Refugees in our midst…

20 11 2015

Back in the early ’80s, my family did something rather extraordinary that had slipped to the deep recesses of my memory. We sponsored a Hmong family from Laos as they transitioned to life here in the U.S. I was around 10 at the time and don’t really know a lot of the details, even now that I’m older. But I do remember that we (my family, along with a couple of my parents’ friends) met the Xiongs at the airport and took responsibility for getting them integrated into our culture. We helped them find an apartment, get jobs, green cards, groceries…everything, really – including rudimentary lessons in English! I have no idea what the cost of this endeavor was, what agency we went through, if there were government grants, or even if the government was involved. But I know we helped one family for a few years until they were able to move to California where they had family and a larger Hmong population waiting. They were refugees.

Like most of the world, especially this past week, I’ve struggled with the current news about another refugee situation. Millions of Syrians fleeing their homes – and terrorists – have nowhere to go and a dwindling number of countries are willing or able to take them. The U.S. government is divided as to the best course of action, as are the U.S. people, judging by the flurry and veracity of Facebook posts I’ve seen. The struggle: how can we be compassionate and help displaced Syrians, among others, while still protecting ourselves from the wolves (or worse!) in sheep’s clothing that are inevitably hiding in their midst? Even within the Christian circles I tend to run, there’s no consensus.

Maybe that’s what triggered my memory; working out how God would want us to respond. Here’s what I know: He designed us to help others in need…and He gave us brains to do it wisely!

Our President has proposed allowing 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. That’s a relatively small number compared to the 50,000 per day I’ve heard are flocking to some European countries! Given my past experience, what if 10,000 people/families chose to sponsor 1 refugee (or refugee family.) Like my family did in the 80s, they meet them at the airport, help them with food, lodging, a job, English (if needed), or whatever else they need to get started. Let the government do its job and vette them – very, very carefully!! But what if we, the people, take on the responsibility of housing, feeding, and clothing those who are in need? What if those who were passionate about giving the Syrians a home stepped up to help? It won’t be perfect, it won’t be quick, and there’s always a risk. But it might start to get us outside ourselves to work with those we disagree with to a greater good.

It’s not going to be everyone’s passion…and that’s OK. There’s a lot of us in this country and a lot of people that need help in a lot of different ways. The main need it to get outside yourself and help…someone. If you believe in Christ (or even if you don’t,) look up Matthew 25: 31-46. Go ahead! I did, at the suggestion of a friend. Let it simmer inside you and see what cooks up. Maybe there’s a memory buried inside you that God’s waiting to bring to the surface…

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Remembering 9/11

12 09 2015

I’m not really one for remembrances. Remembering…yes. But the traditional and ceremonial stuff is not me most of the time. However, on the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I’m finding that I want to – need to, maybe? – share some thoughts. Below is the text of a comment I was going to post on my company’s internal social media site. Due to a technical glitch, that didn’t happen. So you get to see it here!

“I was at work in Niagara Falls, NY and we heard about the attack after the 2nd plane hit. As hard as it was to believe, it felt like a “done deal” until we got word fifty minutes later the Pentagon had also been hit. The rest of the day was spent watching for updates on our computers and trying (without much luck) to get work done. We saw the video replays and we saw the towers fall. Then we left for home and the skies above Niagara Falls, typically alive with tourist helicopters and military planes on maneuvers, were eerily silent. Just one reminder that this affected our whole country and not just one city!

“My cousin worked in NYC at the time for a law firm with offices in one of the towers. He, as it happened, was in Times Square that morning – for which we are grateful! But I remember an email he wrote some time later, unable to describe the feeling of looking across the city and seeing black smoke pouring from where his boss’s office used to be. I remember hearing of his sister’s frantic attempts in Cleveland, Ohio to get any information she could about him. And I remember calling my wife and telling her to turn off the TV and focus on our small children…and maybe call her Dad, who lived in Arlington VA not far from the Pentagon. I can’t imagine having lost someone that day. Regardless, though, all of us who are old enough to remember were changed in some way by those events. I pray the change may, ultimately, be for the better.”

The beauty of this forum is that I can say more…and say it more freely. When we go through tragedy, regardless of whether it’s on a national level or a personal one, we can respond in different ways. Some people believe they are strong enough to get through whatever comes their way. Some use tragedy as a rallying cry to bring change to the world. Some retreat into solitude and just wait for it all to end, hoping nothing has changed too much. But the one thing most of us do NOT do…is forget!

And that’s why we have remembrances. Whether they are ceremonial, traditional, or just a rambling blog post, we find a way to remember. Because in remembering, we get to look back and see better how we came through and where we’ve grown.

God calls us to remember. Remember our personal tragedies; remember the national heartaches; remember the struggles of life; and most of all, to remember the sacrifice of His Son so we could continue to live. God went through His own personal tragedy to show us His power to defeat death and anything else that may get in the way of His love for us. God’s tragedy was our triumph! But we make that triumph our tragedy when we refuse to acknowledge God or His Son, Jesus. As we remember the brave men and women who gave their lives to save others 14 years ago, I urge you to also remember Jesus, who gave His life to save the whole world.





A People Problem?

7 04 2015

Last week was a long week, at least with regards to what I felt and experienced in relation to the new headlines. Not only was the super storm generated by Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) nearly impossible to navigate, NYS Teachers (some of whom I know well) were dealing with new teacher assessment standards, and the world was seeing mass shootings in Kenya, a German co-pilot intentionally downing his passenger jet, and a nuclear enrichment deal with Iran. That it was Holy Week in Christian circles – the week between Palm Sunday and Easter that observes, among other things, Jesus’ death and resurrection – stood in stark contrast to much of what was going on.

As I worked through my reactions to everyone else’s reactions, I discovered one thread that runs through it all: People! Every single issue – conservative, liberal, and otherwise – that is eating away at this country (and the world) boils down to the same root cause.

People.

Now, before you go pointing the finger at your political polar opposite, you need to remember one thing. You are included in “people.” If you are breathing, thinking, talking, eating, walking on two legs, and clothing a (mostly) hairless body, then you are part of the problem. Sorry to break it to you, but it needs to be said. We all have dreams, desires, wants, needs, and yes, issues of our own and they will eventually cause conflict. Big conflict even. Maybe even huge, blow-the-whole-thing-out-of-proportion-so-we-are-boycotting-a-state-and-speaking-crazy conflict. And we don’t always handle it well to boot.

There’s good news, however. While we are the problem, we are also the solution. Our lives center around people, whether we realize it or not. In fact, if we did not have people around we’d have no life. So, in order to navigate the waters we are finding ourselves in, we need to get back to focusing on people. And not just the people who agree with us or are the center of our political activism. All people – those who agree with us and those who don’t; those who look and live like us and those who don’t; those who like us and those who don’t.

This is not a plea for universalism. Please keep your convictions – I’m planning to keep mine! They are part of what make us the unique individuals we are. We should discuss, debate, speak up for what we think is right or against what we believe is wrong. But do it with respect and the knowledge that the person across the table or on the other side of the picket line is just that…a person. It could be the difference between starting a war, or ending one.

The wisdom of the book of Proverbs tell us: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head…” (Prov. 25: 21-22a) Just because we are hated, belittled, and disrespected for what we believe, what we support (or don’t,) or how we live our life, we don’t have to respond in kind. It’s high time we started to rise above that instinct and act like the intelligent, compassionate, and reasonable beings we were created to be.





Happy Easter!

5 04 2015

We watched Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” with our older two after the Good Friday service we attended this weekend. After an emotional week considering news stories (more on that to come,) it was the reminder I needed that God is still in control. A dark week in our lives is really nothing compared to the 12-18 hours that happened between Jesus’ last supper with his disciples (the Passover meal) and the guards removing his lifeless body from the cross.

We can have all kinds of discussions on the historical (or even biblical) accuracy of the movie. But that’s not our reason for watching it again. I was struck yet again by the brutality of the Roman guards treatment on Jesus – so much more than other “death row” prisoners, as evidenced by the generally good condition (aside from being pinned to a cross) of the criminals crucified with him. Jesus was left looking almost inhuman. But then, wouldn’t the weight of just my sins make someone look like that? And he carried not just my sins, but the sins of everyone – the whole world.

Many people don’t give Good Friday a second thought, even those who attend services that day. As such, when we get to Easter Sunday, it becomes a day of church, celebration, and time spent with family. But, in the light (or, should I say, darkness?) of Good Friday, Easter becomes so much more. Because God took his brutalized, bloodied, no-longer-human looking, yet sinless Son and re-made Him to be spotless once again. If God can take the sins of the world and clean them off His own Son, then he can certainly clean our sins off us. And because Jesus endured what we now call Good Friday, we don’t have to.

So, on this Easter Sunday as you are going to church and/or celebrating with friends and family, take a minute to think of the horribly brutal beating and death that Jesus suffered in your place. Jesus took the punishment that you deserved so that you could be free of the bonds that can bring you down. He did it willingly because He loves you and in so doing brings you the gift of God’s mercy and grace. Easter is about what Jesus did for you. Let it inspire you to think about what you can do for others.





My Thoughts on Over the Tavern

15 09 2014

Young man, you are part of a long line of trouble makers. The first one started making trouble two thousand years ago. And may I remind you that when he was your age he was confounding the teachers in the temple with his wisdom. So I suggest you get busy. – Sister Clarissa, Over the Tavern by Tom Dudzick

I’m not Catholic – never have been! And while I know a lot has changed over the past 55 years, religion – particularly Catholicism – can be very rooted in tradition to provide a steady platform in the middle of a raging river. Such is the backdrop of Tom Dudzick’s play, Over the Tavern, now playing at Kavinoky Theatre on the campus of D’Youville College in Buffalo, NY.

It’s 1959 in Buffalo, NY, and 12 year old Rudy Pazinski is studying for confirmation in Catholic School. But he is the curious type and has all sorts of questions and – let’s call them “different” – ideas. Unfortunately, neither his teacher nor his parents are amused. Add an emotionally insecure older sister and two older brothers – one special needs and one the typical tormentor – and life becomes anything but simple…especially when Dad lives with the stress of owning an operating a bar downstairs with his own alcoholic father. The result is hilarious, moving, and heartwarming all at the same time.

Confession time: I’m biased! My son, Samuel, landed the role of Rudy in this production. So, I obviously liked the show. However, when I saw the finished work on opening night, it went way beyond the performance of any one person. Rudy’s mom, Ellen, at one point shuffles the family out the door, telling them they have to convince people they are a family. Well, they convince the audience! The on-stage chemistry between each of the 7 cast members gives you the very real sense that you are a fly on the Pazinski’s wall. And it’s that chemistry that enhances all humor, all the heaviness, and every touching moment in this play.

But I think the thing I like most about this show is something the author (and, in this case, the director) may or may not have ever intended: The question of what religion is – or isn’t – and the quest to understand our purpose. The show itself doesn’t provide an answer, but it is a conversation starter. How does God fit into life? There’s nothing wrong with catechisms (a plot device in the play), liturgies, or rules that religion can sometimes impose. But God doesn’t intend for us to follow him blindly either. He wants us to ask questions; wants us to know Him; wants to show us who He’s created us to be! He made us human, knowing we would struggle and doubt. But rather than telling us not to, God simply asks to be part of it. He sent that troublemaker two thousand years ago to shake things up. I suggest we follow His example…and get busy!





My Story

1 09 2014

The Chapel recently completed a sermon series called “Life Verse” – referring to a passage of scripture that significantly impacts our Christian life. As various staff members shared their story and life verse(s), we were encouraged to look at our own story and how scripture – maybe one passage in particular – defines our faith walk. So, since I’ve never really written my “faith story,” I thought I would share it – in brief! – here.

I’ll start with my life verse: Romans 12: 1-2 – “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.” (NIV)

I grew up in a Christian home. My parents were strong believers and, for as long as I can remember, we attended worship almost every Sunday. I’ve even heard rumors that I attended youth group as an infant (my parents were the youth leaders.) We prayed before bedtime, said grace at meals, and my parents regularly met with other believers during the week way before many churches were promoting small groups. I was raised in a home that breeds faith.

But faith has to be owned before it can do any good.

And that’s where I found myself heading into my last year of high school: Riding my parent’s faith, but not owning it for myself. I wasn’t into drugs, alcohol, sex, etc – my “rebellion” was foul language – but I wasn’t into Christianity either. Even though it was all I’d ever known, it was just a habit; background noise that made life…comfortable. As a teenager, my focus had shifted to graduating high school, then college so I could get an awesomely fun job, get married, have a house and the pre-requisite 2.5 kids.

Well…God, in his infinite wisdom, took my boring life and gave me a conversion experience that was equally boring. Just before starting school in 1987, my family was traveling and missed church four Sundays in a row. By the last week, I realized something (more than church!) was missing and I started to actively follow Christ. That’s it! No “raised me from the pit of hell” story, no “miraculously turned my life around overnight” experience (although, for the record, both of those are true…in a way,) no night and day personality changes. I simply wasn’t following Christ, then I was. I took ownership of the faith my parents passed on.

It was several years of school and thinking about what to do with my life before that passage in Romans hit me. Western society is all about the stuff I was thinking about in 1987. A young believer trying to follow God can easily fall victim to the “pattern of this world” when well-intentioned people say you can’t make a living doing what God’s call you to do. But just as my conversion experience didn’t fit any patterns, neither should our lives. God created us as unique individuals, with unique gifts and abilities. So, the path each of us should take in life will also be unique. Will there be similarities? Yeah, probably. But don’t let anyone lock you into a pattern, because that’s not how God designed you to live.





Sith, Lies, and the Gospel

25 08 2014

I sat down with my older boys last week to watch Star Wars, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Being a family of science fiction fans, this was not our first time watching this (or any other Star Wars) movie. In fact, as the geek scale goes, we are nicely above average in many areas of geekdom. But it never ceases to amaze me how truth can be found in unexpected places.

If you know the story, skip this paragraph. For those who don’t (and yes, I know you exist!), Revenge of the Sith is the sixth installment (yes, episode 3 was released 6th) in the Star Wars saga created by filmmaker George Lucas. The first three movies – episodes 4-6 (stay with me!) – chronicle Luke Skywalker and a band of rebels as they struggle to overthrow an evil galactic emperor. The Emperor’s “right hand man” is Darth Vader, and his rise is chronicled in the 4th-6th films – episodes 1-3 – which follow Vader’s alter ego, Anakin, and his conversion to evil.

Watching the films again, we occasionally find things we haven’t seen before – like the Millennium Falcon approaching the Senate building with the Jedi after the opening battle (bottom center of your screen – really, it’s there!) There are also subtleties in the character interactions that are easy to miss the first time. This time, I was fascinated to watch Anakin as he interacted with Emperor-to-be Palpatine. In Anakin’s struggle to define right and wrong in the fog of war, Palpatine is able to take Anakin’s doubts and desires and twist them into something that appears to be true…but isn’t. And when Anakin steps into the trap, he loses hope and turns to evil thinking that all is lost.

In many ways, this is a picture of Satan’s interaction with humanity. He may be the Father of Lies (John 8:44). But he will rarely lie to us outright because God created us with an innate sense of truth – most people can detect an outright lie! Instead, like Palpatine, he will gently twist the truth and pepper it with temptation. Over time, if we are not on our guard, it will become very believable and appear to be right, despite contradicting what we know of God.

Fortunately, we are not bound (not completely, anyway) by whether or not we believe what Satan tries to tell us. We’ve all succumbed at some point: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Our ability to break free from evil lies in where we place our hope. When he saw that he had given in to evil, Anakin thought he was beyond hope; beyond forgiveness. However, as long as we live on this earth, we are never beyond forgiveness. There is always hope…no matter what we’ve done. That hope comes through Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made on the cross. Through Him, God can and will erase the evil and remake us into someone truly good.

So…where does your hope come from?