9/11/01 - That Morning


The earliest memory I have of that day is fighting with my now-wife-but-at-that-time girlfriend (Theresa). We both don’t remember what we fought about, but we both remember her going to work in Brooklyn in a sour mood. I was set to leave the house in the morning to go meet Carol Chun to go engagement ring shopping. As I was leaving the house (I already had my shoes on), I woke my computer from sleep to see if I had any AIM messages waiting for me (this was 2001, after all). Usually at that time, I don’t. And usually, I don’t check. However, that day, I did have a message. It was from Jonathan McCurley.

“Is it true? What’s happening?”

Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about. After I asked him, he told me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I turned the TV on and saw the burning buildings. It was after 9:00am.

I had a few friends that worked on “Wall Street” and I tried to get in touch with them to make sure they were ok. At this point, I wasn’t too concerned because The damage was contained to the World Trade Center towers. I called a few friends, but couldn’t get through because “all circuits are busy”. I couldn’t get in touch with Theresa either. With her commute going through Manhattan to Brooklyn (and probably right below the towers), I was concerned about her. Through my AIM, I was able to talk to Jeannie An, whose calls to Theresa were going through. What a gift to have the comfort of knowing Theresa was safe and where she was and what she was doing (she ended up stranded in Manhattan and slept at a friend’s place). (Thank you, Jeannie!) Eventually, I called Gene Joo, who was a student at Columbia. This was probably around 2pm. He told me that all Wall Streeters from my church were accounted for except for Andy. 9/11 is also Gene’s Birthday… “Worst birthday ever” is how he put it.

At this point, I did not consider death an option for Andy. Partly because of naïve faith and partly because I knew that the damage was central to the WTC. Then, the call from Michele came.

It was during that conversation that she told me that Andy didn’t work around the WTC, he worked in the WTC. I knew he had recently taken a new job, but I hadn’t realized yet that his office was in the North Tower.* Naivete and ignorance were quickly replaced with panic and dread.

*The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46, which is earlier than most people got to work. Andy wasn’t usually at work until 9am, but had decided just the week prior, to start arriving early to get in a workout. So he was most likely already at his desk.

At the time, I wouldn’t say Andy was my best friend, but he was my closest. I spoke with Andy over IM or on the phone almost every day. He was there on my blind date with Theresa. He gave me computer advice, worship advice, relationship advice. And now he was missing.

Later that evening, around 7:00pm, I had an A-team (Administrative Team) meeting at my apartment to plan for the Intown Open House that Saturday. We spent the next 3-4 hours planning our Open House for the college students. I was fully engaged in our conversations and honestly, surprised at my poise and composure when one of my best friends was still missing.

However, at around 10pm, we were discussing trivia questions for the Open House. I was sitting at the computer and looking at the TV with the scenes of the plane running into the tower over and over. [You remember how many times they showed that? Some said that it was the most photographed event in history.] From where I was sitting, in order to focus on the events on the TV, I had to gaze past the table where we were discussing our Open House. Poetically, I realized that summed up what I was feeling in my heart: I could no longer focus on the task at hand. I had to focus on what was going on up there. I could not stay in Atlanta. I had to be up to NJ.

The meeting ended and I was finally able to reach Theresa by phone. I didn’t trust my decision making myself anymore, because I knew I wasn’t thinking straight. She said that if I need to come up, then I need to come.

The next morning, Wednesday, I packed up my car to head up to NJ. It was about 11am when I turned the key to my ignition. My battery was dead. I knew I had about at least a 12 hour drive to NJ (Google Maps has it at 15hours). I was starting to feel anxiety if my drive got pushed back too late. I called my friend, Fuhlim , and he offered to drive me to the shop, where I got a new battery. As I was about to leave, Fuhlim offered to drive me up to NJ in his car. Perhaps he didn’t trust the way I looked or didn’t trust me driving in my car. Either way, we left around 2pm and didn’t arrive until probably after 5am Thursday morning (we got rerouted through West Virginia around the DC area).

I spent the next two days traveling to NY and NJ hospitals exploring any feasible option that Andy made it out of there alive, but there simply weren’t any unidentified bodies.

That Saturday, I was asked to lead a practice of a praise team that Andy was leading. And, it wasn’t until that morning that I turned the corner and came to grips that I wasn’t going to see Andy alive ever again. The hardest thing about his death was that it wasn’t a sudden realization, but it was a slowly diminishing hope. Basically, I had to make my own personal decision that Andy was dead. Some decided before me and some decided after me. But when I decided, I decided alone.

The next day, Sunday, I was asked to share in front of the Youth Group at our church and to lead praise for the adult service. Andy was a Youth Group teacher and was scheduled to lead worship that morning. I stood in front 2 congregations and was being asked to make sense of the catastrophe that happened 5 days prior. To explain the unexplainable and to comfort the uncomfortable.

This is the gist of what I said:

During this past week, I prayed and prayed that the numerous rescue workers spending countless hours sifting through the rubble would find Andy. I prayed that Andy would be saved and rescued and found alive. And that’s when I realized that Andy has been found. He was found underneath a heap of rubble that crushed him to the point of death. But, this rubble was far more widespread than the WTC. You see, Andy was crushed underneath the weight of the heap of his sin. But, God, the tireless rescue worker did not sleep, nor tire in his pursuit of Andy. And God saved him and rescued him and made him alive.

In times like this we are tempted to find the tallest building still standing and climb to the top and shake our fist at God and curse God. After all, I can’t comprehend how a good God would allow this to happen. How can a just God allow such injustice? In fact, these questions cause many to doubt God’s goodness and justice. What we are essentially saying is that because it doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t believe it. In other words, God must make sense to me. However, the biggest injustice in the history of the world is Christ dying a sinner’s death–my death–when he was himself sinless. If we can readily accept the grace that is so incomprehensible to us, we cannot in the same breath reject the seeming injustice that we don’t understand.

These are lessons that still teach me today and every year on this day, I am reminded of them.

3 Reasons to Not Play Mega Millions!


Yes, I am aware that there are 1,000,000,000 reasons to play Mega Millions this weekend (And an additional 470,000,000 reasons to play Powerball). However, I am giving you 3 reasons NOT to play MegaMillions or Powerball this weekend or ever!!

1 – A Sociological Reason

The problem with the lottery is that it makes poor people feel poor. Studies have shown those making less than $13,000 in annual income spend anywhere from 5%-9% of their income on lottery tickets. Let that statistic sink in for a minute. 

Every ticket you purchase drives up the jackpot which further entices those with the least money into playing the lottery.

Which is why many people refer to the lottery as a Regressive Tax on the poor. What the government isn’t able to take from the low income earners in taxes, they take in state-sanctioned gambling. Other call it a positive feedback loop, where the poor play the lottery which keeps them poor which keeps them playing the lottery.

Meanwhile the state governments* (and federal governments by taxing the winnings) are making literally tens of billions of dollars (states took in $70B in 2014) off of the lowest earning. Plain and simple, the lottery is a state-legalized gambling system that exploits the most vulnerable in our society.

2 – A Mathematical Reason

[Warning: numbers ahead...]

The lottery is like the house in Vegas, they will always come out ahead. So, let's look at  some of the mathematical gymnastics that the lottery system plays on us. A few of the tricks they play:

• First of all, it’s not $1B you’re winning. You’re winning a $1B annuity paid out over 30 years.

• Based on current interest rates, the actual cash out is $565.6M.

• For instance, in NJ you pay 10.5% income tax (in addition to all of the money NJ made on ticket purchases) so $59M goes to NJ in taxes.

• Then about 35% goes to the federal government in income tax. (After you deduct your state tax payment) Your federal tax payment would be $177M.

• Out of the $565.6M, you pay $237M in taxes and your take home is $329M.

Your odds of winning that $329M are 1 in 302,575,350. That still seems like the odds are in your favor until you remember 2 things. First, each ticket costs $2 to purchase. And second, there are other people who are also buying tickets (5 of the 7 highest jackpots were split winners). So you might need to share your winnings and “only” take home $164M.

I get it. $164M is not a small number, but it certainly is a far cry from $1B that gets published.

No matter how you slice it, the expected value for playing the lottery is a negative sum game. And yet, according to one study, 21% of American polled believe the lottery to be the best strategy to accumulating wealth (The number increases to 38% when you lower the income level below $25,000).

It is unconscionable to see how glib Americans are about the lottery system, which serves as a Regressive Tax that continues to exploit the lower income. All the while, governments are double dipping in proceeds and taxes.

3 – A Spiritual Reason

Perhaps most instructive to me as to why I wouldn’t want to win $1B is because I wouldn’t be better off. Oh sure, I’d be better off financially, but there’s no question in my mind that I would be worse in perhaps every other area of my life. The plain truth is that I am not ready to be $329M richer.

The apostle Paul states in I Timothy 6:6-10 states a warning that should be enlightening to us all.

“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

God doesn’t want you to be happy because you won $1B he wants you to be happy because you’re content with what he’s given to you. So, don’t be beset by greed, don’t feed the system and don’t further exploit the poor.

My son once opened his fortune cookie during dinner and I wish it could become the mantra of all thinking of playing the lottery.

"To be upset with what you do not have is to waste what you do have."

Amen, fortune cookie man, amen.

How I Booked My TEDx talk

Angela Duckworth on Grit

Watch my TEDx talk "Slavery Still Exists. Here's How to End It"

If you're a fan of TED talks, then you've certainly heard Angela Duckworth's talk on Grit. In it, she talks about how the one quality that most directly correlates with success is Grit. That quality that could be described as courage, determination, intestinal fortitude or stick-to-it-iveness. Or as it's known in my house, "Go back and try the problem yourself, before asking me for the answer."

After listening to her talk, it inspired me to not only give my own TEDx talk, but also do whatever it took to get it booked. And if there was one word that describes how I booked my TEDx talk, it would be GRIT. But let me break down the process for you:

Discover your Idea Worth Spreading.

I work for International Justice Mission, the largest anti-slavery organziation in the world. And you don't get to be best in class without doing something that works. And so, my idea worth spreading is not really my idea, at all. It's the model of transformation that IJM has been using throughout the world to put an end to slavery.

Find the TEDx events in your area.

From the TED.com website, you can find out where all the TEDx events are being held around the nation. So, I basically chose every TEDx event in NJ or VA. That produced about 20-25 events. But upon closer inspection, many of them don't apply to me. TEDxWomen or TEDxYouth events were removed and that left me with about 15 events that were good potential possibilities.

Contact the event organizers.

If you click on the name of the event, you are taken to their specific website for their event. Many of these events have speakers booked many, many months in advance, so don't choose an event that is just a few weeks away. On the bottom of the page, you can see the name of the event organizer. But, actually finding their contact information proved more difficult than it seemed it should be. There was no discernible email or contact information from the website. So I had to consider other options. Since you had the organizer's name and photo, I launched into doing some internet research. I considered contacting them through Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Facebook seemed too personal, Twitter seemed too public. LinkedIn seemed to be the best avenue or contact. So, I found the event organizers for the 15 events on LinkedIn and messaged all of them that I could find. Out of the 15 messages that I sent, 3 were returned. Of the 3 messages returned, 1 of them told me that it was a private TEDx event and I was not eligible as a speaker. The other 2 asked me to...

Fill out a speaker application.

I went to the link to fill out the speaker request form on their website (it wasn't easily accessible from the main website, for whatever reason). I'm not sure why they make it so difficult to make contact. Perhaps it's an oversight... or perhaps it's their brilliant scheme: if you're not smart enough to find a way to conatct me, then you're not smart enough to be a TEDx speaker. I would recommend taking your time filling out the application and making sure that your answers to the questions are concise and compelling. Concise because you want to intruige them to pursue a further conversation. Compelling because you want to appeal to their audience. Out of the 2 applications I filled out, I got 1 response.

Pitch your talk on the phone.

I had a phone call interview with the event organizer to go throught the topic of my talk. Once you have them on the phone, you are essentially picthing yourself as much as your idea. They are going to make sure that you are you a good communicator and have a likeable personality. So, I did my best impression of a likeable person and... booked it.

Basically, it went from 1000s of TEDx events, to 25 regional events, to 15 possibilities, to 3 responses, to 2 applications, to 1 phone call.

So, you can see how it took a modicum of grit to get it done. So, thank you, Angela Duckworth.

Where I'm Speaking... TEDx Cape May, Part II

Watch my TEDx talk "Slavery Still Exists. Here's How to End It"

> This is part of a 2 part series on my experience speaking at TEDx Cape May. You really should go and read Part I first.

TEDx Rehearsal.jpg


Memorizing my speech was one of the hardest aspects of preparing for the TEDx talk. I'm used to speaking in many different venues, but usually I'm able to access my notes or the event is casual enough for me to pause or search for the answer. Not so with a TEDx. But I felt confident about my prep work and was ready to hit the stage. However, I made absolute sure that the exact wording of my first line was precise.

The tone of a talk is often set by the first few lines of a speech. And sometimes, speakers will start out their talks with, "Um.. yeah... so... I am... My name is..." That is the worst.

Speakers, please memorize your very first line!

"Before I begin, can I borrow $20 from someone...?"

That was it. That was my line. I then proceeded to look around the audience to see if anyone had a $20 bill that I could use. So after a few moments of tension and pause, I got a $20 bill from the person in the front row to whom I had planted my $20 bill earlier that morning. [Note: never leave things to chance. You don't want to be up there 3minutes into your bucket list TEDx talk and be like, "Do you have a $5? Can you break a $50?"]

Many TED/TEDx speakers try and use a hook as their first line to keep the audience engaged and even a little off-balance. I hadn't seen anyone start out with directly engaging the audience so I figured I would give it a shot. And it turns out that it wove directly into the subject of my talk. And you know what, the kid didn't miss my lighting cue... =D

The day before, at the rehearsal, I found out that there was a professional video crew on site (with 3 cameras!) and that they could cut out any pauses or mistakes. So that set my mind at ease in case I make any mistakes. But as it was, the talk went over very smoothly and there was only one moment where I needed to pause in order to remember my spot in the script. Fix it in post!

I memorized the exact wording of the last line of my talk, because you don't want to misspeak. You don't want to jerk the wheel when you are landing the plane. I don't konw if that's a thing that pilots say, but I imagine that's a good practice. When I was done, I got to say the iconic, "Thank you" and could hear the TEDx applause that accompanies every one of the 100,000 talks on youtube. Is TEDx applause different than every other kind of applause, you ask? Yes, yes it is.

After every speaker was done with their talks, we headed back over to Congress Hall for a reception with the speakers and the audience. And after that, it was time to get back into my car and drive 3+ hours back home. Just in time to see my kids off to bed and call it a weekend.

Where I'm Speaking... TEDx Cape May

Watch my TEDx talk "Slavery Still Exists. Here's How to End It"

There are a few things that would probably make a preacher/speaker bucket list. And doing a TEDx talk would probably be a very common one.

On stage at TEDx Cape May for my rehearsal

I was honored to be a TEDx speaker at TEDx Cape May this month. How I landed the talk will be another post for another day. But for now, I'd like to chronicle my experience during that weekend.

The TEDx Talk was in Cape May, NJ, which is one of the nicest places to be in the great state. It just so happens that it listerally the furthest point in NJ from my house. So it took a full 3 hours of driving on Saturday. On the bright side, I was able to practice my talk without interruption and without being able to cheat by looking at my notes.

When I arrived, I pulled up to Congress Hall and immediately got a sense that I was staying somewhere historic. It turns out it is the 1st seaside hotel in America! And it was called the summer White House because it was frequented by US Presidents.

Congress Hall in Cape May, NJ

Congress Hall in Cape May, NJ

I had spoken with a friend who gave a TEDx talk a month prior to mine and he told me that he did a full run-through the day before. So I was prepared to do my full talk. As I pulled up to the Lower Cape Regional High School, I noticed that the sound crew and the lighting crew seemed awfully young. It turns out that they utilize volunteers from the highschool. I thought that was cool... just don't mess up my lighting, kid. It turned out that no one was rehearsing their talk, they were just making sure that their slides were working and that they knew where to stand. I had to make a special request because I start out my talk by getting a $20 bill from the audience. So they had to make sure the camera was tracking me and that the lighting fill would keep me lit. I was a bit bummed that I didn't get to do a full run-through. That means that the next time I delivered my talk in front of someone, it would be the real deal.

After the rehearsal, we all headed over to a local woman's house who had catered a special dinner for the speakers. She had seen that a TEDx was coming to her town and wanted to do something special. It was great to meet the other speakers and hear what everyone was talking about. It was a bit intimidating to see such accomplished people in their field. But it was too late for them to disinvite me, so too bad, suckers.

I rehearsed once in my room and read over the notes and basically fell asleep watching netflix to take my mind off of the talk. Of course, I woke up at 5:00am for no good reason other than I was probably very nervous... and I had to pee.

The next morning I went down for breakfast and had breakfast with the one speaker I was most excited about meeting. Daryl Davis is one of the most accomplished R&B piano players out there. He played with Chuck Berry for over 30 years, but has made his more recent fame through befriending members of the KKK at clan rallys... Daryl Davis is black; that's an important part of the story. I had heard about his story after the Charlottesville riots in August and was thrilled that we were going to be on the same stage. [Aside: There is a great conversation between 2 friends of mine on the New Activist podcast about the Charlottesville riots. Full disclosure, I work for IJM, the sponsor of the podcast. But still, you should listen].

When we arrived at the highschool (Daryl caravaned behind me so he wouldn't get lost... uh, you're welcome). We walked into the auditorium to see the star of the show, Wyclef Jean, up on stage doing a sound check on his guitar. He was the biggest marquee name of the speaker lineup and the other speaker that I was most excited to meet.

Wyclef Jean doing his sound check

After getting settled in the green room (read: boys dressing room for the HS musical), we made our way into the audience to hear the various talks. I'll go through each speaker in another post, because I found a lot of their talks really interesting. When it was the speaker before me, I went backstage and got ready in the green room.

Getting ready for me meant getting my microphone and getting my blood flowing. Usually what I try to do before I go and speak is jump up and down a bit and flail my arms in circles. I'm trying to get my adrenaline up so I don't come out flat.

And then, it was showtime.

[Part II]

9/11 Eulogy


13 years ago, I lost a friend on the 93rd floor of the North Tower.

I delivered his eulogy about a month later. I was 26 years old and was tasked with honoring my friend's life, making sense of the senseless and comforting the mourning. It remains to this day, the hardest message i've had to deliver.

Every year, as this day comes around, I try to remind myself of the lessons that I've learned since then. I repost my thoughts every year to as an exercise of reminding myself (and hopefully some of you, too) of what it was like. I guess I am trying to take that #neverforget hashtag seriously.

My hope is that through reading this, you are reminded of God's goodness and sovereignty.

“I stand before you with the hollowing and daunting task of honoring our friend and brother, Andy, with mere words, simple anecdotes, and a limited perspective. So, forgive me in advance for any injustice I may do to his life or to his impact in your life.

One of my earliest memories of Andy was his sophomore year. I visited him while he was living in Plimpton. He had this screen saver—back when screen savers were scrolling text and simulated starfields—that he couldn’t stop talking about. He made me sit down and watch it with him. It was this guy stranded on an island striving and trying to make his way off the island, but failing. Andy would watch this guy constantly, hoping and waiting for him to make it home. A screensaver that was supposed to keep his computer busy when Andy was away was keeping him busy. But to hear him talk about it made you believe that computers were created for screensavers like that.

In college, we served on praise team together. He would always lug his keyboard, amp, and keyboard stand from his dorm to Earl Hall. Week after week, he would barge through the door always about to drop everything. But he never complained, never whined, and most importantly, never asked me to carry them for him. Week after week, he showed up, instruments in hand.

When he was a junior, he was working downtown about 25 hours a week. On top of his already-packed Engineering schedule, his free time was completely soaked up. He would begin his day before 9am and with work and school, wouldn’t return until around midnight. At which point, he would begin studying for the day. During this time, he cut out all of his commitments… all of them except praise team. It was his joy. He even designed and paid for our very first KCCC Praise t-shirts. One time he came to our meeting and asked for prayer because that morning when he was shaving, he was unable to feel the razor on his cheek. That’s when he knew he was working too hard, when his nerve endings finally gave way. But he wasn’t complaining, he just wanted us to know and pray for him. And he still showed up for praise team, instruments in hand.

Andy was annoying to those close to him. Gimme a sec to explain. You see, Andy was very good at what he did. He picked up snowboarding in half a day, much to the chagrin of his brother. His first instrument was piano, and yet he played the guitar better than I do and I don’t even have a “2nd” instrument. But more than just snowboarding or guitar, the annoying thing about Andy was that he was so humble about his abilities. He was never in it for himself. He always just wanted to worship God with his life.

On two occasions, Andy came down and served with me in Atlanta with my church’s youth group. The first trip he paid for out of pocket and flew down on Christmas day. The second trip he drove down his new car to Alabama and back up again… willingly. Or at least if he wanted to complain about it, I never heard about it. At both retreats, he led praise and led a bible study. Have you ever seen Andy worship God? I mean really worship him… with his eyes pressed shut and his hand motioning the notes as he sings them? I knew at those moments that there was nothing to distract Andy from his love of worship. To hear him worship made you believe that Andy was created to worship God.

I can still hear him leading the seniors at my church during those retreats, yelling—motivating, never scolding—at these students, “Isn’t this awesome? Don’t you guys want to live like this?” For Andy things were so clear and so simple. You live for God. That’s that.

Andy and I were doing the pamphlet for a Youth Group retreat. He designed the cover and I was doing the inside. He took a bus from work and walked up French Hill Rd. to get to church so that we could work on the booklet together. We are both meticulous in formatting to the very last detail, so we stayed until 7:30am, at which time he called for his company car and went back to work. This was the amount of sacrifice that he had, for a booklet, for a retreat, for a bunch of kids. But he was doing it for God.

I never saw Andy play basketball. He didn’t like to play. But I did hear him constantly talk about video cards, RAM, motherboards, BIOS, and LINUX. I heard him talk about Matt Redman, Hillsongs, Caedmon’s Call, Delirious to no end. If you looked at his room, or rooms, in his home, you would very quickly see that Andy loved computers and music very much. He knew what he liked and he poured himself into it. He knew what he didn’t like and he didn’t try and front to impress anyone. I always respected him for that.

Passion. Sacrifice. Humility.

Passion for computers, for music, for worship. Sacrifice for praise team, for an Atlanta YG, for Bethany Youth Group. Humility in his abilities and standing before God. Passion for God, sacrifice for God, humility before God.

If you ponder those three terms as I have done this past sleepless night in Greensboro airport, you begin to see that those three qualities are at the core of the person of Christ. Jesus’ passion, Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ humility. Could it be that Andy was just trying to reflect the person of Jesus? His constant striving and trying to achieve Christ-likeness in this lonely and empty world? Well, Andy, I’ll tell you, the guy finally made if off the island and he is home now.

I would like to take a moment and address Andy directly: “Andy the hard thing is that you are gone. I won’t be able to see you smile, sing, laugh, or cry. But, the harder thing is that I won’t be able to learn from you anymore. No more computer questions, no more .mp3’s, no more relationship advice. Still, the hardest thing is that I will never have the chance to repay you for all you have taught me. I’m sorry that I wasn’t a better friend and a better brother to you.

The good thing is that you are in heaven. You are with God and I can hear you saying, “Rich, this is incredible! You wouldn’t believe it! God is tremendous!” The better thing is that you will be able to see me try and reflect the things I have learned from you with my life. I will honor God and honor you. Still, the best thing is that I will be with you in heaven soon enough, Andy, soon enough.”