes the other children to be jealous and Ender to feel isolated. The adults in command of the school keep Ender busy with training and mock battles, manipulating and controlling his life so that he has no close friends. They don’t want anything to distract him from his training, not even love, because he is their last hope to destroy the buggers. With the fate of the world on his little shoulders, Ender becomes the best commander the adults have ever seen – a quick thinker, a strategist, a hard worker, and, what they wanted most, a killer.
Ender, however, hates himself for this trait. He is terrified of becoming just like his brilliant but cruel older brother, Peter, who tormented him before Ender left for Battle School. He tries to be compassionate, but what he doesn’t realize is that this is exactly what sets him apart from Peter. Ender doesn’t want to hurt people. Several boys bully him at different points in the novel, but because Ender knows how the other boys think and what is motivating them, Ender defeats the bullies, strategically and systematically. Afterwards, though, he always feels guilty. Ender defeats his enemies because otherwise his enemies would have hurt or killed him; but at the moment that Ender defeats them, he loves them. He feels compassion for them. He understands how to love his enemies and doesn’t want to destroy them. He tells his sister, Valentine:
“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…I destroy them” (page 238).
Ender’s greatest quality, the thing that makes him different from all the other children, is not his ability to wipe out his enemy completely but his ability to learn about and understand people, even his enemies. He’s the only one who takes the time to understand them, to know their past and the reasons for their actions. And it’s only when he understands his enemies that he loves them and wants to live at peace. There are two ways to destroy an enemy. One is to defeat through harm. The other way is by turning him into a friend. Ender does not want to destroy his enemies; he would rather befriend them and love them.
Not only does Ender love his human enemies, but he even learns to love the alien enemies, those who almost destroyed his world. Though not instructed to by any adults, Ender spends hours and hours trying to understand the buggers, how they think, why they attacked Earth, and how they live. When he does finally understand them, he doesn’t want to destroy them; he wants to live in peace with them. The adults want him to defeat the buggers and completely wipe them out, but Ender wants to forgive them and be friends. The one person who is able to defeat the buggers is the only human who loves the buggers. I don’t know what the movie version of Ender’s Game teaches, but if there’s one thing you learn from the book, though there is much to learn from it, I hope you learn how to better love those you’re “supposed” to hate.

Racism in America: What You Don’t Know

(This post was originally posted on www.evangelicaloutpost.com on October 28, 2013.)
It will never go away. Even if our country ever divides equally by each race, racism will still abound. The war that Americans fought in the 19th century was not a war to end racism; it was a war to keep America united. The civil rights laws that were passed in the 20th century, though a step in the right direction, were not laws to end racism. Laws cannot end racism; they can only stop the violent effects of racism. So how are we supposed to treat the issue of racism?
The best treatment for the issue of racism that I can think of is described in the movie Remember the Titans, when Coach Boone takes his football players to the Gettysburg battlefield. Based on a true story, Coach Boone was an African American man coaching one of the first high school football teams that had both white and black players in the early 1970’s. He took his team to a football camp for two weeks, but the players had done nothing but hate each other. So he finally makes them wake up at 4 a.m. and run the few miles to the Gettysburg battlefield, where he gives them an inspirational speech of how blacks and whites bled and died on that field over a hundred years earlier, fighting the same fight the football players were fighting. He tells them, “You take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together, right now, on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed – just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other or not. But you will respect each other.” This is a turning point in the film, as from then on, the boys learn from and respect each other, and they do end up liking one another.
Americans often sweep the issue of racism under the rug today; they assume that we successfully tackled that issue decades ago and, because of that, we no longer need to have conversations about it. People think that the world has moved on from racism, as is evident by the fact that we are now governed by an African American president, and now the LGBT community and debates demand our focus and block other issues from view. While that issue is important, the issue of racism also deserves to be discussed, as it is equally important.
Recently, I read an article from The Evening Sun, a newspaper in Pennsylvania, about a Ku Klux Klan rally in Gettysburg. Three members, dressed in white robes and hoods, stood outside the Gettysburg Borough building and promoted white supremacy. With their identities hidden because of their hoods, they told how they want America’s borders to be closed to immigrants and relayed plans for a future rally at the Gettysburg battlefield.
After reading the article, I was shocked. How can these men go to that battlefield and dishonor those people that died there, fighting the same fight that has already caused much bloodshed? People think racism does not exist because our country fought a war about it in the 1860’s, but they forget that African Americans, though free, did not have many rights until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, exactly one hundred years after the Civil War ended. If it took that long for non-whites to have their basic rights and be respected, then why is it a surprise that racism still exists today, only fifty years later? It shouldn’t be, but I think it is because the media runs around the issue and does not publicize it anymore. Local news writes about it, but that’s as far as the news gets.
People want to think that they tackled the racism issue long ago, that because America is so diverse, there’s barely a majority among the races anymore. Just because America practices diversity does not mean that racism does not exist. During World War II, Americans huddled up other Americans and put them in interment camps simply because they were of Japanese heritage. More recently, after 9/11, Americans threw verbal and physical attacks at people of Middle Eastern heritage, even though they felt just as stunned and kicked-in-the-gut as the rest of the country. What happened was a terrible tragedy and an act of terror, but that does not mean we should turn around and terrorize others. Forcing diversity on people, however, will not lead to a victory over racism either. Employers and college admission directors make sure that their businesses or schools meet the requirements for diversity – a certain percentage African American, a certain percentage Asian, etc. They sleep in peace, feeling that they have done their duty towards diversity and ending racism, but they haven’t. Racism doesn’t end when we meet all the numbers and become a country equally divided among the races. Racism ends when we learn to love one another. Merely looking at the numbers but ignoring the actual people does nothing and can even create more problems.
While we live in this sin-filled world, we will probably never defeat racism. But we should be aware of this issue and not try to deny that it doesn’t exist anymore. We should stop looking at the statistics and start looking at the people. We should learn about, care for, respect, and eventually love them. Only then will we ever successfully stop fighting this battle we’ve fought for over a hundred and fifty years.

Instrumental Music vs. Vocal Music

(This post was originally posted on www.evangelicaloutpost.com on October 16, 2013.)
As I sat and listened to Gustavo Dudamel conduct the renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic in the beautiful Walt Disney Concert Hall, I couldn’t help but look around at the audience. There were a few young adults scattered around but no teenagers and no children. Why is it that attending symphony performances has become an “elderly” thing to do? I understand that these kinds of performances are expensive, but they usually offer student discounts, group rates, and other special offers – all you have to do is plan ahead. Why is it that our generation can pack out the Staples Center for a Taylor Swift concert but can’t manage the time to experience a distinguished conductor with arguably the best orchestra in the country?
Instrumental music used to be all that people listened to, young people included. The music that young people love today and listen to on repeat usually has lyrics attached to it. These lyrics tell a story about some aspect of life, most often romantic love, and they make it clear what the music is about. The main focus is on the lyrics; people listen to it so they can sing along. Obviously, you can’t sing along to instrumental music, and because of that, people often find it boring. However, if they really took the time to listen to it, they might find it more interesting than vocal music. Instrumental music requires us to imagine our own story for the song. The music gives us themes and emotions, but we have to fill in the rest. Sometimes, there is no story, but only a range of emotions the composer wants you to feel. You have to think and focus on the music that you’re listening to; you can’t just follow along with lyrics that you can sing without thinking about. Listening to instrumental music requires more effort, but it has a rewarding payoff that many people miss. Not only do doctors use it to help improve both physical and mental health, but it can also alleviate stress and anxiety. Maybe we wouldn’t be such a busy and stressed society if we listened to instrumental music more.
Everyone knows the names of Bach and Mozart and could probably recognize Beethoven’s famous fifth symphony, but who are the modern-day composers? The ones that compose film scores – Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, John Williams, Howard Shore, to name a few. Most people who do listen to instrumental music today listen to soundtracks. While these compositions are beautiful and creative, they are more similar to popular lyrical songs than other instrumental music. There is already an image and a story attached to these compositions – the one from the movie or television show. They don’t require any new imaginations, but rely on your knowledge of the film.
There’s something about allowing our mind to connect the dots in the music that we don’t want to do. We don’t want to imagine our own images and story for the music that is playing; we want it to be told to us. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with lyrical music or film scores; I definitely listen to them more than classical music. But I am saying that there’s a lack of a desire to listen to instrumental music. In this world where we idolize those who can sing, we don’t have enough respect for those who create, conduct, or perform purely instrumental music. Either people weren’t raised on it or they say it bores them and puts them to sleep. But instrumental music, if you’re really listening to it, makes you think and can expand your mind. It forces you to listen to it over and over again so that you can hear each theme and every new emotion and form a complete story or image of your own to match the music. It can calm your nerves and dissipate your stress.
You don’t have to give up vocal music to appreciate instrumental music. But the next time you’re sitting in traffic or needing to unwind a little, try listening to instrumental music. Instead of lulling you to sleep, it could help you focus better than vocal music does, if you let it. If you have a favorite film composer, listen to his music for a film that you haven’t seen and see if you appreciate it as much. I love popular vocal music as well as the next person, but I’ve made a conscious effort to listen to more instrumental music, and my appreciation for it has grown. Not only that, but I’ve found myself less stressed about life in general. My generation assumes that they can’t like instrumental music because it’s not fun or popular, but they are also always busy, expecting every new technology to make their lives easier when it only makes it more stress-filled. If they put the effort in to understand instrumental music, they would discover just the opposite of their expectations and might even be able to relax. Then maybe one day we could sell out a concert hall for a symphony performance and have it filled with people a variety of ages.