Poverty and Worldly Passions

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” – Titus 2:11-14 NRSV


Nick Kristof is a journalist I can respect.  He goes to poverty-stricken areas of the world and shines a spotlight on injustice and inequality.  His reporting about people who depend on what they can find in dumps to survive inspired me to write about the problem from a theological perspective, which in turn prepared my heart and mind for “Dump Day” when it came to my attention.  Though there are times I agree with him in part while cringing at some of his ill-informed religious views, as in the article where he wrote of “two churches,” he wins me over with his candor.  A prime example of this is in a recent article where he talks booze and tobacco as part of the cause of poverty.

There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous:

It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

This is a truth I found while serving in Brazil, South America.  While on the whole Brazil is not as miserable as most African nations, it is most definitely still a poor country in development.  Time and again as my collegues in mission and I studied the Bible with people in their homes, we found that one of the greatest sources of trouble for them was their “addictions.”

Now, in the U.S. when I hear of  "addiction" it usually refers to full-blown alcoholism, drug use or possibly even nicotine.  In Brazil I heard the term thrown around a bit more frequently, and I’m beginning to believe that it’s because many in the church there recognize the threat these habits pose to families.  There is moral and social harm done, and also financial harm.  If a father receives his wages on Friday and then spends the night out at a bar, what will be left for the family the next day?  Sadly, this is a scenario played out on a regular basis in Brazil and elsewhere.  Those in more well-to-do nations can often make do, but for those living just at the line between having a place to live with food on the table and being hungry on the street, spending on luxury addictions isn’t the best choice.

Look, I don’t want to be an unctuous party-pooper. But I’ve seen too many children dying of malaria for want of a bed net that the father tells me is unaffordable, even as he spends larger sums on liquor. If we want Mr. Obamza’s children to get an education and sleep under a bed net — well, the simplest option is for their dad to spend fewer evenings in the bar.

One young couple we studied the Bible with during my time in Brazil had three beautiful young daughters.  The oldest was around 10 at the time, and the youngest was just a toddler.  This vibrant couple really seemed to be getting into our studies, but there was a roadblock.  They knew that if they were baptized into Christ they’d be expected to stop going out drinking.  It wasn’t that we taught people to abstain entirely.  The trouble was that this couple really enjoyed going out and getting plastered together.  They said it was one the the things they shared in common.  Worse still, when they went out they left those little girls alone.  Beyond the money they were squandering so they could come stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning, “three sheets to the wind,” they were putting their children in danger.

Kristof proceeds towards the end of his article to provide various possible solutions to the problem.  For my part, let me say that sometimes I come down way too hard on churches and ministries that don’t incorporate some element of social justice and community development into their work.  This is something I’ve criticized myself for recently.  Though I believe this to be the case, I do not want to leave the impression that personal evangelism that includes a challenge to repentance has no place.  In fact, it is the core of what the church does.  Our mission is more than meals, shelter, education and job training, as vital as these are.  None of these have any lasting meaning or value if we are not also challenging ourselves and others to live new lives that demonstrate the new creation that is breaking into this world from God.

Well-meaning humanitarians sometimes burnish suffering to make it seem more virtuous and noble than it often is. If we’re going to make more progress, and get kids like the Obamza children in school and under bed nets, we need to look unflinchingly at uncomfortable truths — and then try to redirect the family money now spent on wine and prostitution.

Let’s be honest about all the causes of poverty, and let’s work to get people to deal with them.  Even a church that only focuses on “Gospel preaching” can bear lasting fruit measured in transformed lives and families, though of course I think it’s missing valuable tools in expanding the effect.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)


See:
Moonshine or the Kids? (NYTimes)


UPDATE: 06/18/2010

The following video of the report from Nick Kristof I referenced in this post has come to my attention, so I share it here.

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Learn to Program in Ruby (Tutorials)

If you’ve never done any programming but are interested in learning, there’s no lack of online resources for you to begin.  Though I began with Python, I’ve switched my focus to Ruby.  Both are object oriented languages, but the latter seems to be more in demand in the greater New York metro area (could just be my faulty perception).  For those who want to start learning to program, let me suggest the following resources:

  1. Learn to ProgramA tutorial by Chris Pine.  This site contains much of the same info as a printed book by the same name from this writer.  I highly recommend this tutorial, having used it myself.  No prior programming experience needed.
  2. Mr. Neighborly’s Humble Little Ruby BookAvailable as a downloadable pdf and html book.  Also good for beginners.
  3. Why’s (Poignant) Guide to RubyAn e-book you can download or view online.  Complete with illustrations, for those of you who like “picture books.” 😉
  4. Ruby User’s GuideA handy reference.

Making the NACC Great

The North American Christian Convention (NACC), the single largest annual gathering of members of independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in the world, could be better.  In fact, it could be great.

What I’ve just written might seem terribly misinformed or ill-informed, especially once I tell you that I’ve only attended one NACC.  It was the one held in Louisville, Kentucky in 2000.  There were good points here and there but overall I was unimpressed.  Having attended a few years of the Tulsa Workshop, the largest national gathering of a cappella Church of Christ members, the NACC paled in comparison.

Don’t get me wrong.  The NACC was large, well-organized and offered a range of workshops from a variety of presenters.  The exhibitions were interesting.  It was good to see a few old friends and makes some new contacts.  Somehow, though, this convention didn’t feel right.  It didn’t feel like a Christian Churches/Churches of Christ event.

For several years after I decided it was because the convention was departing from its original purpose and drifting into generic evangelicalism.  This viewpoint reflected my own descent into a hardline traditionalist position, one from which I am working hard to recover.  So, what do I think now?

I still believe the NACC has departed from its original purpose and is drifting into generic evangelicalism.  The difference is that now I don’t see a conspiracy afoot.  Instead, it looks like an attempt to boost the status of the convention by bringing in big-name evangelicals to draw a crowd in competition with other evangelical conventions.

Let me make this as plain as possible.  There are many, many evangelical seminars, workshops and conferences held throughout the year in the United States.  Many leaders in the Christian Churches attend one or more of these other gatherings.  They spend their convention budgets on attending these other gatherings and give the NACC a pass.  So, it looks to me like the leadership of the NACC is aware of  this and responding by trying to provide well-known evangelical speakers, like Rick Warren, in order to draw in attendees, thereby competing with the evangelical conventions.

Here’s my suggestion for the North American Christian Convention.  Here’s how I think it could become great.

Stop it.

Stop inviting people from outside the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement to speak at the North American Christian Convention.  No, I’m not being anti-unity or denying the essential Christianity of anyone.  Please don’t waste your energy by reminding me that we are “Christians only, not the only Christians."  I assure you, I am well aware of the fact that we are not the only Christians.

What I do know is that the Tulsa Workshop only draws upon Church of Christ people for its workshops.  I seem to remember a Christian Churches fellow having spoken there as well at some point and wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case.  In any event, they are doing just fine using their own people.  The Tulsa Workshop is an inspiring, uplifting event, even without the likes of Bill Hybels or Chuck Colson.

My suggestion isn’t that the privilege of speaking be reserved exclusively for members of independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.  Far from it!  Rather, I think preference should be given to people from this background (this is the group the convention is supposed to represent, after all) but that guest spots should also be reserved for sisters and brothers from the a cappella Churches of Christ and International Churches of Christ (no more controlling "discipleship” tactics and authoritarian style in the latter, apparently).

Here’s my suggested plan:

  1. Declare a four-year moratorium on non-Restoration Movement presenters at the NACC.  Why four years?  It’s long enough for people to adjust and for word to get around, and it’s a nice round number.  If by the end of four years people aren’t impressed with the results the convention can return to being what it is now.
  2. Invite the best and brightest of the entire movement who don’t have a bone to pick with the independent churches over instruments in worship or some other “issue” to lead workshops and preach.
  3. Market the event heavily as a family reunion for the Stone-Campbell fellowship/faith tradition/brotherhood (whichever goes over better).  Where non-Restoration Movement evangelicals would find little compelling or unique in the current NACC, the type of convention I’m proposing would almost certainly open the doors and seem inviting for folks from other parts of the movement to attend.

There are plenty of non-denominational, evangelical conferences out there.  The North American Christian Convention doesn’t need to be just one more.

If Sound On Your Ubuntu Desktop Stops Working

Not long ago I tried to watch a video on YouTube but couldn’t hear anything.  The volume icon on YouTube had an “x” next to it, even when I turned the volume on the video up.  I checked the desktop’s sound and it was not muted.  To make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with the hardware I rebooted the computer with a Linux Mint live CD.  The sound was just fine with the live cd spinning, but when I went back to the regular desktop (Ubuntu) the sound was off again.  The solution?  I removed the sound drivers and re-installed them.

Problem solved.

Use the following commands if you are having the same issue in Ubuntu or Linux Mint:

sudo apt-get –purge remove linux-sound-base alsa-base alsa-utils

sudo apt-get install linux-sound-base alsa-base alsa-utils

A Gathering in Goiania

When I told a Brazilian friend that David Bayless had been in Brazil for 50 years as of last year (2009), he was surprised.  You see, my friend comes from the a cappella Church of Christ and was only familiar with the story of the missionaries of that branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement arriving in Belo Horizonte in the 1960s.  Looking into it I’ve learned that the sustained work of those churches started slightly earlier in São Paulo.  In any event, the thought that brother Bayless  and the team he was part of had been there in the late 1950s was new information to my friend.  Then again, it makes sense that he wouldn’t know about this part of the movement’s history in Brazil.  The churches which David Bayless and his co-workers planted were “instrumental” in their worship.

When, sometime in the 1960s or so, Pentecostalism swept through the instrumental Churches of Christ in Brazil, the missionaries and churches Belém resisted.  These northern churches remained largely isolated from any but American churches until the past 20 years.  David has made an effort to maintain contact with the a cappella churches to the south, attending their missionary gathering from time to time and submitting news from the Belém area congregations to The Christian Chronicle.  Having attended a couple of the churches there several years ago I can say they are essentially non-instrumental anyway.

There aren’t many good feelings either from the Belém-area churches or the 120 or so a cappella congregations in Brazil towards the instrumental Churches of Christ that went Pentecostal so many years ago.  Quite frankly, most rank-and-file members likely have no idea such churches exist.  Those who were around for the controversy or who have heard the stories don’t have any desire to be connected to the “Pentecostalized” churches.

That isn’t to imply that the “Pentecostalized” churches have been out of touch with the rest of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  In fact, after the “split” these churches busied themselves with evangelism and growth, spreading to most parts of the nation.  Further, they continued to receive missionaries from the United States (apparently the missionaries kept the Pentecostalism quiet or the sending churches didn’t care).  It could also be said that the “level” of Pentecostalism varies among the congregations, with some being more reserved and others less so.  Most continue to teach baptism, and I was pleasantly surprised during a visit in 1998 to the Flamboyant congregation in Campinas to hear the pastor read every New Testament passage directly relating to baptism and then explain at length that baptism is essential for salvation.

As I stated in the title of this post, there’s to be a gathering in Goiania, Brazil in 2012.  It will be the 18th meeting of the World Convention.  The convention, held every 4 years, is intended to be an international gathering for people from all branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  Given the divisive history of the churches in Brazil, and the fact that Goiania is one of the focal points of Pentecostal Church of Christ activity in Brazil, I rather doubt that anyone from the Brazilian churches outside of that group will be in attendance.

Well, I plan to attend.

My Brazilian friend told me that before he moved to the United States his perspective on what Churches of Christ are like was somewhat limited.  All he had known from childhood was the congregation in which he was raised and other churches in the region.  For him, that was what the entire church everywhere was like.  When he came to the United States he began to see that within the same branch of the movement (a cappella) there was modest variation on some points.  When he met me and learned of churches that are committed to being simply Christian, and which use instruments in worship, his perspective was further stretched.  Of course, that doesn’t mean he agrees with it, only that he has a somewhat broader vision now.  While that may be the case with him, such is not true in much of Brazil.

To be entirely honest, I am somewhat conflicted about World Convention 2012.  While I believe in the value of meeting with others within the movement and sharing in our common faith heritage, I also understand the resistance from I some quarters to participating.  Involvement could be seen as endorsement or a lowering of standards.  Further, stories have circulated for years of “Pentecostalized” folks infiltrating the non-Pentecostal churches in order to turn them.  I have no direct knowledge of such activities, but I have it on pretty good authority that it’s true, rather like how non-institutional brethren have been reported to cozy up to “mainline" a cappella congregations in the U.S. and elsewhere to try to change them.

Additionally, I’m not one who believes in "unity meetings” for their own sakes.  As I have written elsewhere, there is a missional purpose to unity.  Getting together with Christians who hold other viewpoints on some matters can be worthwhile, but I truly believe that it’s meaningless unless used to advance the mission of God.  Putting everyone in the same room may be a first step, but it is only that unless we proceed to work out a path forward.

Still, I prefer dialogue over debate and cooperation over isolation.  The fact that I worked mostly with non-instrumental churches over the past decade or so has never been considered an endorsement of their views.  When the topic comes up (rarely) I state my views.  The world, so far, has continued to turn.  In attending the World Convention it should be no different.  I will go into it looking for like-minded people and will attempt to discern what level of collaboration we can engage in for the sake of Christ’s reign in Brazil and around the world.  There will be some with whom nothing beyond a friendly conversation can be realized.  Perhaps others will invite me to speak at a revival or seminar in the future.  Still others may be so much on the same “wavelength” that we can partner in ministry more fully.  Unless I go, I won’t know what is possible, if anything.

So, Lord willing, I hope and plan to be there in Goiania in 2012 for the 18th World Convention of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ.  This is also why I hope you will try to make it too, if you share in the Stone-Campbell heritage and value simple Christianity.

Add a Favicon to Your Grou.ps Site

If you are looking to add a favicon to your Grou.ps site, instructions follow.  I’m including here steps for creating and hosting favicons.  If you already know how to do these tasks, skip to point three.

First, you need to create a favicon.  There are certain format and size conditions for these.  An easy way to make a favicon is to use an online creator.  Click here or here for a couple of good options.  Remember that the .ico image is going to be really small, so a logo would be more appropriate than a detailed photograph.

Second, hosting a .ico file can be tricky.  Not all image hosting sites accept this format.  I use IconJ and haven’t had any problems.  It’s free, by the way.

Third, once you have the link to your hosted favicon image, follow these steps to display in on your Grou.ps site:

Go to:

Administrate > Look and Feel > Customize Current Theme

Scroll down and look for this:

Remove the {$service_host}/images, and edit to point to your favicon.ico.

Example:

If there are any questions, just ask.

Questions about Community Development in Favelas

Anyone who’s been to Rio de Janeiro has seen favelas. These are shanty slums built on otherwise unoccupied land, and in Rio they climb the mountainsides at seemingly impossible angles.  The ongoing move from smaller cities to larger in search of better opportunities – or mere survival – spurs the continued birth of new slums.  What can be done, or even should be done, to help the poor in these neighborhoods?

Sometimes people forget that these shanties were built on someone else’s property and that officially legitimizing them by putting them on the grid (utilities, schools, roads, etc) may encourage more land invasions. At the same time, folks in these slums are poor for a reason, and in my observation for the most part drugs and laziness are not the primary factors.

First, two questions must be asked about any favela neighborhood in Brazil.  "Is it safe,“ and "Is it legal?”

The above video illustrates the type of tragedy that can occur when people build on unstable land not prepared for human habitation. In the video you see the results of a mudslide following intense and sustained rainfall in Niteroi, a major city in the greater Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area. The homes were built, without title to any land, on a “hill” that in fact was an unofficial dump up until 1981. People started moving onto the available space shortly after the dump was closed and covered over with dirt. In recent years local specialists warned that there were toxic substances in the sub-soil, but to no avail. When the rains fell and completely saturated the ground, the results were devastating.

The second question, regarding legality, is somewhat more sensitive. It’s easy for relatively affluent North American Christians to show up and criticize the fact that people are essentially living on stolen property. They may have built the homes, but the land underneath was never theirs. It may belong either to some level of government (municipal is most likely) or a private landowner. In either case, even without any documentation proving ownership, homeowners living in these conditions may feel justified in thinking they have a claim to the land. It was typically idle when they came upon it, neither inhabited nor in agriculture, so they think something along the lines of “finders keepers.” Then, after the community’s been there for a while, usually hacked into the utility grid, the city comes along with a program and sets up legal connections power and water, even without the residents being legally on the property. When this happens the impression of permanence is given.

Although I lived nearly three years in Brazil and was engaged in mission work while there, I was nowhere near the favelas.  Also, my work didn’t focus as much then on community development then as it would now, were I to have the chance.  That being the case, I’d like to open the floor and invite comments from those actively working to improve the lives of people in Brazilian slums.  Whether you self-identify as “Christian” or not, if you are a community activist/organizer/developer in Brazil, please have your say.  What do you think about the situation of the slums in general, at-risk “irregular” residential areas in particular, and the government’s treatment of these communities?  Also, please try to comment in English if you want your response to be understood by most other readers.

At this point, all I can say is that both the systemic ills need to be addressed as well as the physical/educational/emotional/spiritual concerns of the poor.

What do you think?


See Also:
Improving Slums, One Step at Time (GlobalPost)
Niteroi Mission Team (not directly effected by the landslide, it’s a really big metropolitan area)