Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Widows and Orphans

While you might think I'm talking about some settings in Microsoft Word, since I just completed my first day at Microsoft, that's not what this post is about. Talk about Microsoft will come later.

This morning, I was reading from the Book of James in the Bible, looking for some inspiration before I start my second day of work at Microsoft Research. There's a lot of things I'm sorting out in my head -- in particular, the reason why I'm here instead of still being in Italy. I already have some simple and obvious answers, but I'm searching for some of the more subtle reasons that, when found, really give you certainty that God really wanted you to do something or be somewhere.

I've also been thinking about what it means to be a Christian in a place of prosperity -- where I no longer stand out from the crowd and I'm no longer considered an international (or foreigner). I'm stuck somewhere between native and non-native, not quite feeling understood by either. What does it mean to be a Christian here?

James 1:27 (NLT) reads like this: "Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you." Who are these widows and orphans? What is their distress?

Literally speaking, an orphan's distress is not having a father (or mother). The orphan experiences loneliness and lack of direction -- lack of encouragement; lack of affection. Lack of someone to trust or hope in. And the widow? The widow once had a companion -- someone to experience life with and make decisions with. Someone who was at home with them at night and perhaps someone they saw last in the evening and first in the morning.

Widows and orphans. Their needs are great and often their hope is gone. This verse talks about what's important "in the sight of God the Father." A father. An orphan needs a father. A widow was united with her child's father before losing him. Caring for widows and orphans means being like a father. That's something I can relate to as a married man with a baby girl.

But is James just talking about these widows and orphans? It's easy to understand who they are. I think James is using this as an important example of the needs in the society he was living in. These were the people whose needs were greatest. But again, I think that this is an example of how we are to care for people in our community. Orphans in international communities can be the foreigners who don't have a place to fit in -- who might otherwise feel unwelcome or abandoned in this new society.

So, who are these widows and orphans in this new community I'm living in? Even if it's just a few months, "practicing my religion" is just as important as heading to work, which I'm going to do right now.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Three o'clock in the morning. I'm sitting on my couch, unable to sleep. Life is different here.

I've returned to the United States for a three month internship with Microsoft Research. But I've never lived in the Seattle area before. It's different, yet the same at the same time.

Five days ago began a journey that tested our wits, faith, and endurance. Travel has always been a crazy adventure for us, regardless of how much we try to prepare in advance. In this case, like many others in the past, the drama centered around our dog: Wilbur. The hardest variable to solve for in virtually every equation is the dog. How will the dog travel? Who will accept the dog?

Working with Microsoft's relocation department to book a dog-friendly travel itinerary turned out to be a two week process. But that's a story for another time. We booked plane tickets from Milano-Malpensa (MXP) to JFK airport on the 24th, with an overnight stopover to allow us to rest and for my parents to take the dog home with them. Our journey would continue on the evening of the 25th, where we would fly -- father, mother, and baby -- to Seattle. Unfortunately, the flight on the 24th departed at 10:00 in the morning. Anyone living in Trento without their own car knows that the trains do not allow you to get to Milano early enough for a trip like this. So we were forced to travel on the 23rd instead and stay in a hotel.

In planning a million things for the travel, one thing we overlooked was to verify that the dog crate we used to bring Wilbur to Europe was fully functional. So, one hour before our friend Anna would pick us up by car to graciously drive us as far as Verona, I went down to the basement to collect the dog crate. Only, all of the fastening bolts were missing. Uh-oh.

It's kind of hard not to panic when you've made this big of a blunder. So with Jenn pacing around, not sure what to do, I ran to catch a bus that would take me to the biggest pet store chain in Trento. In the meantime, our good friend +Zekarias Tilahun was helping load suitcases into the car. As I ran to the bus stop, I prayed that a bus would arrive soon. Maybe not such a grand prayer, since the buses arrive every 15 minutes or so, but fortunately, the bus arrived immediately as I reached the bus stop and speedily took me to the pet shop.

Once inside the pet shop, I found dog crates, but they had sliding snap fasteners. Different from my own American crate, but it's all they had. Price tag: nearly two hundred euros in total. Oh well. Nothing I can do but buy it. Surprisingly enough, my assistant spoke very good English which helped expedite and clarify my hasty explanation of what I needed. So I bought the crate, but then I had to run to another pet shop to grab a few other last minute items that weren't in stock.

Again, I ran home and spent an hour getting the crate completely prepared. At least this 200 euro crate had wheels which would greatly simplify juggling 3 suitcases, a baby, her accessories, and a dog. Or so I thought. In the meantime, Zack had run to the hardware store and bought some bolts and screws that unfortunately were too big to repair the old crate.

Anyway, we left home late, which turned into a not-quite-high-speed race to get to the Verona train station in time for the final train leaving to Milano -- at 9:42 PM. Seriously, that early?? Well, unfortunately, we just missed it by 2 minutes. We were stuck. What can we do? Taxi? Try to race the train to Brescia? In the end, Anna graciously offered to drive us the additional two hours to go to our hotel in Milano. Amazing.

In the end, we arrived at the hotel around midnight, exhausted, but prepared to take an hour-long taxi ride the next day at 6:30 to get to the airport. After a refreshing three hours of sleep, we discovered that our flight was delayed by two hours. Which we thought meant that we had an additional hour to eat a proper breakfast.

Once we got to the airport, we went to the check-in desk, where the American Airlines supervisor promptly said: "You cannot travel with that crate." No. Not that. Impossible. After all of the work to get the crate, and all of the buses perfectly lined up to help us leave Trento in the last minute? After my friends' gracious help to get us to the airport for this very moment, you want to stand in our way?

Quickly donning my wits, I made a somewhat poor judgment call. "This woman is Italian. I'm still in Italy. In Italy, you can talk yourself out of anything." So, bearing all my stereotypical assumptions about Italian bureaucracy, I tried every corner of pleading, arguing, and reasoning to get her to change my mind. But she worked for an American business. These tactics almost never work. According to American Airlines policy, only crates with bolts are allowed on their flights. Crates with sliding locks "have the risk of opening during our flights which can put your pet in danger. We will not accept liability for these risks."

"Can I sign a waiver?" were the words coming from my mouth. Does that make me a terrible person, inconsiderate of my dog? "Or I can drill holes in the crate so that we can secure it shut?" Impossible. We were stuck. The only thing we could do was to get a crate that was compliant with their standards. (I thought I had looked into this already, but in my haste at the pet store, I settled with the only crate they had.)

Jenn and I were quite upset and feeling hopeless. Jenn made a quick decision to request that she and the baby take the flight, while Wilbur and I stayed behind. In the end, this proved to be the best decision, because the events to come would have been too trying for her and the baby to endure. Plus, we had a nice hotel in New York for them to rest in and my parents would meet them there anyway. They could help. So we said our goodbyes and I was left, standing alone with a large suitcase, a backpack, a luggage cart, a rejected dog crate, and a confused cockapoo, unsure of why our family was separating.

After a 30 minute conversation with the airline company, I was given an objective: find a new dog crate in the Milano area by tomorrow morning, and we could take a flight that would reunite us with Jenn and Julia and allow us to finish our journey together. Okay, great. But I don't have a car -- let alone much of an idea of where I need to go. So after wandering semi-aimlessly through the airport, asking for advice, I did some research on my mobile phone and discovered that there was one of those pet shop chains that sold me the dog crate about 20 km outside of Milano. Most of the other pet stores were in Milano anyway, so I took an airport shuttle back to Milano to plan my next strategy.

I tried calling a friend for advice, but he knows just as much about Italy as I do -- not enough. Unsure of what to do afterward, I decided to rant on Facebook and pray for God to give me an idea of what to do. All of the pet shops in Milano appeared to be tiny according to my internet searches. I was running out of hope. Then, I got a reply on Facebook from an American friend from our church who has lived in Italy for over 25 years. "Can I do anything to help?" Geez, why didn't I think to ask her before?

So I called Gilda, explaining everything from the standoff at the airport to the failed crate purchase at the popular pet store chain. She recommended that I should indeed go on the 20 km journey to the pet shop and return the crate. She called the pet shop, explained my situation, and got a guarantee that the shop had a crate that would work on the flight and that the pet store would accept my return. So once arriving in Milano, I deposited my heavy suitcase in a luggage valet and took the metro and a bus to Corsico.

With a dog leash in one hand and the large and awkward rolling crate in the other, I walked along the busy highway from the bus stop to the pet store, which was tucked away in some obscure street. Thank goodness I had 3G and GPS on my phone. So rationing out my phone battery and the remaining half liter of water between myself and my dog, we tiredly arrived at the large and ominous pet shop. Relief at last.

I entered the shop and spoke with the cashier and manager in poor, hastily crafted Italian, explaining the situation. The manager immediately identified me with the call from Gilda and asked to see my receipt. After a quick glance, she laughed and pointed at the top of the receipt to show the cashier. "You came all the way from Trento?" I nervously laughed in reply and explained my situation. "Well, we can't accept this crate. You didn't buy it from our store."

I was set aback. Didn't she know that already? "But...can't you negotiate with the other store? You're the same company." (of course, my Italian didn't sound that good.) "Absolutely not. If you want to return the crate, you will have to go back to Trento."

"Fine then. Can you show me what other crates you have?" Pause.
"We only have this type of crate. It's the only type of crate that's sold in Italy. All of the Italian carriers accept this crate. Yours should, too."
"But they don't. It's an American airline and they require a different lock."
"All we have is this other crate." They showed me a wire crate that looked more suitable for a gerbil. That thing would have collapsed if you breathed on it wrongly.

Again, hopelessness. I quickly prayed for an alternative. Overwhelmed by two people ranting in Italian about how there's nothing else they could do and that there wasn't anything any other pet store would be able to do to help, I called Gilda again.

"Well, what if I go to the hardware store and buy bolts and bring you your old crate? I can return the other crate to the store in Trento for you. I'm in Trento anyway."
"Well, Zack already tried that, but maybe there might be some smaller bolts."
"But how would I get in your apartment?"
"Zack has a key. I could ask him to meet you. But I don't want you to have to come all the way to Milano." A thought came to my mind. "You live close to Verona, right? Could you just take the crate to the Verona train station and I'll meet you there?" Bingo.

So, Wilbur and I had to make the 20 km trip back to the Milano train station -- in a combination of walking, bus hopping, and packing into crowded metros. When we arrived in the train station, I quickly bought a train ticket and hopped on the two-hour train back to Verona. Gilda had figured everything out with the crate and we swapped items, not entirely unlike people making shady business transactions. (Just kidding. It just sounded right to say.)

So this time, I was able to take that final, 9:42 PM train back to Milano. Human and dog both exhausted from the journey, we were dozing off on the train when some unsavory guys got on the train and started casually harassing passengers. When our turn came up, they decided to start by talking to the dog. Wilbur had no patience for them and he let them know by unleashing an unceasing chain of curses in barking form. After about 30 seconds of utter surprise, the gang-affiliated men walked away and didn't return.

Once we arrived back in the Milano train station, Wilbur and I walked to the baggage valet to retrieve our bag. We would then take the shuttle back to the airport and wait for the morning. Unfortunately, the baggage office closed 30 minutes before our arrival, meaning that we would be booking a night's stay on the cold floor of the train station. Which we did. With about 15 other passengers, all waiting for their early morning train connections. Without a jacket or warm clothes aside from my thin button-up shirt and the rain-soaked T-shirt from the previous day in my backpack that served as a mediocre pillow, I slept on the icy floor with my faithful dog curled up beside me. In 15 minute intervals of sleeping for 5 minutes, waking up because of a random noise, and then 5 minutes of trying to get comfortable, we spent our final night together.

The next day we collected our luggage from the valet and took an early morning shuttle back to the airport. The crate was accepted and we got on the flight, which was also delayed two hours. We were reunited with Jenn and Julia and my parents took the dog home. And we were able to catch our Seattle flight together and move into our apartment around 1:00 AM (PST) on the 26th.

Three of our friends: a Brit, an American, and an Ethiopian, worked tremendously to help us get here -- all of whom were connected through our church. Without them, I'm not sure what we would have done.

Well, that's enough storytelling for now. I still have a lot more to write about culture shock and returning to a different way of living, but an hour has passed and I should fight the jet lag before starting my first day at Microsoft. Thanks for your patience in reading this story.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Grief: Words just aren't enough

Grief is an inexplicable pain. When you see someone suffering this much, it makes you feel helpless. Sometimes hopeless. Sometimes it makes you want to grieve.

And when you're the one grieving, you oftentimes feel isolated. "Why does the world carry on, ignoring my despair?" Even close ones feel distant to you. Grief is messy. There's no classy way to grieve.

Nevertheless, it's important. Without grief, there can't be healing. It's worse to fight grief and to try to suppress it in order to stay strong. Caging this unwelcome feeling and always making the excuse, "I'll deal with you later." Will you ever plan time to deal with it? Or will it hit you when you are unprepared? In the past I've worn facades. I know they don't last. And it's even messier afterward.

If you're someone (un)fortunate enough to encounter someone filled with grief, what do you do? What do you say? One time in high school I was sitting at lunch with friends and the girl sitting next to me suddenly broke out in tears. She was a good friend of mine -- someone who later helped me out with my own pain. But when it came to consoling her, I had no idea what to do. So I sat there awkwardly, munching on my sandwich, silently empathizing with her pain. But was I helpful? Did she even know that I cared, or did I just look like another insensitive person, like the rest of the cafeteria? One of my other friends did the right thing. He went over and put his arm around her shoulder. That was enough. I was paralyzed with fear of what was right to do on that situation, and in turn, I did nothing. At least, not until I had an example.

Clearly words weren't needed in that situation. People often just need the presence of others. Even just a bit of confirmation that they are still human and that they aren't alone. No words we say are effective enough to stop the pain. But we don't need to stop the pain. We need to experience the pain with our loved ones, crying out together with them for God to help. But when we come to God for help, what do we say?

Again, our words can't express how we truly feel. There aren't enough words in any language to describe the situation going on in our hearts. But we don't need words to express ourselves to God. That's what the holy spirit is all about. "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8:26, ESV). It means that the very groans or cries we make speak more than the words we struggle to create. It means that every cry -- even a sniffle -- communicates our exact situation and needs to God.

For a God that desires to "wipe every tear from [our] eyes," this is enough. He promises that "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Revelation 21:4, NIV). It doesn't mean that the pain is gone now, but it means that God is working in this world to bring it to the place where this becomes reality.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How far is comfort?

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4, ESV)

Jesus said these words to speak truths about how God wants to enter people's lives in a way that radically changes everything. This verse by itself looks empty, but in the context of the entire message, Jesus is describing a God who is concerned with suffering in the world: who promises to do something about it. But when you're suffering - when your heart is wrenched and your eyes are full of tears -- when you don't see how you're going to make it through the pain you're suffering today, how far away is that comfort?

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46) Jesus himself cried out these words -- the same person who declared boldly these promises from God. What does this say about Jesus? Was he just another spiritual leader with empty promises?

"O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest" (Psalm 22:2). Suffering, despair, hopelessness. This is the human condition we live in. Many of us are sitting on the floor with our face in our hands, crying out, reaching out for someone -- anyone -- who would listen. Anyone who cares. Anyone that understands what this pain is like. But the irony is that despite our isolation, there are so many others around us who do understand. But they also feel alienated by their pain -- shame from their despair. Can anyone really help you when you're hurting?

You've heard it many times. God can help. Just turn to God, "Cast all your anxiety on him, for he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7, NIV). But if he cares so much, why doesn't he do something about it right now? Where is this comfort that was promised to you? How long must you wait?

I don't have a good answer for these questions. I don't think anyone honestly has a good answer to this problem of suffering. All I can say for certain is that I've seen what God has been capable of doing in the past -- in my own life. And this is what helps me to carry on.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Relevance and Reverence

Is it okay to be posting memes like this? Is this making a mockery of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross? Or is someone attempting to take the story of Jesus' death and resurrection and making it understandable to today's culture? I don't know the intention of whoever made this meme, but I can say one thing: I find it hilarious. Not because I think that a person being crucified is a laughing matter. In spite of the shame and rejection Jesus experienced on the cross, he rose up victorious, conquering death. Of all the things this could have Jesus say, a "nah bro" seems to hit the mark.

So, is this just irreverence, or does it say something more? And if it is irreverent, what does God think about it? Or is this meme something that's relevant to us today? I use this meme as an example of a greater phenomenon in our society. People are getting tired of imposed reverence without relevance. By that I mean that there seems to be a stigma about the church that it just propagates worship and submission to God (and Jesus, of course) without thinking. But if there isn't some relevance to what the church is doing in its worship services and in its messages to people, then it might as well be another brainwashing camp as many other things in the world are.

Ever seen the movie Jesus Camp (2006)? This movie approaches this question quite well -- and makes the evangelical movement look pretty bad in the process. In a gist, the movie highlights several "youth camps" that focus on spiritual training to help teens and tweens become dedicated to God. But it's really a masquerade where these vulnerable kids are being indoctrinated into something else. The sad thing is that these kids are genuinely longing to become closer to God and to faithfully follow him. They're brimming with potential and you can see the start of some amazing things about their character. But instead of being taught something relevant -- and, in particular, true -- their spiritual leaders are drawing them away from God and toward some superficial hyper-moral conservative activism. You could even say "legalism."

I've talked to friends from different countries who have expressed their frustrations with what they've seen in the Catholic/evangelical/fill-in-the-blank church. Many think that Jesus was a pretty incredible guy, but their church experiences have left them in an agnostic uncertainty about what God thinks of them and how (seldom) involved they think God is in their lives. Their main complaint: these churches are teaching/imposing dogma and forbidding them to question the status quo.

But if you look carefully in the Bible, you don't see that message being propagated. For example, Acts 17:11 says good things about some Jews who critically tested what they heard: "Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." What does this mean? These people didn't just accept whatever was spoon-fed to them. They fought with it. What does this mean for you? You should wrestle with what you hear. You don't have to accept everything you hear at face value. You don't always have to walk on eggshells, worrying about being irreverent -- or letting others bully you into that. That's why there's a whole section of the bible called "wisdom literature" (we'll take a look at some of this later).

Sometimes you have to walk on the edge of irreverence to get to the relevance. Churches can't pretend that everything is squeaky clean and smooth. Life is hard. Faith is hard work. But if you test your faith and test what you hear, it should come back as true. God can take the heat. If anything, he appreciates honesty. And if you believe if God is omniscient (sees everything), then you know that he knows what you're thinking anyway.

This is a message that I've been saying for a long time -- particularly when I was actively involved in youth ministry. The only way to understand God is to ask him questions. And if the church wants to be relevant to the needs of society, it needs to suck up some of the irreverence and create a safe space for people to learn and explore. Note my tone here: I'm saying this to highlight my point.