This ain’t Uncle Walter’s world

If there were even an iota of doubt that the world has changed because of digital technologies, it should be erased now and forever by the Haiti earthquake. As I listened recently to an official source tell me “off the record” information, I was reading that same information on Facebook, and I received a link from a colleague about an online newspaper article containing the information. My “source” wanted to keep this “under the radar,” but he couldn’t keep it off the Internet.

Today information moves at the speed of the Internet. “Under the radar” is a quaint colloquialism. This new reality comes as disruptive and threatening to established communications patterns and traditional command and control organizations because it introduces a new set of values and new ways of perceiving.

It means the gatekeepers have lost control of the gate through which information flows. They can’t move fast enough because there are just too many cell phones and laptops in the hands of too many individuals with data packages and wireless access. There are too many gates to control. Those institutions that try will break down under the strain or become irrelevant. We will simply go elsewhere for information.

In this superheated environment, if you do not contribute to the conversation, you cannot expect to influence it, and you are irrelevant to it – even if you are an official source. The conversation will continue without you, making up the story as it moves along.

Of course, this is uncomfortable. It is certainly frustrating. And it results in a crazy mix of fact and fantasy. Yet it happens and it won’t stop. Yearn as we may for yesteryear and news anchor Walter Cronkite telling us “that’s the way it is,” those days are gone and they’re not coming back.

As I have worked with staff of United Methodist Communications during this week of earthquake coverage, I have felt like the steel ball in an old pinball machine, buffeted in every area by new information, decisions or challenges. I move through one passageway and I get slammed backward and have to adjust because a new force has been exerted. Not just the news operation, but marketing, fundraising, technology infrastructure, web utilization, graphic design, and public information are all affected by these changes.

Add to this, input from Twitter, Google and Facebook – real-time conversation, reaction and utilization – and you have a rock ’em, sock ’em communications environment that is always on and always moving. And that, as Uncle Walter used to say, is the way it is.

Don’t Tell Me Love Ain’t Worth the Fight

This is a cross-post from a blog I write for the agency for which I work, United Methodist Communications.

It is a time of darkness and deep sadness. This morning I wrote a personal note to my colleague Sam Dixon telling him of my joy at his rescue. Around noon today as I sat in the newsroom at United Methodist Communications, my colleague David Briggs informed Tim Tanton and me that Sam was dead.

I exhaled loudly, as if I had been kicked in the stomach. Tim suggested we pray together, and we did.

I went to my office and listened to the song that’s the music bed for our television spot playing now. And a line caught in my throat. "Don’t tell me love ain’t worth the fight," by the band The Congress.

Sam fought the fight against poverty and disease. He fought against indifference to human suffering and the unequal division of the world’s resources. And I think he would say, "don’t tell me love ain’t worth the fight." He died fighting the good fight.

I was to be in a meeting with him on Thursday to talk about combating malaria. And we were inviting him to attend our board meeting for strategic planning next month. Now there is this void.

This past week has been a time of emotional highs and lows. And if I’m feeling this at a distance, how much more so must it be for families missing loved ones? They are heavy on my mind. They fight through these days, clinging to hope and seeing reasons for despair.

In times like this when our human vulnerability is so fully exposed, faith means the most to me. We stand in the gathering darkness utterly vulnerable, our pretenses laid bare, our arrogance humbled, our false sense of power brought low and perhaps most significantly, our hopes dashed. In this state, in some miraculous way, we experience God’s grace.

Thomas Merton wrote, "If nothing that can be seen can either be God or represent him to us as he is, then to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness." In the darkness we find God. A mystery.

Through no action on our part, without justification or reason, it happens. We are encircled by a loving presence that affirms us, strengthens us, assures us and restores our hope. A great cloud of witnesses testifies to us that our vulnerability is not the whole story. There is more. It is the story of God reaching out to us because it is the nature of God to be with us in our darkest time.

The scriptures come alive. Those who wrote the sacred stories experienced life as we do. The passage of centuries does not diminish their authenticity. They knew pain as we know it, stumbled in the darkness as we stumble.

And in darkness they find themselves, even in their vulnerability, powerlessness and grief. "Once you were not a people, now you are God’s people," one writes. "I will gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise," another says of God’s promise. And a third says assuringly, "You will not fear the terror of the night." Yes, they know. They have walked where we have walked. Our humanness is their humanness.

In this I find hope. A connecting thread. A common humanity. "The Lord is near to the broken-hearted," they tell us. "Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning." A promise and hope.

Don’t tell me love ain’t worth the fight.

Don’t Tell me Love Ain’t Worth the Fight

It is a time of darkness and deep sadness. This morning I wrote a personal note to my colleague Sam Dixon telling him of my joy at his rescue. Around noon today as I sat in the newsroom at United Methodist Communications, my colleague David Briggs informed Tim Tanton and me that Sam was dead.

I exhaled loudly, as if I had been kicked in the stomach. Tim suggested we pray together, and we did.

I went to my office and listened to the song that’s the music bed for our television spot playing now. And a line caught in my throat. “Don’t tell me love ain’t worth the fight,” by the band The Congress. http://bit.ly/pE9ap

Sam fought the fight against poverty and disease. He fought against indifference to human suffering and the unequal division of the world’s resources. And I think he would say, “don’t tell me love ain’t worth the fight.” He died fighting the good fight.

I was to be in a meeting with him on Thursday to talk about combating malaria. And we were inviting him to attend our board meeting for strategic planning next month. Now there is this void.

This past week has been a time of emotional highs and lows. And if I’m feeling this at a distance, how much more so must it be for families missing loved ones? They are heavy on my mind. They fight through these days, clinging to hope and seeing reasons for despair.

In times like this when our human vulnerability is so fully exposed, faith means the most to me. We stand in the gathering darkness utterly vulnerable, our pretenses laid bare, our arrogance humbled, our false sense of power brought low and perhaps most significantly, our hopes dashed. In this state, in some miraculous way, we experience God’s grace.

Thomas Merton wrote, “If nothing that can be seen can either be God or represent him to us as he is, then to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness.” In the darkness we find God. A mystery.

Through no action on our part, without justification or reason, it happens. We are encircled by a loving presence that affirms us, strengthens us, assures us and restores our hope. A great cloud of witnesses testifies to us that our vulnerability is not the whole story. There is more. It is the story of God reaching out to us because it is the nature of God to be with us in our darkest time.

The scriptures come alive. Those who wrote the sacred stories experienced life as we do. The passage of centuries does not diminish their authenticity. They knew pain as we know it, stumbled in the darkness as we stumble.

And in darkness they find themselves, even in their vulnerability, powerlessness and grief. “Once you were not a people, now you are God’s people,” one writes. “I will gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise,” another says of God’s promise. And a third says assuringly, “You will not fear the terror of the night.” Yes, they know. They have walked where we have walked. Our humanness is their humanness.

In this I find hope. A connecting thread. A common humanity. “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted,” they tell us. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” A promise and hope.

Don’t tell me love ain’t worth the fight.

“I Am With You”

Over the course of a lifetime, I have come to the conviction that we are closest to God when we are most vulnerable and exposed. When we are at our most human.

The events in Haiti bring this conviction to the top of my mind once again. I see children in the streets unattached to adult family members. I see the wounded, exposed on the sidewalk in front of broken buildings. I hear the stories of relatives in the U.S. yearning for contact with loved ones and instead experiencing the yawning silence of damaged communications systems.

I see workers digging furiously, sometimes with their bare hands, to free trapped people. I see others tending the wounded. I read prayers on social media, as if the world is raising its voice in a chorus of concern.

I see reports of a global response that is being mounted miraculously only hours after the tragedy.

When I am confronting situations like the Haiti earthquake, I hear this conviction as if it is a whisper, “God is here. God is with us. God is in our midst.” I cannot explain it. The logic of faith breaks down in the complexities of human suffering and the struggle to comprehend life and not give victory to death. I hear this whisper and I believe it. It is beyond logic and even beyond reasonable comprehension.

Because it is a conviction deep in the well of my soul, I speak of it carefully and quietly, if at all. Perhaps I think it’s so personal I should not impose it on others, and so deeply held it does not require my simplistic explanation because that would seem defensive. It is a conviction, neither platitude nor argument.

And a promise. “…remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

We exist in the embrace of God who weeps with us, comforts us, stands with us in the midst of our suffering, feels the emptiness of our silence and holds us in the palm of God’s own hand.

I repeated it last night in conversation with myself and in prayer as I thought of the lives lost, the colleagues and family members not heard from, the homeless, injured, dazed and traumatized.

“The Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands… (Isa. 49:13-16. The Wesley Study Bible)

When you are most vulnerable and exposed. When you are most human, I am with you, always.

When God is Close

Over the course of a lifetime I have come to the conviction that we are closest to God when we are most vulnerable and exposed. When we are at our most human.
The events in Haiti bring this conviction to the top of my mind once again. I see children in the streets unattached to adult family members. I see the wounded, exposed on the sidewalk in front of broken buildings. I hear the stories of relatives in the U.S. yearning for contact with loved ones and instead experiencing the yawning silence of a damaged communications systems.
I see workers digging furiously, sometimes with their bare hands, to free trapped people. I see others tending the wounded. I read prayers on social media, as if the world is raising its voice in a chorus of concern.
I see reports of a global response that is being mounted miraculously only hours after the tragedy.
When I am in situations like the Haiti earthquake I hear this conviction as if it is a whisper, “God is here. God is with us. God is in our midst.” I cannot explain it. The logic of faith breaks down in the complexities of human suffering and the struggle to comprehend life and not give victory to death. I hear this whisper and I believe it. It is beyond logic and even beyond reasonable comprehension.
Because it is a conviction deep in the well of my soul I speak of it carefully and quietly, if at all. Perhaps I think it’s so personal I should not impose it on others, and so deeply held it does not require my simplistic explanation because that would seem defensive. It is a conviction, neither platitude nor argument.
And a promise. “…remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)
God is with us. All of us. We exist in the embrace of God who weeps with us, comforts us, stands with us in the midst of our suffering, feels the emptiness of our silence and holds us in the palm of God’s own hand.
I repeated it last night in conversation with myself and in prayer as I thought of the lives lost, the colleagues and family members not heard from, the homeless, injured, dazed and traumatized.
“The Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands… (Isa. 49:13-16. The Wesley Study Bible)
When you are most vulnerable and exposed. When you are most human, I am with you, always.

United Methodists stand with Haitians

This is the first morning of the Haitian earthquake tragedy and the devastation and loss of life in this impoverished neighbor are yet to be tallied. We know the suffering will be enormous. Material well-being was already lacking and now it will be even worse.

Our prayers and our commitment in the form of material assistance and our hands working with them to assess, relieve and rehabilitate the broken land will be needed into the long-term future.
No sooner had we at United Methodist Communications discussed our goal of providing United Methodists and others with timely, relevant information than this tragedy occurred. We assembled a team to provide coverage and they posted their first story shortly after the earthquake.

As I write early the next morning we are proceeding with relevant coverage. The United Methodist Church and its counterpart in Haiti have a long relationship of working together for the well-being of the people and the strengthening of the church. We are aware of mission teams from the U.S. who were in Haiti at the time of the quake and staff of the General Board of Global Ministries and its United Methodist Committee on Relief were in country for a meeting. And many of us have friends and relatives in the country, some of whom even after the long hours of this first night have not been heard from.

We will continue to develop reporting on the church’s relief, rehabilitation and long-term development efforts in Haiti. We invite you to help in the effort to inform others who are concerned by sending us pertinent information, photos, first person accounts and contacts.

We are on Twitter, Facebook and umc.org in addition to working the telephones. In tragedies such as this, the strength of the connectional system of The United Methodist Church stands out as a remarkably precious asset. Together we cannot only inform each other, but we can join hands with others to ease the great suffering that the Haitian people are certain to experience.

I invite you to follow our on-going coverage on umc.org and to share pertinent information with us so we may pass it along in this network of compassion and concern.
May we all keep the people of Haiti in our prayers.

Digital culture demands relevance, change

Can The United Methodist Church survive in the digital culture? If so, in what form will it exist? How must it adapt to be relevant to life in this new cultural reality?

We talk about this a lot at United Methodist Communications. We just spent a day discussing the challenges we are presented by the new digital culture in which we work, and how this new environment is shaping the church we serve.

Technology changes how we think, act and perceive the world around us. How we access, store and utilize information influences the culture. Perhaps influence is too mild a descriptor. It shapes culture.

That’s the thesis M. Rex Miller advances in The Millennium Matrix, a new book about faith and communications technologies. It’s a thought-provoking look at how technology affects culture and in turn shapes our perceptions about faith.

As communicators, we exist in an institution shaped by print technology, and cultural change is coming to it as a disruptive challenge that causes some to wonder if it can survive. In our day together, we didn’t pretend we could answer that question, but we did talk about how we can engage some of the specific challenges we face in the digital age.

We know the information we provide must be relevant to the needs and interests of the user – that it must go beyond merely the messages the institution desires to push out.

We understand that we are engaged in an interactive conversation and not in a one-way flow of information.

We believe we must reconsider how to make information more accessible in many different ways, from style of writing to format to placement on the screen to hyperlinked connections to multiple languages.

We know our audiences are global, and we must develop a more robust network of communicators who can tell the stories of the church and support its global conversation more adequately.

And we know that information flows continuously today. It is not limited to our timeline. It moves in real time and often it is unfiltered and unrefined-as when a passenger on a ferry in the Hudson sent cell-phone photos of the US Airways jet floating on the river before the tower knew it was down. In events like this, everyone is potentially a journalist.

We also discussed the intriguing word Jon Pareles cited in a New York Times article about how digital technologies have affected the music industry-“disintermediation.” He points out that no one must rely on an intermediary for approval or distribution of media or content. We can do it ourselves.

Digital technologies have empowered people to become producers, commentators and distributors without the need for gates or gatekeepers. The conversation will happen regardless of institutional controls or desires. The gatekeepers have lost control of the gate through which information flows.

The most critical challenge of the digital culture, I believe, is to engage in the conversation with relevant information, provide the deep support that we all need to live fruitfully in this atomizing and fragmenting reality, and to compete within a marketplace of ideas and messages that come at us as a cascade of appeals for our attention.

Whew! It was a busy, interesting, exciting day. I’ll be writing more about this in the next several posts. And I’m particularly hopeful that you will respond to these reflections with your own insights. I think this is both an exciting opportunity and a critical moment in history, and I invite your conversation.

Somalia and Yemen

Stories about the Palestinian suicide bomber and the Nigerian who tried to blow up the U.S. Air flight stir memories of young men I worked with in several trips to Somalia several years ago. This was before terrorism and modern-day piracy. Many of them pleaded to leave with me–an impossibility for many reasons–and others asked me to carry their school records, letters of application, or other documents to the U.S. and some tried to exact a pledge that I would assist them to leave the country and enter a college in U.S. When I see the young pirates now menacing shipping in the Indian Ocean, I wonder how many young, uneducated Somali men have found pirating and other illicit means of employment a desirable alternative to the un-ending turmoil of anarchic Somalia.

A recent report from Kenya details a boom in construction and skyrocketing housing prices in that country due to an influx of Somali money, the proceeds of pirates looking to invest in a more stable economy. And other reports bring tales of more dangerous results.

A story about Yemen’s role as a training ground for terrorists states that "the Somali problem is merging with the Yemen issue." Yemen is a poor country torn by internal division and led by a corrupt government. The  report says 200,000 Somalis have migrated to Yemen, adding even more potential recruits for terrorist actions and certainly adding to the population of the economically disadvantaged.

Another story opens with the claim that  a decade after the bombing of the USS Cole, deep mistrust between Yemen and the U.S., plus a lack of political will to deal with Al Queda, has allowed the organization time to rebuild and regroup in Yemen. The two stories contribute to  a holistic view but probably could offer even deeper context.

Several factors contribute to the wasting of opportunity for these young people. The deterioration dates back decades and is rooted in the way Somalia was created as a nation by European negotiators. Land use patterns and tribal differences were not managed by the Somalis in the same way Europeans manage nation-states but the European governance model was imposed on the territory never the less.

In the post-colonial era a strong-arm government held competing tribal interests together after a fashion but insurgency and open warfare with its neighbors kept Somalia in a state of instability.

The superpowers in the Cold War played Somalia and Ethiopia against one another, and at one point Russia and the U.S. flipped sides and created alliances with their former enemy states. Siad Barre , a military officer, toppled the government and ruled by dictate until his government fell under its own corrupt weight. After the Cold War Somalia seemed so remote and inconsequential it slipped from world  attention until famine brought international response and the presence of the U.S. military.

Rule by warlords, regionally powerful tribal leaders who constitute their own militias and rule by force illustrates the lack of any social or political capacity to pull Somalia together. Many creative and street-savvy Somalis are working to make life better. But they labor in one of the most unique social situations I can imagine. This fragmented power contributes to on-going instability.

The absence of a formalized civil society means a generation of Somali young people have known rule by force and tribal governance but not standardized education nor elected leadership or governance. The Somali migration from one of the poorest countries in the Horn of Africa to one of the poorest in the Middle East is telling.

The long-term neglect of human well-being and internal tribal fighting in Somalia is now manifesting itself as a threat to global security. Corruption, tribalism and economic neglect are paying dividends to terrorists. A population of young Somali males is a recruiting pool for terror.

Right now options for people of good will are limited. The World Food Program has suspended operations in the southern Somalia due to armed conflict. However, the world can learn from Somalia. Hunger and lack of development breed instability. This opens the door for those who seek political control by manipulating unstable conditions. We can encourage the Obama administration to support the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative as one means of prevention, and a proactive step toward preventing instability elsewhere. Other  options for dealing with Somalia seem limited to peacekeeping and diplomacy.

Change the World

As followers of Jesus, we are a people who know change individually and collectively. Jesus embodied change and called his followers to be changed because they live within the embrace of a loving God. To know Jesus is to be changed—in a redemptive, soul-renewing way.

Recently I sat in a meeting in which people discussed unselfconsciously and with a sense of realism how to change the world by eliminating malaria, a disease of poverty. I spent the day bouncing between awe and amazement. It was emotional because they have already made substantial progress by creating a movement called Nothing But Nets which is an effort to provide bed nets to people in malaria affected zones, mostly in Africa.

It was not a theological discussion, but I reflected upon it from the perspective of my own faith and it provided me with a humbling set of learnings, plus a call to deeper commitment. So, as I look forward to a new year, I reflect on this partnership and what I can learn from it.

The first learning is that as followers of Jesus, we live in the hope of a changed world, a world in which every child has the opportunity to live the abundant life God intends for us. No child need die from a preventable disease. We work toward a world in which we identify the “leading causes of life,” to borrow the wonderful phrase Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray have given us. And we seek to bring life where death imposes its presence with such terrible results as malaria, HIV/AIDS and the other diseases of poverty.

The second learning is that if we come to the table as a community of support with others who share similar concerns and work together, we can, under God’s grace, partner with God and others in an ongoing action that leads to life. We are created for relationship with God and with others, and we are called as disciples of Jesus to bring the life-giving light.

And the third learning is that we can do remarkable things if we forget about who gets credit and get on with carrying out the work we are called to do. It is God’s world, and we are at best weak reflections of the power and redemptive possibilities of God at work in the world. But we are reflections. The changes we seek do not result from our own doing, but from the presence of a redemptive and loving God who precedes us and beckons us to come into those places where God is already at work.

There are those who are writing and speaking of the past decade as one to forget. That’s understandable. The stresses and suffering of these past years are painfully real and have caused great hardship for millions around the globe. We should not minimize this nor let it pass unnoticed and unattended. But it’s not enough to conclude that this is the way world is and it can be no other. Nor that this is the whole story.

As a journalist and a person of faith, I came to believe some years ago that there are many small, dramatic stories that reveal world-changing qualities but they don’t have the conflict or drama that draws attention. The challenge of journalism is to tell the stories, large and small, in which the human drama is played out.

And the challenge of faith is to understand that it is because of our brokenness that we are called to engage in serving others and being the light of change in places of darkness where people struggle, suffer and endure. We are not called to give in to the forces of evil but to overcome them.

I look to the coming year with great hope, energized by the thought that we in the church can be a part of a world-changing, life-sustaining movement that could very well end a disease of poverty by 2015. So I look forward to telling the stories of life, big and small, that point to the potential for, and the reality of, change. To know Jesus is to be changed and to work toward a changed world.

Poverty is About More Than Material Well-being

A responder to my blog post about the relationship between religious extremism and poverty asks if my argument holds when a young, educated, affluent, elite such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab , the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Delta airliner over Detroit, turns to violence. Why do young people who have achieved advanced degrees and attained levels of material comfort want to blow up other people?

While individual motivations remain distinct, a composite is emerging that offers some clues.

It reveals that assimilation into majority cultures isn’t accomplished in short time periods but over generations and, in fact, assimilation doesn’t accurately reflect the give-and-take that is more likely necessary in this age.

Racial sensitivities are not eliminated by affluence and can be aggravated by subtle social distinctions and overt acts of racism.

Cleavages occur within ethnic communities as well as between these communities and the broader culture and can cause some individuals to feel isolated, a condition that among some festers into simmering rage.

There are extremists trolling for those experiencing this social anomie and they are skilled at recruiting and exploiting them for terribly destructive political purposes.

The Internet makes recruitment easier as extreme views and social disaffection can coalesce globally.

There is an unsettling fear afoot not only in the U.S. but across Europe and other regions about loss of community, social influence, economic security and identity that contributes to social discrimination against ethnic communities and conflict between ethnic and majority communities.

Global interconnections and mobility brings people into contact with others who bring new social values and cultural practices that sometimes feel threatening to majorities.

In short, poverty isn’t just about material well-being. We can experience a poverty of affirming relationships that can be as devastating as lack of material necessities. Affluence doesn’t treat poverty of relationships.

This isn’t an excuse for violence but recent events in Switzerland, France and the UK all point to a sense of unease with immigration and assimilation, particularly affecting Muslims, that reveals a more complicated social mix than religion alone. Religion becomes an organizing principle and proxy for this milieu of anomie.

Recently the Swiss banned minarets from building design, the French banned headscarves worn by Muslim girls in public schools and the UK sacked a Muslim female teacher who wore a veil when working with boys banned female students wearing veils . In each case controversy stoked resentment and fear on all sides. It also heightened resentment among young Muslims.

Conversely, fears of economic insecurity, cultural differences and loss of national identity surfaced among those in the majority culture.  Religion is the focal point but wider social dynamics are at work.

In addition, the disputes also lay bare the disconnect between generations within the ethnic communities. Abdulmutallab’s father reported his son’s extreme views to the U.S. embassy and the grandparents of one of the 2005 London bombers told an interviewer she couldn’t believe her grandson’s extreme views and disavowed them sorrowfully.

If there is learning in this, I think it is that we need to work intentionally to create greater understanding, not only between faith groups but between communities through opportunities for conversation, interaction and acting together on things that bring mutual benefit such as public education, jobs creation and community development. We need interfaith dialogue. We need political leaders who speak with diplomacy and concern for the good of the whole, not for narrow political gain among their partisan bases. We need reporting that provides context and does not separate individual isolated events as if they occur apart from this greater social dynamic. We need churches, mosques, schools and journalists who see the world through a global perspective and who interpret our interconnections more holistically and less provincially.

Whether we understand it or not, we are more interrelated today and our relationships and understanding of each other are more important than ever. Poverty is about more than material well-being. Poverty is also about the quality of our relationships and we are seeing how poverty of relationship leads to damaged individuals and damage to the community.