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More summer book shout-outs

I haven’t made any sewing advances to show off, so today seems to be the ideal time to give two summer book shout outs.

Moon Over ManifestMy first shout out goes to the children’s book Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. Vanderpool won the 2011 Newbery Medal with this work, and it was an award well received. The prose was stunning; as a word lover, I was salivating over Vanderpool’s literary cadence and pleasantly surprised at the range of vocabulary that she used — some of it sweetly Southern. If I ever have kiddos someday, this book is going to rank right up with Anne of Green Gables as a tool to ingrain them with words that we don’t use often enough anymore. As beautiful as the prose was, the story was equally if not more so. Vanderpool weaves a tale of regrets and acceptance and what we suffer when we can’t find the secure love that we want more than anything else in the whole world. I listened to the book in audio version from my library, and the narrator did a phenomenal job bringing the story to life, so I’d recommend listening to it if you don’t have time to read it. I just put Vanderpool’s more recent novel Navigating Early on my book wish list, and I’m looking forward to reading more from her.

SwayMy other shout out goes to Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman. I scored it used on my trip to Nashville and then realized the library had the audio version, so I downloaded that and got to quilting and furniture painting with the hard copy nearby in case I wanted to highlight anything. If you’re only interested in reading one book about how we make decisions, I’d still direct you to How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, but Sway was worth reading as well, and it’s a pretty short read.

The book has no biblical underpinnings, but as I was listening, I found myself pondering the meaning of Mathew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Brafman and Brafman take readers to Switzerland in 1993 when the government was trying to identify a town that was willing to become a nuclear waste repository. The first town hall meeting held near the site of the proposed repository consisted of merely informing the townspeople about the proposal and the government’s backing of it. The residents were asked if they would agree to allow their town to become a repository for nuclear waste, and 50.8 percent responded that they would be willing — possibly as an act of goodwill towards their native home.

Now, I think 50.8% is a pretty high number considering that nuclear waste was at stake. Obviously though that leaves about 50% of the population as unhappy campers, so researchers descended on the community to see if they could convince more residents to let the town be used as a nuclear waste repository. They thought that offering individuals the equivalent of about $2,175 a year would increase public support. It didn’t. Now, only 24.6% of residents approved.

Why the switch in support ratings? Brafman and Brafman cite a National Institutes of Health study as a possible explanation. NIH researchers monitored the brain activity of individuals playing video games. The researchers discovered that entirely different parts of the brains lit up depending on whether the individuals were playing to win money for themselves or to win money for a charity. Brafman and Brafman conclude, “It’s as if we have two ‘engines’ running in our brains that can’t operate simultaneously. We can approach a task either altruistically or from a self-interested perspective. The two different engines run on different fuels and also need different amounts of those fuels to fire up. It doesn’t take much to fuel the altruism center: all you need is the sense that you’re helping someone or making a positive impact. But the pleasure center seems to need a lot more.”

As I reflect on Matthew 6, I know that there are many people who give to others without any commitment to God motivating them, but for those who do serve because they believe that God has commissioned them to do so, I think these studies are fascinating. I’d always just thought that trying to serve money would distract me from serving God, hence the biblical warning against it. It turns out that it seems this dichotomy is hard wired into my brain. I can’t have a dual focus to my intents, and since serving people is tough — very tough as I’ve discovered while trying to help someone get back on her feet over the past couple of weeks — I think it was nice of God to design the part of the brain that responds to altruistic acts to be more sensitive to stimuli. A little service appears to go a long way.


The Evidence of Hope

Ok, first things first. Please go watch The Evidence of Hope. Do it. You could even stop reading now if you want to go watch the movie, but if you want know why I’m telling you to watch it, then feel free to read on.

While the dog was busy finding hot chocolate and shredding the packaging all over the bed in the guest bedroom, I was with two of my Writing on Social Change students at a screening of The Evidence of Hope.

guest bed mess

Tonight’s screening was a special treat because Chad Amour, the film’s director and producer, was on hand to answer questions afterwards. Amour said he wanted viewers to feel like they are sitting in a room and having a conversation with three people as those individuals reveal how they are pursuing their calling. And, he achieved that goal. The three individuals selected for the film were of the breed that radiate inner beauty – radiate. I’ve never quite been able to capture this breed in words; they’re different, convicting, impassioned, inspiring, and mysterious. But all those words fall short. Maybe you at least know someone like that so you grasp slightly what I’m saying. In contrast to my meager attempts to describe them, the film manages to reveal glimpses of  inner beauty in the natural striking way that makes these people powerful encouragers that walk among us. The Filipino pastor featured on the film reminded me of one of my Hispanic students who is a pastor impassioned to make his community a better place; Peter, the Kenyan police office, has a story that will encourage Compassion sponsors since he was able to go through Compassion’s leadership training program, and the woman who rescued children from the garbage dumps of Honduras…well, Amour said in jest after the film that if Gandhi and Mother Theresa had raised a child, it would have been this woman. That’s probably the best way to describe her – an impassioned soul seeking the good of others.

And, lest you get all freaked out that this is a heavy handed film about Christian calling, take deep breaths. It is not that, anything but that as a matter of fact. Amour explores calling in the way that most of us come to realize it — softly, in slowly unveiled pieces, in scraps of conversation and in the dings of trying circumstance. And, he represents it as most of us hope to find it — an animating energy, at times a fire that keeps us up at night and pulls us out of bed in the morning, and at times a gentle nudge down a long path of slow, small victories.

And, if you’re still not convinced to go see the film, go for the cinematography. Throughout I was struck by the absolute vibrant beauty that Amour found in the Philippines, in Kenya, and in Honduras. The breathtaking tableaus remind us that dreams and dignity exist everywhere. The individuals in this film encounter poverty, but you’re not going to see children with the bloated bellies of malnutrition or the dirty, stagnant pools of water. Instead, you’re going to see beauty, and the possibility of dreams, and the power of love — in short, the evidence of hope.

If you’re in the Lancaster area, go see the film this weekend. It’s going to be playing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Zoetropolis Theater, and Amour will be on hand again for Q&A. Sure, you could just get the DVD, but don’t miss out on the opportunity to hear him talk about the making of the film. My understanding of it was definitely enriched by the conversation.

If you’re not fortunate enough to be able to go to a showing, you can rent it via internet streaming for $5. Trust me, make a date night with your spouse, or just watch it on your own. You’re going to be glad that you infused your soul with this message instead of absorbing whatever mind fluff is currently circulating about vampires marrying were-mermaids, or whatever is the latest supernatural pairing of the week.

Media Heroes

I think I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I love, love, love Hope International’s philosophical model of addressing poverty. Two phrases from their website express what they do well: “Share dignity. Support uncharity.” If you’re curious about Hope,their Uncharity site would be a great place to get acquainted.

I doubt that Kevin and Erin, my two guest speakers from Hope International would actually consider themselves media heroes, but I was blessed that they graciously took time out of their day to visit my class. After a semester of trying to encourage my students to use their growing communication skills, being able to hear from two communication professionals who work on behalf of social justice every day that they go to work was a wonderful opportunity for my students. I enjoyed seeing the students try to get a look behind the scenes during the question and answer time of class.  Since the LeapFwd campaign is seriously one of my all-time favorite fund-raising concepts, it was a double bonus for me to get to interact with the two people who came up with the brilliant origami that drives this video. I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched it, but I still enjoy everything about the LeapFwd concept and the way that it’s communicated.

I’ll leave you with access to it. I’m going to indulge in a little bit of quilt pattern organizing time, so I can go use my 50% off coupon at the PA Fabric Outlet tomorrow. Watch the video: I promise you it’s fun and thought-provoking.

Justice Conference Recap

There is no way that one blog post of a reasonable length can possibly condense the entire Justice conference, so I’m going to go with a snapshot approach to the two days that  I spent in Philadelphia.

1. The pre-conference experience was quite possibly the highlight of the two days for me. Who was I able to hear?

  • Claire Diaz-Ortiz, who leads social innovation at Twitter and is the author of Twitter for Good, gets a shout-out for helping me plan my classes after spring break. What did I learn? I’m not using Twitter correctly at all, but there is hope for me. Out of all the authors represented at the conference, her book is the one that I brought home. I was hoping for some practical and immediately applicable information and was pretty much on a conference high when this hope was realized the first session in.
  • Brian Fikkert wrote When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, one of the two primary texts that I use in my Writing on Social Issues class, incidentally my favorite of the two. Don’t tell him, but I was secretly full of glee when he cut it close on ending his session on time. About mid-session, I was getting worried that he was going to be able to cram all the major principles of his book into 50 minutes, leaving me wondering what on earth I’ve been doing all semester. Alas, he could not because his book is so full of solid principles. I’m going to get around to reviewing the book someday, but for now, I’ll say that this book is on the top three list of ones that I’d recommend as a primer for a Christian perspective on social justice. Many of the ideas in it are pulled from other works in the field, but nothing I’ve read so far tops it for making the ideas accessible and memorable.
  • Kim Yim, author of Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern Day Slavery, was inspiring. Four years ago, she wasn’t even aware that an estimated 27 million people are slaves around the world, and she started her journey by trying to get someone else to address the issue. Now she’s embraced the fact that using her voice to raise awareness is invaluable. We don’t have to have fancy degrees to embrace justice; we can be ordinary people who acknowledge that one particular injustice doubles us over with a kick to the gut.

2. We are not heroes or saviors. This theme was reiterated over and over again. I loved Eugene Cho’s encouragement to “look into the eyes of humanity.” We’re talking about people not projects, and we need to be careful not to co-opt their stories in an effort to make ours look more heroic. Paternalism has no place in justice, but it’s creep is subtle, so we must be ever vigilant to guard against it.

3. Related to the theme above was the encouragement that justice isn’t a sprint. While it’s about helping one person, it’s also about fixing broken (and complicated) systems that perpetuate injustice. Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission, shared that justice requires a “long obedience” and is rooted in a “love that requires monotony.” He shared that to convict one slave owner of a rice factory in India who was using indentured slaves for his labor force took 750 hours of preliminary investigation before official authorities would even look into the case, 50 trips to a court 4 hours away from the village, and 6,100 hours in court, which he pointed out is more time than one of his daughters will spend sitting in high school. But, the math adds up if you figure that those hours broke a cycle of indentured slavery chaining not just individuals but their children  to the factory.

Is Justice Worth It? feat. Micah Bournes from World Relief on Vimeo.

4. Prayer – Convicting, yes. I’d be the first to admit that I don’t pray the way I should, and I appreciate that speakers over and over again stressed the need for it. Haugen shared that IJM staff spend every day from 8:30-9 in stillness. Then, at 9, email gets opened, phone calls get made. Everything stops again for a half hour at 11:00 when the team gathers for corporate prayer. I was floored to hear of the commitment of the organization to prayer. In a culture that prioritizes man hours on the job, that kind of prioritization says much.

5. Humility – I’m not sure what the average age of conference attendees was, but many people were young. And, the way the conference ended was sobering. There wasn’t a raucous send off or a euphoric emergence from a cocoon of like minded people. Rather John Perkins was one of the panel speakers in the final session. Here was a man born in 1930 who weathered being harassed by the Klu Klux Klan in the 1960s south because of his vocal stance against injustice and who has given his life to community development efforts, and he was on stage saying that looking out over a crowd of thousands interested in justice is the fulfillment of his work. Lynne Hybels followed up by reminding those young and new to the movement that they must not forget that they take a stand for justice on the shoulders of others who labored long and hard to bring us to where we are today. And, while  some at the conference feel that this resurgence of intense interest in justice will most certainly be included in church history of the future, it remains to be seen what will be written about it. Hybels cautioned that prayer and humility and being grounded in Scripture would be necessary because the movement could go wrong quickly, a sobering thought. Though as noted above, Christians should certainly not view themselves as saviors of the world, it would be horrific for people to look back 100 or 200 years from now to see a momentum towards global justice derailed by arrogance.

The Vanishing Bees

Here’s a new one for the documentary round-up. Compared with the ones I’ve been watching lately about education and human trafficking, I thought this would be more lighthearted, easy-to-digest documentary. Wrong. The documentary was downright alarming because it wasn’t just about bees; it was about our environment and the precarious balance of it. I watched Food, Inc. a few months ago, and I highly recommend watching Vanishing of the Bees alongside it. Food, Inc. is helpful because it introduces viewers to the concept of factory farming. With that backdrop, Vanishing of the Bees was more alarming. It’s not in the viewer’s face with the piles of dead chickens and rivers of manure, a veritable gore-fest in Food, Inc. Instead, it’s a quiet, and perhaps more powerful, reminder that we live in a phenomenally designed ecosystem and that we need to be far more careful than we are about the ripple effects of what we do as we innovate our crop production techniques.

Here are two themes of which I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to as I learn more about our food system:’

  1. Mono, mono, mono — As production becomes key, we’ve introduced an industrial mindset to our farming practices. I’m not saying that small farms of the past would sustain the population today, so I’m not advocating for a return to 1900s style farming. But our consumption patterns are problematic. We should know that. This movie explains that in a push for production, we’ve built monocultures across the country, areas where only one crop exists. This disrupts the balance of nature, often detrimentally. It increases the severity of pest invasions and crowds out helpful co-existing crops and insects like bees that help with pollination. And the interventions to make these systems work often compound problems rather than solving them. The demand for bees and the disruption of nature means that now bees are trucked from Florida to California back to Florida then to the Northeast and then home again to Florida. Native bee populations are not sufficient to support pollination in these regions. Something seems off in this model, and it certainly doesn’t seem ecofriendly since the bees make their cross-country journey on tractor trailers.
  2. Manipulation.  – The bee breeding business is highly manipulated. Did you know that bees are artificially inseminated? I’m fully aware of the practice in the world of horses and pigs and dogs, but bees shocked me. More alarming than that though is the fact that the problem of bees going missing by the thousands has now been definitively linked to systemic pesticides used in fertilizers and genetically-altered crops. The bee keepers are finally seeing a connection. When they take their bees to pollinate a crop treated with these systemic pesticides, the bee keepers often face catastrophic loss of bees shortly after the bee hives are retrieved from those areas. Bees in France were disappearing under virtually the same conditions as bees are in the United States; the systemic pesticides were banned and within a year the bee population was making a significant comeback.

So, here’s what really gets me. This isn’t good journalism because I’m burying the lead, but here’s what happens to the bees. They feed on the plants containing the systemic pesticides, specifically those classes as neonicoinoids; they don’t die immediately because the dosages are not lethal. The bees take this pollen back to the hive where it is introduced into the systems of developing young. And, these are the young who just disappear one day. They leave and never make it back to their hives, abandoning all the young in their hive and their queen, which is the last word in bizarre in the bee world. The bees wind up with weakened immune systems and damaged nervous systems. Neonicotinoids do not affect humans in the same way that they affect bees by any stretch of the imagination. However, the substances in these pesticides did cause increased anxiety in adult rats.  And, though studies are only in the preliminary stages, there is some evidence that these substances have more impact on the rat brain in utero than was previously conjectured as scientists hypothesized about the affect of neonicotinoids on the brains of mammals.

So what?

I guess that’s the question it’s important to ask, or else I’m just venting here. The Environmental Protection Agency at this time is aware of the situation, but it only on the cusp of investigating these links. Unfortunately, the time period  for posting to their open call for comments on the issue expired in September 2012. You can track the progress of their investigations.

While that process unfolds, act local. The next time I need honey, I intend to buy it at farmers market or other organic source. Part of the reason for questionable beekeeping practices is because our market is currently flooded by honey from other countries that contains cheap additives. Honey producers in the United States cannot compete with the prices driven artificially low by these artificial fillers. I probably only buy honey once a year or every other year, but still, a drop in the bucket is a drop in the bucket.

I have no idea yet what to do about corn and wheat without getting super dramatic (not ready to go gluten free), but this is starting to come onto my radar as I realize how much of my diet is filled with these crops that have been genetically altered. I love me my bread, so this is something I need to sort through. I’m not going to panic and swear off of all bread, but the cheap wheat and corn based snack food I buy is looking less and less appealing these days.

And, finally, consider watching the documentary. If nothing else, the hour you spend should leave you with a greater appreciation of the delicate design of nature.

Work, work, work

Tonight, I’m reading Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. ( By the way, I was sorely disappointed to discover while tracking down that link that I’m reading the original publication and not the 2011 update…. I’ll need to get our librarians to order the new version).

Bryant Myers’ core thesis is that poverty is a result of corrupted relationships between God, self, others, and creation. As a result he sees the gospel as beneficial for not only individuals but also systems. Those two sentences definitely don’t do his work justice, but they give enough background for tonight’s post.

Myers’ thoughts on the way that work has been corrupted by the fall stuck out to me with these three points being my top take aways:

  1. “Instead of a way of using our gifts for ourselves and others, work has been corrupted. It can be toilsome and frustrating.”  I see this played out on both sides of the fence all around me. I know people who slog to work in the morning and can’t wait until they get out in the evening. Their job is a means by which to pay the bills, but while sustaining a material life, the job seems to be sucking the life out of them. Then, I know people who can’t seem to leave work; they’re passionate and see great value in what they do. Certainly I would not go so far as to say that they never get frustrated in their work, and I would not advocate a life’s habit of never leaving work, but for some of these individuals going beyond the 40 hour work weeks seems sustainable because their work is life giving. I think all of this sticks out to me because I’ve wrestled much lately with what the next thirty years of my life will look like. On the one hand, I want to serve God, yield to where He wants me. On the other hand, I wonder why he keeps coaxing me towards administrative tasks, which I often find more life draining than giving. I think it’s worth bearing in mind that God originally created work to by wholesome and a good.
  2. “Work has idolatry whereby one makes a name for oneself. For the poor, this distorted work is often not available and the poor are vilified as ‘not productive.” I’m only two classes into the semester, and already I’ve talked with students about how things are not always as they seem and about various ways of perceiving the world We (middle class Americans) are often quick to judge people as lazy without investigating systemic injustices that are complicating the matter. As a class, we’ve also touched briefly on how the middle class standard is not necessarily deserving of the near perfect label often assigned to it. And, these discussions get complicated because indeed there are people who are lazy, and indeed some elements of the American dream are good. But, in this world of work and achievement, surface answers are not sufficient. I’m glad that so far the students are engaging with those complications the best they know how.
  3. “The product of work is seen as human property, no longer belonging to God. Claims of ownership are privatized and made an absolute, ignoring the claim of God on all things in creation or the transcendent responsibility each has for the well-being of the larger community. Worse, those who create wealth use that wealth to influence the laws and the economic, political, and cultural system to protect their advantage.” I think this insight gets at the heart of one of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered as I’ve prepared to teach this course. Pre-prep time, I would have had the knee jerk reaction of screaming communism or at least socialism in response to the phrase “transcendent responsibility each has for the well-being of the larger community.” However, my reaction is now different. Don’t misread this as me saying that I’m supportive of communism or socialism, but I do think far too little discussion is taking place about our individualistic culture and its me, myself, and I mindset. We lose much in the sense of responsibility to community. I’m quite good at vehemently denouncing greedy CEOs who took their companies down in flames, but I’m not nearly as good at looking at the balance in my checkbook and deciding how much of it goes to me and how much of it is freed up to be used by God to enhance the lives of others.

There’s no fancy conclusion to wrap all of these thoughts up. The topic is messy, and my brain is fatigued, so that is all for now. At the danger of getting ridiculously addicted, I’m going to go watch my first ever episode of Downton Abbey, so I can wind the day down.


Back to School

Classes are back in session. I’ll start teaching the brand new Writing on Social Change class for Lancaster Bible College’s Communication program tomorrow. I know quite a few of the students enough to at least match names and faces since I’ve attended the freshman communication retreat/seminar the past two years. However, I’m eager to get to know the students as my students and to see how they fill out the pre-class survey that will give me some insight into their familiarity about and attitude towards issues of social justice.

In other social justice news, I just finished watching Good Fortune, a documentary about the complications of carrying out development projects in Africa. The filmmaker originally intended to show UN-driven aid vs. commercial aid in the form of an international rice growing corporation project, and the expected result was that the commercial model would emerge as the more sensible route to take. In the end, the documentary winds up showing that both projects encountered significant local resistance, and by following the individuals directly affected by the development projects, the documentary reveals some of the complex factors that must be considered in the development of Africa. I liked the response of Lawrence MacDonald of Center for Global Development, who concludes, “This film poses a simple question to all of us: Is this the best we can do? Surely not.”  I may wind up showing a few clips from the film to my class when we talk about dignity in social justice. The goal is not simply to help people but to treat them as individuals with dignity who are capable of contributing to the development of their own communities.

And, finally, just in case you’re curious, here’s what I look like at work. Yep, that’s me trying to get my email inbox from 1000+ emails down to about 100. I’ve whittled it away to about 650, so I’m making progress. And, yes, my desk is usually that messy. I’m working on it though…


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