Archive - June, 2005

Galaxies in Collision

One good result from a crashed hard drive is
that I happened on a site new to me with great graphics for
astronomy.


A positive result from my hard drive crash is the discovery of a great website with really interesting astronomy graphics. It’s the Chandra X-ray Telescope site at Harvard. It’s humbling to admit that I haven’t ventured onto the site before.

But that aside, the site has compelling images taken by Chandra, some of which rival the beauty of the older and more widely known Hubble telescope.


This animation of galaxies in collision is a remarkable computer-generated view of what physicists and astronomers believe happens when two galaxies come within proximity and affect each’s gravitational field. Chandra has captured the still image to the left of such a collision. However, the image doesn’t explain the strange, twisted shape that results as clearly as the animation. Seeing the galaxies dismantle each other in the animation is fascinating and instructive.

The Milky Way and our closest neighbor Andromeda (M31) are moving toward one another and scientists say in several billion years the two galaxies will enter into this chaotic spiral of destruction and re-formation.

Some Days are Stones

Well, in the balance of things, it has to
happen.

One of those days happened. Not catastrophic, but just one of those days that wasn’t a diamond, it was a stone. A series of unrelated events with technology failing leads me to think of Tuesday as a stone.

I won’t regale you will all the difficulties, but to write that I couldn’t access e-mail, had a hard drive fail on my primary computer, couldn’t get a replacement computer to connect to the main server, used a fourth demo computer and it was on the fritz.

No amount of backup seemed adequate. It was just one of those days.

It pointed out to me something I’m already very aware of–that our dependence on technology leaves us very vulnerable. A minor event can set of a chain of events that leave us disconnected. In this case, several unrelated events happened all at once.

Through the good work of many people, however, I’m almost back to normal and moving about the digital world as I’ve become accustomed. We are dependent upon one another in this world and we need the skills of a community to function. On another day, there will be time to reflect on the importance of this.

But that’s not today. Today my advice is more mundane. If you haven’t backed up your hard drive, please do. Fortunately, I had done so and haven’t lost but a very few documents that escaped my last backup. That’s a great relief.

I’ll get back to blogging about things of greater importance and interest in the next few days. Today’s gonna be a diamond!

Sleeping Bees and Other Wonders

It’s a wondrous, glorious world full of promise and hope! It doesn’t take much to see this any time of the year, but in Spring it’s so obvious and breath-taking.

The first thing I do in the morning after the sun rises is take a short walk through our small backyard garden to see what’s changed overnight. Every morning there’s some new sight.

Did you know, for example, that bumblebees sleep in the hollow of gladiola blossoms? Or that they enfold themselves and bundle up on the stalks of liatris and you can see them in the coolness of the early morning before they wake up and start working the blooms for nectar?


Have you gotten really close to an echinacea flower, so close to see the uniformity of pistels in its bloom? It’s like a fireworks display without the noise, but more permanent.

There are tiny microenvironments of wonder and mystery that could keep me occupied for hours, just observing and appreciating. It’s a world of richness and mystery.

Sometimes in my more philosophical moments I wonder why anyone would want to plow it up, pave it over or blow it to smithereens. The reasoning for this escapes me.

And why would anyone who cares about this magnificent world not take an interest in trying to understand why some want to destroy it and take the lives of others? Isn’t it necessary to understand these horrific motivations in order to preserve our own humanity and protect the earth? I mean, isn’t that understanding necessary for survival?


In my view it’s also a great part of what religious faith is about, putting us in touch with the sacred that is within us, within others and within this wondrous world that we are so freely given, so that we may embrace the goodness in creation.

The alternative is to hunker down, bunker up and blow ’em away. Now where’s the joy in that?
I feel sorry for those who take this view. It seems more fearful than realistic, even as it claims that defeating your enemies is the only reasonable alternative.It’s also limiting. It leads people to think anger and force are the most effective ways to resolve conflict. They aren’t.

This view sees the world in the hard light of black and white and tries to convince us life is about absolutes, us and them.

No time for mystery, no truck for trying to understand another point of view. It’s such an impoverished view of the majesty of creation and of our human capacity for creating community.

We inhabit an expanding universe and from a faith perspective it seems to me more plausible that the Creator is continuing to work in the Creation. That calls for an open and expansive attitude toward faith, doesn’t it? The alternative is limiting and restrictive.


Faith is, in part, a challenge to comprehend this creative Spirit and apprehend the presence of the sacred in our lives. This is especially true when the powers and principalities seek to rob us of our humanity, to convince us we are less than sacred beings in a sacred creation.

For Christians it means comprehending what it means to say that God has come into our midst, has embraced us in our humanity and become one with us. And in doing so, said, “Love your enemies.”

You can call it naive’. You can call it groundless optimism. You can even call it dumb. I call it Biblical faith.

I think about these things as I wait for the bees to wake up and stir in the dawn’s early light.

Too Many Non-profits?

The continuing proliferation of nonprofits
is creating more complexity for donors and may result in mergers.

there is general
consensus within
the industry that
there are too
many nonprofits
Prof. Paul Light

Are there too many non-profit organizations? Does the “can do” enthusiasm of U.S. citizens result in too many organizations being created to do good things? That’s the gist of an article in The Christian Science Monitor.

At first hearing it sounds strange. But it may not be that far off base.

I became concerned about the issue, with a slightly different take, many years ago. When a major earthquake struck Italy while I was working in a relief and development organization, I saw a number of independent organizations created in a matter of days. Many got nonprofit charters to deliver donated goods received from corporations. They were donor-driven, meaning the desires of the donors to respond were more likely to drive the response than an actual assessment of needs on the ground. If a donor had access to a supply of some material aid such as outdated medications, the availability of these surplus medicines were more likely to drive the response than a confirmed need for them.

In my career I’ve seen some unusual, sometimes humorous responses. The most unusual item I saw was frostbite salve being unloaded on the dock at Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the hottest places on earth. Somalia was in the grips of famine, not a cold spell.

During that Italian earthquake I cited above, I received a telephone call offering a planeload of caskets which the donor volunteered could be loaded with food and medicines. We didn’t accept that offer.

But I suspect that some of these rejected offers led well-meaning, caring people to seek other means to get material aid to places they believed could use them. Prof. Light notes that citizens of Des Moines, Iowa can choose from more than three hundred nonprofits aiding education.

The desire to help in a direct and meaningful way is a very positive motivation. It deserves encouragement and support. But it also deserves focus, responsible management and stewardship.

Skepticism and mistrust of large institutions is common today, of course, but these have a flip side, fragmentation and duplication in circumstances such as those I’ve enumerated above. Sometimes bureaucracies and large organizations aren’t all bad. They can enable more efficient and effective delivery of specialized services.

Prof. Light’s assessment that a period of consolidation lies ahead will not be received without debate and resistance. He speaks most directly to organizations duplicating services in local communities. But there is duplication in other areas of humanitarian service as well. It creates unhealthy competition. Worse, I believe this duplication leads to wasteful use of monies for advertising, promotion and administrative infrastructure that could more efficiently be applied to meeting human need. Difficult as it may be, consolidation is an idea whose time is coming.

Some Days are Diamonds

John Denver wrote, “Some days are diamonds,
some days are stones.” Today was a diamond.

Some days are diamonds
some days are stones
Sometimes the hard times
won’t leave me alone
Sometimes a cold wind
blows a chill in my bones
Some days are diamonds
some days are stones.
–John Denver

I know what John Denver meant, we all do. But today was a diamond. I started the day hearing truly exciting information that will lead to even more exciting plans to help construct low power FM community-based radio stations across Africa. The capabilities already exist. African religious leaders want them. Audiences are ready. All that’s lacking is the funding, and I think we’ll find the way to secure that.

The most effective means to distribute information today in Africa is radio. It’s the means to deliver information about HIV/AIDS, malaria prevention, citizenship, economic empowerment, religious faith and other important information about quality of life. UMCom is in position to broker the construction of the first station relatively soon and we will be in position to aid others before long. Helping people to tell their own stories. It’s truly exciting.

From there I went to a discussion in which staff talked about how to create more global content in our information offerings. That means coverage from parts of the world beyond the borders of the United States. Global content. They were talking about specific plans for gathering this information and how to allocate space for it.

Then to a discussion about increasing inclusiveness in our staff. They developed concrete steps to identify communicators outside the U.S. and ways to get their stories filed. They were discussing how to create a global communications network.

From that I went to another conversation in which staff talked about new media and how to identify new audiences that are developing as a result of the changing media environment. It’s a fascinating challenge to determine how to use these new media to create community and provide useful information to them.

I passed by, but didn’t interrupt, a training session for another group that was learning about a new software program that will allow us to provide better customer service.

It was a day spent dealing with a different world, new challenges and remarkably creative people finding new new ways to tell stories of faith and extend an invitation to a faith community to people in this new world. Some days are diamonds.

A Reason to be Thankful

Here’s a reason to be thankful. You don’t
work for Doe Anderson Advertising in Louisville or the Shoney’s Corporation.
You don’t have to defend an ad on flatulence. Your creativity hasn’t bottomed
out. (See, anyone can do <i>that</i>.)

Here’s a reason to be thankful. You don’t work for Doe Anderson Advertising in Louisville or the Shoney’s Corporation. You don’t have to defend an ad on flatulence. Your creativity hasn’t bottomed out. (See anyone can do that.)

Big Easy radio stations ban Shoney’s “Gas” ad

Two New Orleans radio stations apparently don’t think there’s anything funny about passing Gas.

Marketing folks for Shoney’s thought they had come up with a humorous radio spot promoting the restaurant’s breakfast buffet. A driver ticks off with odd-sounding names–Two Egg, Fla. Weiner, Ark. and Sweet Lips, Tenn.–noting there are Shoney’s along the way.

“Pretty soon down the road when you’re passing Gas, you’ll be glad you stopped,” the announcer says before a brief pause. “What? Gas, Kan. You sicko. I can’t believe you went there.”

Dan Burgess, public relations director at Doe Anderson, the Louisville, Ky. firm that created the ad, said New Orleans stations WLMB and WTKL chose not to run the spot.

“We thought the ad was a little cute, but we didn’t think it would get banned,” he said. “Especially in New Orleans, which is not the most conservative of places.”

Officials at the two stations, both owned by Entercom, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Dan Dahlen, senior vice president of marketing for Nashville-based Shoney’s, said restaurant officials think the ad is “hilarious.”

Even people in Gas–population 530–aren’t put off.

“We’re actually so used to this kind of thing, it’s almost second nature,” City Clerk Rozanne Hutton said.

–Associated Press

Whoa, wait a minute, you mean jokes about flatulence aren’t new and unique? Gosh. And not hilarious, just second nature? Hmm. Not even creative, just a “little cute.” Well golly, what do you have to do to sell eggs and bacon these days?

Apparently these guys didn’t learn anything from the Superbowl two years ago when national advertisers tried this and got short-term buzz and long-term grief. There’s no way to dress up tackiness. And why would you want your restaurant identified with tackiness anyway? What kind of food brand wants an association with indigestion?

So, I’ll steer clear of Shoney’s now that they’ve made that connection. (Appleby’s must love that.)

Advertisers need solid strategy and real creativity for long-term results and advertising like this, ain’t that.

No, wait! Here’s an idea! Cross-promotion between Shoney’s and Beano!

Shoney’s says, “Tank up at our buffet, the Beano’s on us.”

Beano says, “Gas up at Shoney’s, we’ll take care of the rest.”

Whaddayah think, guys? Funny, or what?

Change

The challenge of meeting competition comes
to all organizations, most especially those that make the biggest target such as
Sony.

What do you do if the world around you is changing faster than you can keep up? It’s a dilemma for churches, pastors, corporations and CEOs.

The challenge of change, coupled with competition is clearer today than ever. This was brought to attention again with the news that Sony will announce a new corporate strategy within the next few days to deal with its competitive challenges.

Sony has been in the red for two quarters in its television business. It has lost its lead in the personal music player business to Apple and it faces other competition in its diverse product lines.

A new CEO has just been named, the first non-Japanese in the company’s history. Who would have thought that a giant like Sony would need a turnaround artist?

I suspect turning around a big ship like Sony won’t be easy. It will mean cutting some products altogether and making fundamental changes in operating style in a national culture that has tended to view employment as a life-long guarantee for workers. This will mean the Sony executives can’t behave like U.S. corporations and slash the work force as the ultimate fall back position.

While Sony is trying to change itself the entertainment and communications industry is changing even more rapidly around it.

A colleague gave me a magazine yesterday recapping the recent NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in Las Vegas. On nearly every page some new form of digital delivery is recapped. HDTV, digital radio, video cellphones are among the pack. Some of these are already here. Some are coming to market in the next few months. These technologies not only change products and create new ones, they change our lives, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in major, but subtle, new ways.

As end-users we adapt and go on our way. But it’s not that simple for corporate leaders trying to create change, or for workers skilled at making or servicing products in decline. This human dilemma is one of the confounding problems resulting from change today.

Another is that even under threat, a large corporation like Sony, or a congregation in a large denomination, can assume that the status quo is not nearly as threatening as it is. The momentum of the past carries us a long, long way. And it can lull us into complacency. But complacency is insidious. It allows the competition to creep up and eat away at your foundation and you don’t know how perilous it is until the winds of competition blow and the house comes tumbling down.

As I review some of the literature I’m reading today, here are just a few of the changes:

  • The population. There are now 41 million Spanish-speaking persons in the United States, making a new majority. The global population continues to age. Older persons outnumber younger. In the U.S. the aging are increasingly white and the young are largely Hispanic, Asian or black.
  • The Internet. Increasingly, people have access to a global information repository making it possible to communicate more rapidly and for stories to travel instantaneously.
  • Globalization. The walls are down. Information flows across boundaries and empowers people in ways that were much easier to contain and control in the past when multiple channels did not exist.
  • Convergence. Different media are merging into convenient one-stop sources of information such as–but not limited to–video, audio, print and interactive websites.
  • From Service to Experience. The U.S. has shifted from a service-based economy to an experience-based economy.
  • Skepticism. In nearly every area, from medicine, to religion, to politics, to journalism, people express more skepticism about leadership and their trust in information disseminated by major institutions.
  • Anti-institutionalism. Brand loyalty has gone by the boards except in rare instances. No organization can assume loyalty comes automatically. It has to be earned over and over again.
  • Empowerment. A multiplicity of options empowers individuals like never before.

I suppose the list could be expanded beyond these key points, but these seem to be commonly cited as the major changes.

A couple of interesting perceptions: mass marketers view this as fragmentation, their view of a huge mass of people to be reached is coming apart. Niche marketers, on the other hand, see it as a huge opportunity. Fragmentation to the former is a new way to connect to the latter. It’s all in how you view the capabilities of the new media and how people use them.

If they use new media to connect with others of similar interest, it’s not fragmenting at all, it’s unifying. So, it’s all in the utilization.

A second common perception is that imagery is becoming the language of the new media. It’s a visual culture. Even radio will become more visual and more interactive. The LCDs on the radio “dial” are already carrying information. In the future they will carry even more, and probably include invitations to interact with the radio programmer in some way.

In each of these, a change in how we think about ourselves at some level, is required. These changes are not benign, they are influential. They create new opportunities and new ways of creating community. They also provide new channels for expression of ideas and influence. Change is what you make of it.

There is Power in the Blood

When Ashley Cleveland sang There is Power in the Blood the other night at the Bluebird on the Mountain it took me back to a small Methodist church in Oklahoma on Sunday evenings when I was young.

Unlike the morning service, the evening was informal and we’d sing favorites from the small red, Cokesbury Hymnal. Gospel favorites. About being washed in the blood, walking in the garden alone and dwelling in Beulah land.

I don’t think the graphic words meant that much to us, certainly not to me. And we were not millenialist in theology. In fact, we were mainline Methodist. And that meant we were responsible for others, like the poor here and around the world.

Kate Moody, the teacher of the Adult Bible class, and Bobbie Unglesby, youth leader, reminded us a man called John Wesley went into the coal fields in England to preach to the miners and that was our inheritance. It didn’t come out like a lecture on social justice. In this little oil patch town with working people, it came as a teaching about responsibility and citizenship. This was how faith took expression.

And a symbol of our faith hung high above the altar in the sanctuary, a polished wooden beam cross backlit by a lavender neon tube. As darkness gathered outside, it always seemed reassuring and permanent.

There was also reassurance in the rhythmic, comforting sounds of those songs. They conveyed acceptance, hope and safety. Some places were not safe and accepting for some of us, whose families were plagued by alcohol or poverty. They were dark and fearful; tempestuous and chaotic. But not here. This was a place where alcohol-induced violence did not enter. For boys and girls from the edge of town and the edge of society, that was truly sanctuary.

The songs took us from dark places and into the light. They were like refreshing water on a hot day, cooling and soothing.

Out of this community, I experienced the call to ministry. When I went away to seminary, I was surprised to learn that these songs were unacceptable to some. They were too individualistic, too laced with piety and too theologically narrow. I recall being told by one professor that I had to learn to appreciate the “great hymns” of the church. By that, he meant the hymns of the Reformation, not the gospel hymns of the Great Revival.

I understand what the professor meant, but did he understand what these songs meant to people like us? I remembered that when I heard Ashley sing last Saturday night.

These songs were healing to people whose lives were broken. Beulah land was a land of hope to those exiled by poverty. The promise of power in the blood was a promise to get through the struggle to folks who lived on the margin. This wasn’t pie in the sky, not like the opiate of the people, as Marxism charged. It was healing and comfort; assurance and empowerment. It was gritty faith in the midst of gritty everyday reality.

When Ashley spoke briefly of her own struggles, she brought authenticity to the song. But she sings it like we didn’t. She makes it rock. It’s real in a different way, not merely in performance style, but in something more; in interpreting life and its power in a spiritual way.

Those songs in that small church were forming us, me in particular. They were providing a view of the world, a view of justice, hopefulness, purpose; a view of empowerment, dignity and shared responsibility. They were birthing an understanding that Christian faith doesn’t take the world at face value and accept it and let it beat you down. Instead, it looks at this world as the place where God is active, and it seeks to create change for all God’s children, to end suffering, discrimination and exploitation; to get to Beulah land, where justice and mercy would be available for all.

Because there is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood…

The Bluebird at the Dyer

The famed Bluebird Cafe is a showcase for
songwriters. The Dyer Observatory is Vanderbilt University’s teaching
observatory. Put the two together and you have a unique mix of music and
astronomy, and that’s what the Bluebird Cafe at the Dyer does. Last night was
the first in the summer series and it was a choice experience.

What could be better than listening to great music and looking at the stars? Well, for my interests, not much. And last night as a gift from my wife and daughter we did just that in a series unique to Nashville. The famed Bluebird Cafe , a showcase for established and up-and-coming songwriters, and the Dyer Observatory of Vanderbilt University paired up for an evening picnic concert on the lawn. Nothing could have been more enjoyable.

Tricia Walker, Karen Staley and Ashley Cleveland entertained for two hours of solid music and funny banter. Tricia has a lovely voice and has written socially evocative lyrics that relate to her Mississippi upbringing. Her song, “The Heart of Dixie” tells of the love she had for her “second Mama,” an African-American woman who cared for her as a child and became as if a member of her family. It’s a haunting reminder of the uneasy racial tension that marked the South only a few years ago, and that continues to influence us today in subtle, unspoken ways.

Karen has written hits for Faith Hill and other big-time performers, and has a catalog of quirky, fun songs in addition to her commecial successes. In “Still a Dog,” she sings about men, “he may seem like a puppy, but puppies are still dogs just the same.” It gets her point across quite clearly.

Ashley is reminiscent of Janis Joplin. She’s an east Tennessee native and her demeanor is easy, quiet and slightly ironic. Her juiced up versions of old-time gospel and mainline hymns gave them new life and relevance, especially after hearing her hard-knock struggle with drink.

Now an active Presbyterian, she said she has found stability in her marriage and her role as a mother. Before this, she tells the crowd, her mother told her she could start a prison ministry just relating to her past boyfriends.


The three have performed as “women in the round” with the Nashville Symphony and other venues for 17 years but they manage to keep the performance fresh and engaging. They offer really solid music and deliver it with supreme skill.

Following the concert, the observatory roof was rolled back and the audience was invited to step in and view Jupiter on the 24-inch telescope. The giant red spot is visible right now as are two moons on either side of the lower quarter of the planet.

It was as near a perfect evening as you can experience and as Karen said, “If that don’t light your fire, then your wood’s wet.”

John Danforth on Moderate Christians

Former U.N. Ambassador, U.S. Senator and
Episcopal priest, John Danforth writes an excellent op-ed piece on the
differences between moderate Christians and the right-wing.

Former UN Ambassador John Danforth writes an excellent op-ed comparison of moderate Christians and evangelical right Christians in today’s New York Times.

It’s superbly written. It should be required reading for anyone concerned about the current state of public dialogue about the religious right and moderate Christians. Read and consider it deeply. Great thoughts captured in clear and concise language.

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