Monthly Archives: August 2013

Meeting Eddie

Street beggars make me uncomfortable. My automatic reaction is either to ignore them or just say I don’t have any money. I get legitimately annoyed. I guess it is as if I am assaulted by their humanity, forced to do something about it when I just want to go on with my life. Who would think that humanity could be a weapon, yet it is a powerful one. In a city like LA, especially downtown, you are bound to meet many people who will ask you for a dollar or two. I quickly realized that this was a reality I had to come to terms with. I also realized that being annoyed by it was not really in line with the values of our humble King. It was easy to rationalize my behavior with the ideas that giving money won’t help and that the best I could do was to support charitable organizations that are already addressing these problems. No, it was a cop out. I needed a different approach.

This past Monday, I went downstairs from my downtown building for a walk as I do often. As I was walking back, there he was. I avoided eye contact as he asked for a dollar and simply mumbled that I didn’t have any. Yet, the tug from the Spirit would not let me get away so easily. I was bothered again, not by the beggar but by my robotic reaction to him. I had a meeting coming up in 15 mins and thought: “Oh well, I will try to do something different next time.”

Back in my desk I saw a recent message informing me that the meeting had been postponed for 15 minutes. No excuse anymore, God was giving me a chance to re-do our encounter. I battled with thoughts of “what ifs”  but hesitantly went downstairs again. I saw him from a distance and this time I was determined to do things differently. As I approached him, I stopped and waited for him to make eye contact. He asked me for a dollar and I said: “ sure, here it is. What is your name? “. He told me his name was Eddie. There, now he was not just a fixture in the street but a real person with a name.  I proceeded to shake his hand and treat him like the human being he really was. I started small conversation and then out of nowhere stated these words “You are loved in God’s eyes.” He would barely look at me but I could tell he heard it. I walked away and then it hit me: something powerful has just happened. In that moment, in middle of a work day, where misery and privilege meet,  God overwhelmed with his presence. I am not one to cry easily but as I got back to the office, I had to find a secluded place to let the tears flow.

I still am not fully sure what to make of this. I guess the main point was obeying God in a simple act. I don’t think doing this changed his life nor do I plan to make him my ministry project. It was deeper than that. Somehow by being obedient I discovered that the street could be holy ground. Sometimes by simply recognizing each other’s humanity we can see a glimpse of the face of God.

I don’t expect every future encounter with a beggar will be this glorious. I do hope I will act less robotically and start engaging them as fellow human beings. I pray the Lord will give me the wisdom to listen to His heart rather than to follow my programmed reactions in the streets.  I also pray that we as a people learn to see the face of God in every person we come into contact with, especially the rejected, the downcast and the invisible.

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The Loneliness of Living in a New Place

You can be lonely even when surrounded by 9 million people. I am grateful for my wife and kids. I am also thankful for phone calls, emails and other exchange with families and friends. Yet, part of moving here is experiencing loneliness. In a world that is more connected than ever, it is increasingly hard to make real personal connections. To be fair, I am little out of practice. While I moved a lot in my early years, I lived in the same city for the last 11 years, 10 of which in the same house. Coming to a new place and putting yourself out there to meet new people was not something I had to do for a long time.

You don’t make friends over night, it takes time. While I don’t regret moving, I do feel the cost of leaving behind the strong social network we had back in the East coast. Now, it is starting from scratch. In the past, I could rely on my wife and her wonderful skills in getting to know people and making herself know. I would befriend her girlfriend’s husbands. Not this time, we are both brand new to this city with little to none existing connections.

I am new to this whole friendship thing. I grew up thinking friendship was good but not essential. It was only in the last years that I started realizing how wrong that thinking was. Friendship interactions are where life happens.

I hesitated writing about this. I don’t like to talk about what is not going well or what I do not do well. Yet I was reading a book, that a friend gave me, that talked about the importance of vulnerability. So here am I, being vulnerable in the cyberspace to tell the world about my struggles. Yes, the last two months have been one of the most exciting times of my life. They have also been one of the most lonely ones as well.

I believe a big part of us coming here is about making connections with people God will put in our path. They just haven’t quite arrived yet. This is good for it gives me time to prepare to meet them. I want this time to be different. I want to take more risks and put myself more out there. I want to make myself known not to show off or because I am anybody important, but because being myself is the best gift I can give those around me.

So, let the journey begin. And please, can it begin this week?

Living in LA County

The movies have it wrong, tinsel town is only one part of LA. The city is not one but many cities connected by highways, mountains, parks and an absolutely incredible weather. The area is diverse with a large Asian community in the northeast, large African-American community in the west and Hispanics everywhere. There are white people here too, especially in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. You also have small communities of Italians, Armenians and others that are less known.

It is a unique geographical place where you can find desert, mountains and beaches from a short driving distance. LA natives joke that they can surf in the morning and go skiing on the mountain in the same day. The weather is dry and temperate. That means an endless chain of blue sky with 80 degrees temperature and a constant cool breeze. No wonder the city has a vibrant outdoors culture with street markets and picnics throughout the year.

If that wasn’t enough this is truly a cultural center. Besides movie festivals and constant film shootings happening throughout town, the area has a number of museums, cultural centers and beautiful architecture.

The downtown is a bit small for a city this size. After all, this is the second largest metro area in the country. LA County alone has almost 9 million people. That is the equivalent of the population of North Carolina. Can you imagine the whole state in one county? Yet, it is not as dense as most world metropolis. LA was built based on sprawl. Given that you have all this people living in a limited space that is constrained by the sea in the southwest and mountains north and east, heavy traffic is inevitable. This is the only place in the country that people refer to their highways with “the”. You take the “5” then go down the “10” so you can reach the beach. They respect their highways. Yet, the system seems unimpressed plaguing them with endless backed up traffic. Add to that a precarious public transportation system and a chaotic airport (folks please fly to Burbank when coming to visit. LAX is insane!); and there you have it: the infamous LA traffic. It can happen anytime and anywhere, making all those GPS time estimates completely useless. Just add 20-35 minutes to it and that is more like it.

The more we stay here the more we realize it is privilege to live here. With all its chaotic richness, Los Angeles is fascinating and daunting at the same time. I make a case to drive my 2003 Hyundai with the sunroof open, windows down, arm hanging out, feeling like a million bucks with the cool breeze touching my face. No air conditioned needed. Remind me of that next time I am sitting in traffic for the nth time or losing my cool over the unreliable and confusing public transportation system I try to use to commute to work or when I visit the DMV.

Compassion and Possibilities

As we arrived here, I was praying for direction for this new season in our lives. At first, I was looking for clear direction on what degree to choose in Fuller and about how to manage my job workload. In short, I was looking for the 3-5 year game plan. I live on the 3-5 year but if there something I learned in the last years is that in most cases the 3-5 year plan never comes to pass. At least in my experience, conditions on the ground change about every 3-6 months that it is hard to plan for anything longer that that time span.  Case in point: this move to California. It did not figure in any 3-5 year plan until the beginning of this year.  Then, it became our 6 month plan and it actually came to pass.

 With that in mind, I approach thoughts about the future in a different light. It is less about what I need to do and more about what God wants to do in me. I rather get on with His agenda then try to follow my short-sighted ones. So, what became clear from the beginning that this time in Southern California was not about pursuing a degree or a changing a lifestyle.  It was about becoming. The focus was inward as opposed to the external circumstances.

As the Lord never gives us more instruction than what we need for the present, the only thing I heard was COMPASSION and POSSIBILITIES. Compassion has to do with re-learning to love and empathize with others. In the last years, for a number of reasons, my heart had grown cold and indifferent. I could still act like I cared but deep inside, I really didn’t. This would manifest itself sometimes in how I related to Priscila and the girls. I do struggle at times to inhabit their world and really empathize with how they feel. Thankfully, I can already see change in my heart and an increased ability to relate to their emotions. 

Possibilities have to do with letting go of control and trusting that God will provide and come through when we need. This is most evident in how I deal with finances. This move has stretched us to a very uncomfortable point especially since the Charlotte house has not sold yet. On a monthly basis, we are faced with the question whether the numbers will add up. Thankfully, the Lord has been faithful and we have lacked nothing. Yet, this is new territory. One in which we need to look to the future focusing on the possibilities not the “worse-case scenario.” It is easy for me to see the impending doom and prepare for it. The Lord has challenged me to count on things getting better and plan for it. Not a comfortable but yet liberating place to be. Ultimately, He is in control of our lives and right now we have too much to be grateful for than to focus on financial struggles. We are in this situation because we took a step of faith and there is not even one day when I wake up and regret moving here.

 The undeniably yet simple message of Christianity is that God is good. It is an irrational belief that somehow at the end things will turn out for better. We’ll not only be ok, but we’ll be in a better place. So, in a way, I am now privileged to test it out and see God come through. I know he will not come in the way we expect but I am learning to accept His provision with gratitude and joy.

Praying the Daily Office

From an early age, I was taught the importance of having a quiet time. Even in my early tweens, I remember having times of reading the Bible with my brother, which we called the “the silent hour.” Yet, for most of my life I struggled (and still do) to keep this sacred practice. I have used all kinds of devotionals (Chambers, Daily bread, reading plans, Bible-in-one-year, etc. I even did the Pentecostal’s favorite: open the Bible randomly and point to a verse and read.) They were all great tools that helped me find spiritual nourishment at different seasons of life. Recently, I had found myself struggling again with how to keep a consistent daily time of prayer and reading Scripture. That is when I, by accident, encountered the Daily Office through a seminary class. What started as an exercise became a sacred habit. Now, taking advantage of my longer commute here in Southern California, the St Claire Daily Office app became my spiritual anchor.

So what is the Daily Office? Well, it is basically two extensive liturgical readings: one for the morning and one for the evening. It contains set prayers, three biblical passages (one from the OT, one from the NT and one from the Gospels), a historical summary of a past saints from church history, the Apostle’s creed, a nation and a church to pray for and a space to pray for life events (birthdays, trips, bereavement, etc). I never encountered such rich spiritual food packed in one place. It is not easy for the uninitiated and a sincere reading can take between 25-40 minutes.

Why use this ancient liturgy for quiet times? Well, first it is comprehensive covering so many different areas of my spiritual walk such as confession, intercession, gratitude and Scripture reading. Then there are those written prayers. I must confess at first being hesitant in praying set prayers. After all, I came from a tradition that valued spontaneity to a fault. The only prayer that was worth praying was one done from the heart, with eyes closed and an emotive voice. Not that I don’t pray that way anymore. Yet, the process of repeating these set prayers does something to you. They are formative in that they go beyond simple pleas to describing who we are to become. They make you ponder, re-read and meditate on their content. So when I pray “Lord, make a me an instrument of peace…” this is not just a request to God, it is plea for my soul to conform to the image of Christ. I leave you with one of the prayers for today:

O God, the King eternal, who divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. “

Living between two worlds

I live between two worlds. Certainly this was a choice I made only hesitantly. I knew that God had called me to go to seminary but didn’t know how to make it work financially in this stage of our lives. In an ideal world, I would have dropped everything and just go to school full-time. Yet, with two children and bills to pay, I was not being comfortable going into debt for a career move that would most likely result in a pay cut. I would either give up or postpone the seminary idea or just do both at the same time. Priscila could have gotten a full-time job yet that would mean having to cover child-care and face the fact that the market is more challenging for moms returning to the workforce. Thankfully, my manager allowed me to move to California with my job which made it all the more sense. That is how I ended up here straddling two worlds and trying to make sense of them in a “quiet” of home life with a toddler and a baby. Not your ideal life plan but somehow it works.

These are two conflicting worlds. In the 9-5, I inhabit a jungle of steel, looking at endless rows of numbers trying to tame complexity at every turn. The work is brutally analytical.  Efficiency and effectiveness are the orders of the day. At times there is no room for a soul.  Fortunately there are people surrounding you with gentle humanity, reminding you that while you work with machines, you are not one of them. Of course, it does not help that my work is extremely quantitative, deeply technical and most of my interactions with workmates are through the phone. 

 In the evenings, I engage in a very different world of reflection and human interaction. While the academic side makes this part also analytical, this is a complete different animal. Here I am engaging in theoretical concepts but my soul is alive. I still fight complexity yet at times this is rewarded by a new insight that can one day change a life (including my own). I embark in exercises of imagination, seeing a world unseen by human eyes but ever present and real to the human spirit. That is the seminary world at best. Of course, there are days when we get stuck in endless trivial discussions about the minutia of theological abstractions. Also, studying for tests, writing and refining papers can also feel as inhumane as taming numbers in a spreadsheet.

Thankfully there is a third world which is our home, a refuge where I find solace in the smiles of my children and the kisses of my wife. This is a world of mutual support and understanding, a place in which we are building the future by raising two amazing girls. There I find everything I need to remind me what is most important and why I must inhabit multiple worlds in the present time.