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)

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.

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.

What is Freedom and Why We Want It?

Freedom is of non-negotiable importance to us because having it affirms the most fundamental dignity of our humanity.  Many films, stories and historical events hail freedom as an indisputable quality of human life.  Everyone wants it.  People will even die to ensure that others get it.  To deny others their freedom is to deny their right to being human.  It denies their given worth, dignity and value as soulish, sentient beings.  In cases where freedom is denied to others, oppressors must carry the worldview that the oppressed are sub-human, commodities or instruments whom are of lesser worth than they.  A view of equality with others demands a respect for the freedom of others.

But what exactly does freedom mean?  Does it mean you can do whatever you want with constraint, without limitation?  Is it the same as having power?  Most generally tend to define freedom according to a quantifiable perspective.  How much you are allowed to do or able to do defines how much freedom you have.  I’ve been asked a number of times, “Why be a Christian if all it does is limit your freedom with rules of what you can’t do?”  Good question.  Freedom was not only viewed in quantifiable terms by the great philosophers of old, like Aristotle, the great theologians of the Christian heritage or by the Bible.  Instead of defining freedom by quantity what if we defined it by quality?  Freedom should be defined by telos, an ancient Greek term that means purpose or design.  For instance, if you were a knife, what would define your freedom?  What does it mean for a knife to be free?  Is it based on how many different things you could do?  If a knife were used to tighten screws, dig holes in the ground or open bottles and cans, the knife would not experience greater freedom even though it’s doing more things.  In fact, that knife would not be very free.  Freedom for the knife would be in cutting – cutting vegetables, fruits, meats, rope, cardboard, paper, etc. – and in doing it well.  The more a knife can cut and cut well, the more freedom that knife has.  According to this notion, freedom is defined by design.  Freedom is not measured by how much you can do but by whether you’re doing what you’re designed to do.

If we use the teleological view (telos) to define freedom, what would it mean for us?   Living out our designed and living it out well determines not only our capacity of freedom but our quality of living a flourishing life.  So, doing more or doing whatever you want doesn’t make you free.  In fact, if you’re doing a bunch of things you weren’t supposed to be doing, it makes you less free – like a knife trying to unscrew screws but never cutting.  The Bible tells us that we were designed to love God and love one another – the second being most realized by the first.  Christ redeems us and recreates us from being slaves to our vices to being children of God, which is what we were designed to be.  So a negation of our freedom is not merely a matter of limiting what we can do but prohibiting us from being what we’re supposed to be, called to be or designed to be.  Restrictions can serve to enhance our freedom then because they empower us to be what we’re meant to be.  Many of us are fighting for more freedom in our lives – financial freedom, relational freedom, freedom from limitations, freedom to have more choices, freedom to spend, freedom to do.  But we shouldn’t be too drawn into a consumerist view that freedom simply means more.  Rather we should incorporate a teleological view that freedom means purpose – discovering our purpose and fulfilling it well.  So, are you free?

Ambition and Calling

Someone said to me, “Brian, you are ambitious.”  I don’t know if I would consider ambition as one of my qualities.  But I do believe in answering our callings.  We only have one shot at life so I think we should make it count.  Callings are not quite the same as desires.  The two could overlap; you may desire the calling you have but a calling does not require you to like it.  The reason the two can differ is callings come from outside of you.  I think a calling is like a highly respected general calling you to charge up the hill and take out that bunker.  You may not like it.  You may be afraid of it.  But you will let out that battlecry and give it all you’ve got!  A calling has a strong compelling that feels larger than you and your life, and it usually is.  In those moments of facing a calling, you have a choice of answering it or ignoring it.  Ignoring it will often feel like disobedience and like you’re missing something very vital to your purpose for being on this earth.  A desire achieved feels satisfying.  A calling achieved feels fulfilling.  I think most people live by desires and not by callings.  That’s usually because we think if we get what we want, we will have lived a complete life.  I think we’re all called to be more than we tend to realize, because we either downplay our roles in this world or succumb to distractions.  For some of us, we aren’t able to say yes to our callings because we haven’t said no to other things.

Callings also tend to come in packs.  A fellow faculty at Biola said, we can have multiple callings – being a mother, husband, charitable person, minister, artist, writer, missionary, corporate executive, nonprofit board member, soup kitchen volunteer, inventor, son, daughter, employee, storyteller, good neighbor, Christian… and it’s about living out those callings the best we can.  Figuring out what you really want in life requires artful insight.  Callings can also be seasonal; they need not be forever.  Callings can be communal, meaning not the only one bearing it.  And callings can be transferrable, meaning you may be called to pass the torch to another who shares the same calling.  Figuring out what your calling is in life requires very, very good listening.  My callings come from God and I try to listen to him the best I can.  I can’t say I always nail it but He’s patient and a very good communicator.  So I might not call myself ambitious, but I strive to be a good listener.

What are your callings?

Philosophy of Bruce Lee & Yoda

What do Bruce Lee and Yoda have in common where they speak truth into life?  They are two of my favorite celebrities.  Both martial artists.  Both philosophers.  Both hold the same understanding of the difference between well intentions and actualization.  Many of have a number of well intentions, but well intentions alone do not create real changes or events until they are actualized.

Bruce Lee said, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply.  Willing is not enough, we must do.”  Yoda said, “Do or do not; there is no try.”  Knowing, willingness and trying are great starting points for action, but by themselves are not the same as actual happenings or events.  They do not by themselves change circumstances or tangibly contribute to progress until they are applied and acted upon in a definitive way that creates real changes in the conditions of our selves, lives and society.  It is like the difference between potential and realization.  Our society’s extreme emphasis on the psychological optimism of potentials downplays the need for realization of those potentials.  Potentials don’t create real changes.  Realization of those potentials do.  Potentials are simply the possibility of something happening.  Realization requires the commitment, consistency, perseverance, focus and decisive determination to make something actually happen.  Otherwise, potentials that are never exercised or applied never materialize into something tangible nor have any real effect.

Many of us, especially those of us who are artists in this town of Hollywood, have ideas, intentions and dreams.  Where the rubber meets the road, where the child’s play is separated from the adult work, is where those who mature those intentions into actualization.  This principle is true with our dream careers, habits we’re trying to break, relationships we’re trying to mend, health needs we want to meet, and the discipleship we intend to walk.  There’s a vast difference between being just a dreamer and being a creator.  Saying to yourself I really want to do that, I dream of that, or I’ll start that tomorrow doesn’t produce any real effects.

So what is your obstacle?  Mentally, emotionally, circumstantially, physically?  Maybe today is the day that you take the first tangible step to kick that habit, heal from that old wound, practically love that person like you’re meaning to, reconcile that relationship, start that diet, paint the first layer of that painting, write the first paragraph for that story, read the first page of that dusty book, develop the first bar of that song, address that question of life, or take that first step of discipleship in Jesus.  Enough of the mere I know, I want to, and I’m trying to; and let’s apply the decisiveness, belief, commitment, determination, fortitude and perseverance to make it happen.  When we do the good we know to do, we’re not only better for it.  Our world is better for it because we’ve created some tangible measure of good that has a real effect.

The Truth About Beauty

(published in the Hollywood Prayer Network newsletter – March 2012)

One of the surprising news that caught much attention at this year’s Academy Awards had nothing to do with The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants or War Horse.  It was “Angelina Jolie’s Right Leg”.  On the red carpet, her right leg slid out from behind her black, high-slit dress every time photographers wanted to capture her.  Her sexy right leg (and yes, just the right) had a show of its own at the event.  It became a newsworthy highlight.  Angelina’s right leg’s achievement to stardom (versus my right leg) is an indicator of what our society cares about – beauty.  The beauty that captures the attention of others is not something we just want to see but also pursue, which is why so much of commercial industry is driven by our desire for beauty, whether it is the beauty we find in cosmetics, homes, gardens, apparels, art or a sunset.  There’s something powerfully delightfully and profoundly enriching about having beauty in our lives.  But what is it about beauty that is so compelling?

Beauty is an ideal that conveys to us the excellent, whole, worthy and perfect.  And for that, we are willing to sacrifice at great lengths to achieve beauty because in some sense, whether superficial or substantial, it affords us a sense of significance.  We tend to relate beauty to surface aspects that seem to be merely decorative.  But often when we discuss whether something is beautiful we realize that “real” beauty, as some would call it, has more to do with qualities that are unseen, like character virtues, personal values or life principles.  We see beauty in the charity of a sacrificial person, sincere love of a faithful husband, enduring faith of a single mother, or pure innocence of a child.  The portrayal of genuine beauty gives us hope.  It reminds us of the good that’s worth fighting for in an often ugly world with troubled lives.  It reminds us of the redeemable in our humanity.  It tells us, we don’t have to stay this way and we can be better than we are.  Perhaps what people want to see on screen, in stories, in magazines and in art is this unseen beauty that gives us hope.  But what exactly is beauty?  How can we see something unless we know what to look for?

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a common aesthetic perception which simply says beauty is whatever you make it to be.  While beauty is intimately tied to our subjective experiences of pleasure, delight and attraction, its definition can be independent of our subjective experiences, meaning we can subjectively experience something that is objectively defined.  One of the many defining elements of beauty, I believe, is truth.  This notion that anything beautiful must contain truth extends from the thoughts of the classical Greek philosophers, like Socrates and Plato, to the Christian fathers, like Augustine and Acquinas.  This age-old idea has been embraced by recent Christian thinkers like Schaeffer, Tolstoy and Rookmaaker.  Truth, not merely the surface aspects, is an essential element of beauty, without which beauty could not exist.  Plato argued that anything containing the opposite of truth that is a lie is considered to be ugly.  We’re talking about the truth of anything – truth about what’s real, who we are, our problems, our solutions, and most importantly as Plato would agree, God.

Practically, a pursuit for beauty becomes a pursuit for truth.  Pursuing this objective beauty ignites a passion in us for life that’s larger than life, because we seek not the sentimental comforts of nice feelings but the grander reality of truth that exists apart from our perceptions and desires.  Objective beauty is not molded by our preferences but discovered as we mature in our mind and beliefs.  Embracing beauty defined by truth frees us from the distractions of the small appetites of consumerism, the petty pressures of conformity and the confines of self-indulging feelings.  When beauty is not merely defined in the eye of the beholder, then we may be free to pursue something greater and beyond ourselves.  Our world will always be drawn to and even hunger for beauty.  The question is what form of beauty will we settle for, pursue or be satisfied with.