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Peering Into The Heart of the Universe

Last night, along with several others, I peered into a microscope at the Hillyer Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical School and looked at a mosquito’s heart. It was a transcendent experience.

We also watched two videos. In one, blood courses through a mosquito’s heart. In the other, we watched cells that will gestate and migrate to the salivary glands and become a malaria parasite.

The suffering this process will bring to humans is tragic. I never underestimate this. At the same time, I am awed by our ability to look at a mosquito’s heart! We can video it as it pumps! But there is more to transcendence than mere technology, and that is what grabs my imagination and won’t let go.

Later, I watched The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies, a Nova program on PBS about the migratory flight of Monarch butterflies. These delicate, beautiful creatures weighing less than a half ounce somehow manage to reproduce in a generational cycle that results in a migration of thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico. How they do it eludes us.

As a layperson utterly lacking scientific knowledge, this inspires me with wonderment at the processes of nature that happen in complex ways, sometimes beyond our sight and often beyond understanding. To me, they are mysteries and more. They inspire awe.

To experience awe and mystery is to stand at the threshold of transcendence. It’s to be transported beyond my puny conceptions about the mechanics of life and into wonderment about how it happens and what it means. It’s to peer at the mystery we call God.

The Creation with which we are entrusted is endlessly fascinating, even as we deal with such harmful processes as malaria and as we are called to steward Creation and protect all its creatures. As the universe unfolds its mysteries I am humbled by what I don’t know. I can only dimly glimpse its complexity and discover my place in it.

When such mysteries are unlocked they don’t necessarily put an end to the awe and wonder. As often as not, they lead to a gateway behind which lies more mystery, more inviting fascination. It’s as if the Creation is an unfolding drama and we’re but one of the actors searching for its plot line. We seek to know what lies beyond the beating heart of a mosquito and a malevolent parasite. We search to understand the flight of a lovely, fragile creature that leads us to flights of imagination, thoughts of beauty, and to wonder how it all fits together.

That’s what I experienced as I looked at the heart of the mosquito and watched the migration of the Monarchs. In the macro, viewing the mosquito’s heart was as if I were looking into the universe, beyond the remarkable precision of the structure, beyond the functional beauty of its mechanical pump, pump, pumping, and into a seamless reality that can only be apprehended because it is unfolding, beckoning inviting exploration.

Or consider the butterfly, its wings in macro are but scales refracting light at different frequencies, but seen in their wholeness they inspire in us a wondrous sense of beauty. So simple, yet so complex. They power a soaring flight so fanciful and perilous that were a human to embark upon it in such a spare way it would be considered insane.

In this wonder, we can celebrate with those of old, “Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.” (Psalm 65:8)

New Poll: What Do Americans Think About the Holidays?

Love the holidays or hate them? Well, it seems that we Americans love our holidays, with 90 percent of all Americans taking part in the celebration of Christmas.  In fact, even 80 percent of atheists warm up to the yuletide.

Our 2011 American Holiday Study being released here shows that Christmas is by far the most important holiday celebrated among Americans.  Surprisingly, Independence Day outranks Thanksgiving and Easter as the second most important holiday.  Certainly, the fact that Americans are patriotic is seen in this data, possibly impacted by the ten years in which the U.S. military has been engaged in wars.
Most Important Christmas Activities. Dickens got it right; old Scrooge was wrong.  The top Christmas activities revolve around meals, gifts, decorations and parties. Seventy-six percent of us will exchange gifts, 63 percent will decorate their homes and 58 percent will trim a tree.

Interestingly, more people will attend a holiday party than a worship service; 55 percent will make merry compared to 47 percent attending worship services. Watching our special holiday movies (48 percent) ranks right alongside worship.

One of the oldest Christmas cards housed at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University

And while some of us “elf ourself” and send Christmas emails (36 percent), most Americans (61 percent) will still send Christmas cards. More of us will buy a present for ourselves this year (31 percent) than volunteer time to an organization serving the poor (21 percent).  However, donations become an important part of our activity at Christmas, with 42 percent making a monetary donation.

What we enjoy most, least

The most enjoyed activities at the holidays seem to center around connecting with others. Sharing a meal rated the highest at 25 percent, followed by 14 percent traveling to visit friends or family.  Attending worship services (5 percent) and volunteering time (5 percent) were among the top seven Christmas activities Americans enjoy.

Santa, take note:  the activities that we enjoy least about the holidays include shopping for gifts, visiting Santa, attending a sporting event, purchasing a present for ourselves, attending a parade and attending worship services.

Attending a worship service was the only activity listed among the top six in both the most and least enjoyed.

The activity with the most meaning

The activities that have the most meaning to us are sharing a meal (54 percent), attending worship services (14 percent), traveling to friends/family (10 percent) and exchanging presents (4 percent).

Those of us involved in planning meaningful worship experiences might take pause at some of these facts.  While worship is meaningful to 14 percent of Americans, what is making a worship service one of the most and least enjoyed activities?

‘Holidays are too commercialized’

Generally, attitudes toward Christmas remain positive, but 60 percent of us think the holidays are too commercialized, and 32 percent wish they were simpler.

Most Americans do not think Christmas is overrated or that the holidays have lost their meaning.  A majority of respondents indicate they are likely to give more to the needy this year (58 percent) and to emphasize worship more (54 percent).

Many Americans appear more pragmatic about Christmas spending as well.  We will create budgets for presents and take time to match presents with the recipient. Most people will spend $250-$499 on presents.

Americans like to show their Christmas spirit. Forty-eight percent believe public displays of Christmas scenes are appropriate. But many say that spending on decorations for themselves will be limited to less than $50.

Giving to charities during the holidays will be higher among older age groups, with about a third of respondents 55 and older indicating they will give more than $100 this year.

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This study was commissioned by United Methodist Communications.  A third party conducted the consumer opinion poll on the agency’s behalf in June, canvassing 870 adults 18 years of age and older.

 

 

Getting By and Giving Thanks

I awoke this morning at two a.m. to the sounds of a car idling in front of our house. When I peeked through the window, I saw a young woman transferring newspapers from the back to the front to make it easier to toss them as she moved down the street.

I’ve done that job. Throwing newspapers was one of the first jobs I had as a young person. Wake up at midnight, collect bundles of papers, roll them (in those days with rubber bands), stuff them into a bag, climb aboard an overloaded bicycle and head into the darkness to deliver them. By four a.m., I would stop at the Beltz bakery for fresh doughnuts, still hot and dripping with icing. Then, I’d go home and get ready for school.

Things have changed since then. Throwing newspapers is an adult job now. It will eventually become a job of the past. I said a prayer for this young woman. My guess is, this is a way to get by. You don’t aspire to work like this. Today, it’s probably one of two, or three, similar jobs you do to stay afloat.

The papers she dropped at our house contained three inches of circulars advertising Black Friday sales. The front page photo showed people camped out at a big box retailer waiting for the opening of a sale to purchase flat screen TVs for $200.

The accompanying article discussed the difference in buying practices of the wealthy and those who are camping out on the sidewalks for the bargains. The wealthy will pay full price and shop in a more leisurely manner during normal store hours, the article says.

The lead editorial in the N.Y. Times reminded us that one in three persons in the United States lives in or near poverty. That’s 100 million people. It discusses the claim of some economists that the goods that even the near poor in the U.S. can afford–a cell phone, refrigerator, coffee maker and other stuff—make it difficult to build a case for true hardship. The editorial counters, saying these are requisites today, not luxuries. A more practical measure is the ability to afford education, health care, child care, housing and utilities. These determine quality of life, and by this measure we’ve made progress. Government programs are helping many, but the numbers of the economically vulnerable continue to creep upward.

It also makes the case that we live in neighborhoods defined by our respective economic clout. And the result, says a Stanford economist, is an isolation that threatens our concept of the common good. The poor and the affluent experience different realities. The prosperous who don’t live with the daily challenge of surviving paycheck to paycheck as the near poor, or hand to mouth as those in poverty; are less likely to support public schools, parks, mass transit and other investments that benefit the broader society.

The first words my wife spoke to me this morning after wishing me happy Thanksgiving were, “I don’t like this time of year because it’s so hard on the children.” She works in an urban school district with kids from low income families. She says the expectations created by hyped up advertising are so great and the disappointment so deep, it hurts.

The ads promote desire, and hold out the false promise that happiness rests in owning this or that gadget. But reality for these kids is different. They are among the 17 million who, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, face bigger problems like hunger, overcrowded living conditions, parents who can’t pay the rent or mortgage and can’t afford health care.

As we talked, I got an email note from a poverty-fighting friend. Likely, he was writing from one of his usual haunts overseas, a village where poverty is bald-faced and crystal clear. He gave thanks for our friendship, a job, a warm bed and shelter over his head, things, he notes, that billions the world over don’t have. I thought of Jesus’ followers who ask in Matthew 25, “Lord, when did we see you?” And his reply, “When you did unto the least of these, you did it to me.”

The struggle to survive occurs in the early morning darkness as a young woman tosses newspapers, doing a job no one would relish, but one that helps her to get by. It occurs in the dry plains of Somalia, in ravaged Darfur, teeming city slums, townships, favelas and forgotten rural villages the world over. Unseen.

Reading the paper this Thanksgiving morning was like reading the Bible.

Entering A New Age Of Faith

Do we stand at the dawn of the Age of the Spirit, as theologian Harvey Cox writes in “The Future of Faith,” or the end of the religious era, as Bob Roberts Jr. writes in “Glocalization: How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flattened World”?

Harvey Cox

Cox believes the world is becoming more religious, not less, and that faith is being reclaimed as a way of living and acting in the world as we stand before the mystery of God. Roberts writes the future of the church will be the story of the non-religious follower of Jesus, as I reported in a previous post.

These two views are not as incompatible as they seem at first glance, nor are they unique. Shane Hipps takes a similar tack in “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture,” and Tex Sample makes the case that faith is best communicated among working class people as practice and not as belief (“Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus,” Abingdon Press).

This points to the ferment stirring in religious communities worldwide. It’s ferment about how faith is defined, its place in the world and how faithful people express it.

As we move toward global interconnectedness and a mediated culture that is image-based, viral and relies on stories, it looks more like the oral culture of Jesus than not. The paradox is that technology gives us the ability to communicate directly and to tell our stories broadly.

Trust vs. belief

Cox reminds us the earliest followers of Jesus were said to follow “The Way” (Acts. 9:2). Faith, Cox says, meant a dynamic lifestyle nurtured in communities guided by men and women that reflected hope for God’s coming reign.

The earliest Christians affirmed that “Jesus is Lord.” To follow him meant to do as he said in Matthew 25: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, give drink to the thirsty.

In the long chain of history, however, Cox says this dynamic view of faith got changed.Trust in Jesus became belief about Jesus, Cox writes.

Trusting in Jesus, however, meant recognizing the kingdom of God that he proclaimed is here and now. It meant the world has unrealized potential and the faithful are called to help fulfill this potential even in the face of setbacks and death itself. It is a commitment to hope. Both Roberts and Cox end with this hope. It is the foundation for faithful living.

‘A God-sized challenge’

Faith is best expressed in community—something each of the writers I’ve cited also makes clear. Jesus used the poetry of Isaiah to explain his call to his followers to be outward-bound people acting in ways that not only usher in the kingdom of God but also affirm its reality here and now.They are called to be servant people who affirm the reign of God.

This is a challenge in a globally interconnected world. How do we live our faith locally and globally? As I read these writings about faith as practice, I’m left with a root question: How do we seek justice locally and globally? Cox admits it’s an unresolved question. Roberts offers a partial answer by calling for local faith communities to have global relationships.

But if we are really called to transform the world, which is what Matthew 25 is about, then that means change of a significant scope and scale. It will require collaboration, partnership and global vision beyond anything we’ve experienced before. If following Jesus means pursuing the kingdom of God, that’s more than humbling; it’s a God-sized challenge.

I think that’s the new age we’re entering—a new age of faith with a global vision.

 

 

 

Living Faithfully in a Post-Religious Age

When Bono spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago, he spoke about the need for the world to put an end to poverty and to tackle the diseases of poverty. He spoke with a clarity that got headlines and an op-ed in the New York Times.

 Bono did not speak as a member or participant of a religious group. In that sense, he was a non-religious advocate for values and practices that are compatible with most religious groups, particularly Christian.

Bob Roberts Jr. says the primary story of the future for the church will be the non-religious follower of Jesus. (“Glocalization: How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flat World,” Bob Roberts Jr., Zondervan)

Melinda Gates

Four years ago, I attended the Gates Foundation Malaria Forum where Melinda Gates addressed professionals working to end malaria. She sent shockwaves through the audience when she called on the world to eradicate malaria. Only minutes before she arrived, the group had debated whether malaria could be eradicated or eliminated, the latter defined as controlling the disease within a specific geographic area. Eradication means ending it globally, once and for all. It was a “no-no” word until Ms. Gates issued her challenge. After that, it became the goal.

A few days ago, Ms. Gates, at the second Gates Foundation Malaria Forum, cited the work of the people of the The United Methodist Church who have made it their business to take up the fight to eradicate malaria.

The prophetic voice not only challenges but also affirms, and in these instances the prophetic words call the world to claim a “God-sized” vision to put an end to poverty and eradicate a killer disease.

Living beyond religious language

We’re in an age in which voices outside the religious community challenge us to heal a hurting world. This is a biblical imperative. And for Christians, it’s a call to follow the teachings of Jesus, but it’s not phrased in religious language.

Some scholars say we are living in a post-Christian era, but that term is a misnomer. Perhaps we’re in a post-institutional era (and I’m uncertain about even this phrase), but faithful living is even more necessary. The teachings of the Bible are more relevant than ever.

To Micah, it wasn’t complicated: “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what GOD is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously– take God seriously.” (Micah 6:8,9, “The Message”)

Similarly, as recorded in Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear how his followers should enter into the world: “… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. …Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 35,36. 41, “The Message”)

Micah and Jesus talk of justice with compassion and humility. They say faithfulness involves serving the poor, sick, dispossessed and oppressed. It’s about connecting with others. And from this connection grows the recognition that we belong to God and that God is reaching out to us in a gracious embrace that is life-giving.

Catching up with God

To follow Jesus is to find where God is at work and try to catch up. It is living in the assurance that under the pain and beyond the chaos of life lie meaning, fulfillment and abundance — not abundance as in the material world, but abundance as in a life rich in connection with others, coherence, creativity, hope and positive action. Faith helps us find this place, and finding it requires us to serve. When we serve as Jesus called us to serve, we discover it’s life changing and potentially world transforming.

It’s a world of connections and engagement, collaboration and partnership between religious and non-religious. In the new horizontal world of global interconnections, faith is viral, passing from person to person, multiplying and becoming an expansive, transforming movement that reveals both our mutual needs and strengths, and, to our surprise, we discover the kingdom of God in our midst.

Open leaders have open meetings

When Bishop Warner Brown said at the United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting yesterday that bishops need a “safe place” to discuss issues they are uncertain about, he was raising the dilemma many leaders of public organizations face in this new world of horizontal communications. Public discussion is often beyond our control. And that is unsettling, sometimes leads to inaccurate attribution and puts the speaker on the defensive unfairly.

Bishop Brown pointedly looked at the journalists in the room and said he could not speak tentatively or test new thoughts in their presence, for these very reasons. That’s the dilemma.

He wasn’t helped, however, by the first response of Fred Miller, the consultant who is advising the Interim Operations Team about how to re-organize the general church. Miller was advising the bishops about how to become a “leadership group.”

He outlined a strategy that at times sounded manipulative and concealing. Miller told the bishops to present their most inconsequential and boring material in such an exhaustive way the press would get bored and leave the room, and then the bishops could get to the meaty subjects they really want to discuss. He said this is his advice to boards of public organizations.

In a wide-ranging conversation that included a call to honesty and open leadership, courage and perseverance, this wasn’t the only bad advice Miller gave the bishops. He also told them one way to deal with conflict is to escalate the complexity of the issue so that the opponents get confused and the issue so muddled that the original disagreement gets resolved in the fog.

Not exactly a prescription for open leadership in the 21st century.

Miller did seem to comprehend the dark chasm he had stepped into with regard to journalism and much later expressed support for the fourth estate. He told the bishops the best way to deal with Bishop Brown’s concern was to be transparent and put everything on the web for all to see. Then, he said, it’s possible to assess such things as metrics, by looking at trends and avoid referring to the personal failures of individuals, or discussing opinions. This fact-based approach de-personalizes the discussion and  gives data for discussing disputes, he said.

This is a more healthy way to assess much that we care about in the church. What was not spoken in this discussion is the fact that the Council is allowed to operate under its own rules of procedure with regard to the open meetings provision of Paragraph 271 of the Book of Discipline, the book of church law by which all church entities operate – though it is expected “to live by the spirit” of the paragraph.

The council has the option to go into executive session pretty much at will, and it uses it often. The day following this exchange, for example, the council spent the day in executive session.

Why closed meetings?

Sometimes, it’s not clear why this leadership group chooses to meet behind closed doors. When they launched the very important “In Defense of Creation” study, instead of streaming their discussion on the web as a way of showing why creation care is a crucial faith concern and how they were struggling with it, they went into executive session. They missed an opportunity to share with the whole church how they connect theology and faithful practice to protecting the Creation.

Even as a journalist, I’m sympathetic to the need for leaders to have a way to discuss nettlesome matters they must deal with. We need the ability to think out loud without being locked into positions that we raise in a speculative way. We don’t want to be misquoted or held to some position that we don’t really support merely because we asked a question about it. And that happens.

But it happens whether the journalists are in the room or not. It happens when people gossip. It happens when leaders speak to staff and staff read between the lines and make assumptions. It happens when we make a jocular comment in a hallway conversation that ends up on Twitter as a more definitive statement than we could have imagined. It’s the horizontal communications world we live in.

Leaders in a public organization lead public lives. At United Methodist Communications, we offer training to episcopal leaders and others about dealing with the media. We offer resources for creating social media strategies. We offer crisis communications management training. We offer support for strategic communications planning. Few bishops take us up on these offers.

Changing the climate

The current climate in which we live is a climate that starts with skepticism. We’ve been worked over by institutions that had harmful agendas. We’ve seen 20-plus years of mismanagement of sexual abuse cases by the Roman Catholic Church, and religious figures from many backgrounds fall to the same private practices they publicly condemn. We’ve seen politicians lie, business leaders abuse trust, and our public institutions and corporations abandon the people who depend upon them. Trust is broken.

Sunshine is the best antidote. Honesty is still the best policy. We’re all human. We’re all anxious and afraid. We all need a safe place. A community of trust that allows us to be human will be based on openness, honesty and accountability.

And we desperately want leaders to take us there – leaders with open hearts, open minds and open doors.

The World Cries for Economic Justice

While paying for groceries in Pine Mountain, Ga., recently, I heard another customer say, “It’s hard times right now. Hard times.”

I turned to see a young man, perhaps in his early 30s, dressed in soiled blue jeans and a cotton shirt, telltale signs his work is physical and dirty. It was the end of his workday.

A Cape Town Folk Art Artist

Now, jump from Georgia to a downtown craft market in Cape Town, South Africa. I am talking with a young artist-vendor who says, “It is difficult right now. If I sell one or two paintings per day it is a good day.” His small folk art paintings sell for US$30. He emigrated from Zambia hoping for a better life here. If he sells at this pace for a year, his income will be equivalent to US$10,000, in a city with living costs equivalent to those of a typical U.S. city.

Now let’s move to Harare, Zimbabwe, where Kubatana, a nonprofit organization, is attempting to offer interactive telephone services to low-income Africans. Brenda Burrelle explains Freedom Fone is for people who can’t afford broadband and those who can’t read.

UNICEF and Freedom Fone are creating a two-minute audio drama series to educate women workers about how to deal with unwanted sexual advances by supervisors. However, each cell phone segment will cost 43 U.S. cents airtime. For a Zimbabwean worker earning US$30 per month, it’s too costly. (In township lingo in Cape Town, the cell phone is known as “bleed me dry.”)

Three anecdotes do not prove a trend, but when considered alongside several recently released studies of global economic conditions, they illustrate the growing gap between the rich and poor, the need for meaningful work, and the need for economic and labor policies that favor job creation. This need is global, and it’s spiritual.

The Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor

The rich are getting richer, faster than ever, according to a report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, summarized in The Guardian. High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI), defined as those with more than $1 million in free cash, have enjoyed a 10 percent increase in their wealth in recent years. They now control $42.7 trillion.

As governments around the world implemented austerity measures and politicians in the United States called for tax breaks for the wealthy to stimulate the economy, the wealth of HNWI surpassed the peak reached in 2007 at $40.7 trillion.

At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reports the number of poor in the United States grew by 2.6 million in the last year, creating the highest poverty level (15.1 percent) since 1993. Worse, the poverty rate for 18- to 24-year-olds is at its highest level since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “war on poverty” in 1964.

The issue isn’t that wealth or the wealthy are evil. It’s that economic policies that favor wealth creation but do not also favor job creation and economic justice produce evil results – results that, in the long run, are harmful to all.

The Need for Meaningful Work

I heard an Irish woman recently say if her wages and purchasing power got worse, she would be working for free. Young people in Spain are going to the streets to protest unfair employment policies in a distressed economy. Portugal is experiencing out-migration of skilled young adults to former colonies such as Angola and Brazil because they can’t find meaningful work in their home country. Much of the Arab Spring has been about educated young adults frustrated at the lack of meaningful work and by unresponsive, corrupt, authoritarian governments.

In a special report on the future of jobs, The Economist (Sept. 10th-16th, 2011) says the number of officially unemployed stands at 205 million people worldwide. This is 19 percent of the global workforce, many of them young, educated adults in countries with a “youth bulge” in their populations.

A Gallup survey cited by The Economist says 12 percent of the global workforce is underemployed, and the International Labor Organization claims 1.53 billion people in 2009 were in “vulnerable employment” working for themselves or in underpaid family jobs.

In each nation, policies differ, but one thing is clear: in a complex, interconnected world the simplistic rhetoric of trickle-down economics needs to be retired. No matter where this economic ideology is employed, it creates unacceptable gaps between the rich and poor. It creates injustice, hardship and concentration of wealth that fosters social instability. It creates winners and losers. It does not create jobs.

Creating a Better Future

In a more positive vein, there is an opportunity for those concerned with economic justice to advocate for policies that will encourage innovation, immigration reform and job creation, writes The Economist. Those concerned about education must continue to press for reform and support quality universal education.

And we must all consider the changing structure of work in the global economy. The nature of work itself is changing. The need for new skills comes at a faster pace. We are less likely to find long-term employment in a single company and more likely to have “serial careers.” We will utilize online education more than ever. And we’ll have to be even more responsible for marketing ourselves. Some employment experts say we’re moving toward fluid, flexible work as individual contractors.

In “The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here,” Lynda Gratton of the London Business School says we will need to build a “posse” of 15 people to whom we can turn when work life gets difficult. These are people we can trust and work with effectively in the new workplace.

Gratton says we will need to stay mentally fresh by following a “big-ideas crowd,” stay in touch with talented, open-minded people, and spend time in thought-provoking conferences.

We also need “regenerative communities” to maintain emotional balance, including time with family and friends in the real world apart from the world of work, people with whom we can laugh, share stories and relax.

A Concern for People of Faith

As we enter the emerging work world, we are reminded that self-esteem is embedded in the work we do. When it’s meaningful, we experience fulfillment and self-esteem. At root, this is the spiritual side of work. I believe faith is about how we understand our place in the world in relationship to God and to each other. Work is, or should be, a concern to religious believers because it so intimately connected with human dignity and justice.

When work is reduced to job skills and economic indicators, we lose this perspective, and we also lose sight of the values embedded in work that affect our well-being and contribute to justice for all.

As I’ve traveled the past few weeks, I’ve heard a common theme worldwide, a cry really, for meaningful work and justice. From Pine Mountain, to Harare, to Cape Town and beyond, the people of the world yearn for fulfilling work and economic justice.

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Faith Media + Culture is pleased to release the first of a series of surveys on contemporary issues surrounding media consumption, changing culture and our faith.  To find out more about American perceptions of global involvement, read our 2011 Global Involvement Study.

To download a copy of the report, please click here.

 

Fear or Faith? The Alternative View of the World

Fear is not the only force at work in the world. When The United Methodist Church proclaimed this biblical truth by posting a building-size banner near Ground Zero in New York following the 9/11 tragedy, the church spoke not only to passersby but to the world.

By projecting its voice into the global conversation at this critical moment, the church brought reassurance and hope that despite the fear the terrorists hoped to instill there is an alternative way to view the world. The church took the message of the gospel into the streets, as Wesley did when he started the Methodist movement.

The biblical basis for this claim is 1 John 4:18,19, “perfect love casts out fear.” This brief passage is a remarkable teaching about the power of love, and its ability to overcome fear.  God’s perfect love casts out our fear.

The 2011 Global Involvement Survey by United Methodist Communications reveals that fear of terrorism has not really taken root as a major force among United Methodists in the U.S., nor a majority of the society.  Twice as many people (32%) are concerned about the state of the global economy as are concerned about terror (16%).  Undeniably, this economic concern includes a great deal of uncertainty, if not fear, but, as a church and as a society, we are not particularly bound by our fears. I take hope in this.

As I reflect on 9/11 and how it has affected us, I am reminded that the crisis compelled us to see the world and our place in it differently. The old polarity of local and global no longer holds. We live in an interconnected world in which circumstances affecting people far away can have direct effect upon us.  Approximately 60% of those surveyed agreed that the world is a more interconnected today.   Like it or not, we are citizens in a global environment.

The research also reveals a challenge. We understand connections close to home better than we understand how global interconnections affect us. That’s understandable, but it does place responsibility on us as disciples of Jesus to think of the world as our parish, as John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement said, and to see how the local and global are intertwined by the bonds of God’s love for all.

I think the tragedy of 9/11 awakened us to a new global reality. The future is neither local nor global, it is glocal, a term that captures a wide range of activities of friendship, kinship and commerce, according to its Wikipedia entry.

Nor is the future something of which to be afraid. As local and global are intertwined, we are given the opportunity to express our faithfulness and discipleship in the dynamic mix of this divine symmetry. We live in God’s Creation under the reign of God. This is both spiritually comforting and has practical application. As we do ministry locally and globally, we gain understanding of our place in God’s Creation and discover the wondrous beauty of the whole.

I thank God that we need not live fearfully in the world, but that we are called to love the world boldly. And I’m thankful that Wesley called us to have the vision to see the whole world as the place for us to do ministry.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…Psalm 24:1-2.

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Faith Media + Culture is pleased to release the first of a series of surveys on contemporary issues surrounding media consumption, changing culture and our faith.

To download a copy of the report, please click here.

 

 

 

 

Poll on Global Citizenship Released

The survey looks at American attitudes toward global citizenship.

United Methodist CommunicationsThe 2011 Global Involvement Survey, being released here, underscores the increasing sense of connection people have with international events.

The study finds that one in five U.S. adults follows international news closely, with almost half (48 percent) following international news at least once a day.  Our interest and consumption of international news seems to grow with our age and probably our exposure to the world. The heavy consumer of international news tends to be a male, over 55 years old.

Some of the major stories we have seen in the past six months have literally rocked the world – Japan’s earthquakes, Osama bin Laden’s death, struggling European and U.S.  economies, collapsing Arab regimes, famines and drug wars. These are more than regional events; their shockwaves are felt on an international scale.

The global stories that attracted the most attention in recent months were the Japanese earthquake and related disasters, and the death of Osama bin Laden.  Other closely followed stories included Libya’s efforts to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi, the Arab Spring, Mexico’s drug wars and the recent royal wedding.

Economy Trumps Terrorism as Top Concern

2011 Global Involvement SurveyBut with all these stories grabbing media space, the top international issues in the world today are economic weakness and unemployment, with one-third of respondents ranking the economy and lack of jobs first.  It appears that issues that can affect our livelihood rank higher than even terrorism, which was listed as the most important issue by 16 percent.

Those who follow news closely seek out more sources of news.  And older adults are much more likely to view traditional media, such as television and print, while young adults are more likely to get news from online sources.

Responding to Global Issues

Some 60 percent of the survey respondents agree that the world is more interconnected today.  Undoubtedly, the tremors from real earthquakes, terrorist events and tumultuous economies seem to be felt in towns throughout America. Not surprisingly, most adults expect the U.S. government to take an active role in addressing international issues related to human suffering, such as providing famine relief, ending genocide, promoting clean water and eradicating disease.

Respondents, however, felt that leadership in addressing global issues of hunger and poverty should be assigned to the United Nations, international medical organizations and governments of countries suffering from the problem.

When looking at world health and diseases of poverty, the most widespread and serious concerns were perceived to be HIV/AIDs (64 percent), malnutrition (53 percent) and obesity (49 percent).

When asked where they turn when disasters happen, 52 percent tend to turn to U.S. and International Red Cross organizations first.  Church and religious organizations were second (29 percent), indicating the important role faith-based institutions play in serving both local and global needs.

Getting Involved Personally

The top activities for personal involvement are donating money (86 percent), donating items (71 percent), volunteering time (46 percent), purchasing from a non-profit (38 percent), sharing information (36 percent) and praying for a group or issue (33 percent). Women are more likely to take part in all areas of community involvement, particularly prayer.

The survey, commissioned by United Methodist Communications, was conducted June 10-18, 2011,  and among 870 adults 18 years of age and older.

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Faith Media + Culture is pleased to release the first of a series of surveys on contemporary issues surrounding media consumption, changing culture and our faith.

To download a copy of the report, please click here.

Why Somalia Matters

A rudimentary health clinic in the bush.

Twenty years ago, I sat at a wooden table under a plastic tarp eating cereal in powdered milk made of charcoal-filtered water at a refugee camp near Luuq, Somalia. It was the sparest of conditions.

In the corner of my eye, I saw a young man and woman with an older woman sit down near a thorn fence a few hundred feet away. The young woman held a baby.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I joked and teased each other as the sun rose.

After we finished breakfast, a Somali-speaking staff interpreter came to the doctor who sat across from me and took him to the young couple. The young mother handed her baby to the doctor.

I was startled when I heard him shouting curse words. As we had eaten breakfast, they had waited politely and the malnourished child had died.

Hearing this, I became sick to my stomach, not to mention overwhelmed with a load of grief.

That was Somalia 20 years ago, in a massive famine in which millions of Somalis were displaced from their desiccated rangelands. Herds on which they depended for survival were dead and dying. Wells they used across the entire territory were dry. Food could not be found. Famine stalked the vast Ogaden rangelands across the breadth of Somalia and into Ethiopia.

Today, the news from Somalia is as grim. How the country got there is no secret. It’s been a failed state for 20 years.

Drought and conflict

Mother cooking in Somali village near a refugee encampment.

Periodic drought has resulted in famine about every 10 years. What’s different today, according to the U.N. World Food Programme, is changing weather patterns that make drought more common, giving the people and the land less time to recover.

Drought tips the scale, but conflict has been a persistent contributing factor. Famines in 1973, 1984 and 1992 were preceded by intractable conflict.

This year, the food shortages in Somalia have been exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian access to many areas, accompanied by a sharp increase in food prices.

The 10 million estimated by the United Nations to need food assistance today does not approach the 1992 figure of 23 million, according to the BBC. However, reaching them is more difficult. The BBC reports al-Shabab, a group of Islamist insurgents who control the south, has threatened the lives of U.N. staff and imposed unacceptable operating conditions, including informal taxes and a demand that no female staff work there for the WFP.

These recurring conditions — both natural and human-caused — contribute to a sense of futility and donor fatigue that’s dangerous. Those affected by famine are the most vulnerable in this troubled region — children, women and girls, and the elderly. They have not created the conditions that threaten their lives. They are least equipped to deal with famine.

The warlord problem

E.J. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group counsels international donors to see the current crisis as an opportunity to establish a relationship with moderates in al-Shabab and attempt to woo them away from terrorism. He suggests the humanitarian response must empower people and not warlords. And he cautions against aid as a component of military operations.

As I traveled through southern Somalia several years ago, locals told me of their frustration with a U.N. repatriation program for warlords conducted under the guise of establishing order. The locals claimed that the United Nations helped warlords who had fled the country after Said Barre’s regime fell, enabling them to return and putting them in charge of administering regional civil infrastructure. The result was the empowerment of the very group that had fractured and destroyed the country in the first place.

Young girl at a health clinic in the Somali bush.

Despite the international frustrations, children, young people and adults are still dying of hunger and related causes today in Somalia, and the world cannot stand by without making an effort to provide the help they need to survive. Somalia is a challenge to our humanity and the conscience of the world. We must not turn away from the innocent.

Called to act

The image of the couple with their baby 20 years ago still haunts me. It motivates me. Where we can, we must prevent children from dying for lack of food. We must be agents of life.

The neglect of Somalia also reminds us that the world is no more secure than its weakest, most vulnerable people, no matter where they are located. For years after the end of the Cold War, Somalia was overlooked by world leaders and its corrupt regime ignored. Then it fell apart, and now it’s a global problem, a place where uneducated, heavily armed young men commit piracy on the high seas and terrorists train recruits to kill and terrorize.

Somalia is not a distant place on the Horn of Africa, nor is the suffering of the Somali people of no consequence to us. As a person of faith who follows Jesus, I am called by his teachings about human worth and my responsibility to my neighbor to be concerned and to act. As a citizen of the world, I know my own desire for peace and a fruitful future is at risk by the unaddressed need for peace and stability in Somalia.

For benevolent reasons, for the well-being of the Somali people and our own, and for global security,  the world cannot ignore Somalia. As I have breakfast today, I know that babies are dying, and faithful discipleship and responsible global citizenship compel me to act.


The Givewell Blog discusses giving to Somali relief with descriptions of agencies currently on the ground. The United Methodist Committee on Relief reports preparation is under way with partners to respond to the crisis.

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