Friday, March 29, 2013

Training Wheels: Part 1

So I just finished riding my road bicycle to the office. It's a short ride, only about 3.5 km (a little over 2 miles), but it's uphill. Most of the way. Actually, it's up a mountain. Here's a map of the general route:
(I'll post some riding statistics later.)

See that tiny white building on that mountain? That's about the halfway point, in terms of difficulty. The hill climbing can get a little tiresome, but the overall route isn't too bad, especially when I'm zipping along on my road bike. One problem: I didn't wear my cycling shoes. I wore these puppies.
Pumas ≠ cycling shoes
So here I am, in semi-full cycling gear. I've got the nice compression shorts that hug the curves on my bum, as well as a nice, light cycling jacket with rear pockets, and a helmet that says, I'm ready to race. But the shoes...oh, the shoes. You see, my bike has LOOK clip-in pedals, not some cheap pedal you'd use with street shoes. Instead, I'm defiling the purpose of the pedals by balancing the flat sole of my Pumas on them as I surge up the mountain.

Why would I do something so ridiculous? Especially since I have these beautiful Sidi shoes.

Beautiful, aren't they?

The problem is: I'm scared. I don't know how to use them properly. I have a semi-rational fear of pedaling uphill on the road, only to not have enough momentum to keep in motion and not being able to clip out of the pedals before coming to a stop. I don't want to fall in the middle of a road with cars going by!

I've had these shoes for over 6 months now, but I haven't taken enough time to practice with them. Well, I tried doing that today. Today was my first day riding to the office this season, so I wanted to give it a shot with my Sidi shoes. I decided to do some practice riding, much like what you'd do with your dad when you're getting off of training wheels for the first time. You look like a complete fool, but everyone understands that it's a necessary process to get you comfortable riding. Unless you're 29. And riding a professional bike. With professional-looking gear. They expect you to be a man, not some sissy with scraped knees because you don't know how to stop properly. Well, I tried to overcome that. And I did a pretty good job. I did some laps around the parking lot nearby, practicing clipping in and out with simulated stressful situations. I didn't fall. Yippee.

So I decided to hit some (flat) roads. It was a little cold, but nothing bad. I was riding along a bike lane, feeling pretty confident, so I decided to start riding at my normal cycling pace: Fast. No cars were around, so I felt like I didn't have to worry about clipping out every 2 seconds when I saw a leaf blow the wrong way. Unfortunately, a car decided to zip by and turn right in front of me to head to whatever gym made him so cool. No warning, no turn signal (come on, this is Italy). So instinct kicks in and I squeeze the brakes hard. No problem, not hard enough to flip over the handlebars. But wait a second, I forgot to do something...what was it again? Oh, yeah. I forgot to clip out. So as I brake safely to a stop, I realize that my feet are shackled to the bike and down I go, like the little boy I once was, saying "I can't do it."

But it's okay. Bella figura, right? Nobody's watching, right? Oh, except for that guy standing outside the gym with his cigarette, taking in the humor of the entire situation. No words. No "Sta bene?" Just staring. And the guy that cut me off? He casually pulled into his parking spot and walked into the gym without so much as a glance. Well, at least he's got bella figura down.

So, clumsily, I pulled myself up and after a couple of minutes, I decided to ride on. Actually, to ride home. Today was not going to be the day that I would ride up that treacherous mountain with these shoes. Time to slip back on the Pumas. Not bella figura, not one bit. So with my tail between my legs, I ride on to my office. At least I didn't fall when it counted. At least I was safe. Just like when I rode with training wheels.

So, what to do next? Will I continue to ride with my ridiculous Pumas, or will I train, so that eventually I'll be like a *real* cyclist?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Christian Rap is cool, I promise! (just like MySpace)

This is a post about Christian pop culture. Why do Christians need their own form of pop culture? Some people think that Christianity and pop culture should never have mixed in the first place. Consider this argument for a moment: When in any other time in the past were Jesus and his disciples popular?

If Jesus and his disciples weren't particularly popular from a cultural perspective, then does that mean that Christians should abandon pop culture? Personally, I don't think we have to go that far. However, it should make us think about why Christians are immersing themselves in pop culture. Pop culture has immense cultural influence. It's one of the most effective cultural mediums for communication with large numbers of people. It's also a space where philosophies and ideologies are juxtaposed. So in that way, it seems like the Christian faith should be welcome. However, in the music industry for example, anything related to religion is cast off to a sub-genre -- mostly due to other religious "baggage" that becomes attached to the music.

Is this something that Christians have done to themselves? What are the motives of the Christian content producers? It's clear that pop culture is a powerful vehicle to propagate ideologies. For some Christians, it can be a way to propose a different way of living. But pop culture is entertainment, which is why it's...well...popular. There are some Christians who try to create a cheap substitution for mainstream culture. We have these cheap imitations that are created for the purpose of saying, "Hey, we Christians are cool! We offer everything mainstream culture offers, but we have JESUS! You can be just as cool and have just as much fun without being SINNERS!" They create counterfeit copies of mainstream culture and use them to fight against the mainstream. But let's face it: nobody can beat a competitor by copying their playbook and removing their most effective players.

Let's take hip hop as a case study. It's been around since the 1970's and it came from West African culture, which used lyrical speaking and chants to communicate ideas. It's full of potential because a single song can communicate a lot. Unfortunately, most of the songs in the Top 100 nowadays present messages surrounding ego, fame, fortune, and power. It's particularly appealing because many of most influential artists in this genre come from life situations where they were at the bottom. For many of them, it's a testimony of rising to the top and celebrating their power. That can be quite inspiring. However, in the celebration of power, much of the music over-promotes self-destructive behavior to people who follow in the footsteps of the artists.

Now, many might say, "Whatever, it's just fun music I can dance or bob my head to. Nothing else." I agree on many fronts with that. Hip hop has the catchiest beats and it's certainly a good genre for having a good time. The problem comes from people who look to media for inspiration -- particularly youths dealing with hard times.

Enter Christian hip hop. Where does it fit in this cultural dialogue? It's really up to the artists to define that. Do they want to reach the world with their message, or di they just want to perpetuate Christian living and deepen the divide with the "secular" world? Let's look at some examples of recent album releases.

Exhibit A: Da' T.R.U.T.H. He's had some good stuff in the past, particularly when he was a part of the revolutionary Cross Movement - but he made the bold move of releasing an album with the title: Love, Hope, War. He's been in the hip hop scene for quite some time - hence why his rapper name is so...old. Some of the tracks on the album are pretty solid, but the album overall is geared toward Christians sharing a particular worldview, rather than the entire culture. Take for example the confrontational message in his opener:

One review describes the first song as follows:
Da’ T.R.U.T.H. ... calls for real Christians to stand up, take action, and "tell the world we declare war.”  He says we Christians have been silent for too long.  He points out that "Every time we stop moving they find a way to remove something,” going on to say that’s how they removed the Ten Commandments from courthouses, prayer in school, and more.  He uses his lyrical flow to challenge all of us to take a bolder stand for Christ and stop sitting around, letting things just happen.  He cries out that we are at war and have to stand up and fight.
The problem is that his message deepens the wound that the conservative evangelical movement has been inflicting in the U.S. These messages are closing up opportunities for conversation in the culture and is interpreted by the culture as "Conservative Republicans ('evangelicals') trying to take over the nation."

This is not the type of music that non-Christians can relate with. They won't listen to Da' T.R.U.T.H.'s message, regardless of whether his MC name has "truth" in it. I call this style, rap for Christians only.

Exhibit B: Lecrae. Recipient of a Grammy in the Gospel genre this year for his acclaimed album, Gravity. He got the Grammy for a reason: inspiring lyrics that invite dialogue with the mainstream hip hop community. Here's a playlist with two powerful songs: the first from his recent album. Additionally, his testimony. I encourage you to listen because this guy is as real as it gets.

Lecrae's style isn't to preach at the world, or incite Christians to "war." Instead, he delivers a message that describes his first-hand experiences and how God got him through it all. He's respected by "secular" culture because he's honest and delivers his message in a way that not-so-religious people can understand. I call his style Christian rap for the world.

Now, why did I throw MySpace in this post's title? Remember that social network, anyone? Remember when it was cool to use it? In my opinion, Christian rap or pop culture that tries to perpetuate the Christian agenda or provide cheap alternatives to mainstream culture is like MySpace crying: "Come back to me! I'm still cooool!" Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have long since overshadowed it with better services. Can we say the same about mainstream culture?

To further drive the point home, I hereby enclose my meager attempt at being a Christian rapper back in college. Guess where the tracks are? On MySpace.
Wake Up (beat by Official Rap Beats)

Want to read more on this topic? Check out this recent blog post.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Are your opponents your enemies?

Shortly after publishing my last post, describing my turbulent application process for an Erasmus Mundus European master's scholarship, I received the following comment from a friend: "I think I was one of those three Americans. :-)" (I kept the original smiley face so that you wouldn't think he was boasting.)

This got me thinking. Were we opponents at one time? Certainly: we were applying for the same program. We competed indirectly for acceptance into a program with a limited number of scholarships. We wanted the same prize. But at the time of applying, we didn't know who our competition was. We just knew that we had to stand out above the others to be accepted. To win the prize.

When the curtains were raised and we were revealed as "winners," we were no longer competitors, but friends. But what about the many others who were rejected or did not win a scholarship? Certainly, I was almost one of them. I'll probably never know all of these people. All I know is that in every competition, some people lose, but we never want to be the one who loses.

Assuming you know your opponents during a competition, how should you treat them? How intense is the competition? Is it a just a football game, or is it something that will change your life? Should that affect the way you think about your opponents?

Back in high school, I was a track runner. My best event was the 800m. I was pretty good. When I was a freshman, I was swimming with potential. I wasn't the best, but I was improving at a rate that made coaches pay close attention to me. One thing that made me good was my drive for success. I wanted to win. I learned strategies to keep me competitive, even against opponents that were clearly better. Coaches teach that the most important key to succeeding in a competition is to stay focused. "Don't let anything distract you from your goal." Good advice, but the application is subject to interpretation. My peers taught me a particular way to stay competitive: consider your opponents as enemies on the track. They will do everything to stop you from winning. So, you must win at all costs -- just don't cheat. So I tried it. I put on a face that screamed: "don't mess with me." With anger and determination, I always placed well in the races.

There was one particularly important competition that was my last chance to qualify for districts. There was a star runner at the meet -- a senior. He was quite possibly the best in our district. In our track meet, he was seeded first position in the 800, while I was seeded second. I guess he had heard about me from some friends. He made it pretty clear that he didn't like me much. He was a pretty intimidating guy, but I wasn't going to back down. We braced ourselves at the starting line and the gun fired. He played a dirty move and tripped me while throwing some elbows and I fell at the line. The gun shot again, signalling a restart. I pulled myself up and got ready again.

This time I wasn't going to let him do it to me again. The gun fired again and I was ready with my elbows, too. We batted at each other as we fought for first position. The gun fired yet again, signalling another restart. And once again. Three restarts. Finally, after the fourth starting gunshot, we took off again. I backed off a bit, hoping to regain on him later. It didn't work. I was too tired out from fighting on three false starts. In the end, I didn't get a personal record. I didn't qualify for districts. I blamed that guy for my failure. I didn't like him.

I kept that competitive attitude all throughout high school. It wasn't until college that I got a better perspective. I went to a Christian college with Christian coaches and Christian captains. The captains were quite good. But they treated competition much differently. I watched them shake hands with each of their competitors and wish them good luck before each race. If things got dirty, they could hold their own. But they never took advantage of other competitors. They would even congratulate the opponents that beat them -- and encouraged runners that lost to them. They had relationships with their opponents that spanned beyond the track. They were serious about their sport and they fought hard in every competition, but they honored their opponents and made it clear that they were privileged to race against such good athletes. It wasn't just because they were Christian. It was because they had good character.

I was ashamed of the attitude I carried all those years. What did my attitude say about my character? Coaches blab on and on about sportsmanship for a reason. It's not just for sports, but it's for your life. Is it necessary to fight bitterly against your opponents in any competition? Or is there a way to pursue your goals while encouraging others in their own pursuits? Certainly, some of your opponents are competing for things that are important in your life. But should you disqualify your character by forfeiting humility for success?

Jumping back to my application for the master's program. My opponents weren't my enemies anymore. I knew that if God wanted me somewhere, he'd make it happen. I have too many stories that prove this in my life. Nothing is worth risking the dignity of another. Even if it means that they rise above you.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why Europe? Part 3: When a Door Opens

[This is Part 3 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 1 | Part 2]

In my last post, I attempted to outline the practical reasons that led me to come to Europe. While you might have considered these reasons -- well, reasonable -- you might be thinking, is that all? Because surely there were other good opportunities I could have considered...right? Certainly. And another person with the same opportunity and same lifestyle as me might have made a different -- and valid -- choice. So, if you're still asking me "Why Europe?", maybe I have other reasons I haven't mentioned thus far.

Here goes. I mentioned in my previous post that I was "eventually" accepted into the LCT Erasmus Mundus European Master's program. This is important. So, let's rewind back to 2009 again, back to one early morning in the office at my previous job. I had submitted various applications for PhD programs in the United States and also to this lonely master's program in Europe. I had already received a few acceptances and rejections from American universities (C'mon, let's be real. You wouldn't really expect me to get accepted everywhere, would you?). I had also been accepted to the LCT master, but I was on the waiting list for the LCT scholarship. I was told that I would find out by the end of May whether or not I would receive a scholarship -- but that email never came. So about a month before this day, I had resolved that I would not receive a scholarship and thus my pipe dream about going to Europe had ended.

But apparently, this was not the case. At 8:00 am (EST) on July 2, I received an email from the LCT secretariat:
We have had a cancellation from the main list, and are therefore able to advance your name and offer you the Erasmus Mundus scholarship under the following conditions:
- Your choice of partner universities has been changed to: year one University of Groningen, year two The Free University of Bozen/Bolzano.
- Due to the late date, I have to set a deadline for you to confirm your participation in the program by Monday, July 6.
Congratulations, I hope you will be able to join the program.
Wow. I was shocked. I had just arrived at my office, doing my normal email scan and found this beauty. My life had just changed in an instant. I was on an emotional high. I knew my decision: Yes! I took the next 20 minutes to call my wife and my parents to tell them the great news. I played through the million scenarios involving sharing the news with my manager and resigning from my job. It was a great job, but this was the opportunity I was waiting for!

A few hours later, I received another email:
Let me clarify my mail from this morning by giving you more details: We would like to advance your name to the main list PENDING FINAL APPROVAL from the European Union, which observes certain national quotas. Generally they can only approve 3 scholarships for any one country. We already have 3 Americans on our main list, so your name may not be accepted by the EU. Therefore, I am waiting not only for a reply from you, but also for a reply from the European Union on this matter. So, in your own interest, do not cancel any other program you may have been accepted to until we have a final notification. I am trying to contact our program officer now and will keep you posted.
Okay, a bureaucratic hurdle. No need to get upset, right? These things happen all the time. A few minutes later, I received a follow-up email.  After contacting their program officer, they could not offer me the scholarship, since there were already 3 Americans receiving the scholarship and that they must observe national quotas. I was crushed.

A lot of thoughts went through my mind. "God, why did this happen? I had already settled the matter in my mind before today." This was one of the worst emotional roller coasters I had ridden at this point in my life. A feeling of acceptance, followed by a swift rejection. I couldn't let it go.

I talked with Jenn and we prayed about it a lot, but I just wasn't satisfied with the situation. The next day, I asked the LCT secretariat if there was anything else they could do. Nope, case closed. But I had this deep feeling of incompleteness and I needed closure to move on. So I did some research. I couldn't find anything in the flood of information about the Erasmus Mundus scheme that described scholarship quotas. Only this quote from an obscure PR article from Brussels advertising the LCT program.
"Graduates from around the world can apply [for an Erasmus Mundus scholarship], and winners are selected on merit, with no national or regional quotas, commission officials said."
After trying to sort out these mixed messages in my mind and spending more time praying about it, I decided to contact the European Commission. I didn't expect any replies any time soon -- from my experience with US bureaucracy, I expected a reply sometime in November, where they would briefly cite the fine print about quotas. That would have been enough for me. Instead, I received an email reply 2 days later, saying that the commission would look into the situation.

I spent more time praying about it. I prayed the following:
God, you are a God who makes all things possible. You open doors that others have sealed, and you close doors that others have opened. If it's your will for us to go to Europe, please open this door again. I just need closure. Please, let your will be done and help me to accept the decision.
In the meantime, Jenn was at the local library, looking for travel books on Latin American countries for her students in her Spanish class. Her eyes stopped on a travel book on The Netherlands. She browsed through it for a while and decided to bring it home. That night, we looked at the book a little bit and prayed some more.

The next morning, at about 6:00 am, I rolled out of bed to check my email. For some reason, I felt like it was necessary to check right away. In my inbox was an email from the LCT secretariat, stating that their officer clarified the issue with the secretariat and that they were now able to offer me the scholarship! Praise God!

After my prayer was answered, Jenn and I knew what we had to do. After many talks with our skeptical parents, I accepted the scholarship within the razor-thin response period and we planned our hasty exit from the United States -- tales of which will follow.

This is why we came to Europe. Not just for pragmatic reasons; not just to be different from other Americans. We came to Europe because we believe that God made it clear to us that we should go. In the past, I had never imagined leaving the US. I even scoffed at the idea. "Programmers can do their job anywhere. Why should I go somewhere else?" But I'm not just a programmer. For some reason, God decided that Europe was for me, at least for a while. And I thank him for this opportunity, because I know that I've changed so much because of this door he opened in my life.

[Just to clarify, LCT is an outstanding program and the administration is very competent. I do not blame anyone in the LCT consortium for this miscommunication. Like I mentioned earlier, I believe there was a reason for this and that the experience made me aware of my desires and where I should go in my life.]

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Jesus and Justice

Last Sunday, I had the unique opportunity to speak at my church in Italy. It's a very small church -- not at all like the impressive cathedrals found all over Trento. Just a small store-front church near the city center with approximately 80 members. In spite of being so small, this little "evangelical" church is doing a lot of interesting things in the Trento community.

A couple of months ago, our church pastor asked me if I would like to preach one Sunday. I was pretty shocked -- I've spoken in smaller activities: in youth groups, youth retreats, and international groups, and sharing my testimony before church congregations but I had never been bold enough to deliver a sermon. My pastor explained that our church is trying to be more inviting to the international community, and since I'm already leading an international bible study, it would be a way to show everyone how committed the church is to inviting non-Italian speakers into their community. So I said yes.

"Is there anything in particular I should talk about?" I asked.
"No, just speak about whatever you'd like."

Hmm...Tough one. There are so many different topics and bible passages that are particularly interesting. In the end, I decided to try to explain the beginning of one of Jesus' most famous sermons where he seems to be dishing out a series of obscure blessings. There's a lot to digest in this passage, but one thing I particularly wanted to highlighted was how this small passage gets to the core of justice and what God thinks about it. This passage is a poem where Jesus beautifully outlines what God is doing for the oppressed and what he calls Christians to do about injustice.

So, I did it. I spoke in front of about 80 people, with Italian translation about a system of grace and justice that Jesus introduces.

So, if you want to spend an hour listening to my message in two languages, feel free to listen/download here. Please excuse my choppiness at times. I was trying to speak in an easy-to-translate way -- but I also get choked up at a few places.

Don't feel like listening? I don't blame you! I'll let you have the easy way out by reading my sermon notes. There are a couple minor mistakes that I didn't scratch out. I had a fun opportunity of using my HP Touchpad with the latest Android version and Papyrus. If you're a true scholar, then you'll listen to the sermon while reading the notes.

Or maybe you'd just look at more authoritative sources than me.