Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hollywood's dark secret

Did you ever want to be an action movie star when you were a kid? If you said "no", chances are that you're either a woman or a liar. I'm kidding. Maybe you're just a wuss. Oops, just kidding again. Still, many young boys look up to the action heroes of their youth, and why not? According to Hollywood, here's the typical day of an action hero:

1) Wake up, ready to go save the world (no shower or bathroom trip necessary)
2) Get in sports car and tear down the street at incredible speed.
3) Report to pentagon/secret hideout/cover job.
4) Talk back to boss/caretaker/commanding officer, because you're just cool that way, and they need your awesomeness so much they'd never fire you.
5) Go save the world, without sweating or breathing heavily. While you're at it, you save an incredibly attractive woman too. She's very appreciative.
6) Take the rest of the day off to grimace, raise eyebrows, and walk in slow motion to the beat of a thumping soundtrack.

You would think that the average Joe would never have a chance of becoming an action hero in the movies, right? Well, after months of tedious research, I have finally found the secret to breaking into the role of your dreams. You'll never believe what it is. Are you ready for it? Okay, it's..... breakdancing. Yep, breakdancing, the sweet 1980s craze marked by bad music, worse clothing, and semi-gymnastic moves preferrably performed on top of a collapsed cardboard box. It usually looks a little something like this:

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What does this have to do with movie stars? Well, it just so happens that two of the biggest action heroes of the last 15 years -- Jean-Claude Van Damme and Vin Diesel -- both started out their film careers with breakdancing. JCVD was first seen in a cameo in the opening scene of "Breakin'" in 1984. Granted, he was only in the movie for about three seconds, but even then you could tell he was something special. After all, how many guys can pull off the "solid black leotard with white socks and black shoes" look, even in the 80s? See link below for proof of his fledgling hero incredibiliciosity (hold the "Shift" key while clicking on the link if you want to open up a new page):

JCVD cameo in "Breakin'"

Vin Diesel, though, has admittedly been a bigger star thus far, and with more range to boot. He's done drama (Saving Private Ryan, A Man Apart), explosive action (XXX, Pitch Black) and even comedy (The Pacifier). Even at a young age, you could tell Diesel was going to go higher and farther than JCVD. While the "muscles from Brussels" had his breakdancing cameo, Vin Diesel actually made an instructional video on how to breakdance. Below is a link to proof (it's a video file, so it may take a while to load).

Vin Diesel's instructional video

This is all such an encouragement for guys like me. All this time I thought that Hollywood was out of reach due to my lithe frame, freckles and imperfect cheekbones. But I can do the helicopter, the backspin and the kip-up, all while wearing parachute pants and a headband. And apparently that's exactly what it takes to become an action hero. Look for me in "The Analyst", coming never to a theater nowhere near you.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Prayers of children

Samantha has just turned three years old, and for nearly a year she has been trying to say prayers all by herself. Sometimes she says things we can understand, sometimes not, but it's always cute. And I'd bet that God likes it too.

Here's a sample of some things she's said in recent prayers:
"Thank you for..."
-Jackie-boy (her nickname for younger brother Jack)
-Mommy and Daddy
-Grandparents and granddaughters (that would be her)
-Jesus saving us from our sins
-Stabetti (translation: spaghetti)
-Suns and rainbows
-Fruit punch

My parents didn't raise any girls, as my brother and I made it a fairly testosterone-laden household. So you can imagine how special it was for them to have this beautiful red-haired, curly-haired grandaughter. Earlier this year Samantha went shopping with her RoRo (grandmother's nickname), and when she got home my dad asked her how the trip was. Samantha said, "PawPaw, I LOVE the mall!". My dad looked at her, melted, and said, "Okay, I'll buy it for you." He didn't care that he didn't have $28 million spare money, and couldn't actually buy the mall at that moment. She asked for it, and she was gonna get it, period.

Up to this point, luckily Samantha's prayers have focused on her thankfulness. Yet eventually she's going to start asking for stuff when she prays. And we'll see if God can resist her charms more successfully than my dad did. If not, it's going to be awkard explaining to people why dolls and ponies keep appearing on our doorstep, and why we just took an unplanned trip to Mars.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The 2,099 word post

Pictures are worth 1,000 words, right? So here's a super-long essay about how wonderful it was to have a few days off during Thanksgiving.

Samantha and her uncle (my wife's brother) at the butterfly museum. She wasn't totally sure if it was safe:

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Jack and Gabriel sleeping together in the pack-n-play. Jack only played with his toys for a few minutes, then decided to take a little break. Gabriel has made it his life's mission to sleep in every possible place at least once (my brother had a similar mission for visiting every restaurant bathroom, but that's another story):

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

L'eggo my Ego, Part 2: The Vicious Cycle

Alright, last time I wrote about the beautiful, exciting virtuous cycle that happens in a marriage when a husband loves his wife, and she gives him respect. Unfortunately, there's an antithesis to this: the vicious cycle.

Perhaps I'll start with a question. Husbands, if your wife was nagging you, belittling you, or failing to give you the sense that she respected you as a man, what would be your response?

A) Lash out at her
B) Sit and talk about it with her
C) Withdraw from her
D) Other

Husbands, I don't know what you answered, and at some time we've done all of the above, but I would bet that most wives reading this say that answer "C" sounds all too familiar. Men generally aren't known as the best communicators, but we're well known as creatures who can sit in a chair, oblivious to the world around us. Well, maybe not oblivious to the football game or the computer screen, but we sure aren't listening to any actual human voices in the room.

This is our safety net, and I must admit it is my natural tendency at times. When I'm feeling hurt, ignored, or unappreciated, I withdraw from Jamie. It's safe, it's easy, and it's a lot more pleasant than actually facing up to whatever is going on. She has had to remind me many times that when I feel this way, I should tell her.

Women, what do you feel when your husband has withdrawn from you? When he gives the TV, the laptop or the office all of his energy? When he walks into the room, do you want to greet him with a smile and kind words? How hard is it to respect a man who doesn't put the effort into this relationship, and doesn't seem concerned about how you are doing?

I'm not a woman, but I've been told it's awfully hard to respect a man like that. And if she doesn't respect him, he'll notice. And probably withdraw. Which makes it harder for her. And the vicious cycle continues.

Marriage is not a car -- there is not a "neutral" gear. Most of the time, we're either going to be in the virtuous cycle or the vicious cycle. And if you're in the vicious cycle, then one of the spouses has to take the first step and reach out to the other. A wife decides to respect and appreciate the man who's been distant and cold. A husband decides to reach out in love to the woman who's been nagging and insulting him. It's strange, it's extremely difficult, and it's not the type of behavior you'll see taught by most marriage books or Dr. Phil. But it's the only way a couple has a chance of turning the vicious cycle into a virtuous one. Someone has to make the first move. Even if he/she doesn't have reason to expect anything in return. That whole "agape" love thing can be a real drag sometimes, can't it?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

L'Eggo my Ego, Part 1: The Virtuous Cycle

A few weeks ago my church put together a softball game. Af first we had enough players to field two teams and play ourselves, but after an hour we were down to about 12 players. Fortunately, more players had formed at the field (they were the Mexican-American Bar Association, as in attorneys, not alehouses) and were looking to play. We spent the next hour playing against these guys and making some new friends along the way.

Later that day, when I had showered and rested and began to feel the initial soreness of physical exertion, Jamie looked at me and said, with pride in her voice, "I was so glad that you were my husband today." What she meant was that I was one of the better players, and it was fun for her to look out there and know that her hubby still had some athleticism.

I won't be delusional here. This was a pickup softball game. I am 29 years old, which is young enough to still play, but old enough to know that I'm far below professional-caliber athletes. And I played baseball in college, which gave me quite the advantage in a softball game. If our church had chosen hockey or football or even basketball on that day, the story would have been far different.

Still, when she looked at me and said she was glad I was hers, I was immediately overcome with these incredible feelings of strength of self, and incredible love and warmth for Jamie. I couldn't remember the last time I felt such a strong emotion toward my wife. That's when I realized that she had done exactly what I've heard preached dozens of times... "respect your husbands." And as a natural response, I instantly and without thought "loved my wife."

Ephesians 5:22-28 is a passage known by almost all Christian couples, and it's incredible to think of the human psychology behind it all! What do men want? I mean really, deep in that place where men don't want to look, what do we want? We have driven much of the advances of our time, yet we have also started most of the wars. We are physically stronger than women, yet individually we often lament the fact that we're not the strongest of all men. Whether we're on a softball field, in a board room, or watching a football game, we are constantly sizing ourselves up against others.

This is why men need so much encouragement (some would say "coddling"). C'mon, really, do you think women's sports would have invented the idea of cheerleaders? Men created that to feed one of the key needs a man has: to impress women. And if he's not impressing a woman, then he's trying to impress another man (friend, enemy, boss, father-in-law, etc...). Men have a fundamental (dare I say God-given?) need to feel important, powerful and noticed.

God's plan is for the wife to meet this need. If she doesn't, you'd better believe that the husband will search elsewhere for a way to feel important. Maybe a job, a hobby, a social group, or even another woman. But the need remains, and he will probably look to fulfill it.

The beauty of this setup is when the wife respects her husband and meets this need, his natural response is to reach out in love to her. When he loves her, the wife naturally responds with further respect for him. Thus begins the "virtuous cycle." This may be one of the biggest challenges in 21st century American marriages -- how to address each gender's needs in an age where gender barriers continue to be blurred.

Many of the past few decades' changes have been very positive -- women breaking through glass ceilings in business, men taking responsibility for housework and child-rearing... these are exciting times of progess! Yet it can also be confusing as we deal with things like transexuality (I've already worked with one sex-change recipient) and wonder: what differences in gender should we protect?

We do ourselves a great disservice if we say that men and women need the same things from marriage -- it's just not true, and it's not biblical. Take a look at this list for men and this list for women, and see how they relate to Ephesians 5. I hope that in all of our marriages we can experience constant re-enactments of the virtuous cycle, as both spouses give and receive exactly what they need as men and women.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go to the gym to lift weights. You never know... it might just impress somebody.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A new hope?

I met with the elders of our church last night for over an hour, discussing almost all of the core issues and brainstorming on things we can do to turn things around. I went in with the intention of resigning as a deacon, and came out still a deacon, and with some hope that there is still a chance for this congregation to be healthy and growing. It's not a naive hope, and I still realize the odds may not be in our favor, but that's not bringing me down right now. It's sorta like the scene in Dumb and Dumber, when Lloyd finally declares his love for Mary:

Lloyd: What are the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me... ending up together?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I'd say more like one in a million.
Lloyd: (Long pause). So you're telling me there's a chance! Yeah, I read you!

I'm Lloyd today, and one in a million sounds a whole lot better than what I was thinking 24 hours ago.

p.s. -- If any family members are reading this, and want to know what to get Samantha for Christmas, please use the link below as an example of what NOT to buy. Thanks.

Bad Gifts For Toddlers

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Perfect love

One of my (and my wife's) favorite times is our kids' bedtime. No, it's not because we finally get some peace and quiet -- I'm not talking about after they're in bed, I'm talking about the actual process of putting them down.

The whole thing is just a blast for me. I think there are several reasons for this:

1) For five days of the week, bedtime represents a large chunk of the time I spend with my kids. Between working hours and my commute, there's only about two hours a day I'm home while they're awake. Those last 30 minutes before they go to sleep are precious minutes for me to catch up on their day.

2) It's a regular routine. I'm a man. Men like routines, but some men like them more than others. My ruts run so deep that I've hung pictures on the wall, as the saying goes.

3) It's a funny time. When Samantha's in a silly mood, she likes to play word games with me while we're putting her pajamas on. If she's in a quiet, tired mood, she'll ask me to sing "Dreams". No, it's not a sweet lullaby -- she's asking for the classic 80s hit by Heart. Just because she's two years old doesn't mean she can't learn to develop a good taste in music, ha.

4) Bedtime is when moments of truth emerge. These are the moments when your child looks at you and lets you into their world, if only for a few seconds. This is when they tell you about the bully at school (we're not there yet), their bad dream from last night, or fear of the dark. In 10 years, maybe bedtime is when she'll tell me about her best friend's hurtful words, or about that cute boy who doesn't even know she exists. Whatever it will be, I see it as my job as Daddy to be listening very carefully for these moments. And to handle them with great care and love when they appear.

Samantha had one of these moments last night, and it was a purely positive one. She was pleading to hold her baby brother Jack (5 months today), which is unusual for her. So as we sat her on the bed and put Jack carefully in her lap, she stroked his head, kissed him and said, "I love you, Jack. You're my best friend."

Jamie and I could do nothing but smile and observe the moment. I hope there are many more.

Monday, November 07, 2005

I'm baaaaaack

Sorry to have such a long delay between posts... such is life sometimes. Besides the fact that I have a fairly new job and two young children, I was sick most of last week. On top of that, we've been going through quite a difficult time at our church for about... oh, the last 2 years or so. It's finally come to a crossroads for my family, so tonight I had a meeting with our elders to discuss what I feel is one of the last chances for our church to survive.

The congregation has been on a slow and steady decline since the 1960s, but 2 years ago a few crises hit and accelerated the exodus of the membership. What was once a church of 600 people 40 years ago shrunk to 400, then 300, then 250. As of now there are 169 members at the church, with no perceivable path to a renewed purpose, plan, or organization. I became a deacon a year ago, right in the middle of one of the bleakest times in the congregation's history.

One interesting thing is that my faith and relationship with God have grown to all-time highs in the past year. Unfortunately, this growth has taken place in spite of our church, rather than because of it. Hard as it may be, it's time to make a serious evaluation of my family's future at this congregation, and what other options are available.

Although I believe God's kingdom is eternal, I also realize that local churches come and go. I've poured all my energy into trying to make sure this congregation had a solid future, but it hasn't worked, and that's okay. These things have a way of working out, and as my grandmother told me a while ago, God's family is available almost anywhere (in this country, at least).

Ray Bradbury once said, "Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down."

I'm not building my wings yet, but the plans and materials are in the closet.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Great expectorations

Before I get too deep into today's topic, I want to make one thing clear -- I love Houston, I really do. It's got a great job market, low cost of living, and mild winters. Sure, the traffic's bad, the air is polluted and the humidity could drown a lobster, but overall, it's a great city.

But when you get 5 million people together in one place, in one of the greatest ethnic melting pots in the world (Houston no longer has a "majority" ethnicity, just a whole lotta minorities that add up to 100% of the people), you're going to see some strange stuff. Which brings me to my topic today: spitting.

I was a baseball player, so I understand spitting. Didn't do it much, but I understood it. Build up some saliva, launch it forcibly into the air, and watch it fall on the field while giving the other team the evil eye. If done correctly, it can be quite intimidating. Done incorrectly, you'll get a wet spot on your uniform, but it dries quickly so it's not a big deal.

In Houston, though, I've seen lots of people spit. And they're not on baseball fields. No, these people are in their car. The process usually goes like this:

1) Car is sitting at red stoplight, driver opens door
2) Driver leans head out, spits onto the ground
3) Sometimes, but not always, the driver will look at the spit for a while
4) Driver closes the door and takes off normally when the light turns green

I've seen this happen at least 50 times in the past couple of years. I don't ever remember seeing it a single time while growing up in the Midwest, so I must ask... is car spitting a Houston thing? Is there something about this place that makes people generate extra saliva or phlegm?

And it's not just redneck Cowboys in pickup trucks either, oh no. In fact, a good portion of the expectorators have been Muslim women in full head scarves. I'm not kidding. These are women who would never dream of showing a little bit of ankle in public, but they'll lean out of an open car door and hawk a loogie at a major intersection. I have a theory that they're in the month of Ramadan and are taking their fast so seriously that they won't even swallow their own saliva, but I'm not sure. It's not the kind of thing I really feel comfortable asking them.

No point today, no moral to the story -- just an anecdote from big city life deep in the heart of Texas. I'm getting old enough now to begin recognizing my own ignorance, so I know there are many things in this world I'll never understand. Things like fractals, Hebrew verb tenses and why the French love Jerry Lewis. I guess it's time to add "mass spitting at stoplights" to the list.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Shave and a haircut... more wins?

This is a quick update on my previous entry, regarding superstitions. Among them was the idea that some guys don't shave while they're on a winning streak.

Well, Houston Astros players Jeff Bagwell and Brad Ausmus were two of the players who could light a match with their face, due to more than two weeks' worth of impressive facial hair. After losing the first two games of the World Series, Jeff and Brad have decided it's time for a change, so if you tune in to the game Tuesday night you will see that they have shaved down to just a goatee.

I felt like getting caught up in the spirit and joining them in their follicle pursuits, but there was one problem... I already have a goatee. Where do I go from here? I can't shave it all off, as it makes me look 12 years old and does me no favors in my career. Not to mention what it would do to my 2-year-old daughter -- she had enough trouble adjusting when I wore contact lenses on Saturday instead of my glasses.

Then, of course, I had to laugh at the irony of getting caught up in the very behavior I had satirized here in my blog. So now, I will not be joining in any kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo, pretending that the things I do will have any effect whatsoever on how a team of professional athletes performs on the field. The Astros are down two games to none, and only a fool would think he could make a difference with his own little rituals at home.

So if you'll excuse me, I have to go put on my special Astros hat, which I've been saving for desperate times like this. I know what I said earlier, but c'mon... this is the World Series! It can't hurt, can it?

Friday, October 21, 2005

"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will..."

Superstitions. Most people have held on to one or more of them at some time in their lives.

After playing organized baseball for over 20 years, I've seen more than my fair share of superstitions. One guy in high school wore the same t-shirt under his uniform for every game. Oh, that's no big deal, you say... lots of people do that. Well, except this guy thought it was bad luck to actually wash the t-shirt. I played on his team for two years. Nasty.

In college, there was a guy who had to eat chicken before every game. Another who had to do 100 push-ups every day during the season. You have guys who will never step on the foul line, for any reason. Others who step on it every inning on purpose. And guys like me, who don't really bother to look where they're stepping. But my bat had to be just right, my batting gloves had to be black and made by Franklin Co., and the undervisor of my hat usually had initials or a word to keep me pumped up (for an in-depth look at undervisors, see this link).

You can be sure you will see lots of superstitions in full effect during the World Series between the Astros and White Sox this weekend. The Astros have never been to the World Series -- the White Sox haven't been there since 1917. You'd better believe that whatever those guys have been doing over the past few weeks, they'll keep doing it, no matter what. If it means no shaving (true for Jeff Bagwell and Roger Clemens, among others), then we'll see a team full of lumberjack look-a-likes on the field. If it means beans for breakfast, then load 'em up and pass the air freshener, because these guys won't risk their good fortunes. I remember that KU basketball player Keith Langford brought two pairs of shoes to every game. If he played a good first half, his shoes stayed on. But if he played lousy, then adios to the Adidas, and out came the new pair for the second half of the game.

Surely this is just a crazy athlete thing, right? Surely I can't stretch far enough to apply any of this to spirituality, right? Well, you know what my dad would say to that: "I'm sure you can apply it to all kinds of things. And don't call me Shirley."

Don't worry; I won't make this too personal. Maybe you've just seen somebody who needs to sit in the same place at church every week. Or maybe you just happen to know a guy who insists on three songs, a prayer, two songs, communion, a sermon, then two songs and a prayer. And me, I've got this friend, see, and he only feels like he really "did" church if the communion servers all wear suits and ties.

Of course, nasty t-shirts, beans for breakfast or the right brand of batting gloves have never won a baseball game. Likewise, true worship is not about the number of songs, the placement of prayers or the attire of the members. We may take comfort from these things, but there's no substance there. God keeps it simple, but his demands are not easy. He just wants a heartfelt sacrifice of self. David makes it clear in Psalm 51:16-17 (see here).

Oh, I almost forgot, let me finish with the quote that was started in the title of today's blg entry:

"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit." -- R.E. Shay

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Do you want the ball?

My beloved Astros lost an absolute heartbreaker of a baseball game last night; a game that may go down as one of the most dramatic in postseason history. Now they have to go to St. Louis and win on visiting turf to get to the World Series. Houston has been waiting over 40 years to get to the World Series... no pressure, huh?

But athletes at this level don't worry about the pressure -- they thrive on it. I remember loving it when the game was on the line, and I was up to bat, or I was pitching. I lived for those moments. Times like that were why I played the game.

A few years ago, I was playing in a semi-pro league here in Houston. My wife Jamie and one of my friends (the Associate Minister at our church) were there watching, it was the final inning, two outs, tie game, and I was coming up to bat. As I walked to the plate, Jamie and our friend were right there across the fence. I looked at them, smiled, and took my place in the batter's box. She knew that the higher the pressure got, the more fun it got for me. When the game was on the line, I wanted the ball (or bat).

The Astros and Cardinals pitchers understand this. Earlier today, Cardinals pitcher Mark Mulder said, "You want to be out there in an important game and be that guy who has got to make the pitches and get the job done." He and his teammates want the ball.

What about at church? Like any organization, churches have their problems. How many members, when times get tough, want to get involved and help find solutions? How many would rather sit aside and watch as others work? How many want to sit and criticize without investing any of their own time and energy? If a church is to manage crises and make peace in tense times, it has to have a sizable pool of people who want the ball.

Paul loved to use sports analogies to illustrate spiritual truths in his New Testament writings. Likewise, the baseball playoffs continue to give me ideas of what it means to be a Christian in 21st Century America. Pretty soon the playoffs will be over. The Astros might win, they might not... the world will go on either way. But God's kingdom will continue to need workers. There will be people in pain, hungry families looking for a meal, heartbroken widows and widowers seeking a shoulder to lean on. There will be spiritual seekers of truth, jaded members questioning their faith, and confused teenagers looking for guidance (though they won't admit it). This isn't a game, it's real life. Usually it's messy, difficult and consumes a lot of energy. God's looking for someone to step up. Who wants the ball?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A little Houston humor for ya...

A seven-year-old boy was at the center of a courtroom drama in Houston today when he challenged a court ruling over who should have custody of him. The boy has a history of being beaten by his parents and the judge initially awarded custody to his aunt, in keeping with child custody law and regulations requiring that family unity be maintained to the degree possible.

The boy surprised the court when he proclaimed that his aunt beat him more than his parents and he adamantly refused to live with her. When the judge then suggested that he live with his grandparents, the boy cried out that they also beat him. After considering the remainder of the immediate family
and learning that domestic violence was apparently a way of life among them, the judge took the unprecedented step of allowing the boy to propose who should have custody of him.

After two recesses to check legal references and confer with child welfare officials, the judge granted temporary custody to the Houston Texans football team, whom the boy firmly believes are not capable of beating anyone.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Potty Training and Grace -- Messy Lessons

My daughter Samantha is almost three years old now, and the past week has been a mostly-successful effort in potty training. She hasn't worn a diaper during daylight hours in several days, so my wife and I are very pleased. For almost four months now we've had two kids in diapers, and we're very ready to drop that back down to one.

But here's the thing. Every time Samantha has an accident, it's a total freakout. She screams, she cries, she absolutely loses control and gets beside herself with panic and frustration. We try to console her, but she's gone, in a world all to herself and far beyond the sound of our voices.

What she doesn't understand is that this is all part of the process! We knew she would have accidents -- all kids do. Unfortunately, what could have been a quick accident with a 30-second cleanup turns into a 30-minute exercise of consoling a distraught toddler. Why can't she just get over her mistake and move on with the day? Doesn't she realize that not only are we okay with the occasional mess, but we actually expected her to do this?

Then I thought about my relationship with God as Father, and me as the child. My life is a neverending training ground, and often I'm going to mess up. And often my mental image of God during these times is of a sinister old man, shaking his finger at me knowingly and ready to send lightning straight down into my cranial vicinity.

There's only one, teeny tiny problem with my mental image of God... it's dead wrong. Not only does He provide me with grace in my weakness, he actually expects me to sin sometimes. How could He not? After all, He's a pretty smart dude, and last time I checked, my odds of living even one sin-free day are pretty low. I'm approximately 0-for-5000 in living a sinless day since my teen years. So yeah, God expects me to mess up now and then; that's a given.

What I forget, though, is the importance of my response to sin. I have several choices:
1) Ignore it
2) Blame someone else
3) Recognize it, ask for forgiveness, and move on with God's work
4) Wallow in guilt, beat myself up, and basically lose dozens of opportunities to serve God because I'm too busy in my egocentric view that God is shocked by my imperfection.

Samantha's been choosing #4 quite a bit during potty training, and I found myself asking, "where did she get that???"

Don't you hate it when you ask a question like that, and God taps you on the shoulder, clears his throat, and raises an eyebrow at you?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

"When I was hungry, you gave me food"

In the New Testament, Jesus was pretty clear about feeding the hungry. In a nutshell, he's for it.

I had the opportunity this week to spend 4 hours doing volunteer work at the Houston Food Bank. What an incredible operation they have! It's amazing at a business and logistics level to watch how they train a constant stream of new labor, put them to work in a matter of minutes, and produce thousands of pounds of boxed food items every hour.

But what a shame to leave with only an impression of the efficiency. The important thing is how they serve those in need, mostly people affected by Katrina and Rita right now. Recent statistics revealed that the Houston area has served and/or shipped over 6 million meals in the last two months. The previous "record" was 2.5 million meals in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew.

It makes me wonder... how many of these servants are Christians? Or faithful/religious in any sense? I guess there are two main questions I'm mulling over:
1) How many Christians in the Houston area have been involved in hurricane relief efforts over the past several weeks? Are we following the example and instructions of Christ?
2) How many non-religious people have done relief work? And what drives them? If they don't believe in God, and we're all just random results of evolution, what special value does human life have anyway? To paraphrase one of my favorite preachers, if humans are only "molecules in motion", and there is no soul, no God, no absolute truth... why help people?

I know this is a millenia-old issue, and this certainly isn't the first time I've wrestled with it, but it came storming back into my mind while working at the Houston Food Bank.

Note: Half the workers there were convicts, getting a half-day prison leave to pack boxes of food. They had different reasons for being there.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Sports Nut

This was a weekend of sports firsts for my 2-year-old daughter Samantha. First we went to a local mall for some indoor mini-golf. The place scored extra points for being a blacklit, glow-in-the-dark course that gave away free bracelets after playing. On the 16th hole she scored a true 2, with no hands touching the ball and no nepotistic scoring system from daddy.

Later in the day we played baseball together for the first time. Baseball is my favorite sport, so this was an important event. While her hand-eye coordination is fledgling, her bat speed was tremendous! You can be sure that if/when she connects with the ball, it will go a loooooong way. At one point she said, "Daddy, I will teach you how to play now. You go like this." The lesson was very good, and much appreciated by daddy.

Speaking of Samantha quotes, here are a few other zingers from the past week:

-"Oooooh, a grasshopper! I ever so will not touch it."
-"Daddy, you're all naked!" (I had shorts on, but no shirt)
-"I'm going to touch your nipples now." (She did)
-"It does not fly anymore. It is very dead." (A butterfly she brought inside; her diagnosis was correct)
-"The elephant sings the night song." (I have no idea)

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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Goodbye Rita

This is my last planned entry on Rita, then it's back to the parenting and faith issues.

From the time we heard Rita was possibly coming to Houston, to the time we returned home from evacuation, a full seven days passed. Obviously way too much has happened in our family for me to record here, so instead, this is a chronological listing of the memories that seem to be sticking in my head:

(Wed., 7am) -- My wife wakes me and says Rita is a category 4, and Houston is the most likely target according to computer models. We spend all day boarding windows and packing to leave.

(Thurs., 5am) -- We leave Houston, all packed with exhausted children. In two hours we move 1.5 miles. Exit the highway, take another route, but four hours later we're still in Houston. We turn around, and get home in 25 minutes. There is a powerfully emotional moment between my wife and I after we get home. She's rocking our son to sleep, and we look at each other and say that we did the right thing, and no matter what, we're glad we get to go through this together. I quickly kiss her forehead and leave to shop for supplies, before being overcome with emotion. This is the time I'm supposed to be strong, right?

(Thurs., 7pm) -- We eat what feels like the "last supper", food that didn't spoil while sitting in trash cans during our six-hour standstill, and food that wouldn't last through the likely power outage coming Friday night when Rita hits land. My wife has a nasty ear infection (ear canal is closed with pus and blood) and my daughter seems to have a kidney infection, but there are no doctors available in this deserted city. Rita is now a cat-5 storm, the 3rd most powerful on record. We're staying here to face this?

(Fri., 7am) -- We get news that the roads have cleared, and if we siphon enough gas from my car, both the family car and my father-in-law's truck could make it to a safer place. By 10am we've left, with both cars headed to East Texas to stay with family.

(Fri., 1pm) -- Major traffic jam just south of Corrigan, TX. We get lucky and are six cars behind a driver who makes his own contra-lane on the other side of the highway, which we follow. Able to skip four miles of two-lane parking lot, theh road is still impassable. We exit and arrive two hours later only 30 miles away... and right towards the latest projected area where Rita will strike.

(Fri., 3pm) -- Arrive at a church in Woodville, TX. They take us in, give us food, siphon some gas, and offer to let us weather the storm in their building. We put the gas in the family car, leave the truck (full of valuables), and try to get farther north. Wind and rain are already extremely strong; it's hard to imagine that the real storm is still almost 12 hours away. I know we're at the north end of Rita, and any more slowdowns or car trouble will leave us right in her path.

Note: we also have to leave our stock of pumped breastmilk behind, which is incredibly hard. Not just because of the hours of work it took my wife to store it, but because of the lifestyle it represented. Those little bags were our dates, our times together, our scant chances to be alone as a couple while babysitters used the stored milk to feed our son. We went on exactly one date before having to leave the milk in Woodville... enough milk for a dozen more dates. It may sound strange, but this was one of the hardest moments of the trip.

(Fri., 7pm) -- Arrive in Longview, TX! I claim I could do some "major damage" at a buffet since I've been rationing food. We eat at a Chinese buffet and I live up to my promise, lowering the restaurant's monthly profit with my mass consumption.

(Fri., 8pm) -- Arrive at family member's house, enjoy a short talk and a safe place to spend the night. Will leave Saturday morning to go to central AR, our final destination to stay with my grandparents.

(Sat., 4pm) -- Arrive at my grandparents' house!

(Sat., 7pm) -- Wife and father-in-law offer to walk to the store to get some items (they've had enough of the car). They're gone 15 seconds before my wife comes back, saying, "there's a weird noise outside". I ask if it's the freight train sound, but no. It's the tornado sirens. Seriously. We've traveled a day and a half, after one false start three days ago, and we beat the storm by three hours. Tornados strike the area and do some damage four miles away, but no casualties.

(Sun., 4pm) -- I sit with my daughter in "the swing" in my grandparents' backyard. I tell her the history of the swing, and how it's the place where I proposed to her mommy. Thinking it's impossible for a 2-year-old to understand, I end the story, smile, and savor the moment. She looks at me very seriously, then cracks a grin, and says, "Daddy, you marry ME now!"

(Sun., 7pm) -- My parents arrive from Kansas City! What a way to have a big family reunion.

(Tues., 6pm) -- My mom, while sitting with my son in "the swing" witnesses a burglary happening in the house next door. She leaves my son with my grandaparents (mom is always excellent in crises), and hops in the car with my dad to phone the police and follow the burglar, a 26-year-old pregnant meth addict. They spend the next couple of hours talking to a detective and answering questions, and the girl is caught the following morning. Hurricanes and tornados and burglars, oh my! Our life is an action movie, and I'm waiting eagerly for the mandatory love scene.

(Wed., 10am) -- My father-in-law and I leave in the family car, headed to Woodville, TX to get his truck. Wife and kids will fly back to Houston, saving them (and me) from facing another long drive with all of us packed in together. It also ensures their arrival in Houston, while ours is a little more tenuous due to the continued gas shortages is East Texas and Western Louisiana.

(Wed., 4pm) -- Arrive in Woodville. What a devastated city. National Guard everywhere, helicopters in the air, trees and power lines down, and we smell a major leak of natural gas. Somehow the truck is not damaged, and we gas it up with cans we brought, and head south.

(Wed., 8pm) -- Arrive home in Houston! The last 30 minutes of the drive pointed us directly at one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. How to reconcile this beauty with the destruction I'd witnessed just hours earlier?

(Wed., 12pm) -- Laying in my own bed, I enjoy the peace and comfort, but still can't reconcile things in my head. Destruction and beauty, both in nature which was created by God? My family gets to safety, while others lose all their material possessions? The only thing I know to do is help those in need. Next time around, the ones in need might be us.

Final note: When I returned home, I noticed that our daily calendar with "inspirational sayings" was stuck on Wed., September 21, since we hadn't been home to flip it. The saying for the day was the following:

"Patience behind the wheel will make any travel more pleasant."

I didn't know whether to laugh or to burn the calendar while performing some kind of primal rite of condemnation.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

We made it!

We are writing from Arkansas today, after a long journey fraught with many obstacles but an equal number of solutions, and eventual success. So wonderful to be here with family.

There were lots of "angels" along the way who helped us with food, gas, a place to sleep or just a kind smile. May write more about them later, but for now, it's time to crash.

God is good.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Last-Minute Evacuation?

HWY 59 has cleared and we are working on making plans to leave Houston this morning. We can get 300 miles or more on the gas currently in our family car, and news is that gas supplies are beginning to get delivered to surrounding areas.

My father-in-law is planning on stopping in East Texas (he'll get awfully wet this weekend). My family is still wanting to get across the border, to central AR. As long as the roads are clear and we can find just one gas station in operation, we can do it.

Gotta go see to plans. The link below has become especially important to me in the past 5 minutes:


Thursday, September 22, 2005

Ghost Town

My father-in-law and I made a quick trip tonight in Houston to get some supplies. We only scored a water cooler, but at least it wasn't totally in vain.

This city is completely shut down -- nothing open, very few cars (duh, because there's no gas) and that cliched "calm before the storm" feel. This was likely our last outing before Rita hits tomorrow afternoon, for two reasons. First, future trips would probably be totally useless. Second, we need to conserve every ounce of gasoline for the time when we might possibly leave the city after the storm.

Here's a quick directional breakdown of evacuation routes, which will show why we're staying home:

S/SW/SE -- Right into the storm. Wouldn't recommend it.
W -- I-10 is completely blocked up, almost all the way to San Antonio. No gasoline.
NW -- HWY 290 totally jammed, all the way to Austin. No gasoline.
N -- I-45 totally jammed, for over 100 miles. No gasoline.
NE -- HWY 59 totally jammed, for 100 miles. No gasoline confirmed all the way to Longview.
E -- Passable, not much traffic. But no gasoline. And also right into the highest probability of where the hurricane will hit.

Evacuation decision could pretty much be summed up like this...

"Where would you like to run out of gasoline tonight?"

Hunkering Down

Well, our best laid plans have gone astray. Like thousands of other Houstonians, we discovered after 6 hours of futility that we weren't going to be able to get out of the city. Fortunately we were able to get turned around and get home while still having almost 3/4 tank of gas, which gives us options later. For now, though, we're staying and watching closely to see if the roads clear out enough to squeak out before Rita gets here. If not, we're in a new home that's supposedly built to withstand 110mph winds, which is comforting.

Things in our favor:
--Time (at least 24 hours before storm hits, so we can prepare)
--Still have electricity, basic supplies, and 3/4 tank of gas
--In-laws live three houses down, so we can consolidate efforts
--Many neighbors are staying (after trying to evacuate, then turning around), and we're all trying to watch out for each other
--Our house is built up very high, and we have fields around us to soak up rain

Things out of our control:
--We threw away all our cold foods and drinks before we left, and many had spoiled before we returned. We still have pantry items, and are storing water. It won't be gourmet, but the whole family can eat for several days.
--All grocery stores, general stores and gas stations are closed. What we have is all we have; there is no such thing as "stocking up" in Houston right now.
--Hurricane intensity and location. The latest news shows Rita being a little weaker and moving east of Houston. That would put us on the west or "clean" side of the storm, with lighter winds and less danger.

All in all, we're feeling at peace about our decision to stay. Every step of the way, we've done the best we can with the information available at the time.

I may post another time or two tonight or tomorrow, as the electricity should stay on for another 24 hours or more. After that we'll probably be offline, and I'll only be having phone conversations with family on the landline.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Heading Out Soon

Well, our little Rita is now up to 175mph winds, with gusts up to 215 mph. That's such a ridiculous number, and impossible to comprehend that it's almost meaningless to me, like 50 light years of distance. All I know is that I don't plan on being here to see what 215 mph winds look like.

We'll be leaving around 4am, hoping that traffic is a little lighter then. If we're lucky we'll make it to our family's house 12 to 15 hours later (usually a 9-hour drive). I took the video camera through the house tonight, capturing our belongings to film, along with commentary on specifics and values. Let's hope that tape is never necessary.

We've told our daugher that we're taking a "fun adventure trip" tomorrow, and she's pretty excited. Let's see how excited she is a 4 o'clock in the morning, hehe.

God be with Texas. I know they do everything bigger here, so I guess I'm not surprised that their long-overdue hurricane might end up being the biggest on record.

From Shelter to Storm

I've been very proud of my city of Houston over the past few weeks, as we've taken in thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Now I guess it's our turn to be the evacuees. Rita is a full-force category 5 hurricane with 165mps winds, and hopefully it will slow down a little before hitting the Texas coast (most hurricanes aren't able to sustain level 5 intensity for 48 hours or more).

I've spent the day boarding up windows and making other preparations, and will be taking my wife and kids out of the city, hopefully tonight. We'll be traveling out of state to stay with family. I'm sure the traffic, stress and screaming children will make for an interesting drive, but they are blessings compared to the alternative of staying here during this incredible storm.

Please say a special prayer for my mother-in-law, who is staying here to work a special crisis shift in the Medical Center throughout the weekend. She will be a great help to many, I'm sure, but it will be hard to leave without her. My father-in-law will be coming with us, and I can't imagine his emotions as he leaves his wife behind to take on the task she's been given.

I'll post an update when we get to a place with internet access. God be with everyone involved in this situation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Absence and Fonder Hearts

My wife and kids just got back from a 5-day trip to visit friends in another state. This is the first time I've been home alone in quite a while, and the first time at all that I've been away from my 3-month-old son for any significant period of time. Here's a little sample of my state of mind during those five days:

Night One -- Wow, I can roam the house with no shirt on (can't do this normally, as 2-year-old daughter would say, "Daddy, you're all naked!!") . Dinner: Chicken on the grill, cut up and served with fettucine alfredo (from the box)... aww, yeah. Simple, delicious, and carb-loaded.

Night Two -- This is still pretty cool. It's Friday, so after work I'm heating up leftover chicken alfredo, kickin' back in my favorite chair, and watching a movie. Of course, the sound system will be cranked to the point that it's still audible to my family... 700 miles away. Wouldn't want them to feel left out. After all, I own the sound system, and to be a good steward I need to put it to use, right? Hmm, the bed feels a little empty tonight.

Day Three -- I tell myself that for the first Saturday in several months, I can actually sleep late! So what do I do? I wake up at 7am as usual, waiting for my daughter to greet me so I can take her to breakfast. Oh well, I go back to sleep, wake up at 7:30. Then 7:45. 7:55. 8:12. OK, forget sleeping late. At least I can plow through my significant checklist today. And boy, do I ever plow through it. What was my excuse for not curing cancer or solving the world hunger problem before I had kids? I didn't remember that it was possible to have this much free time to get things accomplished. A little lonely at bedtime, but one of the cats lays on my leg while I read, so that counts for something, I guess.

Day Four -- It's Sunday. I get up later than I ever do, yet still get to church 15 minutes earlier than I have in months. Again, what did I do with all this time before the kids came along? Church goes well; I volunteer to lock up the building since I don't really have anywhere to run to after worship services. Then I run some errands, watch some football, and help my in-laws plant a palm tree (they live three houses away). Feeling pretty rested, relaxed and useful, but something's missing. Something big. I need to hold my babies and kiss my wife. Oh well, tomorrow's Monday, and there's nothing like a job to help a man deny his emotions, right?

Night Five -- Get finished with work, and get to the house to finish the 'Welcome Home' preparations! Nothing big, just a crude banner, some flowers, a card, a meal... OK, so I'm getting a little carried away. But tomorrow, they'll all be back home! I don't even notice what the bed feels like tonight -- just looking forward to tomorrow.

Arrival Day -- Traffic jams ensure that it makes no sense for me to go to work early and sit on the highway, so I work from home until the family arrives (convenient, yet true). I hear the garage doors open, quickly go out to meet them, and finally get that kiss I've been waiting for. Son is of course crying since he had to get up at 4am and get on a plane. Daughter is out cold. But two minutes later, she wakes up, takes a look around, and with a smile that erases the rest of my world, says, "Daddy!". I'm not the one who left, so why does it feel as if I just got home?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Welcome to my blog!

Writing has always been cathartic for me, and after reading dozens of blogs, it seemed there might be room for another voice. I've seen Christian blogs and blogs about fatherhood, but I want to combine the two and share the joys and challenges that come with living a godly life in the context of the crazy, chaotic pace of raising a family in American society.

When I was in college, I used to tell my grandparents how busy life was. Then I said the same in business school. Then I thought nothing could be busier than being a married young professional. Then I had a daughter... then a son. I don't complain about being busy anymore.

I'm a husband, father, businessman, and deacon... guess what, everything doesn't always get done. But that's OK! Hopefully I don't miss the important stuff, and hopefully I'll be able to discern what the important stuff actually is.

Again, I say welcome. Feel free to post comments on any of my writings, or send me an email directly. Also check out my links for some of my favorite net places, and my profile for an explanation of the name "Megaloi".