Monday, November 29, 2010

Beware the Brand

If the recent vote by Forbes Magazine--11th best little city to raise a family--didn't boost Warsaw's self-image, the addition of Starbucks has boosted local pride. The global coffee shop moved into our town with pomp and circumstance. The town is buzzing with caffeine and holiday cheer. "Warsaw [IN] has finally arrived," residents are saying. "Now I can die," others have said.

The Starbucks is strategically tucked in the front corner of the new Martin's Superstore. Shoppers who come in for fresh produce and dairy products can enrich their grocery shopping experience with a Peppermint Mocha. Those coming to restock their cereal shelf and purchase French bread can do so with a steaming cup of Pike's Place Blend in their hands.

Warsaw residents are finally in a position to shop and drink coffee at the same time. Glory, glory! Our time has come.

Since its Grand Opening, I've been to the Martins-plus-Starbucks twice. Both times there were lines for Venti Egg Nog Lattes. Both times shoppers were maneuvering their carts with their hips while their hands cupped Grande Sugar Free Vanilla Soy Lattes. Both times I watched shoppers swell with pride and renewed zeal for their little town. Both times I was sickened.

I am not anti-Starbucks. For six months I worked at one in Denver, making enough with tips to buy diapers for my newborn. Liz and I survived on the free pound of beans I received weekly. My boss treated me well, called me buddy, and once gave me a pin for my excellent service.

My gripe is not with the corporation, as much as with the consumer. Do we really need coffee to grocery shop? Really? Does a naked siren and green circle really make coffee taste better? Really? Are local coffee shops so inept that we need global players to come in and show us how it's done (and run them out of business in the process)? Really?

Unfortunately, we put more stock in a brand than a product. Americans prefer Starbucks to Latte Art and 1000 Park Bak-afe. Americans prefer Martins to Jones' Food Market. Americans prefer Community churches to Grace Brethren ones. Americans prefer Dan Brown books to Tim Sprankle ones. (Perhaps for good reason...he's published!)

In the end, the global brands will consume the local performers. Starbucks, Martins, and Dan Brown will run the world. Beware the brand, Warsaw, the Apocalypse is coming. And I'll be writing from the clouds.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I ate his destiny, and it was sweet. My professor didn’t believe in fortune cookies: this dessert was a threat to orthodoxy. But I could not let a delicious, chocolate-dipped cookie go to waste on the Lazy Susan. I snatched it up and swallowed, waiting for the wrath to come.

Eating another man’s fortune cookie is playing with fate. Eating another man’s fortune cookie who declined to eat it in good conscious because he wants God to author his future not a treat is playing with God. I ate it nonetheless.

Surprisingly, nothing happened. No divine condemnation. No wrinkle in time. No acid reflux. Just sugary, sweet aftertaste.

More surprisingly, simple table etiquette has a way of revealing deep, moral convictions. What we eat may be driven by a sense of purity, holiness, or festivity. Whom we eat with may be motivated by a sense of equality, fraternity, or charity. When we eat may be guided by a sense of rhythm, rest, or compulsion. Why we eat may be fueled by a sense of thanks, remembrance, or liberty.

Not only was fellowship around the table central to Jesus’ ministry, but narratives of dining and feasting are woven throughout the biblical narrative. Eating shapes God’s people. (Obesity is not in view). The what, with whom, when, and why are important. Love feasts and idolatrous meat markets sparked regular debates—all questions included (Acts 15; Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 11). Christian liberty and bad company incited arguments.

My biblical position on fortune cookies was more liberal (and tasty) than my professor. His view was more thoughtful and less caloric. But I did not want to trifle over a truffle. Nor did he. “It’s just a damn cookie,” he stated. Better it than him.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


"Why did you go to Cambodia?" I've answered the question many times.

My wife and I are not world travelers. Five years ago we secured passports for an anniversary trip to Ireland. They stamped our books, and we snapped some photos. It was a shame to let our passports expire without a few more impressions. But we did not go to Cambodia for stamps and snapshots. We went for friends.

More than a year ago friends of ours moved overseas. They boarded a plane to engage a foreign city. They would have to find lodging. They would have to learn the language and culture. They would have to pursue a vision and build a home for their child-on-the-way. (Weeks before departing they found out they were pregnant.)

I have two kids; they block simple goals. In a good week, I can embrace the interruptions. Not all weeks are good. Half the time I wonder if I will have enough time to pay bills and do laundry. Nonetheless, I have a vision to pursue and a home to build.

But what I realized in Cambodia is the indispensable link between family and mission. My calling is first as a husband; second as a father; third as a pastor. An unfaithful husband or absentee father may appear as a good pastor, but he is a bad man. He has forsaken the marriage bed and neglected his children. What can such a man offer a congregation?

Pastors and missionaries share this link: family is the first calling. So Liz and I were thrilled to travel across the globe to encourage our friends in their primary calling. We were impressed with their Khmer and brilliant smiles when talking to neighbors. However, our greatest joy was watching them play with their son, shape his life, and share the stress of another crying fit.

The last night together we dedicated their son. After reading Deuteronomy 6 and praying for God's love to shine through him, we sang "Jesus, Be the Centre" as a benediction. Traffic outside honked and darted. Fruit sellers peddled their goods. Spirit houses appeased dead relatives. And we praised.

As the song closed, Liz said, "You forgot to ask 'Who will help this couple keep their commitment to raise Ian to love God?'" I had forgotten. And since we were the only ones present for the commitment, we committed.

This is why we had come to Cambodia.
This is the final (5 of 5) Cambodia Update

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Spirit houses guard homes and business places in Cambodia from evil spirits. By standard definition, Cambodia is listed as a Buddhist nation; however, animism is a more appropriate listing. Disembodied spirits and dead relatives float in and out of daily life. Spirit houses keep them from haunting homes and marketplace transactions. To appease the spirits, residents deposit food and spices into the opening of the spirit habitats and hope for the best.

Religious practice there spills into daily business. Appeasement is a mode of survival. Beggars beg until appeased. Peddlers peddle until appeased. Voices of poverty cry until relief organizations come in and appease. Police randomly patrol the streets until appeased. Government officials horde and hide and occasionally build a park to appease.

The driving force behind an appeasement culture is fear: fear of spirits; fear of death; fear of hunger; fear of a night without Agkor beer.

I do the same thing. In the morning my children ask for candy; I say no. They ask again; I say no again. They ask again, afraid they may not get their sugar fix. I appease; I fear my children will drive me mad with their incessant pleas for candy, and I just want to pour myself a bowl of cereal.

Unfortunately, appeasement does not solve problems, it merely prolongs them. Appease one child selling bookmarks at a premium discount of one dollar (every item was one USD), and five others will come knocking. Appease two children begging for Skittles, and cavities and emotional meltdowns are around the corner. The peddler learns his tactic works; the child learns that her whining produces; the appeaser learns that giving in keeps people away. But no one learns healthy engagement.

Enough conversations with people about their view of God have convinced me that Christians embrace an appeasement theology. God is not happy with me. God will judge me harshly. God cannot forgive me, they surmise. Perhaps a little more church, a little more Bible, a little more prayer, a little more service, and I can avert His wrath.

But God does not need appeased. Jesus did that work. Rather than keeping God at a distance, we are to accept Him. "Receive the Holy Spirit," Jesus says (John 20:22). "Become the Spirit's house," Paul echos (1 Cor. 6:19). With His abiding presence, we can live fearlessly--engaging God and neighbor.

Cambodia Update 4 of 5

Monday, November 8, 2010

Loss of Faith

I lost my faith in humanity when I visited one of Pol Pot's prison facilities. At one time Tuol Sleng was a school. Boys and girls, clad in uniforms, had learned their letters in these classrooms. Gossip and chatter had echoed down the stairwells. Laughter and games had filled the courtyards.

Then Pol Pot converted it to a mortuary. Driven by suspicion and a heartless ideology, he imprisoned his former officers and their families. Inmates erected their own shabby cells from brick and mortar. They boarded windows to eliminate the light. They stained the floor with their own blood.

One of my college professors advocated for capitalism because it understood the depravity of man. Men are greedy and need carrots. Men are lazy and need sticks. When men are given a context to seek their own good, they will find it. Knock, and it will be opened. Capitalism, though, also works because the creative image of God in man.

Pol Pot could not comprehend the failures of communism. (He was not thinking of himself.) Equality and purity are attractive national goals. In fact, to suspect man can achieve these ends is to demonstrate a deep sense of faith in humanity. Oddly enough, the communist manifesto comes with a deep record of brutality--genocide, ghettos, and AK47s. Perhaps greed is good.

One man trying to capitalize on this tragic site greeted our tuk-tuk at the entrance. His face was melted, presumably a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, and he petitioned us for change. We bought our entry and strictly observed the "No Laughing" Rule. Melted faces and mocking tourists further crushed my faith in humanity.

But the final blast to my faith came when viewing the portraits of Pol Pot's victims. Meticulously photographed, thousands of faces took their turn in the subject's chair. Among the nameless masses was the face of a little girl, younger than my youngest daughter. She pursed her lips and arched her eyebrows in a curious expression. She looked innocent, slightly amused, immune to the slaughter awaiting her.At the end of the second building, Liz discovered a stairway hosting a lively debate. Pol Pot was slandered, defamed, and condemned. His guilt is unquestioned. But there was another line of questions; they related to God. Does He exist? Is He good? If so, why is barbed wire covering this building?

Those are fair questions, but not for today. I've already lost enough faith--faith in man. I want to hold my faith in God another day.
This is Cambodia Update 3 of 5

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Honk and Dart

"Stay close to me when we cross," Tim said.

We were about to cross Sisowath Quay, the street running parallel to the river. Cars and motos honked and darted past, observing uncertain traffic laws. They veered for the elephant wearing shoes, but not for me and Tim.

"This is like Frogger," Tim shouted back to me as we dodged traffic.

We hopped across, surviving several near misses. Unfortunately, this was not the only time during our jog that Tim led me through traffic. We braved other intersections and one roundabout that I was sure would flatten me. Tim ran undaunted; I shifted in fear.

My distrust for Cambodian drivers has good cause: Pedestrians don't get the right-of-way. On my block certain rules govern the flow of traffic. One ways, traffic lights, stop signs, and crosswalks direct us. In Cambodia these signals are irrelevant. (For this reason, the book Go, Dog. Go! will not make any sense to my friends' son growing up overseas!)

Motos are the main form of transportation in the city. Cheap and versatile, the moto serves as a taxi, family transport (sometimes carrying 5 people), storefront, and delivery vehicle. By law, drivers are required to wear helmets, but few other regulations exist. It is, however, a courtesy to honk when darting past someone.

Honk and Dart defines the streets. Motos do it. Cars do it. Vans do it. Buses do it. Pedestrians just dart.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fish Massage

The Doctor Fish staff stands behind its service. Each fish massage comes with a 'Happiness' guarantee. No happiness, no charge. Free cans of Angkor Beer help the cause. Liz and I surrendered five dollars.

The fish massage is built on a simple premise: Tourists will try anything. After three days in Cambodia, I'd proved to be a good consumer. My inhibitions slackened and appetite expanded. I chewed iridescent meat, swallowed squid tentacles, and ordered iced coffee in broken Khmer.

A fish massage reverses the roles. The consumer becomes the consumed, as swarms of fish suck the dead skin off wet feet. Fish will try anything. They nibble bunyons and blisters, athlete's foot and plantar warts. They ingest decrepit skin and it tickles.

Liz and I dominated the fish tank. Within seconds of submerging our feet, they were surrounded by wriggling crowds of fish. Three other pairs of feet braved the tank during our fifteen minutes of happiness, but they barely received a bite. Our feet were gourmet. All natural White meat. Authentic American cuisine.

The final few days of our trip, Doctor Fish became the defining metaphor for tourists in Cambodia: consumers getting consumed. Swarms of merchants and beggars, moto drivers and food vendors offering to massage our wallets and suck the dead Presidents from our feet. Our soles were tender when we returned home, and our wallet was empty.

This is Part 1 of 5 updates about a recent trip to Cambodia