Friday, May 28, 2010

The Sad Story of Gary Coleman

Sad news today out of Utah that Gary Coleman, former star of Diff'rent Strokes, has passed away at the age of 42. Coleman had fallen this week at his home outside of Salt Lake City and suffered a severe head injury. He was removed from life support earlier this afternoon.

Like so many other child actors that went before and have gone after him, Gary Coleman never seemed able to adjust to the responsibilities of adulthood that came after his television star had faded. Although he was once one of the most popular actors on television, Coleman spent the rest of his life battling the image that the public had of him and the expectations for him to remain the cute seven-year-old that the country fell in love with over thirty years ago.

Although he once commanded over $100,000 an episode, financial woes dogged him throughout his life. Shortly after the conclusion of Diff'rent Strokes, Coleman sued his parents for mismanagement of his money. Although he was awarded over one million dollars in the settlement, he had lost several million dollars of his earnings that his parents either spent or lost. At one point he had to file for bankruptcy.

He also dealt with health issues from childhood up until his death. His kidney problems, which led to his small size, caused challenges for him both in life and his work. After the television and movie offers dried up, Coleman had a number of run-ins with the law. Like his co-stars on the show, Dana Plato and Todd Bridges, Diff'rent Strokes was likely more of a curse than a blessing Coleman. Plato had a history of drug problems and tragically took her own life in 1999. Bridges also battled drug problems and legal troubles but appears to be on the road to recovery.

I'm sure that dealing with a society that didn't want him to grow up was hard for Gary Coleman. He was raised by parents that seem to have been more concerned with the money he made for them than for his own well-being. He was thrust into a national spotlight at an age that was way too young to handle that kind of attention and likely had to deal with requests to say, "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" nearly every day of his life.

The sad story of Gary Coleman should serve as a reminder that television, movie and music stars are real people. Especially for those that are children when they become famous, we need to remember that these individuals are real people with real feelings that will be experiencing a real future. They are not the characters that we see on screen. As Coleman once shared,
"I parody myself every chance I get," he said. "I try to make fun of myself and let people know that I'm a human being, and these things that have happened to me are real. I'm not just some cartoon who exists and suddenly doesn't exist."
The rich and famous deal with the same sort of things that we all deal with and have to do so under a microscope. For those like Coleman who were forced into celebrity without really having a choice in the matter, we should attempt to put ourselves in their shoes before demanding that autograph or expecting a photo when we run into them on the street.

Perhaps Coleman found some peace and happiness at some point in his life but that is not what appeared to have happened. In recent years Coleman appeared to be angry and bitter on the television shows in which he appeared or in the interviews he gave. Perhaps his desire to be viewed as an adult is what led him to run for governor of California in 2003. In any case, the story of Gary Coleman should serve as a reminder that children are to be nurtured and cared for and not used for our financial gain. Although Coleman brought a lot of laughter to millions of others, it is sad to think of the price that he paid to do so.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Cost of Pac-Man on Google

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the popular '80s arcade game Pac-Man, search engine Google decided to feature a miniature version of the game on its homepage late last week. Visitors to on May 21st were greeted with the Pac-Man game and invited to play. I took Google up on the offer and waxed nostalgic by playing a game that was quite popular in my childhood.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one that got a case of Pac-Man fever. According to the RescueTime blog, the following numbers resulted from the Google Pac-Man feature:
•Google Pac-Man consumed 4,819,352 hours of time (beyond the 33.6m daily man hours of attention that Google Search gets in an average day).

•$120,483,800 was the cost to employers. If the average Google user has a COST of $25/hr.

•For that same cost, you could hire all 19,835 Google employees and get six weeks of their time.
To my own defense, I was on vacation when I played. :)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How Jesus Disrupts the American Dream

From J.D. Greear on the American Dream:
"The definition of the American dream, I think, is that money is essential and the optimal way to security and to pleasure. Jesus dealt directly with the American dream in Matthew 6. He explained that most people who live for money do so for 1 of 2 reasons: (1) some think is a source to beauty, significance, and pleasure; (2) others because they think money is a source of security.

Jesus addressed these 2 kinds of people with 2 examples. To those who find beauty and significance and pleasure in money, He said, “Be like the flowers… they don’t worry about beauty, because God makes them beautiful.” To those who find security in money, He said, “Be like the birds. They don’t worry about money, because God makes them secure.” In other words, God is a better way to both beauty and security than money is.

When Jesus has become your beauty (when knowing Him and pleasing Him has become your greatest delight) and when He has become your security (you know that He will take care of your future and all you need to do is obey Him today), then you will be free to follow Him wherever He tells you. You will no longer require nice things and creature comforts to enjoy life; you will no longer require huge sums of money in saving to feel secure. And as your heart is overwhelmed with the grace that God has shown you in the Gospel, you’ll find that there’s nothing you’d rather do with your money than help people find Jesus. That is what will give you the greatest pleasure, and that’s what you’ll consider to be the wisest and most secure investment.

Most people can’t follow Jesus because they are held captive by the American dream, and can’t free themselves of it until they disabuse themselves of the lies and idolatry it is built upon. When Jesus, not money, becomes your God, you will follow Jesus with abandon."
(h/t to Justin Taylor)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Thoughts on the Conclusion of LOST

Six years ago ABC began running promos for a new show about plane crash survivors attempting to survive on a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean. The show looked intriguing enough so we watched the premiere. I enjoyed the pilot episode but asked out loud, “How many weeks can a show about people on a deserted island last?” Obviously, there was a deeper story to tell than any of us could have known back in 2004.

Now looking back on the conclusion of LOST, I wonder why I feel like in some way that I have lost a friend. These are, in fact, fictional characters telling fictional stories. But somehow by watching the experiences of these flawed characters week after week and year after year, I’ve been drawn into their world. LOST was not typical television. There was a mix of drama, science fiction, religion, mystery, humor and romance that has probably never been seen on the small screen and likely will never be seen again.

At its heart LOST was a story about redemption. A group of troubled individuals all dealing with their own issues were miraculously brought together on this magical island and forced to live with one another in order to survive. What appeared to simply be the story of how these unfortunate souls would survive the days following a plane crash turned into so much more. In flashbacks and flashforwards, we learned the survivors stories off the island and came to realize that for each of them there was much more than what meets the eye.

Yes, they all had sinful pasts, but they were provided this opportunity to redeem themselves. The island provided a “do over” in life and enabled the characters to find out who they really were at their core. Although the mythology of the show was fascinating, it was the characters that kept us engaged in the show. Their stories drew us to them and those of us that stayed for the whole journey were rewarded in the end.

I will miss the discussions about the symbolism in LOST and what the nuances of the show represent. The show was thick with religious metaphors and, although Christian language and reference was strewn throughout LOST, the show represented a smorgasbord of religious and philosophical beliefs. Ultimately, it demonstrated that one can have redemption and salvation with no reference to Jesus Christ and, therefore, cannot be considered “Christian” in nature.

But I will remember LOST for what it was: a captivating show with superb writing, brilliant acting and splendid story-telling. The producers did not dumb down the show for the common fan. It was chock full of hidden messages and mystifying clues that were there to find for those of that were willing to engage on the journey. In a television lineup filled with crass reality show programs and base comedies, LOST was a breath of fresh air. It represented the best of what television has to offer and generated discussions about the deeper issues of life.

Like the characters on LOST, we are all on a journey of redemption for the wrongs we have committed. But unlike those on LOST, we don’t live in a fictional world. We, too, need forgiveness for our sins and we are unable to do that on our own. Although they may be noble, our heroic acts and deeds of personal sacrifice will not earn our redemption. It is only through faith in Christ that we can be forgiven and be confident that we will one day meet up with other sinners that also came to that same realization. Jesus said that “he came to seek and save the lost.” You can learn more about how to come into a relationship with Christ here.

Thanks to ABC, J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof and the tremendous cast of LOST for providing a thrilling ride over the past six years. You've raised the benchmark for quality television and taken the art of storytelling to a new level. You will be missed.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Donald Miller on Theology

I have only read one of his books, Blue Like Jazz, but Donald Miller is someone whose perspective I respect. I have heard Miller speak in person and am a regular reader of his blog and I think his voice is one that has the power to resonant with a younger generation that is disillusioned with traditional forms of church and Christianity.

I especially appreciate Miller's emphasis on story and relationships in that we are all part of God's bigger story and that life is really about relationships. In his book, Searching For God Knows What, Miller takes on a false idol that is possessed by many unsuspecting Christians -- theology. As Christians committed to having a sound belief system, we can take offense to someone suggesting that our study of God could be an idol. But, in many ways, I agree with Miller. Look at what he has to say:
"You might think I am saying truth should be thrown out, that theology doesn’t matter. But this is not what I’m saying at all. What I’m intending to illustrate is our drive to define God with a mathematical theology has become a false God rather than an arrow that points to the real God. Theology can become an idol, but it is more useful as guardrails on a road to the true God. Theology is very important, but it is not God, and knowing facts about God is not the same as knowing God. Let me give you an extreme example of how very bad we have gotten about this in the west.

About the time (and I share this in the book, so forgive the repetition) I was thinking through these things, I was teaching a class in Canada, and my students were freshman college students, all of whom had grown up in the church. The class was called “The Gospel and Culture.” I started the class with an experiment, I told the class I was going to share the gospel of Jesus, but I was going to leave something out. I wanted them to figure out what I’d left out. I talked first about sin, about how we are fallen creatures. I told some stories and used some illustrations. I talked about repentance, and again told some stories, then I talked about God’s forgiveness, and I talked about heaven. I went on for some time. And when I finally stopped and asked the class to tell me what I’d left out, after twenty or more minutes of discussion, not one student realized I’d left out Jesus. Not one. And I believe I could repeat that same experiment in Christian classrooms across North America.

What I came to understand, then, is Christian conversion is relational. It is not theological or intellectual any more than marriage is theological or intellectual. In other words, a child could become a Christian if they had a mysterious encounter with Jesus, and a simple thinker could become a Christian if they had a mysterious encounter with Christ, and even a person who was a Muslim or a Buddhist could become a Christian if they had a mysterious relational encounter with Christ. This is the only answer at which I could arrive that matched the reality in which we live, the complexity of scripture, and the mysterious invitation offered to us by Jesus."
Miller is not saying that theology doesn't matter. In fact, it matters greatly. But having correct beliefs about God doesn't mean that we know God. We can all probably point to people we know that are seminary trained...and total jerks. It is part of human nature to take pride in what we know and this plays out all too frequently when it comes to religion. Jesus himself said to the religious leaders of his time,
"You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (NIV, John 5:39,40)
Knowing theology does nothing for us if it doesn't draw us closer to God and affect our lives in a positive way. Just like the Pharisees of old, we can fall into the trap of thinking that reading tomes of books about God automatically leads us into a deeper relationship with Him. It doesn't. Not if what we learn about God doesn't change us as people. A sincere study of the Scriptures and the character of God will only cause us to have a greater understanding of our own sinfulness and His righteousness. Those that believe they somehow have a better standing with God because of the books they have read or because they have letters after their name are simply mistaken. The person that has rightly applied the study of God to their lives will only have greater compassion and humility towards others.

I can study the Bible and teach others about God and still miss Jesus in the process. My theology is important for it forms the foundation of what I believe about myself, others and, most importantly, God. More specifically, what I think about Jesus and how I respond to that knowledge sets the course of my eternity. Therefore, it is critical that those seeking to follow God continually examine their doctrine to see if it matches up with God's Word and His revelation of Himself. But if conviction in my beliefs causes me to treat others with greater coldness, arrogance and pride, then I probably need to do a heart check because something didn't sink in along the way.

Thanks for the reminder, Don.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

White Flight...From the Suburbs to the City

According to some recent data, an increasing number of white Americans are leaving the suburbs in order to live in large urban areas. As racial demographics within the United States continue to become more diverse, our stereotypes about where people live also need to be re-examined.

From AOL News:
"A new metro map is emerging in the U.S. that challenges conventional thinking about where we live and work," said Alan Berube, research director with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, a nonpartisan think-tank based in Washington. "The old concepts of suburbia, Sun Belt and Rust Belt are outdated and at odds with effective governance."

Suburbs still tilt white. But, for the first time, a majority of all racial and ethnic groups in large metro areas live outside the city. Suburban Asians and Hispanics already had topped 50 percent in 2000, and blacks joined them by 2008, rising from 43 percent in those eight years.

The suburbs now have the largest poor population in the country. They are home to the vast majority of baby boomers age 55 to 64, a fast-growing group that will strain social services after the first wave of boomers turns 65 next year. Analysts attribute the racial shift to suburbs in many cases to substantial shares of minorities leaving cities, such as blacks from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Whites, too, are driving the trend by returning or staying put in larger cities.

Washington, D.C., and Atlanta posted the largest increases in white share since 2000, each up 5 percentage points to 44 percent and 36 percent, respectively. Other white gains were seen in New York, San Francisco, Boston and cities in another seven of the nation's 100 largest metro areas.

"A new image of urban America is in the making," said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings who co-wrote the report. "What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into 'bright flight' to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction."
As more and more people with financial means and influence return to our nation's major cities, the issue of gentrification will inevitably become an issue as the working poor in these locations will no longer be able to afford housing in areas that, in some cases, have been home to families for generations. Hopefully, the current residents of these cities will be afforded job opportunities as businesses are built and new housing options are made available.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

In Honor of My Parents on Their 40th Anniversary

My parents’ journey in life together started innocently enough well over 50 years ago. Having grown up mere blocks from each other in the same small Michigan town located on the banks of Lake Huron, they first met as young children. My father often found himself playing at my mom’s house since he was good friends with one of her brothers and later on he found himself coached my mom’s dad on various youth baseball teams.

Initially, my mom and dad didn’t care much for each other but that began to change during adolescence and their interest in one another increased as they entered into adulthood. Coming of age during the turbulent decade of the 1960’s, my father enlisted in the United States Marine Corps while my mom, who is two years my dad’s junior, entered community college upon finishing high school.

They wrote to each other regularly while my dad was in Vietnam and saw each other the few times he was able to make it home. Over time they realized that they had fallen in love. Months after my dad finished his time of active service in the military, my parents were married in May of 1970 and officially began their life together. Less than a year later, my brother, Chip was born. I came along in 1973 and my sister joined our family in 1975.

Life seemed good as they began preparing for the years ahead as a family. But for reasons known only to God, the road ahead would not be an easy one. An unspeakable tragedy struck our family in February of 1976 when my brother, who had contracted some type of viral infection, unexpectedly stopped breathing on that fateful Valentine’s Day evening. They rushed him to the hospital and my father, who was working the midnight shift at a brass factory at the time, hurried to the hospital. By the time my dad got there my brother was gone.

Having been married for less than six years, my parents’ worst fears had been realized. They had lost a child. Having to cope with that reality while also raising two other young children was not easy. As would be expected, they struggled and managed the best they knew how. What is important is that they stuck together. As is often the case when a couple loses a child, the grief becomes so overwhelming that the marriage crumbles to the point of becoming irreparable. But God had his gracious hand on the Crocker family and my parents’ marriage survived.

They raised my sister and me in a loving and supportive environment and modeled a God-honoring marriage. They cared for us, provided for us and perhaps, knowing that we could be taken from them at any moment, had a greater appreciation of the blessed gift that children are. They provided a spiritual foundation that no doubt has contributed to what I am doing with my life today. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that had my parents given up on their marriage that I would likely not be where I am today.

They demonstrated the grace of God to me in a way that helps me to relate to my heavenly Father as a caring, nurturing father. I have seen that even as my parents have walked through death and loss (and they have lost a lot of loved ones), that their faith in God has remained strong and that He is at the center of their marriage.

In my ministry to college students, I have met scores of students who have to deal with the after-effects of broken homes, poor parenting and messed up childhoods. Even though I was introduced to death at a young age, I grew up in a stable, safe and loving home environment. In my thirty-seven years I have had the privilege of being close to a number of tremendous people who are great influencers in the world. But none have my admiration, respect and love like my parents.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for your faithfulness to God, to one another and to our family. Thank you for being such great grandparents to our kids. And thank you for being a living demonstration that God can take the suffering of our lives and turn it into His good. Congratulations on 40 years of marriage and I pray that you will have many more together. I love you dearly.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Faith of Ernie Harwell

As you are probably aware, long-time Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell passed away this week at the age of ninety-two. Harwell, who had been calling major league baseball games for over half a century, spent the bulk of his Hall of Fame career announcing games for my beloved Detroit Tigers.

For those of us that grew up listening to Mr. Harwell's voice on the radio, a part of us has died along with his passing. He connected Tigers fans across generations and leaves us wonderful memories of the innocence of childhood and the peaceful of his voice in the background on a quiet summer evening. For sports fan in Michigan there are names like Schembechler and Howe and Isiah and Sanders and Yzerman and Trammell and many, many others that hold a special place in our hearts. But perhaps more than any other, Ernie Harwell stands above the rest.

Although he was a Southerner by birth, Mr. Harwell grew to love the state of Michigan and its residents. During his last official broadcast at the end of the 2002 season, he had this to say:
"It's time to say goodbye, but I think goodbyes are sad and I'd much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure. I'm not leaving, folks. I'll still be with you, living my life in Michigan -- my home state -- surrounded by family and friends," he said.

"And rather than goodbye, please allow me to say thank you. Thank you for letting me be part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your work place and your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers. Now, I might have been a small part of your life. But you've been a very large part of mine. And it's my privilege and honor to share with you the greatest game of all."
And in a ceremony in his honor just mere months before his passing, Mr. Harwell said this:
"In my almost 92 years on this Earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey," Harwell told fans, "and the blessed part of that journey is that it's going to end here in the great state of Michigan. I deeply appreciate the people of Michigan. I love their grit. I love the way they face life. I love the family values they have. And you Tiger fans are the greatest fans of all."
I never had the privilege of meeting him but for those that did, it seems that he always left a positive impression. And I don't think it was by chance. In an interview with Detroit Free Press columnist and author Mitch Albom that took place shortly before his death, Mr. Harwell shared about a life changing event in 1961 where he became a Christian at a Billy Graham event. In his non-confrontational and endearing manner, Harwell shares how his encounter with Jesus radically changed his life and enabled him to face his final days with courage and dignity. You can read Albom's column on Harwell here and watch the video where he tells his story of faith here.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Kent State 40 Years Later

It was forty years ago today that tragedy fell upon the sleepy northeastern Ohio campus known as Kent State University. By the end of that day, four students lay dead, with several others having received gun wounds. Their injuries came not at the hands of terrorists or renegade gunmen, but from the Ohio National Guard.

I was not yet born when the Kent State shootings happened but, in some small way, I do feel a connection to what happened on May 4, 1970. Having served as a campus minister at Kent State for six years, I've spend a lot of time on the campus. In fact I proposed to my wife on campus not too far from where the shootings took place. Even though the deaths of Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder happened forty years ago, the tragedy in which their lives were taken still casts a pall over the campus.

When I moved to Kent, Ohio in 1996, the university was still in the processing of forming its identity in the wake of the shootings. On one hand the school sought to distance itself from the killings; on the other hand, it embraced its place in American history. Having become a symbol for the Vietnam war protest movement, at one point the school dropped "State" from its name and changed the logo in an attempt to form a new identity. In time, though, the name "Kent State" was welcomed back and it seems like the campus and its surrounding community has somewhat come to grips with what happened there.

For a look back at what happened and some of the details on May 4th, USA Today has a nice article here and a picture gallery here. For those that are part of the Kent State community, the shootings will always remain a part of the fabric of the university. But I hope that as the years continue to pass that the anger of the past will give way to forgiveness, healing and restoration.

* The iconic photo included here was taken by then-Kent State student John Filo.

Monday, May 03, 2010

How College Loan Debt Affects African Americans

In my work with The Impact Movement I have the privilege of working with a number of highly intelligent and talented students from across the country. Many graduates from our chapters go onto successful careers in a number of fields and become active members of local church congregations in cities throughout the United States and in the world.

For a small percentage of these students, they sense a unique call from God to enter into vocational Christian ministry. Although many of these students are able to see that calling fulfilled, a relatively high number have to delay (or forgo altogether) their plans to enter into the ministry due to financial debt. In some cases this may be caused by consumer (i.e. credit card) debt, but most times it is because of student loans that were incurred in order to get their college education in the first place.

Ericka Blount Danois writes on the Black Voices blog about how African American students are graduating with higher levels of debt than any other ethnic groups in the U.S. Here are some facts listed by Danois:
  • Almost 17 percent of all graduates in 2008 borrowed $30,500 or more to get their bachelor's degrees.
  • About 25 percent of all college-degree recipients graduated with at least $24,600 in debt, and 10 percent graduated with at least $39,300, says the report.
  • Only 19 percent of black students graduated with no debt.
  • About 27 percent of all black students graduated with at least $30,500 in student-loan debt, while the portion of students with that level of debt ranged from 9 percent to 16 percent for other races.
According to Danois, the problem is not necessarily that students are borrowing money to go to college but many of them have not thought through how they will repay the loans on the salary they'll be earning:
"According to the report, the problem is not that the students are borrowing too much, but that difficulties in predicting earnings after graduation and students' lack of understanding about the financial impact of loans leave too many of them borrowing more than they can manage.

For instance, if you're attending a graduate teachers' college for $30,000 per year, and upon graduation, you're saddled with more than $100,000 in debt, it would take a lifetime to pay back that loan on a teacher's salary."
If you're currently a college student or a parent that will soon be sending your daughter or son away to school, it is wise to think through if the loans you're considering taking out will be worth it. For students anticipating going into missions, you need to serious think about whether you can realistically pay off $30,000 or more in student loans on a missionary's salary.

One of the tenets of our mission statement for The Impact Movement is to "produce leaders of financial responsibility." We realize that when we have indebtedness to others, we are limited in the options we can pursue in our service to God but with financial responsibility comes great freedom to serve God as He leads.

If you've found yourself in a situation of debt, I encourage you to read Dave Ramsey's advice here. If it is (or has been) a challenge for you to pay for college, it would be wise to look into other options besides loans such as scholarships, grants, and work study programs. College can be a great opportunity but not if it saddles you with crippling debt for the better part of adulthood. Making wise financial decisions before and during college will pay off in the long-run. You won't regret it.