Reflecting on the Tragedy in Japan

The crisis in Japan is unlike any other. As the third-largest economy among developed nations and well-prepared with a national disaster plan, the country was as prepared as any could be to absorb the disaster it is facing.

Despite this, the extent of destruction and loss of life strains our comprehension and calls for our deepest compassion.

Even across the miles, our hearts ache as we identify with the human suffering. The Japanese were dealt a blow by nature that humbles not only them, but us as well.

The outpouring of concern is an expression of our common humanity, something that we’ve seen before and something that I believe helps us to retain a perspective that’s often lost as we go about our daily routines.

Life is fragile. In a matter of moments, whole cities in Japan were inundated. Thousands of lives lost. Homes and businesses that had taken years to build were swept away.

The surging waters also destroyed the order that we take for granted. The routine that we assume makes up our humdrum daily affairs turned to a moment of sheer terror.

Inevitably, some implicated God in the tragedy. As I type this post, email brings me a press release about an evangelical author speaking to the subject, “Does God Let Bad Things Happen?” It’s a futile question. I don’t believe we can implicate a providential God in the evil of undeserved suffering.

Rather, we live in an ongoing creation. The earth, if not the whole universe, is evolving, and we fool only ourselves if we assume that our existence is fixed and secure.

To recognize this does not weaken faith; it makes it more complex, durable and dynamic. I pray for God to be present with us, to strengthen us, to enter into this contingent experience we call life.

It’s the difference between believing that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, or is the one who brings death. We will never resolve the enigma of evil by asking where tragedy comes from. This is the wrong question according to Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He cites German theologian Dorothee Soelle (“Suffering“), who says the more pertinent question is: Where does it (tragedy) lead us?

If the tragedy in Japan leads us to care more compassionately for one another; to give the whole of Creation the deep respect, wonderment and concern that it deserves; to value each day as an irreplaceable gift; and to bow before the Creator in humility and gratitude, then perhaps it will have led us to a more fruitful and productive state.

And for Christ’s followers, if it leads us to more fully appreciate and understand the God who is incarnate–present in this existence with us–and who, while enduring our suffering with us, also calls us to be servants and lift up others, then perhaps we will see that such a disaster is not God’s doing. Instead, we might see how tragedy can be an invitation to live the meaningful and abundant life that God intends for all.

Rob Bell and Hell

Yaweh. In Hebrew, "I AM WHAT I AM"

After reading reactions to megachurch pastor Rob Bells’s video trailer promoting his new book Love Wins, I thought he must be renouncing the faith! Bell is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. Then I looked at the trailer and I couldn’t figure out what was behind the ruckus.

He asks if we might see God as loving, not punitive. He asks us to entertain the thought that there may be other pathways to comprehend God. And he hints that hell might be a state of being.

These thoughts aren’t spelled out in depth, but we’re led to the book where, we must conclude, the issues will be discussed more fully.

This does not strike me as cutting edge theology. In fact, as I see it, it’s the hindquarter of late 19th and early-20th century debates between liberals and fundamentalists. In the 1930s and 40s, Harry Emerson Fosdick was more provocative than Bell is today. Fosdick wrote, “The fact that astronomies change while the stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all. No existent theology can be a final formulation of spiritual truth.” This led him to be called heretic, as Bell today.

This leads me to wonder if this flap is a sign of the maturing of the evangelical movement, of which Bell is a leader. As he and his contemporaries wrestle with the complexities that we all face today, faith must be more adaptable to the challenges life presents us if it is to be relevant.

As with all Christians, they struggle with good and evil, personal faith and social responsibility, piety and justice, divergent theological propositions emerge. Life is complex, sometimes vexing. It confounds simple answers.

Some of us have glimpsed hell. If you’ve had to stand by and watch your child die from a debilitating illness that couldn’t be treated, if you’ve experienced an addiction that continues to ensnare you, if you’ve been to war and are haunted by the inhumanity of the human race, you’ve been to hell already. Hell comes in many forms.

We need a faith relevant to the hellishness of the human condition. We also need an understanding of God that helps us to know that God’s grace is provided to us before we comprehend it; that it precedes us before we even know if we can believe in it and before we have the words to speak of it. God doesn’t command us to accept it, God beckons us to apprehend it. In a still small voice, we hear, “Be still and know that I am God,” and Christians see God incarnate in Jesus.

And that leads to my second hunch. Evangelical Christians like Bell are also coming to terms with life in a multi-faith, interconnected global society.

If we believe this is God’s world and we are the beneficiaries of God’s graciousness, and utterly dependent upon it, then who are we to assert that we can define the great I Am, much less to claim with authority for all time and all people, that we know how God chooses to be revealed? Is God limited to a single expression of revelation? And is this great mystery comprehensible to us anyway?

No, the very thought is humbling. And perhaps that’s where faith takes us today, to a humble place between hubris and muddled, discombobulated belief.

We have scripture, the creeds of the church and centuries of writing to guide us. I’m not suggesting that we turn away from our understanding of Christian faith. In fact, we need to dig deeper, question more. But we must approach our faith and other faiths with humility. As Bernard Schweizer suggests, it’s hard to imagine that Gandhi, the Dali Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi or (I would add)  Muhammad Yunus are destined to roast in hell.

Maybe faithfulness is in that sweet spot where we search for truth, seek the Holy and apprehend through the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us, that God is indeed still speaking in many languages and voices.

Wesley’s quadrilateral–the use of scripture, reason, tradition and experience to comprehend the life of the spirit–is enormously helpful to me in this search. It provides me with checks and balances that allow me to weigh the spiritual search, religious dogma, history and personal understanding. It’s an inclusive method. It supports humility and leads me to listen to others, and for that still small voice.

And we could do worse than to listen; to “be still and know that I am God.”

(A note: After writing, this seemed incomplete. I realized I had not provided readers with an especially important part of my theological life–the basic grounding that I find most helpful–Wesley’s quadrilateral. I edited the piece by adding the next to last paragraph to provide this background. Changed March 12, 2011, 9:20 a.m.)

Teddy Bears And Ash Wednesday

In the darkness of a winter morning some years ago, a young man crouched in the entry of a building on the grounds of the Kansas School for the Blind where my wife taught. When she entered, he knocked her to the ground, grabbed her purse and violently ripped off a gold necklace I had given her.

By the time I got to her, she had already spoken with the police but she was bruised, fearful and angry. Never the less, I was about to learn a lesson from her that seems especially appropriate on this Ash Wednesday.

Weeks later she got a small insurance settlement. The day it arrived we went to a Michael’s crafts store. Not for crafts but for redemption.

Sharon said she was so angry at the young man who robbed her, so upset that she had lost that particular necklace, and felt so violated that the only way to move past those feelings was to give them up. The toxic mix of anger, victimization and loss were taking a piece of her soul.

She took the insurance payment and used it to buy each child in the school a teddy bear. So here we stood in Michael’s packing two hundred bears in boxes.

And you know what happened? We had a ball! We forgot the robbery, the anger and the fear. We laughed. We teased the manager of the store. She had as much fun as we did.

We found ourselves by giving away those hurt, angry feelings. What mattered was imagining the joy we hoped the children would experience. What mattered was getting outside ourselves and focusing on others.

It’s a small story, not the whole story of Lent. Lent is about faithfulness and discipleship. Jesus said we find ourselves by giving, not by getting. His call is more profound than giving teddy bears. He called us to take on the yoke of servanthood. He even said those who give up their lives will save their lives, and those who seek their lives, who can’t get outside of themselves, will lose them.

The paradox of servanthood is that by living sacrificially we find life and we are made more whole. And his promise is that we will come to know the self-giving love of God which can’t be taken from us, neither fails nor rusts but is incorruptible and endures forever.

They Called Me Larry

I didn’t know I was “oil field trash” until the point was driven home to me as a child in elementary school. My dad was an itinerant oil field laborer, known colloquially as a “roughneck.”

We followed the oil rigs, moving every few months. I lived in Crane, Andrews, Brownfield and Odessa in Texas; Elmore City and Stroud in Oklahoma; and Newcastle, Wyo., all before the sixth grade.

While waiting for the school bus on a crisp autumn day in a small West Texas town, an older boy told me, “Hey, white trash, your bus stops over there.” He pointed across the street.

Another said, “He ain’t white trash; he’s oil field trash.”

I waited across the street as the bus came and went.

But that’s not the whole story. In every town, there was a United Methodist church. I gravitated to these. They had scout groups, youth activities, vacation church school, choirs and Christmas pageants.

In virtually every place, they were welcoming and safe. They called me by my name. I wasn’t “oil field trash.” I was Larry.

A church that makes outsiders feel welcome embodies the grace of God, a grace freely given, and extended to us without regard for our status.

Today, more than ever, we need that grace. The world needs that grace to heal the divisions that cut across our lives.

We see this need everyday. A continuous stream of news about racial conflict, political marginalization, economic exploitation, the denial of rights based on cultural profiles, and the outright bullying of everyone from small children to elderly people reveals it. Sometimes such behavior is based on little more than paranoia and pure meanness, but always it damages the human spirit.

We live in a polarized world, increasingly defined by “ins” and “outs,” “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s a world that we’ve inherited, but it’s also one that we’ve helped create. The responsibility for changing it rests with us. That’s where grace comes in.

The grace that I experienced as a child came through the outpouring of love from others. Where would any of us be if not for the grace given us through loved ones, family members, friends, and at times, complete strangers? Perhaps God’s highest purpose for us is to serve as channels of grace in that way.

The problems we face as a society and world will not be solved by intellect and political craft alone. The rhetoric is too loud, the suspicions too deep. Grace is the only power that can lift us up, mend our wounds and help us move forward together. It is the only power that can lead us to acceptance and understanding of one another.

Extending grace, however, requires us to reach out and make someone else’s life better – regardless of whether we approve of what that person believes or represents. That’s the thing about grace: It’s unconditional.

It also transforms lives. The acceptance that I experienced in churches as a child ultimately led me to choose a career in the ordained ministry.

Those small-town congregations offered safe haven to the scruffy son of an itinerant worker whose family followed the rigs, never staying more than six months anywhere.

They offered transformative community and, because they did, I experienced the transforming love of God. For this, I will forever be thankful.

Is Al Jazeera Real News?

Al Jazeera English viewership has increased 2500% in the past few weeks

“Their news is so much better,” she said, looking up from her iPad screen.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because ours is such crap.”
Case closed.

My media critic-spouse was watching Al Jazeera English and comparing its Middle East coverage to that of the mainstream U.S. media. She unknowingly echoed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Al Jazeera was providing better coverage than U.S. mainstream media.

It’s a question getting serious attention today: Is Al Jazeera a serious news provider in which we can place trust?

The root of the question goes to the image of Al Jazeera as the medium through which Osama bin Laden chose to make his public condemnations of the United States after 9/11. With virtually no access to the network, U.S. audiences were left to conclude it was at least a tool of radical Islamists, if not a voice.

That perception is now being challenged by the network’s in-depth coverage of the uprisings occurring in its own backyard, Doha, Qatar. The coverage is straightforward, in-depth and comprehensive. It is giving exposure to human rights activists, people in the street and, when possible, to those leaders defending the status quo. But it’s clear that Al Jazeera’s English network coverage leans toward giving voice to those advocating for democracy, and this puts it at odds with governments bent on silencing dissent and experienced at using oppressive tactics to hold on to power. And it’s in sharp contrast to state-controlled media.

Al Jazeera English staff were beaten along with other journalists in Egypt, and its Cairo bureau was ransacked and closed. Reporters continued to phone in reports from the street level until they could restore live feeds.

I’ve been viewing Al Jazeera’s English-language coverage online since the start of the Egyptian uprising, and it’s been immensely more informative than any other source.

Its reporters have access to a wide variety of knowledgeable people who provide insight into the region and to country-specific circumstances. This coverage is deeper and offers more context than we see in U.S. electronic media.

Al Jazeera seems to believe our attention spans can hold on through a five- or 10-minute interview or a 30-minute panel discussion. And the truth is, when the information is compelling, informed and fresh, we can.

The network offers global news that rivals other providers and exceeds anything I’ve seen in U.S. electronic media. I’ve watched its documentaries and discussion programs and found the information reliable and relevant on a wide range of subjects.

This discussion at Columbia University of new media is but one example.

In a recent interview with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator’s son and heir-apparent,  correspondent Anita McNaught pushed and probed with hard questions, at one point telling him as he interrupted to let her finish her question. It was an intriguing insight into his current rationalization of the violence in Libya, in contrast to his past statements about human rights and the need for democracy throughout the region.

So, do I trust Al Jazeera English as a news source? Yes, until I have reason not to. And that’s the stance I believe we must take today toward all news providers. Dan Gillmor writes that we must move from passive-consumption to become hands-on users of news and information.

We must have a healthly skepticism coupled with critical thinking in which we compare the information we hear from multiple sources and apply our own knowledge and experience against standards of fairness, accuracy and completeness.

Gillmor offers five principles: be skeptical, exercise judgment, open your mind, keep asking questions, and learn media techniques.

Using these principles as a guide, plus my own experience traveling the globe and my near-pervasive skepticism of all media, I am becoming a viewer who thinks Al Jazeera is a trustworthy provider until proven otherwise.

Citizen Journalists: Why An Open Internet Matters

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Al Jazeera provides real news and U.S. media are providing uninformative commentary between commercial breaks, she put in sharp relief the current state of the U.S. media.
It’s a complex, interrelated web of issues, and in this post I’ll limit myself to the Internet and access to news and information.

To do that, however, we have to accede to Secretary Clinton’s critique of U.S. journalism and its sorry state of global coverage.
If you want global news, or information that’s truly important, you have to hunt for it on U.S. cable or broadcast media. You’re more likely to find it in print or online, and frequently from a non-U.S. source.

Even as Clinton decried the lack of competent coverage of Middle East news, U.S. cable channels were telling us of Justin Beiber’s hair clippings being auctioned off on eBay, Charlie Sheen’s tragic meltdown, and the NFL owners’ lockout threat against the players. The latter was even raised at a White House press conference held by President Obama and Mexican President Calderone about border security.

U.S. electronic journalism reflects the corporatization of the electronic media, and we have no reason to expect that these media will ever be guided by anything but profit-making and entertainment.

Years ago, the FCC abdicated its responsibility for holding broadcast licensees responsible for serving the community, and in the recent Comcast/NBC decision, some media activists say it began the same giveaway of the Internet in the U.S.  The Internet is our tool for access to the public sphere today. The legacy media are on the wane, captured by corporate business models that provide us the fare Secretary Clinton decries.

An open Internet is an alternative to the old line media, and that’s why we must defend it against totalitarian governments on one hand and corporate capture on the other.

If the open Internet is not defended, we can expect to see online media become less participatory, less interactive and less accessible to those with limited ability to pay for premium service.  Clay Shirky offers insight on the dangers to the Internet from corporate control.

This defense of an open Internet requires us to learn the skills of citizen reporting, become conversant in social policy about net neutrality and an open Internet, become advocates for open access, and become participants in various online conversations with direct action in our communities.

My starting place for equipping people to engage this issue is Mediactive by Dan Gillmor. I also encourage people to become familiar with Seth Godin’s writings on leadership in the digital world. Clay Shirky is a thought leader in how we use the Internet and its effects on the social fabric.

The challenge to the open Internet is unfolding before our eyes in the uprisings in the Middle East. The Internet doesn’t make for revolution, but it enables people to organize and mobilize for change. The Internet is more than the wires, cables and servers that make up the technology. It’s also the means for communities to have a conversation with themselves, and for people around the globe to learn from, share with and support each other. It’s the way we participate in local and global conversations.

This makes it more like a public utility than a profit-making venture for private investors. This is why preserving an open Internet is important — because our ability to shape the world we live in and to have a voice is intimately connected to the World Wide Web.

The Most Typical Face on the Planet? Nat Geo Knows.

The Most Typical Face on the Planet

If I were to ask you to imagine the most typical face on the planet, would you imagine a blonde, Caucasian, female, or maybe a Beach Boy surfer dude? Perhaps a Hispanic, African or Indian?

According to National Geographic it’s none of these. It’s a 28-year-old Han Chinese male. National Geographic says this demographic makes up 9 million of earth’s soon-to-be 7 billion people.

In its year-long series, The Face of Seven Billion, the magazine says Chinese make up 19% of the global population, Indians 17% and Americans 4%. (I can’t find a definition of “American” in the online content. It could mean North American, Central American and South American, or some combination of the three. The term is too ambiguous for a study such as this.)

That complaint aside, this series is quite remarkable. Check out the online videos. They offer provocative information in concise packages and raise lifestyle questions that all of us should be thinking about.

Most importantly, the series leads us to not only consider the present, but to imagine the future. And the young Han Chinese male should enjoy his time in the spotlight. National Geographic says by 2030 he will be replaced by an Indian.



Budget Cuts and Dying Children

Yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the impact of H.R. 1 on U.S. global health programs before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  In her remarks, Secretary Clinton stated that H.R. 1 would result in:

  • $1 billion in cuts to global health
  • 5 million children and family members denied treatment and preventive intervention on malaria
  • 3,500 mothers and more than 40,000 children under 5 (of which 16,000 are newborns) denied access to child survival interventions
  • PEPFAR turning away 400,000 people who require treatment for HIV/AIDS
  • More than 16 million people denied treatment for tropical diseases
  • More than 40,000 children and family members denied TB treatment
  • 18.8 million fewer polio vaccinations
  • 26.3 million fewer measles vaccinations.


I ask, are we OK with this? Bank bailouts, Wall Street bonuses, corporate tax breaks, dying children, fewer medicines, increasing sickness. For ideas about making your voice heard go to Bread for the World.

“I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me…

Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me–you did it to me.”

Matthew 25:34-35, 40.

The Message

(Thanks to Mark Harrison of The United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society for the information about HR 1 compiled above.)

(After posting, I added a link to Bread for the World at 5:23 pm, March 3, 2011.)

Four Tools for Writing on the Go

Sometimes I’ve got a great idea for a blog post and need to jot it down because I can’t develop it fully at that moment. Sometimes I’d like to photograph something for later use. And sometimes a thought occurs that I can’t write down but I can record on an iPad or cellphone.

These are pretty common needs for a writer and I’ve found a variety of apps to help preserve these gems before I forget them.

Evernote is an all-around cloud app that I use for making notes, clipping links to articles, recording audio notes or capturing images. Evernote provides you with a personal email address that makes it easy to send yourself a link which lands directly in your Evernote notebook.

It’s available on several platforms and syncs your notes so that you can retrieve them from a tablet, cellphone, laptop or desktop.

I’ve created several notebooks to hold different types of content. One notebook holds brainstorms for the blog while another contains links to new media articles, for example.

As a result, I’ve dispensed with notes on napkins, slips of paper and the back of airline tickets, which was my former archiving system. Evernote is free.

Dropbox is similar to Evernote, but I think it’s easier for file sharing. It’s also a cloud-based app. I often put documents I want to share into a public folder in Dropbox and use the file sharing function to invite others to read them. They receive an email with login instructions.

Dropbox is especially useful for files like photos which are too large to send via email. I’ve sent collections of photos to colleagues with ease in Dropbox. Dropbox is also free and works across platforms. As with Evernote, in Dropbox you can work on a document offline, save it and sync to the cloud later.

Docs To Go. Sometimes I travel without a laptop and need to read a Word, rtf or pdf document on my iPad. Docs To Go opens these documents along with Excel and several photo formats. You can also edit documents and email or file them. The app also makes it possible to sync with desktop documents through Bluetooth if you have that on your laptop or desktop.

This versatility makes it a go to app. It’s also available for the iPhone. Docs To Go is a paid app.

iA Writer. Tablets weren’t made for heavy duty word processing but I want more than the elemental notes function that comes with the iPad.
For basic writing without the hassle of formatting, I use iA Writer. It’s designed to be a straightforward writing tool without bells and whistles. This means I can concentrate on the text and not fiddle with formatting distractions.

iA Writer has no preferences to change margins, fonts or font size. In an age of bloated software with functions too numerous to use and a learning curve too steep to bother with, this plain approach to getting ideas into the machine seems like a brilliant idea.

The on-screen keyboard of iA Writer adds functions that upgrade the standard keyboard on the iPad. These functions simplify cursor movement and punctuation. They make the onscreen keyboard much easier to use.

iA Writer has an email function and a setting to automatically sync your saved documents to an iA Writer file on Dropbox. This means it’s possible to send your document to Evernote, sync it to Dropbox, or send it as an email attachment. iA Writer is a paid app.

Taking the Pulse of News Today

Whoever said “the best things in life are free” probably never heard about Pulse. But the sentiment is correct for one of the best real-time iPad news reader apps around.

Pulse is an RSS feed on steroids.  It allows you to arrange your feed content into easy–to-browse, scrolling headlines.  Its slick magazine quality graphics feel like your own personal stack of magazines and websites. You can also personalize content by categories such as News, Business, Sports, Design, Food, and Tech.

Browsing through the app, I’ve discovered new sites and reintroduced myself to favorites like The Atlantic, BBC and Fast Company.  Plus, you can add any RSS feed to Pulse.

I also like that Pulse prominently displays the image associated with each story (as opposed to an abstract).  Its very pleasing visually. Viewing a variety of stories from all your favorite publications at one time is a real time-saver and engagement winner.

The way we use our iPads has contributed to the popularity of Pulse.  I turn to Pulse first thing in the morning, much as I used to do with a newspaper. For others, the iPad is the go-to leisure time reader.  It is the mobile device that we favor for couch surfing and bedtime reading.  Research has shown that consumption of articles in an iPad raises dramatically in the evening hours from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.  Pulse fits perfectly into our evenings and weekends.

Users can add Facebook and Twitter accounts as content sources, connect their Google Reader accounts or add individual RSS feeds or websites. The application supports up to 25 different news sources.

In November, Pulse added three different Facebook streams – news links, status updates and my wall –  so you can incorporate your own Facebook content in a unique fashion.

And this month, Pulse added six popular social media sites as sources: Reddit, Digg, Vimeo, YouTube, Picplz and Flickr.

Pulse is less than a year old but it’s growing by leaps and bounds.  An infusion of capital allowed parent company Alphonso Labs to move from a paid to a free site. The Pulse reader was developed by two talented young men, Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta, who created the app in ten weeks for a course at Stanford University.  After launch, it became a best-selling application in the iTunes App store.

The way we read is changing and while Pulse is the leader now, it will be interesting to see what tools will be our go-to in the next year.

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