Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
The first time I met John, he did not care for God. “Where is God?” he cried, looking up into the smog-washed Los Angeles night sky. “Where is He in all this chaos?”
His life, he knew, was not an upstanding one, even though he had once donned a blue-and-white sailor suit to sing in his church’s boys’ choir. Today, at age 61, John is homeless, pickled with decades of alcoholism, and alternating between anger and apathy toward God. He wonders how, if there truly is a God, He could sit back and watch all the devastation unfolding in the world He created.
But when I suggested John ask God himself, he shrugged and reached for the bottle of vodka tucked into his jacket pocket. Sure, sure, he can ask God ... someday. But not today. Today, he drinks. His mind can’t handle both mind-dulling liquor and existential questions at once. So, he chooses vodka. God can wait.
Then something happened that caused John to call out again, “Where are you, God?”
This time, his good friend Robert had disappeared. Robert was John’s only friend at Venice Beach, where John has slept on the sidewalk or by the beach for five years. Robert can’t walk very well, so whenever volunteers would show up with hot burritos, John always requested two burritos: one for him, and one for his buddy Robert. For John’s 61st birthday, I got him a birthday cake with white frosting, rainbow sprinkles, and lit candles—and he asked for two forks: one for him, one for Robert.
Now Robert was gone. The last time John talked to him, Robert had been worried about death threats from a local gang. The next day, Robert packed up all his stuff and left without a word.
“He didn’t even say goodbye!” John told me that night. He looked dazed, still in shock, and his speech stuttered although I could tell he wasn’t drunk. “I don’t know where he went, I don’t know where he is. ... I hope he’s OK. And ... he didn’t even say goodbye. He didn’t say goodbye!” As he spoke, John’s eyes glistened and he turned his body away, as though in shame.
I stared at his back, my heart wringing for him. In all the months I’d known John, I had never seen him so despondent and disoriented, not even during the times when he remembered his dead ex-girlfriend, or when he was so drunk he couldn’t remember my name, or when he talked about how he’d probably die a homeless alcoholic. I didn’t know what to say, how to comfort my heartbroken friend. Then John surprised me, asking, “Will you pray? Will you pray for Robert?”
“Of course,” I said, and led him off to the side, away from the noises of the streets. I laid a hand on John’s shoulder, and prayed out loud for Robert and his safety. But I mostly prayed for John, because I don’t know how many people in this world are praying for him—and I knew he wasn’t praying for himself.
There’s a song I love from singer Regina Spektor called “Laughing With”:
“No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God
When they’ve lost all they’ve got and they don’t know what for.”
I have yet to meet a person who refused prayer during his darkest moments, even if he was a skeptic and laughed at God during fair times. I’ve prayed with a homeless woman who left her boyfriend after he hit her (and then went back). I’ve prayed in the middle of a ghetto parking lot with a middle-aged homosexual man with HIV. And I’ve prayed for myself too, at those moments when God felt far away in another universe. As alone and despairing as I feel at those times, there is always an instinctive reaction in me to lift my head and call out, “Abba God, are You there?”
Prayer is primal. It’s encoded in our spiritual DNA as image-bearers of God. We naturally call out to our Creator, like a babe that naturally cries for love, touch, and comfort. The sad truth is, most people don’t know who they’re crying out to—and so they shout out with desperation into unknown realms, hoping that someone out there will answer. And they do this without any assurance or confidence that their prayers are heard or answered.
I knew that was how John was as I prayed for him. In my prayer, I mentioned that it was a miracle that John was still alive, because even the doctors had told him that, with the way he drinks, he would soon die—and John laughed out loud when I prayed that, as he had laughed every time he mentioned how he should be dead. His chuckle wasn’t from mirth, but from incredulity mixed with a nose-thumbing at life, a twisted pride that he had defied natural laws, even if he knew not for how long. Then John turned somber as I prayed for a second miracle—for John to know God intimately and personally as his friend, his Father, his Savior, and his Lord.
Unlike John, I prayed with a confidence that this prayer was in line with God’s heart of wanting John to know and delight in Him. And unlike John, I prayed with boldness, knowing that such prayers tug at the ears and heart of God. I know the God to whom I call out, and I know my God cares for someone even as stubborn as John.
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I once met a man who worked as our nation’s homelessness czar. His name is Phil Mangano and he’s quite the character, with his dark sweeping eyebrows, piercing eyes, and passionate speech. We sat for three hours at a café over milky coffee and chocolate chip cookies discussing homelessness—the challenges, the tragedies, and possible solutions.
After the meeting, Mangano told me he’s rarely seen in a reporter the kind of frustration he saw in me over the homelessness issue, and he seemed to see that as a decent quality. “I can assure you that I experience the same vexation at times,” he said. But after three decades of work on the issue—which isn’t improving but getting worse—Mangano is just as evangelistic as ever in his call to “solve homelessness.” Vexed he may be, but he somehow still believes that good heart and good sense will ultimately triumph over callous hearts and foolish sense.
I admired his tenacious optimism. During our conversation, Mangano mentioned he had recently watched the 2017 movie Wonder Woman and fallen in love with the sweet, righteous innocence of Gal Gadot’s character: “She sees a wrong, and she immediately goes forth to fix that wrong. There’s beauty to that innocence.” It’s the same sort of innocence I saw in Mangano: the belief that a wrong can be righted, that this world can be just and good.
I thought of Mangano’s comment about innocence last week as I spoke at a panel for a Center for Faith and Work Los Angeles conference, in which the moderator asked me to describe a significant challenge in my job as a Christian journalist. My answer: It’s the struggle not to become jaded and cynical when I’m on the front lines reporting on all the injustice and sin and suffering in this world.
Confession: If I weren’t a journalist, I probably would have jettisoned news articles for novels, where whatever tragedies the characters face, I can lean on the comfort that none of it is real. But as a journalist, my job is to wade into the pool of humanity, to swim with the creatures down below, to collect the cries and moans and screams, then surface onto a dry corner so I can shake off my emotions and personal thoughts, and somehow scratch out a factual report on what I’ve seen and heard.
You don’t have to be a journalist to know that this world isn’t right. Visit the New York Times’ website, and in one page you see headlines about the latest mass shooting, about threats from a belligerent Russia and a Machiavellian China, about clashes between Israel and Gaza, about President Donald Trump’s latest faux pas, about the impending environmental disaster. Even the less political sections are full of doom and gloom about “modern love” stories of Tinder dating and third divorces, Hollywood’s latest self-kissing shenanigans, and the dangers of diet soda (this one is particularly hard for me to swallow). Where is Wonder Woman when we need her?
Last month, I spent about a week in Seattle reporting on two topics: homelessness and domestic abuse. During the day I hung out with homeless individuals who told me stories of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in their past, and at night I researched domestic abuse and read testimonies from abuse victims. Day and night, my head was immersed in thoughts of abuse and homelessness, issues I know will never disappear until the Second Coming of Christ, because oppression and poverty are familiar human companions as old as Genesis 3.
We are all victims of abuse, and we are all abusers. I see that certain wounds to the soul, no matter how much a person reads the Bible and prays, never completely heal. There’s always a scar left, a thinning of the skin that breaks more easily when scraped. I see too the deep poverty of mind, body, and spirit in both the 50-year-old man snorting crack on the streets with pus-oozing feet, and the 30-year-old finance guy who lives in a high-end condo with his $20,000 watch and $105,000 BMW M4 (both true stories).
Yes, abuse and poverty will always be with us. The stories I write are not new but recycled—different names, different faces, yet same time-old stories, and at times I feel like every article is similar in its revelations: “This world is broken. Its people are broken.”
In the pool of humanity, unless I anchor into something solid and secure, I am no longer an intrepid reporter wading for truth. Instead I’m defeated, lying flat on my back as I crash to and fro, letting my own waves of sin and brokenness wash into my nostrils. Perhaps it’s my natural bent toward melancholy, but I let that happen to me more often than I’d like to admit.
So the biggest challenge in being a Christian journalist? It’s the struggle to hold on to innocence—the innocence of putting full trust in God’s sovereignty, that what He says about His character and purpose is true. The innocence of believing that we are more evil than we think, yet God’s grace is greater and more powerful than our finite minds can comprehend.
We journalists can be proud and self-righteous, imagining ourselves to be crusaders for the voiceless. So it’s humbling to remind myself that without God, without that conscious, disciplined, continuous abidance in Him, I can lose my mission as a journalist in an instant. After all, God is the master storyteller of this world, and His story is not yet complete.
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I remember when I was a 9-year-old pastor/missionary’s kid growing up in Singapore, there was a man who always loitered around our church after Sunday service. My father’s church shared the same building with another church, and that man was a regular attender of that church’s morning service.
Being a pastor’s kid, I spent a lot of time waiting while my parents and other church members talked for hours about grown-up stuff, usually praying for world evangelism or something as eternally consequential. My younger brother and I befriended another pastor’s two kids who were also bored to death, and we would spend that time playing hopscotch, jumping rope, or buying snacks at the nearby shops. It wasn’t long before we bumped into that man.
I forget his real name, but we called him “Uncle.” Uncle was in his 40s, with a gangly frame, knobby knees, and wispy, balding hair. I still remember the day my brother and friends told me they met a friendly guy, and soon, Uncle was hanging out with us almost every Sunday afternoon.
At the time, I didn’t realize how weird it was that a middle-aged man would spend his Sunday afternoons with a bunch of prepubescent kids. I just liked that he bought snacks and cheap toys for us. But I didn’t like how he always wanted me to sit on his lap, and I didn’t like that whenever I refused, he then asked the other pastor’s daughter over. It bugged me that he only seemed to want the girls, that he never asked to cuddle with the boys.
I was too young to understand what’s going on, but even then I was acutely aware of this leaden, sickening feeling in my gut that I now recognize as shame and disgust. I was also confused: If this man is a bad man with unsavory intentions, why would he be in church? Why would the adults let him hang about? I had trusted him because he was a professed Christian and made verbal references to Jesus, but now he didn’t feel safe.
Then one day, when Uncle asked me to sit on his lap again, I decided I had enough. I jumped up and yelled, “No!” Then I stomped away, and I told the other kids that we will never, ever hang out with that man again. I never told my parents about Uncle because shame and disgust made me want to hide and forget everything, and I was relieved when my father’s church eventually moved to another location. We never saw that man again. Today as an adult, I look back and wonder if my intuition was right—and I thank God nothing serious ever happened.
It’s been a while since I’ve thought about this incident, but I’ve been experiencing that familiar uneasy, skin-crawling feeling again as I read today’s news about long-hushed sexual assaults on women and children, as I research domestic abuse cases in churches, as I meet various individuals who tell me childhood stories of experiencing rape and molestation, as I meet homeless women who tell me they lost everything after fleeing domestic abuse. But this time, it’s not just disgust I feel—it’s a slow-rising burn of anger against unaccounted injustice.
One 27-year-old woman I recently met told me she was raised in a very conservative evangelical family who spent a lot of time at church—and that’s where a fellow church member raped her when she was barely a teenager. She told the appropriate adults what had happened, but no one seemed to take action against her perpetrator. The knowledge that the church—a sacred community that’s supposed to be her safe refuge—overlooked this act of grievous wrong almost severed this woman’s relationship with God.
For the last few weeks I’ve been researching how churches handle claims of domestic abuse, and I spent hours talking to women who said their husbands abused them and their children. Several of the women I talked to said when they finally brought the issue up to their church leaders, hoping for safety and relief, they instead felt hurt, confused, and revictimized when their church didn’t seem to take their abuse claims seriously. All these women eventually left their churches, and one told me she still couldn’t enter church doors without having a panic attack.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says one in four women and one in seven men in the United States “have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” With those numbers, the problem is likely prevalent in churches. Biblical counselor Warren Lamb, a former abuse victim who has been counseling abusers and abuse victims for three decades, said he’s been “passionately banging on the walls, windows, and roofs of churches” to alert faith leaders that domestic oppression is real and destructive, and it’s going on inside their congregations’ households: “But we don’t talk about that stuff.” And from what I hear and read from several Christian abuse specialists, it’s not uncommon for church leaders to dismiss or minimize accusations of abuse.
Lamb said many churches don’t want to admit that someone in their congregation could be an abuser, that such evil could exist within their pews. It’s hard for people to believe that the smiling, generous church member or leader who serves so faithfully and prays such sincere prayers could be a master manipulator abusing his wife and children back home. These Christians might agree that wolves can creep into the sheep pen, but few want to believe it is true of their own church. They acknowledge the reality of sin but emphasize grace and redemption without fully fleshing out the necessity of soul-wrenching, self-undoing repentance.
To those churches, Lamb warns that whenever they let an abuser escape accountability for his sin, “It poisons the pond. It impacts everybody.” And that’s what I saw in many real-life stories: The evil of domestic abuse doesn’t just affect the couple involved—it breaks families, friends, and communities apart.
It disfigures the glorious image of earthly marriage as a metaphor of Christ’s union with the Church. It prepares the perfect breeding ground for the devil to wreck more havoc in the most important relationships within the Body of Christ, and it silences other victims who lose hope for justice and redemption.
There is evil in our churches. We are not immune to the devastating disease of sin, and each time a public scandal breaks out in one of our churches, it’s just the smoke pouring out of a whole underworld of various other hidden, hushed-up sins within the church body. No wonder God deals harshly with sin that invades His people, as demonstrated in Achan’s story in Joshua 7, or the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.
Dealing with sin is ugly, messy, dirty work. Jesus Christ demonstrated His love for us by stepping into our ugly, dirty mess, and then He demonstrated how ugly and dirty sin is by dying in our place in the most brutal way imaginable. If that’s how God views and deals with sin, that’s how seriously we need to view sin as well, and we must reflect Christ’s love for His Body by doing the hard, hard work of fighting it.