Why a Birthday is Important

As I am in between celebratory events, between the family picnic at the LA zoo and the dinner with friends at Universal City Walk, I decided to share my thoughts about the significance of a birthday. It’s true for most of us that there comes a point when we don’t see our birthdays the same way anymore. At first they’re about parties with hats, pizza, presents, and friends coming over to play with us. Then somewhere down the line it became about aging. With each birthday, it marks us getting older – greyer, wrinklier, maybe saggier, and for many sadder. I know aging is tough because it gets us closer to our last day on earth, we don’t look the same, and parts of us start to creak.

But a birthday is celebrating the day of our birth. The day we had no choice in the matter, but was a miracle that it happened. It was the day we came into the world. The day we took our first breaths. A birthday celebrates the beginning, not the ending. It celebrates when our journeys began. Because of that day, I am here. Because Someone loved me enough to form me, I am here and I am on this journey. Our birthdays celebrate the miracle of life. When we’re young, we think we’re invincible. As we get older, the fragileness of life and, therefore, the miracle of life becomes more apparent. My birthday celebrates the 20,000 breaths I take a day and the 100,000 times my heart beats a day. I can’t even count that high without losing track, but somehow my body is capable of doing it and I’m certain it does it with God’s help. My birthday celebrates the miracle of my life. On this birthday, it means that I’m still here and my heart will beat at least one more time and I’ll take at least one more breath. I celebrate the opportunity for my soul to take in God’s goodness on this earth, and I accept the charge to enact redemption where I can in a flawed world. My birthday celebrates being able to love my wife, be a father to my foster son, and serve my God on this earth.

I didn’t always have this view. But as I approach the dawn of 40, this view has encompassed me. I approach 40 with peace and excitement, because I celebrate the faithfulness of God in carrying me these past four decades through the heartaches and heartbreaks and yet my heart still beats 100,000 times a day. I celebrate the goodness of God in being the great I AM of my life, in whom I find my source of strength and being. And because I can celebrate this day, today, I can for sure face tomorrow.

Thank you, God, for my birthday – for all our birthdays. As the apostle Paul quoted a great poet, “In Him we live and move and have our being,” so it is that we are here. (Acts 17:28)

Designed for More Than Ourselves

Yesterday, the owner (Judd) of one of my favorite comic stores, Blastoff Comics, in North Hollywood told me why he sells comics. Every month he donates a percentage of his profits to a charity that’s announced on their FB page.  We got into the importance of generosity.  I said generosity not only impacts others but is also good for our souls. He nodded his head emphatically and said, “We were designed for more than ourselves.”  When our ultimate goal is to live for ourselves, our lives are only as big as our flawed, limited beings. Our vision for our lives remains small.  When we live with others in mind, out of generosity, or for a calling that’s greater than us, then our lives extend beyond ourselves.  He and I acknowledged that there is something built in us that is meant for more than ourselves.  We were meant to think beyond ourselves, beyond what we gain or get out of life.  We were meant for higher callings.  We sense that in us, and we’re always reaching for something greater than us.  When we’re not living for more, our souls suffer.  When we settle for self-satisfaction, our bellies may be full but our souls starve.

The generosity that we give creates beauty out of brokenness within us, because we become more selfless, less self-centered, and more sacrificial.  Self-sacrifice is the stuff of heroes.  But worries, stress, and insecurities suffocate the virtue of generosity.  If you find yourself over worrying about your personal circumstances, try exercising generosity toward someone.  Giving can be a remedy for worrying.  It shifts your perspective.  Worrying eats away at your soul.  Giving feeds your soul, because we were designed for more than ourselves.

15th Anniversary Advice on Marriage

My wife and I celebrated our 15th Anniversary a few days ago with a dozen close friends. They enjoyed asking us a bunch of questions and one of them was after 15 years of marriage, what advice do we have. After thinking about it, here are my seven.

Men honor your wives. While you may be king in your home, she is also queen. She rules with you at your side. Treat her with dignity. It’s easy to put the other person down, downplay the other person’s comments or simply not pay attention. If a queen speaks, she warrants attention.

Women appreciate your husbands. We’re a lot softer than we pose ourselves to be. Inside I think we have as many insecurities as women do. Our society has just acculturated us to show them in different, hidden or more socially acceptable ways. Men’s spirits can actually be worn down easily and we need to know we’re appreciated.

Love and Respect. The two go together like columns that hold up the ends of a supporting beam. To love sacrificially means you care for the other person as you would care for yourself at the least or better than yourself at the most. Respect means treating them with dignity and honor in speech and action. It means valuing the other for who he or she is and not looking down on the other person in your eyes. It’s hard to say you love someone you don’t respect, since love demonstrates how much you value the other person and respect inherently affirms value.

Apologize readily, Forgive generously. Be ready to apologize, which requires a humble predisposition. Don’t be flippant with apologies, because they still have to mean something. But be ready to give it. Learn the true meaning of forgiveness and the virtue of giving it. The reason apologies and forgiveness are needed is neither of you are perfect.  Where apologies and forgiveness is absent, humility will be absent also. Apologies and forgiveness turn fighting into peace talks. Where apologies and forgiveness is scarce, hurt prevails and anger will soon follow.

Learn the Art of War. You’re ultimately fighting together, not with each other. She is not your enemy. He is not your enemy. Too often couples get into mindsets of needing to prove the other person wrong or at fault. Blame is the weapon of choice. We fight for who’s right, rather fighting for a healthy marriage. To fight together means you recognize the great obstacle is not the other person; it’s all the stuff that impedes on your marriage – stress, financial problems, family baggage, miscommunications… Whatever it is, you’re fighting together to overcome these things. Fight for the relationship not against the other person.

An Old Book with New Chapters. You can be familiar with your spouse like she’s a good classic book, like a story you’re basically familiar with. But he or she can also be a book in which you have not yet reached the end. Approach your spouse as someone you know the best and as someone you’re still getting to know. There’s a richness in knowing the other person well. But don’t take the other person for granted, thinking you know everything there is to know and falling into a familiarity that lacks sensitivity. My wife and I finish each others’ sentences, and we blow away those couples boardgames. But my wife and I still discover things about each other we never knew. My wife is a good, old book with new chapters to me. I know her well, but I still get excited in getting to know her.

Play Well. Marriage can turn into a job, something you work at or something that’s just sort of there. Intentionally create big occasions and small occasions for play. Have a favorite fun thing to do. Give yourselves something fun to look forward to. On those occasions, vow to not talk about finances, mortgages, in-laws, the leaky faucet, the parent-teacher conference, and household chores. Give yourselves the permission to enjoy being with one another. Create space for laughter. You’ll see that laughing together does wonders. Make play a pattern.

Thinking Deeply about Santa Claus

I like the character, story and decorative theme of Santa Claus, but you may hate me for writing this (or you may give me an amen).  Our culture celebrates Santa Claus as the benevolent gift giver of children around the world during Christmas, spreading a message of warmth and jolly.  But if you were to think about the principles of Santa he is quite the opposite of warmth and jolly.

Let’s see how the story goes.  He’s making a list and he’s checking it twice.  He has a list that is based on an omniscient quality of knowing every person.  This list, however, is not just a gift-list.  It is a cut-list, because he’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.  He’s determining who are good children and bad children – not simply who are the children that did good or bad deeds.  Santa’s worldview is moralism because he judges and accepts people purely on the moral or immoral things they have done.  It’s vague though as far as whether his moralistic standard includes thoughts, attitudes, and desires, the internal aspects of a person versus just the external factors of actions.  Since the lyrics say he’s determining who is naughty or nice, I would assume that Santa evaluates the whole person and not just the deeds performed.  That’s a pretty tough standard.  It’s also vague as far as what the standard is in terms making the cut off of being considered “nice.”  Would a child had three temper tantrums, hit his sister twice and accidentally blurted out one curse word when he stubbed his toe during the whole year be considered naughty or nice?  Or is two tantrums the maximum limit?  In fact, the lyrics tell us, “You better not pout.  You better not cry.”  So, a child who has pouted and cried is considered naughty.   That’s pretty rough if you ask me.  On the basis of moralism, the acceptance and implied worth of a person is based on how good he or she is.

What may surprise us, then, is that Santa does not actually give out gifts according to his moralistic worldviews.  Because, gifts by definition are free, unconditional and unearned.  But according to Santa, his “gifts” are earned by the moral disposition of a person.  If you performed enough good deeds and had enough of the right kind of thinking and attitudes (whatever “enough” means), then you were tagged by Santa as “nice,” and he would drop off presents for you.  So what Santa actually gives are rewards.  They are rewards for not only doing the right things but being a right person.  Those who are considered “naughty,” having done too many wrong things in Santa’s eyes, are not given presents or perhaps are given lesser presents.  Santa gives you something if you deserve it – that’s what we call a reward.  This kind of present is earned and not gifted.  Gifts however carry the message that you may not deserve what is given to you but you’re given this because you are loved and you’re inherently a worthwhile person.

In our culture, we popularly teach about Santa in one sense to emphasize the gift giving side and sometimes as parents/teachers to enforce good behavior among children.  “If you’re not a good boy, Santa won’t bring you anything this year,” is a common threat we may hear.  Do we then orient our children to a worldview of moralism, teaching them that their self-worth is based on the good they are and have done which is a subjective standard of judgment at best since no one can be absolutely perfect?  Do we teach children that their worth to us is based on moralistic measures and they must earn our favor (like they earn Santa’s)?  Or, instead, should they be taught a message of acceptance and unconditional love that forms the basis of their self-identity and, therefore, the measures of good they can be and do emerges out of being accepted and loved?  And, should they be taught about forgiveness – forgiveness for self because we all mess up and, in turn, forgiveness for others because others will mess up?  In Santa’s moralistic basis, forgiveness is not a key theme of his.  He’s more of a judge.

I grew up with the impression that Santa and Jesus were best friends, because I thought of Jesus as judge more than savior.  The other icon of Christmas is Jesus.  In Jesus’ story, it is about a benevolent gift giver who doesn’t descend down a chimney but down from heaven.  The wrapped present he brought was himself, swaddled in cloths as a baby.  The gift he gives is not a thing but eternal life paid for with his own life upon the cross of calvary.  On Santa’s list, some are marked “naughty” or “nice” and the nice ones get rewards.  On Jesus’ list, everyone is marked “naughty,” because we’re all flawed and imperfect, and he offers a gift to every one of them.  That’s the big difference.  Santa comes down the chimney for the nice.  Jesus comes down from heaven for the naughty.  Christmas can be made into a holiday of moralism or celebrated as a holiday of grace.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a Santa hater.  Just thinking deeply about the implications of elements in our culture.

Foster Dad 18: Among Fosters

My wife and I appreciate the many praises we receive for being foster parents. People call us guardian angels of the two children we fostered. People say we’re amazing for doing what we do. They say they don’t know how we do it and we must have special hearts. They say we made an incredible difference in the souls of these children. The praises mean a lot to us especially during the trying times of this experience. But other foster parents amaze us and you would be too if you hear what we hear.

We hear from foster parents who have fostered 8, 25 or 44 children, and they adopted from 1 to 8 of them. We read about the horror stories, the tragedies and the heartbreaks that other foster parents go through, whether it’s returning a child to the biological parent after raising the child for 3 years or dealing with the anger issues and reattachment disorders of older children. We read about the wisdom and intuition foster parents exercised that made a difference in a child’s life or development. We read the heartbreaking outcome of some cases and there’s nothing a foster parent can do about it, but they accept it and go on to love the next child. We read about hateful criticisms foster parents of multiple children receive from ignorant strangers, who prejudge in error the situation of the foster family, and the humility the foster parents show in response. We are amazed by the perseverance of foster parents who fight for the well-being of their foster child while facing ongoing ordeals with the system. We are astonished – puzzled even – by the inhumanly enduring love of foster parents who don’t give up on their foster child even when the case stretches for years. Where my wife and I have whined and moaned over some of our experiences, we are silenced by the trials and display of character by other foster parents. Their stories grant me a healthy perspective of my own.

So, to my fellow foster parents out there who have strived, struggled, endured, triumphed, been broken, cried, and loved, you inspire me as a foster father. You remind me of the incredible good that can be found in this world, which the Bible claims as evidences of God’s grace in a broken world. You are evidences of God’s grace. As a foster parent, I share a glimpse of what you experience – the joys and the pains – but I know that there is a realm of challenges you have weathered that I cannot fathom. Thank you for sharing your stories of redemption, for being heroes to the helpless, and for giving a measure of goodness out of your extraordinary spirits to make our world a better place. What I find amidst all the praises my wife and I receive is that we are humbly in the company of amazing foster parents. You are silent heroes of society who don’t get the spotlight, cheering crowds, or wealth for doing what you do. Most will never see all of your tears or know all the details of your fostering struggles. Yet day-by-day you’re saving someone. And at the end of the day, I know you wouldn’t even think of yourselves as heroes. Well, to that child you’re parenting, you are his/her hero. I salute you and I thank God that there are people like you in this world.

Cosmos Through Him

Amidst life’s chaos and struggles, there is one who maintains composition in our lives.  There is one who holds everything altogether (Col. 1:17), whether the order of the universe or the harmony in our souls.  Christ is not only a means to a destiny – the savior giving salvation – but he is also the glue that keeps the world and our lives from utterly falling apart.  In this piece, my first Steampunk artwork, I used packaging foam to build the structure of the frame.  Foam is a non-biodegradable and non-recyclable material that is harmful to the environment.  I enjoyed redeeming the foam from being a destructive material to the world to being a material that provides structure.  Ironically, the foam is what holds the valuable items of a package in place.  The foam was symbolic for the kind of composition Christ offers.  The mechanical elements represent the inner-workings of a machine that is unseen.  Like Christ, we don’t immediately notice him in the world, but the composition, goodness and order we experience in the world are indications that there is someone at work keeping it altogether.  The automatic, ticking secondhand on the bottom right represents Christ’s supremacy over the passing of time.  He can give meaning and purpose to the events and experiences we have.  Grace, as embodied by Christ, does not only mean saving us from chaos but turning our chaos into a form of cosmos.

Brian S. Chan - 2013
Brian S. Chan – 2013

Foster Dad 17: How My Foster Son Helps Me Be a Better Man

How we see ourselves in light of another is fascinating.  Given what I know about where my foster son has come from, I look forward to what he can become.  But when I look at my foster son’s face, I realize the things in myself that I wouldn’t want him to model after.  When I picture my foster son doing life with me, watching me, following me, and learning from me, everything I do feels weightier.  By “do,” I include actions, choices, pursuits, attitudes, expressions, etc.  The things that I wouldn’t want to be true in my foster son’s character or life shouldn’t be true in mine.  It’s rare that sin doesn’t hurt anyone else but yourself.  Hurting yourself should be reason enough to deal with your sin.  But when sins affect others intimately involved in your life, there is all the more reason to decisively deal with those sins before God’s throne of grace.  I can’t be a perfect man, but I can be a man committed to redemption and transformation.

The kind of man Peanut would become would be a beautiful story of redemption.  As I picture the man my foster son would become, I’m compelled to picture the man I must be.

The Thing About Aging

Aging is one of those things people dread most about life.  When we think of aging, we naturally picture progressively wrinkling skin, sagging parts, greying hair, and aching joints.  Beyond the physical though is also the spiritual side of aging—the feeling of weariness, regrets over unfulfilled dreams and the sense that time has moved forward.  With each birthday, we age.  It’s a bittersweet occasion because we celebrate but also desire desperately to put on the breaks of aging.  If only 30 didn’t come so quickly, because we haven’t accomplished our career objectives yet.  If only 40 could wait until the next year, because we haven’t gotten married or had children yet.  If only 45 could hold off, because we’re still finding ourselves.  If only 50 could slow its arrival, because there are things we’d like to do over.  But we can’t stop it.  We can only try to find meaning in each birthday that arrives.

Birthdays are independent of us from the day we were born so I believe the meaning of birthdays has to be independent of us.  What does that mean?  It means we can’t just simply contrive our own meanings for our birthdays and feel that will substantially satisfy the very core of our being.  Being born happened without our choosing and every year a birthday arrives without our choosing.  The meaning behind our birthdays has to come from outside of us.  I know there’s a lot of talk about us making our own destinies, and I hold to the importance of the choices we make.  But I think we’re more like characters actively journeying in a story that is being written by a master author.  The book doesn’t choose to be written anymore than we chose to be born and have birthdays.  Each birthday is a chapter.  The arrival of a birthday is the turning of a chapter.  Where does the meaning for the birthdays come from then?  It comes from the author.  This could be a frightening notion, feeling as though you are ultimately at the hands of a maker.  Or it could be a wondrous reality if you knew the maker to be wise, benevolent and incredibly gifted at what he does.

But unlike a regular book, we do possess a will where we can choose to subscribe to the author’s masterwork or attempt to find our own meaning outside of the author.  So here’s where choice does matter.  The most basic choice we have is to discover the story that God desires to write of our lives or attempt to entirely make our own story.  While will gives us the power of choice, I believe wisdom must accompany will.  Otherwise, we will simply make poor choices.  Wisdom would tell me that while it was not my will to be born and have birthdays, it’s also true then that the meaning of my birthdays—the ultimately meaning of my story—is also not originating from my will but from God, the author.  Each birthday reminds me about the intricate balance between making and discovering in life.  If I try to make what I’m supposed to discover, I would be lost.  But if I discover that which is made in me, then I receive something wonderful that each birthday ushers to me.  Then of course, the ultimate birthday is that one we never get to—at least not here on this earth.  That birthday is important because it tells us how the story ends.  And as we know, how a story ends of is everything.

Foster Dad 16: The Best Thing To Hear From The Parents

The parents of Lil Guy wrote something to my wife and I that we never expected to read, but was the best thing they could ever tell us.  We’re about to visit Lil Guy this weekend for the second time, since we returned him to his parents over a month and half ago.  This visit will be for his infant baptism.  You never really know what to expect when you have to give people back their child after you raised the child as your own.  My wife and I had heard the terrible stories of envy, jealousy and sense of competition from the parents toward foster parents.  We were warned by our social worker that typically the parents will want to put as much distance as possible between them and the foster parents because they don’t want to be reminded of the awful experience of not being with their child.  The parents generally would want to focus on being their own family and forget all that fostering mess.  That’s what we were told.  Even though the mother had told us that she wanted us to remain in Lil Guy’s life, we were warned that initially the parents may welcome us to visit but we shouldn’t be surprised if they started tapering away from us so they could pursue their own lives.  Parents often viewed foster parents as intruders or the ones who took their baby away.

It made sense to us.  We wanted to respect whatever space they desired.  So when we try to visit, we respectfully asked for their permission.  This time, we wanted to bring a few gifts for Lil Guy – a toy that I found at Costco, which I knew he would like, and a few books that my wife picked out for his mother to be able to read to him.  But we didn’t know how the parents might feel about us bringing gifts.  Would it make them feel bad if they’re not buying these things for him?  Would it cause envy?  Would it make things awkward?  So I emailed the dad and asked him if he and the mother would be comfortable with us giving Lil Guy a few gifts when we come see him at his baptism.  Here’s what he emailed back to us: “Im ok with any help from you B. Remember you and your wife are and will always be his parents as well.”

My wife cried.  I didn’t know what to say.  I’m sure this isn’t usual.  Honestly, I felt undeserving.  He didn’t have to grant us that honor.  They could move on without us.  You know, they really hardly know us.  They don’t know where we’re from, where we live, what we do for a living, or what our actual ethnicity is (other some sort of Asian).  All they know about us is we parented their child for 8 months and a day.  Through that process, I think I was quite selfish about Lil Guy.  But they welcome us.  I felt undeserving.  Though we didn’t get to keep Lil Guy in our home, the beauty of how this is turning out is beyond my imagination.

A week ago, I felt a burden in my heart for my wife and I to write a card to the mother to encourage her because we knew she was encountering some hard moments.  I thought maybe our words could offer her some strength.  I think we’ll show up to our second visit this weekend with a toy and some books for Lil Guy and a lot of encouragement for the mother and father.

(in case you ask, all the things we got for Lil Guy, we also got for Peanut, our second foster son, who is growing, smiling, and started to talk up a storm.  More on him later.)

Foster Dad 15: Revisiting Our Former Foster Son

Today, we visited our first foster son (Lil Guy) who we returned back to his biological mother.  It seems being able to visit your former foster child is not typical (for many reasons, I’m sure).  We developed a good relationship with his parents and they invited us to stay in touch with them and visit.  So we finally did today.  It’s hard to believe it has only been three weeks since he left us because it feels like months.  Honestly, we weren’t sure what to expect – what it would be like or how we would feel.

When we first walked into the room, a family member was holding Lil Guy.  We approached him and he just looked at us observantly for a couple of seconds but he made no sound, expression or movement.  I asked him, “Do you remember us?”  Then a very big smile beamed across his face.  He reached out with both of his chubby arms and leaned towards me for me to hold him, while his mother said in the background, “Of course he does.”  Next he saw a familiar stuffed animal he used to play with in his room.  He smiled at it, grabbed for it and played with it like he used to.  We played with him on the floor for a while.  He kept crawling towards us, reached for us and climbed on us.  I played a silly game with him that used to always make him laugh very hard; it still made him laugh.  He saw our second foster son as well who was his little brother for about three weeks when we had both of them.  He immediately reached for our second foster son, plucked the pacifier out of his mouth and tried to stick it in his own mouth.  He repeated that four times!  It cracked us up.  It was so wonderful to see him again.  He grew a lot in the last three weeks, and he has a head full of hair now.  He is doing well and the mother is taking good care of him.  She is making the best out of what she has and seems to be doing it wholeheartedly.  His living place is a communal environment with lots of people around.  It was clean and well managed.  We’ve heard that cases like Lil Guy’s don’t often end up as success cases.  We’re glad to see God’s blessing upon him and his mother to make him the exception.  My wife and I were encouraged to see how well he was doing and told him once again that we love him and are proud of him.

Of course, leaving him was difficult again.  After giving a round of hugs, the mother invited us to come back, even to visit regularly.  As we were saying bye to Lil Guy, he had that look on his face again like he didn’t like what was happening.  We don’t know if we will or how much we will continue to visit him.  We’re just not sure yet.  All of this is new territory for us, so I think we’re taking it a step at a time for right now.  We want to do what’s best for the child and we want to be sensitive our own spirits.  But the hour we spent with him seemed to lift his spirit, was affirming to the mother and brought a lot of joy to us.  Plus, he was very happy to have his old toy again!

%d bloggers like this: