Archive - February, 2007

Mozambique Faces Floods and Storms

A letter from Bishop Joao Machado reports damage
to villages, churches and other buildings in northern
Mozambique.

Mozambique has faced floods in the past several days and some regions have also contended with damaging wind. Bishop Joao Machado, resident bishop of The United Methodist in the Mozambique Episcopal Area, sent an email that arrived this morning. I have reprinted it in full below.


Dear brothers and sisters in Christ!

Strong winds on 160 km per hour and heavy rains had hit once more three provinces on Mozambique again, before recovering from floods affecting almost all the northern part of Mozambique. In Inhambane province, Vilanculos District was the most affected. The township of Vilanculos suffered a lot. Many houses including the District Superintendent, pastor’s house, church members and neighboring houses are destroyed. Most corrugated zinc flown with the winds and their belongings become wet and spoiled by the rains. Many families are at the moment living in the UMC chapel.The electricity is cut off. Media says that many schools, shops and other economic infra-structures are partial destroyed. The township is pathless due the cut off of trees and electricity poles that have blocked the streets. 1 person killed and 20 injured.

In Sofala province, streets are blocked, but fortunately up to now we have not yet heard any lost of human beings, but many local material houses have despaired. The same happened in Manica province where there is no electricity in some areas. Many houses destroyed, streets and paths blocked.

We would like to ask your strong and continuing prayers for Mozambique. We have been suffering natural calamities since last January. Many parts of the Northern of Mozambique still under water due the Zambezi floods. While we are still fighting to help those who have lost their possession in those areas, other devastation calamity have just hit us again. We do not know what do now. We just think that God is testing our stillness. But we are aware that is God who had created everything including our country. We are going to persevere on Him and Stand Still. We are sure that with your prayers and assistance, we will overcome all these troubles.

We strongly request your prayers. May the Lord continue to bless you all.

Mozambique Episcopal Office.


The Reuters report on the storms is here.

AllAfrica.com distributed a release from the UN World Food Programme.

Dixie Chicks and Country Radio

The old gatekeeping functions are breaking down.
Laying aside their political differences with country music programmers, the
Dixie Chicks have shown that the gatekeeping function of country radio no longer
makes or breaks top-line talent.

Now that the Grammys are over and the Dixie Chicks are crowing–or should it be cackling–a little-observed lesson is hidden in their sweep of the music awards.

At one time country radio was essential to country artists. Small “breakout” stations tested audience response to new songs. If a song broke through in these stations, large market stations were more likely to pick it up and play it. This process built audience and improved sales.

But country programmers also exhibited a restrictive function. Most recently this has resulted in keeping some established artists off the air. George Jones and Merle Haggard have both commented on their lack of airplay.

The practice is not new, and certainly not limited to the Dixie Chicks. When I worked at KOOO-FM in Omaha many years ago I picked up a Johnny Cash album with the song “Singin’ in Vietnam Talkin’ Blues.” Written over the title on the album cover was a warning from the program director. “Do not play. If you play this you will be fired.”

In the highly polarized environment of the Vietnam era, songs about the war had to be overtly pro-war or they were considered anti-war and were not played on country stations. No less an artist than Johnny Cash was subject to this gatekeeping lockout.

A bit later Loretta Lynn came out with a song of liberation for women called “The Pill.” It was a defiant message about independence symbolized by the availability of contraception. It said women had been treated differently, with less power than men, especially in relationships, because they bore children. It’s a great song, possibly one of those social markers that come along in pop culture every so often.

When the song was released, KOOO-FM, along with many other stations, refused to play it as well. However, by that time I had moved to a talk radio station in town, KLNG Radio, and had the honor of playing “The Pill” for the first time in that market.

Because we were all news and talk, I doubt we added much to the song’s acceptance among women in that market. But it was fun to be first to play the song, and it did become a hit for Ms. Lynn without full support of country radio.

The Dixie Chicks have demonstrated that radio doesn’t have the same hold it once did. There are too many other venues and too many ways for a song, or an album to get a hearing. Moreover, the Chicks have gotten new life from the recalcitrant programmers.

Country programmers are up against some pretty challenging circumstances. The country audience has declined the past few years. Programmers probably felt playing the Chicks risked even more loss. But the Chicks have revealed that the gatekeeping function of the past is eroded and, among other things, they have shined light on the shifting power dynamics of life in a multimedia world.

Jet Blue Takes to You Tube

Going directly to the people, David Neeleman, CEO
of Jet Blue makes promises to prevent the terrible problems Jet Blue customers
have faced in the past week.

Before last week Jet Blue was a favorite airline of many people I know. The problems of the past week, however, gave them pause.

But I think CEO David Neeleman has been unusually open and public in his response. How many times do we hear a CEO say, “We goofed. We made a mistake. Our personnel were not deep enough?”

I think he earns points for that alone. But he also knows words won’t be enough. Performance will be the measure of how well Jet Blue pulls out of this tailspin. And by going on You Tube to explain simply and concisely what the airline will do differently, he continues to rebuild Jet Blue’s damaged reputation.

I’ve never heard him say, “I take full responsibility;” a tactic that has been made empty and frivolous because it doesn’t point to change and is devoid of consequence. The cynic asks, “So what?” The absence of this phrase in his public comments was another positive.

Going directly to the customer through a posting on You Tube is not only creative, it’s credible. This is not the highly produced television spot of William Clay Ford, Jr., nor Lee Iaccoca before him. However sincere those public remarks were, they came with the cachet of broadcast television, a cachet that does not invoke the directness and simplicity that Neeleman achieves on You Tube. The You Tube comments cut through the filters, seem more direct and personify simplicity. This is an effective use of the Web.

Moreover, if you contrast Neeleman’s public remarks to more than a few politicians and CEOs who can’t admit to mistakes, he looks good by comparison. It’s anyone’s guess how those feel who sat on the tarmac for eleven hours. But, the customer’s bill of rights coupled with Neeleman’s comments show that honesty has its own appeal. We’ll have to wait and see, but my guess is that Jet Blue’s CEO has conducted himself in a manner that reassures potential customers and encourages loyal Jet Blue passengers. If it works this will be a communications case study in effective crisis management.

Flaming Email–The Disinhibition of It All

In an essay about flaming Danial Goleman provides
in intriguing assessment about why we flame.

Have you ever been flamed? Have you received an email that contained language so strong it made you wonder about the sender’s mental state?

Email and text messaging have made it easier to fire off an angry response while emotions are hot and you can get it off your chest. The “it” being whatever word or act has ticked you off.

Where I work we get a daily dose of these emails. Some are repeat offenders. But others are new flamers (to us). Our customer service staff get email responses from people that I’m sure would make the writers blush if they said these things to the staff person face-to-face. Some are abusive, some lewd, and some are heartless putdowns.

I’ve received notes condemning me to hell, calling me the anti-Christ and asking me if I’ve ever had an ecumenical bone in my body. At first, it came as a shock that some of these writers are college professors and a couple are teachers of theology. But I’ve long since gotten used to flames and I take stridency in stride.

In an essay in the New York Times, Daniel Goleman offers an intriguing look into why we flame. He points to a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior by John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. that offers several reasons. Online we’re alone, our sense of self is exaggerated. Email and text messaging are immediate, we can react to perceived slights without delay. There’s no authority figure online to keep us in check. And we can be anonymous.

There’s a word for this online behavior. It’s disinhibition. Freed up from normal contraints, we let ‘er rip on the Internet. Netsafe, an Internet Safety Group in New Zealand, says disinhibited behavior may constitute a problem for the safety of children and some adults on the web. The group says as we adapt our behavior to the web, we might become more aggressive in daily life. On the other hand, some people may also excessively disclose information that puts them at risk.

From my reading, which I’ll admit is limited, I don’t have enough information to form a solid opinion yet. But my experiences tell me there’s something to this.

I do know that flaming disinhibition creates dissonance. I once received a flame that concluded:

“May your soul burn in hell!!!

Yours in Christ,
(the sender’s name)”

My response was, “Huh?”

Floods in Mozambique

Floods are displacing thousands in
Mozambique

Floods have once again displaced thousands in Mozambique. Unlike flooding that killed hundreds in 2001, however, an early warning system has given people a fighting chance this time, according a report by the BBC.

I recall when Bishop Joao Machado, episcopal leader of the Mozambique Area of The United Methodist Church, held up a hand-crank radio at the TIME Summit on Global Health and said, “This (radio) can save lives.”

He was referring to the use of radio to provide warning to people in the central plains of Mozambique when the floodwaters came. Lack of radios meant that many people did not know the waters were approaching and they were caught in the rampaging waters and died. He has advocated for community radio stations located around the country to provide information.

Floods this season killed 30 people and displaced up to a quarter million according to news reports. The rescue operation has transitioned into relief. The UN World Food Program has begun helicopter food flights.

Did You Know

Did You Know is a provocative and fascinating
look at the results of technology today and projections about how it may affect
us in the future. It’s a good example of “less is more.” Important points are
made with concise, well written text.

Technology and a burgeoning knowledge base are affecting us in profound and fascinating ways. A production by Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod is tightly written, demonstrating that less is more. I don’t know how accurate the information is but it will make you think. In fact, it’s the sort of information that should be the basis for a lot of serious theological reflection.

Mac users can’t play the Windows Media version but several other formats are linked on McLeod’s blog, Dangerously Irrelevant.

In addition there is a powerpoint version with accompanying sound.


Another presentation takes a humorous look at the introduction of new technology. It can be viewed here. Every new technology brings its own problems, and requires a new set of skills. The coming of the book following the acceptance of the scroll required adaptation of a different sort. It’s a fun look at this new-fangled technology–the book.

Tony Campolo on Homosexuality

Well-known evangelical speaker, teacher and
clergyperson, Tony Campolo, provides an insightful and cogent comment about
homosexuality in the Sojourners Blog. It’s worth a read.

move
beyond the
preoccupation
with sexual
issues
–Tony Campolo

In a well-written and cogent commentary on the fixation of evangelicals with homesexuality, Tony Campolo, calls on young people to embrace a Christianity that “deals with a broad spectrum of social concerns that are relevant to living out love and justice in the 21st century….any other kind of Christianity will prove irrelevant” to young evangelicals.

Campolo’s advice should be heard by many, especially the over-50’s crowd, as he calls them, who seem fixated on homosexuality. As Anglican episcopal leaders meet in Tanzania and face debate on the issue that threatens to split the church, Campolo’s advice to evangelical youth seems especially relevant.

I spoke to someone recently who put it only slightly differently. “Homosexuality is a generational issue,” he said. “in ten years, it won’t make the difference it makes today.”

Campolo’s remarks are on the God’s Politics blog.

Recovering Niger

Niger’s small farmers are recovering land and
vegetation by protecting trees and planting crops and gardens differently. The
technique is producing positive environmental and economical
results.

Small farmers in Niger are recovering land and vegetation by protecting trees and planting crops and gardens differently, according to a New York Times report by Lydia Polgreen.

Rather than clearing trees, farmers in Niger have been planting around them and selling branches, bark and vegetation. The practice is providing income and creating more vegetation in this arid, hot, semi-desert landscape. The practices Polgreen reports on have been underway for at least twenty years. Satellite images taken of the area before the trees were protected and images taken in recent months reveal a marked increase in vegetation.

As Polgreen notes, this success is surprising because it is occurring in the most populous regions of the country where deforestation and desertification have been most advanced. Where communities take control over local resources and manage utilization for viability, they can improve the local economy and the environment.

If this is true in Niger, where rainfall is the primary source of water for crops and one dry season can bring disaster, it is likely to be valuable elsewhere. Niger is one of the poorest countries on the continent of Africa. If this low-cost, labor-intensive method could be replicable it might go a long way toward changing the environmental degradation that comes with burgeoning population growth. If it results in better economic conditions it will likely also lead to reduced family size as children live to maturity and parents no longer need as many hands to contribute to family survival.

I have been in some of the villages Polgreen reports from. The techniques are simple and economical. They include planting small sustainable gardens, using simple, hand-operated pumps for water–the water table is shallow and easily depleted– applying animal dung for fertilizer, planting and protecting nitrogen fixing trees that are resistant to drought.

In one region Polgreen visited, Zinder, Church World Service, the ecumenical relief and development organization, began agricultural projects such as this in the 1970’s. An infestation of mites threatened to destroy the date palm trees that provide fruit and hold soil in this thin, desert landscape. Ladybugs, the natural predator of date palm mites, were brought in by the thousands and re-established the balance necessary to save the palm trees.

But CWS recognized the need for additional changes and assisted small farmers, many of whom are women, to plant small gardens, use hand pumps and plow animal manure back into the soil. Twenty years later, according to Polgreen’s report, these simple techniques are producing positive results. If these low-cost, labor-intensive methods work in Niger they could be a model for other regions of sub-Saharan Africa, which frequently experience drought and whose people live at the edge of famine.

Homosexuality, Worship and Christian Unity

Members of the Good News organization may choose
to not worship of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to
demonstrate against worship leaders who are gay.

I read with interest that some bishops in the Anglican church refused to participate in communion with the Presiding Bishop of the U.S. church at a meeting in Tanzania. That’s a saddening act. When I was told I could not receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at a Roman Catholic monastery in my seminary years, I felt deeply aggrieved. With Roman Catholic seminarians, my class had shared theology and personal faith. We had eaten and worshipped together, but we could not share the sacrament that unites all Christians in the belief that Jesus is the self-emptying, incarnate love of God for all peoples.

It was only then that I understood the scandal of separation. It’s scandalous that the Christian community is divided, yet it inherits a message of unity and lives in the embrace of a loving God, an embrace that includes the whole creation. But division has marked the church from the beginning so it comes as no surprise.

Never the less, I feel a sense of grief when I hear of division in the church today. Whether it’s homosexuality, abortion, evolution or simply the distance between the grassroots members and those who are in the structures that we in The United Methodist Church call “the general church,” division is a grievous thing.

Some United Methodists who are members of a group called Good News have said they might not participate in worship at the 2008 General Conference because some of the worship leaders are gay or lesbian. (For readers who are not United Methodist, the General Conference is the highest governing body of the church. It meets every four years and is the only authorized body to speak for the whole church.)

The position Good News is taking is consistent with their position clearly stated in past years. And it’s important to acknowledge this. This message has been delivered.

In fact, it’s old news. Reporters who know the church and its long term discussion about homosexuality can write this story from home and phone it in. They know the various opinions, the primary actors, and the ways the story gets played out in General Conference. Opinions are formed and attitudes are set. No news here.

What is news, however, is the seeds of revitalization and renewal that are being to be sewn in this denomination. General Conference delegates will have a chance to water and tend them. If care is given to these seeds, the church could be at the threshold of a new period of creative mission, growth and energy–perhaps even of new unity.

Mainline denominations have been characterized as moribund and in decline. That story can be phoned in as well. It’s been framed the same way for years, and few, if any, have delved deeply enough into the context in which they exist to shed light on their viability and challenges. I don’t think the cliches capture their realities.

The data used to measure mainline denominations were formatted in the 1950’s under entirely different cultural and social circumstances. But to say the world has changed is to repeat a truism and to understate the context in the same breath.

Growth in the suburbs parallels the upward mobility of some mainline members, and it reflects less outreach to immigrants and those in urban core neighborhoods. this is an isue of theology
I’ve talked with people who chalk it up to mistrust in government which was damaged by Watergate, Iran-Contragate, and more recently by the Katrina fiasco, WMDs and partisan posturing about Iraq while people are dying by the score. Others chalk it up to executives of United Way who abused public trust and the Red Cross scandal after 9/11. And some ask “Why would anyone want to go aboard a sinking ship whose passengers are fighting with each other while the world around them goes to hell in a handbasket?”

So that’s why these new conversations are news. They indicate a yearning to change course, reclaim key values that has propelled this movement forward and open the doors to new ways of being the church in this new century.

The people of The United Methodist Church are starting a conversation about how they address poverty, particularly caring for children; they are discussing stamping out malaria and other diseases of poverty; they are reaching out to people in new ways to create new faith communities where people can find support to grow in their faith, search for meaningful answers to life’s important questions and worship; and they are asking themselves what leadership skills are needed to effectively conduct the mission of the church in the 21st. Century.

Are there problems? Of course. Are we slow to adapt? Yes. Is there hope? There is hope and more. There is a developing conversation that is seeking to discover how the faith tradition is relevant in this new context, and how Christians can negotiate in uncharted waters in this new century. That’s not only hopeful, I find it very exciting.

Economic Reckoning in Zimbabwe

A time of economic reckoning may be close,
according to a front page article in the New York Times.

Economic reckoning is close at hand in Zimbabwe, according to economists quoted in an article by Michael Wines in Wednesday’s New York Times.

With an inflation rate soaring at 1280% the government can no long control the deteriorating economy according to these economists. Employees in the civil and military sectors earn less than the poverty level. Teachers, police and municipal employees (who keep the water and lights running) earn merely one-quarter the income necessary to stay above the poverty line.

Families cannot afford school fees, which are equivalent to $15 U.S. per school year. School uniforms are beyond reach. Water systems are not being maintained in cities and towns. Doctors and nurses have been on strike. There is talk of the military being unhappy with a three hundred percent salary increase. They need 1000 percent to stay even with inflation. Teachers are considering a work slowdown. Farmers buy fuel at subsidized rates and sell it on the blackmarket for more profit than they can realize by growing crops.

A food crisis is already felt in some regions of the country and it’s estimated the harvest this year will be even less than last year, and food was short last year. However, the government is unable to buy food outside the country because foreign exchange has dried up and Zimbabwe’s currency has no value in the world market.

These problems have been growing the past several years but uncontrolled inflation is starting to unravel the country’s infrastructure and create widespread suffering. Most Zimbabweans are enduring hardship, and a vast number struggle in poverty. When the board of directors of United Methodist Communications met in Zimbabwe the first week of January they participated in feeding programs at public schools in a rural district. They learned that many children receive only one meal a day, and that is a bowl of porridge provided by the non profit organization Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor. Similar conditions prevail in other districts.

I have wondered for quite some time just how long this situation can continue before something snaps. If the projections in the Times are accurate, the pressures are mounting and a time of reckoning is approaching.

Conditions in country call for those of us outside to continue to be supportive of reform and to support those agencies that are effectively assisting people to survive. Church groups and civic organizations have already raised their voices, usually at great risk. Hunger creates instability. Pressure is mounting. How this will play out is not yet clear. But one thing is clear. Hunger stalks Zimbabwe today and support for groups such as Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor can make a difference by relieving immediate needs.

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