Thursday, December 04, 2008

Political Craziness in Canada

I don't think I've ever really weighed in on the political maneuverings in Canada on this blog and maybe I should wait this one out too. But with current global economic conditions, the political scene in the US and all of the justice issues that are swirling just below - or at - the surface of our daily lives - it sure makes you think about the BIG picture. It sure feels like life as we know it is going to change - but then, maybe not.

Apparently US shoppers (and Canadians crossing the "free trade" border) on "Black Friday" defied economic realities and actually spent MORE of their hard earned cash (or more likely their easily accessed credit!) on this one day shopping frenzy. Still, the markets are bouncing up and down - though more down than up - and the image that comes to my mind is a smartly dressed business executive dangling helplessly on the end of a bungee cord.

And in the midst of all this, our politicians in Ottawa are acting even more like poorly disciplined pre-schoolers - actually, I'd have to say I can't imagine ANY pre-schoolers acting as badly as our political leaders, but maybe that's just me. I do tend to have a low tolerance for name calling and bad manners and posturing, not to mention the folly of making governance a political game with the spoils going to the most cleverly manipulative and deceitful "leader". Do ANY of our political leaders care more about the stability and future of our country than they care about their own political careers?

It's been many years since I studied Karl Marx, but I've been thinking a bit lately of some of his analysis of capitalism. I often think that Marx has been demonized quite unfairly and some of his insights - incredibly astute insights - have been dismissed for fear that any association with Marx might somehow make us "communists". But that's a blog for another day. For now, I just want to say that Marx believed that every economic system contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. Hm. What's really incredible for me is that Marx was writing about capitalism years and years before those seeds would germinate. I wonder what he would say today about the current economic situation - dare I say, crisis? Forget the labels: capitalism, communism, socialism - and let's just think of the economics that are in front of us. Maybe the current crisis is the natural outcome of a world where the gap between the rich and the poor just keeps getting bigger. Maybe we have reached a "tipping point" when society cannot any longer maintain order in the face of profound injustice. Maybe we have reached the limits of an economic system's ability to adapt and avoid total chaos.

It seems to me that the future of our society - and in fact of the global community - depends on world leaders - politicians, economists, scientists, businessmen and women, faith leaders - the whole kit and kaboodle - to set aside self interest and greed and all kinds of imperialist agendas, to sort through the persistent questions of how we live together on this planet without destroying it or ourselves.

So this is why I'm more than a little concerned by the shenanigans in Ottawa. As I write this, I'm listening to CTV Newsnet and Prime Minister Harper is about to meet with the Governor General. I've listened to dozens of people speculate about what Governor General Jean can do and will do in the face of this political mess. My guess is that she agree to suspend Parliament until late January. Then, I think Harper will be forced to adopt a more conciliatory approach and will, in the process, give into some of the pressures from the opposition parties to spend more money to avert further immediate economic distress. In the meantime, the opposition leaders will mill about in increasing confusion as Canadians express their frustration with their efforts to pull off a political coup. The fact that the Liberal party is in the block, preparing for a leadership race this spring and that public opinion of Stephane Dion seems to be pretty low and falling - well - it's a bit of a stretch to think they can really convince anyone that they are "ready to govern". I suspect that no matter what happens in terms of the coalition, the relationship between Quebec and the rest of the country will be even more strained and may even move the separatist agenda further along. All in all, it looks like rough waters ahead for all of us.

And, come to think of it, that can't be good news for the global poor because we'll be so focused on our own miseries, it will be hard to remember that thjavascript:void(0)ere are millions of people who would like to have enough food to eat, safe water, basic medical care, access to primary education for their kids. The drama continues... as for me, I'll be watching and hoping that our political leaders will snap out of it and take their responsibilities seriously, whatever that means for their own political careers.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Advent Conspiracy: A Cautious Embrace...

Well - I've received emails from far and wide referring me to The Advent Conspiracy and I made very brief mention of it at the tail end of my last blog. I'm going to say right up front that I think this is a great idea - a movement with sincere good intentions. And who can argue with the outcome when the bottom line is a shift away from self-indulgent consumerism to an emphasis on compassion and relationship? So why do I have a sense of unease in the pit of my being? It's probably not a big deal, but it's a persistent sense that something could be a little amiss. I certainly don't want to be the Scrooge of Advent Conspiracy, but here's the thing - or things:

1. Christmas may be as good a time as any to call people to a more authentic and accurate representation of their faith, but is there a danger that the goodwill that the Advent Conspiracy generates may dissipate when the trees come down and the turkey settles? After all, come the first of January the Christmas glow often fades and we go back to life as usual - the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is replaced by the more mundane hustle and bustle of our frantic lifestyles - getting the kids to the rink and the pool and the gym and putting in our own 40+ hour work week, plus keeping up (or down!) with the Jones's, the housework and yardwork and - well - you get the picture. We may have done a little bit of good for the global poor, by providing safe water or a bit more food or even houses that won't wash away or blow away, but what if lack of access to food and water and safe housing are only symptoms of much bigger and deeper issues?

2. And, what if we participate in the Advent Conspiracy as a way to alleviate guilt - our own, that is. Maybe it's just me, but I find it's really tempting to fall in line and celebrate the euphoria of our wonderful generosity as we scale back a bit and then use a bit of the money we didn't spend on ourselves to help others. Again, maybe it's just me, but I struggle constantly with this tension between wanting to really live simply, justly and faithfully and the very strong urge to have the things I want that make my life comfortable, productive, safe. I sincerely hope that this is a reflection of MY selfishness and that YOU are actually far more genuinely generous than I am.

OK - so what's the point of this blog? Perhaps it's just me, confessing my struggle with consumerism and thinking on paper about the deeper, darker issues of the global economic and political systems and the injustices that are perpetrated by those systems so that the richest 20% of the world controls 86% of the planet's wealth and the poorest 20% control only 1%. I don't want to rain on the Advent Conspiracy parade - honestly! I seriously DO think it's a good start and I encourage you to check it out, but be careful. Don't let it be a quick fix or a passing fad. Let it be an entry point into a a whole new relationship with people - both near and far - and stuff and the environment and God.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7 TNIV)

Be part of the Advent Conspiracy but know this: we may be a whole lot more tied to our consumer culture than we realize and as we follow this path, we will - I predict - discover that the rabbit hole is WAY deeper than we thought! But it's ok - we're not alone and I believe that whatever trouble we find on the way, God will not leave us or forsake us!

Oh - and by the way, if you're looking for a good place to put some (or better still, ALL!) of the cash that you're not using to buy obligatory and often frivolous gifts for family and friends, check out the CBM gift catalogue: and /cbm/giftcatalogue and the Kids Care Catalogue - and give a gift in their names.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Coronation Grow Project

As promised at the end of my last blog, I'm going to tell you about the Coronation Grow Project that raises money - LOTS of money - for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). It's a story about some farmers in Alberta - in Coronation, to be precise - who share CFGB's vision: a world without hunger.

These farmers plant a 270 acre field and the entire harvest is donated to CFGB. Not only that, but through a 4:1 matching grant from Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), that money is multiplied. Last year, the Coronation Grow Project was able to raise almost $3,000,000 for CFGB - all money that is used to fund food security projects in low income countries. In this case, the money was deposited in Canadian Baptist Ministries' (CBM) account with CFGB and used by CBM for projects with partners in Africa, India, Central and South America.

But let me back up a bit and tell you about CFGB. This year is CFGB's 25th anniversary. Here's how the website describes CFGB:

Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of Canadian church-based agencies working to end hunger in developing countries by: · increasing and deepening the involvement of Canadians in efforts to end hunger; · supporting partnerships and activities to reduce hunger on both an immediate and sustainable basis; · influencing changes in public policies necessary to end hunger.

Check out the website at: But there's more to the story. Last year, Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, Ontario, partnered with Brownfield Church in Alberta. As I understand it, the farmers - many of them from the Brownfield Baptist Church, near Coronation - provided the knowledge, labour and equipment to make the harvest a success, and the Lorne Park Church provided cash for input costs. So - an urban church (Lorne Park) partnered with a rural church (Brownfield) - each contributing what they had in order to raise an enormous sum of money so that people in distant lands might have access to funds that would help them develop projects to ease hunger and food insecurity.

Just think of all the players involved in making this happen: the farmers and the local community folks in Alberta, the Lorne Park folks, CFGB, CBM and The Sharing Way (CBM's relief and development arm), CIDA (which contributes money through matching grants - that's money gathered from Canadian taxpayers), our partners in Kenya, Rwanda, Angola, India, Bolivia and El Salvador. That's a lot of people, working together, to ease hunger!

Now - before I leave you I want to mention a website you might want to check out as the Advent season begins: Enjoy!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hunger for Change

For the last two weeks of October I had the incredible privilege of traveling across the country with two of our international partners - Sam Mutisya from Kenya and Dr. Judson Pothuraju from India. We - along with several others who varied from venue to venue - were presenting a workshop we called: Hunger for Change: Responding to the Global Food Crisis. What an amazing journey it was for me!

I heard Sam and Dr. Judson present their material on how the global food crisis is affecting people in their communities a total of eight times - and each time the picture got a little clearer. But it wasn't just the presentations that stretched me - it was also the opportunity to get to know these two gracious men as we traveled across this land of plenty to try to help people understand that there really is a link between our relative affluence and the abject poverty so many people experience every day BECAUSE of global forces which favor us and not them. Sometimes it's hard for us to really believe that there IS a global food crisis since our grocery stores continue to carry an amazing array of food - fresh, frozen, processed, modified, transported - it's all there waiting for us when we zip into the grocery store to stock our own shelves.

After extending Kenyan greetings, Sam began his presentation by noting that "world hunger and a food crisis are a contradiction in our time." There's an irony that we musn't miss that while the diet industry in North America is booming because we have and we eat TOO MUCH, about one billion people (that's about one in six!) are chronically hungry and many of them are seriously malnourished and literally on the brink of starvation.

It's pretty easy, actually, to see that there's something terribly wrong with this picture, but the more difficult issue is understanding the causes of the food crisis and - tougher still - working through possible solutions. There seem to be two competing and maybe even contradictory camps on this. On the one hand there's Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who heads up a pilot project which has seen the creation of 12 "Millennium Villages" in an effort to provide a model for the eradication of poverty and hunger. Sounds like a good idea, but the catch is that they are based on some assumptions about development that may ultimately be counter- productive. Like, for example, as I understand it, agricultural production will be heavily reliant on commercially manufactured seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. See for more details.

Michael Pollan is a spokesperson for a different approach. He advocates a development model that harnesses natural inputs. He's written an open letter (published in the New York Times - see to the next president of the United States (who we now know will be President-elect Barack Obama) concerning the global food crisis and the way forward. Quite a different way forward than the Millennium Villages model for agricutlural production, mind you.

So - what I've been pondering is this question: is it possible for us (humanity at its best, that is) to produce enough food to feed the growing world population, without relying on genetically modified food and chemical fertilizers and pesticides? I don't have the answer to that question, but I'm guessing that in the immediate short term it may be necessary to combine philosophies and approaches in order to get food - and that is, food of any kind at this point - into the bellies of hungry and starving people around the world. That's the first priority. But in the long term decisions must be made about what kind of food we want and need. We need to consider the costs of artificial inputs and of a whole series of assumptions that we make about food production and distribution. Perhaps the "answer" will lie in a dynamic balance between two models....

In my next posting I'm going to talk about a Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) grow project in Coronation, Alberta, where farmers donate their time, equipment and labour to harvest grain which is donated through CFGB, along with matching grants (up to 4:1) from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and is invested through The Sharing Way of Canadian Baptist Ministries with our partners in countries like Kenya and India - to improve food security. It's a great story and an inspiring example of mustard seed faith!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

World Food Day and the Global Food Crisis

Well - it's October 16. Whatever else is on your plate today, please take a little time to reflect on the fact that it is World Food Day. Your cupboards may be full and your clothes may be a little snug, but the reality is that access to food is a major issue for at least one in six global citizens - that is, the "bottom billion". And actually, rising food prices are affecting MANY more, both here in Canada and around the world.

The global food crisis is a pretty complex topic and I'm not going to take time in this blog to talk about the various factors that have directly or indirectly contributed to the situation we are now facing. My purpose today is simply to share with you some thoughts about what YOU can do to make a difference as you seek to live out your faith through living simply, justly and faithfully.

First of all, if you haven't already done so, check out the Live It Out challenge at It all starts with a decision to change your lifestyle! Then, get informed. There are LOTS of websites with really good information on the global food crisis. Here are a few you could start with:

If you're a reader, there are also many great books. Here's a sampling - some of them are about food specifically and some are about simplicity more generally:

The End of Food (Paul Roberts)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver)

In Defense of Food (Michael Pollan)

The 100 Mile Diet (Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon)

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Ron Sider)

Simpler Living Compassionate Life (Michael Schut, ed)

30 Days to a Simpler Life (Connie Cox & Chris Evatt

Serve God, Save the Planet (J. Matthew Sleeth, MD)

Freedom of Simplicity (Richard Foster)

Now - it's not just about reading and thinking and understanding. All of that is well and good, but what really counts is what you do with what you know. So, here's a few suggestions that might prime the pump as you settle on some things you can begin to DO today!

Eat local – support local farmers, reduce travel costs (shop at Farmer’s Markets, etc.)

Know your food producers

Eat fair trade when possible

Use cloth bags

Avoid excess packaging (shop cooperatively…)

Eat food (not reasonable fascimiles!)

Reduce food waste and compost

Avoid use of stryofoam (byod - that is, bring your own dishes!)

My guess is that as you start doing some of these things, you'll have an impact not only on yourself but on those closest to you - your friends, families, co-workers. How can you make sure that influence is a good one? Keep these things in mind:

Set an example – change starts with you Encourage others to eat responsibly and live simply and justly Influence food decisions made at home, work, church…

Finally, how can you get more involved in working for food justice?

Support The Sharing Way ( and Canadian Foodgrains Bank (

Support food security policies and sustainable agriculture, locally and globally

Encourage politicians to live up to Canada’s international commitments (MDGs, international development, etc.)

Pray – for wisdom, for our leaders, for God’s kingdom, for the poor, for organizations like CBM/TSW, CFGB, etc.

So - why not observe World Food Day by getting started. Start wherever you want. These are just suggestions - start somewhere and see where it goes! We live in a world of plenty, but not everyone has enough...

Monday, October 06, 2008

Election Reflections

When the Canadian election was called (September 7/08) I confess that I was momentarily relieved that the campaign itself would be relatively short (if not sweet!). I got a bit weary of the long and winding campaign trail in the States months ago, and felt a certain Canadian smugness that we could call and hold an election in a fraction of the time (and I presume cost!) of the American system. But, with only 8 days left until the votes will be cast and counted (on October 14), I'm beginning to wish that we had a bit more time.

The pollsters and the media have quickly risen to the challenge of a short campaign. Each of the parties has hastily formulated platforms and signs are ornamenting private lawns and public spaces. The leaders have had their televised debates. All of the necessary bits and pieces are falling into place. But who to vote for? Beyond all the rhetoric and innuendo, the party politics and the smoke and mirrors, who is worthy of understanding these times we live in and providing the kind of leadership that is required? Can I trust one party over another? Which leader would make the best prime minister? Which of the local candidates in my riding is most likely to serve his or her constituency with integrity

I'm on the email lists of a number of organizations that have sent out election guides to help people like me talk to the candidates about a variety of issues. Most of them are tastefully and tactfully done - giving suggestions concerning the kinds of questions we might ask candidates - about poverty, the Millennium Development Goals (specifically Canada's obligation to honor our commitment to give 0.7% of our GNP for development), the right to water, homelessness at home, services for seniors and single parents - and so on. Some of the emails I've received though, have been intensely partisan - one organization was fund raising for an anti-Harper ad campaign. In fact, come to think of it, there has been a lot of anti-Harper sentiment (even a facebook movement to engage young adults in vote swapping in order to wrest key ridings from Conservative candidates!). It all makes we wonder if any ONE political leader can really be an authentic hero or villain - is Harper to be "blamed" for the policies that I find problematic? Could another leader "solve" some of those problems?

I find it interesting that we can so quickly "blame" our political leaders for all of our woes and - it would follow - that we presume that our political system can somehow be counted on to "fix" the problems it has caused. It seems to me that elections often bring out our true colors - that is, we want to support candidates that can do it all: make life easier and better for us and also do something about the really big issues like climate change, the global food crisis, the impending global economic recession, the war in Afghanistan, terrorism, poverty, etc. But do we REALLY expect them to do anything about those global issues? That might be asking too much, so we settle for what they can do closer to home - our home. What will they actually do in my community, in my province, in Canada? Let's not kid ourselves - politics is about power and the way to have power is to get elected and re-elected. The way to get elected is to give people what they want.

The way I see it, global issues won't be priorities for our political leaders until they are truly our own priorities. Until we can say - with total sincerity - that we want our government to put the needs of the global poor AHEAD of our own comforts. Until we release our governments from the expectation that the measure of their success is improving our economy and our standard of living. Until the MAJORITY of Canadians will actually VOTE for a candidate who promises to REDUCE our standard of living and invest instead in the economies and infrastructure of low income countries.

I know - I'm naive. Who's going to vote for that kind of candidate? In fact, how would that kind of candidate even get into the race? But seriously - we are living WAY beyond our means (currently spending $1.25 for every $1.00 we earn and with a national consumer debt load of $1.17 Trillion dollars!). [For a comprehensive look at debt in Canada, see]. Doesn't anyone else feel like we're on a massive roller coaster and nearing the peak - we don't know exactly what's on the other side of the peak but we know it's going to be a wild ride. We can only hope that the structural supports can keep the cars on the track!

So, having said all this, despite wishing we had more time, I'm off to the advance polls to cast my vote (since I'll be on the road next week). The option I really want isn't one of my choices but I will vote nonetheless because, the way I see it, living out my faith means participating in the political process, flawed though it may be. And then, after I vote, I'll continue to work at transforming my own attitudes and encouraging others to keep examining our lives in light of global realities. It's all part of living simply, living justly, living faithfully!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Live it Out Challenge: It's all about living simply, justly and faithfully...

Well - the Live It Out Challenge has now been officially "launched"! This challenge is based on an idea that began to germinate about a year ago. If I had to say when the seed was planted, I'd probably go with four years ago when I went to Kenya for the first time on a short term mission trip with Canadian Baptist Ministries. In reality, I think it may be more accurate to say the seed may have been planted way back when I began to take sociology courses in university and those courses began to trigger a "sociological imagination". The trip to Kenya was just one of many opportunities to reflect on "big picture" ideas and observations. It tilted my thinking...

I also need to mention that way back when I was 13 or 14 years old, I - like so many teens - became pretty dissatisfied with "the church" - actually I was intensely CRITICAL. It just seemed to me that the church wasn't what it ought to be, if Jesus really IS who he said he is and if the church really is meant to carry on his work. If we're actually to be some sort of INCARNATIONAL presence of Christ in the world - a world that is indescribably beautiful (yet sometimes ugly), complex (yet simple), messed up (yet orderly) - in other words, a place of contradiction and paradox.

I was so disappointed in the church when I was a teen that I set out on my own to search for "truth" or "god" or something, ANYTHING authentic. At that time, if you'd asked me, I would have said that I believed in God but not much in any religious institution. As it turns out, even though I'd been to Sunday School and church pretty much every Sunday since birth, and THOUGHT I knew what Christianity is all about, there were actually some pretty significant holes in my theology. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So - I spent about the next 14 years in a very diligent search - a spiritual journey that involved exploring other major world religions, practicing TM (transcendental meditation - it seemed like something a "self-actualizing" person would do - thank you very much Abraham Maslow!), dabbling in yoga, and so on. Somewhat to my surprise, that search brought me pretty much full circle back to Christianity.

Without going into detail, I found myself in 1992 with a husband, two young children, a PhD in Sociology, a renewed interest in Christianity and, surprisingly for me - the "church", and some time on my hands. From about 1992 to 2004 I became increasingly involved with our regional baptist Convention and then with Canadian Baptist Ministries in the whole area of public witness.

I guess I figured that if the church really IS supposed to somehow represent Christ on earth, rather than criticize it for its (many) shortcomings, I ought to roll up my sleeves and use whatever insights/resources/talents I might have to help out - to make the church more effective. Hm - as I write that it sounds pretty arrogant. Hm.

Anyway - in 2004 the trip to Kenya was a really important factor in my learning curve. And it was followed by trips to Bolivia, El Salvador, back to Kenya, then back to Bolivia and back to El Salvador. And in between all of these forays to low income countries, I was reading and thinking about justice issues and global realities and how Christians in countries like Canada and the United States should be living out our faith in the context of these realities.

It seemed that we often WANT to be totally committed to following Christ, but we've maybe lost our way a bit or the culture of affluence that is OUR reality, has blinded us to the fact that "our world is not THE world" (I think Rob Bell makes this point in his Nooma, Rich). Bottom line, as I've said through numerous entries in this blog - we can't continue to live the way we live and assume that there are enough resources to go around - it's NOT POSSIBLE for the whole world to live as we do and, if we REALLY want to love our neighbors as ourselves, it's time we figure out a way to stop using way more than our share of the earth's resources. I hasten to add that I am totally convinced that reducing our STANDARD of living does not mean that we will reduce the QUALITY of our lives. In fact, I suspect that we'll discover that reductions in standard will actually improve quality. But you can test that for yourself!

All of this to say that the LIO challenge is simply a tool to help you get started. The idea is that you: 1. make a commitment 2. figure out where you are now (that is, your starting point - the whole idea is to start where you are but not stay there!) 3. set some personal targets in the areas of living simply, living justly and living faithfully, and 4. find an accountability partner or small group - a person or people who will hold you accountable to stick to your commitment and to follow through on the targets you've set for yourself.

There's really just one rule: Don't get legalistic about it! This isn't a magic program - it's just a simple tool to help you take the next steps to a life this is more simple, just and faithful. So - what do you think? If this sounds like something that will help you, PLEASE, sign up. Just go to Not only can you sign up online, but there's LOTS of resources here to help you get started and keep going.

By the way, if you wonder how any little changes you might make in your lifestyle could possibly make ANY difference to the global justice issues, think about this: you know have gas prices have been going up lately? Well, many people are making small adjustments in their driving habits - driving less, driving slower, etc. In the August 9-15, 2008 issue of The Economist (in a short article called Buttonwood, Fuel for Thought), it says this: According to the Department of Transportation, Americans drove 9.6billion fewer miles in May than they did last year." Wow! Maybe we CAN live more responsibly!

Monday, July 28, 2008

On the edge of a precipice...

I've been reading an incredible book over the past few months. I'm savouring it, really - reading a few paragraphs or pages at a time and not wanting it to end. The book is Simpler Living Compassionate Life, a collection of essays edited and compiled by Michael Schut (ISBN 1-889108-62-6). Originally published in 1999, it's now on its thirteenth printing. That says something, right?

The articles are challenging, inspiring, provocative, gentle, insistent. I feel that I'm being drawn closer and closer to a precipice. One minute, I want to stop - I don't want to get any closer. But then, I'm lured on by my own sense of curiosity - like a moth to a flame. My gut feeling is that if I continue, the consequences are going to be unavoidable and significant - not bad but scary. Not to carry the imagery too far, but the feeling might be similar to being next in line to go bungee jumping. There's the gut wrenching fear but also the breathless anticipation. You probably know me well enough through these blogs to know that I'm not likely to be in a line for bungee jumping, but still - I think the feeling I have as I read this book must be something like the feeling I WOULD have, if I were the adventure seeking type.

I'll try to explain very briefly why this book is so compelling. This blog has often been the place where I've commented on global statistics as I become more and more aware of the disparities between the global rich and the global poor. As a sociologist I can't help but be impressed by the statistical evidence in all kinds of areas that the "good life" as defined by our secular North American society, is totally unsustainable - not only for us in the long run but very obviously for the globe, even in the relatively short run of the next 20 or 30 years. There are ecological limits, and social, cultural, economic, political and even spiritual consequences of exceeding those limits. BUT, this is not a doomsday forecast.

As it happens, I don't think it's too late for us to change our ways and, as much as I don't have a lot of confidence in our ability to FIX all the problems we've created, I DO think that governments, industry, science, academia, and even faith communities can make a HUGE difference, especially if we work together to address problems. There are so many good quotes in Simpler Living Compassionate Life - but consider this one, from an article entitled "Christian Experience in a World of Limitis" by John B. Cobb, Jr. (pg. 118):

"Some Christians may elect to live now in terms of what they envision as quite new possibilities for human society even when they do not know how to get from here to there. We may not know how to bring about a society that uses only renewable resources, but we can experiment with lifestyles that foreshadow that kind of society. We may not know how to provide the Third World with space and freedom to work out its own destiny, but in the name of a new kind of world we can withdraw our support from the more obvious structures of oppression. We may not know how to shift from a growth-oriented economy to a stationary-state economy, but we can work out the principles involved in such an economy."
This gives me great hope! I don't have to have it all worked out, but I can take small steps to live more justly and to encourage a sense of optimism that there is a truly BETTER way for us to live. Even as I think of changes that I can make (and am making!) in my everyday life, and as I am more sensitive to the creative ways that some other people are living, I'm convinced that reducing our standard of living is not the same as reducing our quality of living. In fact, I'd argue that reducing the standard of living will actually serve to enhance the quality of our lives - exponentially! And, not only that, but by consuming less we will begin to see how the global economic systems are actually very exploitative. And once we see and understand that, well - here's another quote by Cobb (pg. 121):
"... in a world in which global poverty is here to stay, we are called as Christians to identify with the poor. That has always been Christian teaching, but when we thought that our own affluence contributed to the spread of affluence around the world, we could evade that teaching. Now we know that riches can exist in one quarter only as the expense of the poverty of others. In a world divided between oppressor and oppressed, rich and poor, the Christian cannot remain identified with the oppressor and the rich."
See what I mean about the precipice? I'm being drawn on to a deeper level of understanding of this amazing world AND, by the way, of a vision for God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It's pretty exciting, but it's not easy or obvious what my next steps need to be. OK - just one more quote - this time from the conclusion of the article (pg. 123):
"Perhaps for affluent Christians [that would be me and perhaps you!] the deepest level of response to the awareness of limits is the recognition that we cannot free ourselves from guilt. We are caught in a destructive system, and we find that even our will to refuse to identify with that system is mixed with the desire to enjoy its fruits. None of us is innocent, either in intention or behavior."
Hm. What does this mean? How often do we seek out a "good buy" without giving a moment's thought to all of the contingencies and relationships that move that item from production to our consumption? How sure are we that we have not endorsed or participated in the inhumane exploitation of workers - maybe even children - in a distant factory or sweat shop? In our enthusiasm to stretch our hard earned dollars further and further and our vulnerability to a consumer culture and advertising campaigns designed to make us WANT things that we don't actually NEED... Well, enough said. I could go on and on - and on!- but I'll stop here for now.

Did I mention that it's really a great book?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Is necessity really the mother of invention?

I was listening to an audio version of The Economist magazine the other day - a special feature on the future of energy (an article called "The Power and the Glory", June 19/08)- and my mind snagged on a comment made early on. I looked it up to be sure to get it right and here it is: "The pressure to innovate has been minimal." The gist of it is that until recently, energy has been pretty cheap so there hasn't been a lot of incentive to innovate. Of course we all know that's changing - at least the part about energy being cheap.

So then I was watching a documentary called Who Killed the Electric Car? - a 2006 film that explores the birth and subsequent "euthanization" of General Motors' electric car called the EV1 - and I got thinking of this popular maxim: necessity is the mother of invention. Hm. IS necessity the mother of invention? Who defines necessity? Who pays for invention? I think sometimes we imagine innovation as being the simple product of a creative or clever mind, imagining what could be and coming up with some innovative solution to a problem, whether big or small. But is that how it really works?

Let's look at necessity. Who decides what's a necessity or what's not? We might theoretically agree that having access to safe and sufficient food and water, adequate shelter and sanitation, basic health care, clothes appropriate for the season, primary school education - these could be considered basic necessities. But what about other things like dental care, secondary and post secondary education, running water, things like telephones, computers, appliances? Or, to notch it up even further, vacations, cars, jewellry, hobbies like golf or tennis or water skiing, extensive wardrobes? It's pretty clear that necessity can wear different hats!

But wouldn't you think that we would ALL agree that everyone on the planet should have those things that really ARE basic necessities? Shouldn't that be the starting point? I'm not so naive as to think that we would agree that everyone really should have equal access to the "stuff" that adds spice (and sometimes a wee bit of stress!) to our lives, but who can really argue that food and water, health care, education, shelter and sanitation should be reserved only for those who can pay? You've seen the stats. Currently there are millions of people on the planet who lack these things. So, by definition, is that not necessity? Is this necessity spawning invention?

I think it is, partly - at least it is sparking the impulse to invention. Many smart people are trying to solve global issues of poverty, hunger, etc. but the challenges prove to be quite significant. There are political issues (for example, should the global community help countries who violate human rights standards?), economic considerations (i.e. who pays for innovation, especially if the innovation is very expensive OR if innovation will have negative economic repercussions for someone higher on the "food chain"?), environmental challenges (can a "solution" to one environmental or ecological problem cause new and maybe even MORE serious problems like using biofuels to take some pressure off our reliance on fossil fuels but then diverting agricultural land away from food production?). When it comes to invention it seems that there may be a number of mitigating factors.

In Who Killed the Electric Car?, the film makers build a pretty compelling case that the production and presumably subsequent improvement of technology for electric cars was short circuited (pun intended!) by unseen forces or interests. Someone REALLY didn't want the EV1 to succeed in providing an alternative to fossil fuel based transportation. Sure, the EV1 had some limitations, but it was a pretty good beginning and - one might reasonably argue - would only improve with further developments and modifications.

I'm not usually a big advocate of conspiracy theories, but it occurs to me that most of us can be easily fooled into thinking that someone is making good and honorable decisions on our behalf and that we are, after all, good guys. We're not like those "other" people - those people from Africa or India or Indonesia or the Middle East or wherever - those people who resort to violence or other criminal behavior when they are hungry or sick or frustrated by political corruption or inaction. We, we like to think, are mild mannered, polite, even generous. And yet, I wonder. Maybe we're kidding ourselves. Maybe we'e like the guy Jesus talked about in Luke 18:10-14 - the Pharisee who was so proud of not being a publican (sinner) because he could boast of all kinds of outwardly spiritual practices.

Sometimes I think we are in a collective state of denial, aided and abetted by financial interests far beyond our conscious level of awareness who have dulled our senses so that we participate in global acts of barbarism without any sense of participation, let alone responsibility. Necessity IS, I think, the mother of invention, but invention can be thwarted by unscrupulous forces.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Inner Game

I suppose my thinking for this blog has something to do with the fact that I've been watching some of the Wimbledon tennis matches on tv. And, I've been watching as much of the Euro Cup Soccer as I can - where all of the pre-tournament favorites have been knocked out of competition! This has put my mind to thinking about the importance of focus, concentration, positive energy, momentum - all those kinds of things - on performance in sport and, come to think of it, in life generally.

Way back in 1972 a book came on the market called The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey. Athletes in all kinds of sports found Tim's thesis that there are actually two games going on in any competition: the outer game (what observers SEE) and the inner game (what goes on in the mind of each competitor), transformative. And of course there's often a connection. Players can defeat themselves by allowing their mental state to interfere with peak performance. We've all seen it - dramatic shifts in momentum in key hockey games or obvious lapses in concentration in tennis or golf. You can almost see the mind straying from its target. Maybe it begins to think of what success is going to feel like or maybe the mind starts to analyze the "victory" before the competition is over, or maybe the mind begins to doubt the outcome.

A few days ago I heard a report about a study that tested the actual advantage gained by athletes taking so call "performance enhancing drugs" compared with those taking a placebo. The result of the study was that even many of the athletes who were taking the placebo had noticeable improvements in their performance! And just today I heard about a new development in the material used in swimwear and a discussion about the competitive mental advantage that athletes get from having a perceived "edge" when it comes to gear or equipment. It all has to do with the mental side of competition.

So, I'm thinking that this isn't just about sport performance. Who we are as individuals has an awful lot to do with who we THINK we are and with our ability to set and stay true to our goals - whatever they may be. There is an inner game - and we are wise to pay attention to it! Not to reduce relationships to the status of a "game" or to suggst that life itself is simply a "game", but really, it's about perspective.

I also wonder if somehow the fact that many of us live pretty comfortable self-centred lives has made us both mentally and physically "soft". OK - I'm speaking for myself and maybe it doesn't apply to you - but I keep thinking that I am coasting through life and that someday I'm going to realize that I missed LOTS of things along the way. You may notice this theme has cropped up in my postings from time to time!

Let me be more specific and link this to my faith journey. Let's say that I am (or want to be) a fully devoted follower of Christ - a disciple. What's the inner game of discipleship? What kinds of things might distract me from my goal? How can I train myself so that I'm on top of my game ALL the time? I can't help thinking about Peter, one of Jesus' disciples. Scripture and tradition paint him as the impulsive, brash one - a fisherman by trade. On one occasion, for instance, he's said to have stepped out of a boat into turbulent water and actually taken a few steps ON the water before the realization of what he was doing caught up with him and he focussed on the water and the storm - and sank! Don't you wonder what things we might be capable of if we could just keep our inner game in line?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Numbers and elusive "solutions"

I am fascinated by numbers and math. That's not to say that I particularly LIKE math or that I have a mathematical mind. No - I respect math but from a safe distance. In fact, a few years ago I probably would have claimed indifference when it comes to math and numbers, but lately I seem to be drawn to the inevitability of math. Looking back, I think it probably started with the movie A Beautiful Mind, a 2001 Ron Howard film starring Russell Crowe as the brilliant mathematician John Forbes Nash. Then, I started watching the tv series Numb3rs, an FBI detective show based on the application of mathematical principles to solving crimes. Then, it was the book, The DaVinci Code and just a few days ago I watched a movie called Pi, in which Maximillian Cohen, a numbers theorist, searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature.

Way, WAY back, I remember watching an episode of a tv show called A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which computers were assigned the task of determining the answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer? 42. That helps a lot, right!

So, here's the thing. math IS everywhere. It's in the beauty of a flower, the sharp angles of a cliff, the rythm of the ocean, the organization of human genes and skeletons. It's in economic transactions and political systems. Math, numbers, geometry, formulas - they describe and ARE the stuff of life on this amazing planet. But, is there life beyond the reaches of math? Or, to put it differently, can we ever reduce life to mathematical propositions and formulas? Can we understand ourselves, the universe, God, the past, the future - through numbers?

Well, I wouldn't be much of a sociologist if I said YES to that question! After all, a fundamental premise of sociology (identified by French sociologist, Emile Durkheim) is that society is equal to MORE than the sum of its parts. In fact, it was Durkheim who posed the question, "how is social order possible?" that really provided the framework for the development of sociology as a distinct social science.

I think it's the unknown factor which intrigues me - it's the elusiveness of solutions, or even of understanding that gives me passion for life and learning. I love watching life unfold - the spectacular dance between reason and faith, certainty and mystery, what is and what may yet be. I love being both spectator and participant in the incredibly complex and multi-faceted reality of life with all of its beauty and absurdity. I love pursuing truth and understanding, even knowing that truth is much too clever to stand still long enough for me to catch it.

I wish the mathematicians and other scientists well in their quest to capture life in an equation or formula. I will contrbute money for medical research so that they can unlock mysteries that are well beyond my own understanding. I will cheer them on with great enthusiasm - for they are most certainly the underdog in their cosmic quest - and it is no doubt very disheartening to be reaching for that elusive goal that is always just beyond your reach.

But as for me, I will revel in the complexity and mystery of life and in the goodness of a God who has given us this amazing gift.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


As I was driving to work the other day I got thinking about life and death and the fact that life is REALLY very fleeting and death can sneak up on us - OR, in the case of those people who die after a "long struggle with cancer" (or some other disease), death can chase you for a long time. I suppose we've all wondered how we'd react if we got the news from our doctor that we had so many weeks or months to live. What would we do differently? How would we prepare ourselves and our friends and family for life without us?

I remember a family vacation we took to Florida when the kids were young - we had a GREAT time but when it was time to come home - back to our regular life - I remember thinking with some amazement that after we leave, all of the activity and wonder of Disney would continue - with a constant shifting of faces and families, Disney WORLD would go on. Maybe it's the same way with death. But what I really want to talk about in this blog is FEAR.

Fear can be a great motivator but it can also be a great inhibitor. Fear of failure drives many people to invest their time and energy into all kinds of things. But fear is complex. It can also prompt people to scurry out of the way of trouble or to avoid situations that might be dangerous, physically or emotionally. Knowing that we can be paralyzed by fear, sometimes we spend our whole lives avoiding situations that might bring the coward in us to the surface.

It bugs me that I'm not a risk taker. I'm cautious. "Err on the side of caution" could be my motto. Why is that, I wonder, and what could I or should I do about it? It seems absurd to think that one option would be to look for risks and throw myself at them. That IS absurd, right? So then I got thinking about all this in the context of the global issues I've been learning and writing about. And it occurs to me that one of the "advantages" of living in THIS part of the world, is that we have all kinds of ways of disguising and hiding from our basic fears. Our affluence can buy us some distance and time from our fears, but - and here's the rub- it can't remove them. They don't go away and every now and then they remind us that we are, in fact, vulnerable and weak.

Think about it. If I lived in some part of the world where simple survival required all or most of my energy - having enough food to eat and enough water to drink and a roof over my head that can withstand even normal weather conditions - in those conditions it seems to me that I'd be pretty well acquainted with my most basic fears. And, maybe I'd learn to deal with fear - to face it head on, rather than hiding from it. Again, not to romanticize the plight of the poor, but just to dig a little deeper...

The decisions I make today - how I think, how I react to the circumstances of my life, how I spend my time, my inner thoughts - all of it, is the result of every day of my life up until today. I am the person I am today because of the decisions and choices I've made in the past. Who I'm becoming is what lies ahead. Ten years from now (if I should live that long!) I'd like to be able to look back and see that I have not spent my time and energy avoiding my fears. Rather, as I look forward to looking back, I hope that I will see that I have lived more courageously in the face of them.

Well - my thoughts are going in a hundred directions as I think about the day ahead. I know that it's all too easy to slip back into old habits - to cruise through life taking the easy path - that very attractive path of least resistance. But seriously, I don't like where that path will take me, so here and now I commit myself to a more intentional life that DOESN'T see erring on the side of caution as the ultimate virtue. I commit to simplicity, generosity, hospitality and justice, wherever they may lead me...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Some Thoughts on SECURITY

I know. It's been a VERY long time since I posted a new blog. It's funny. Whenever I DO write a blog I can think of half a dozen other things I'd like to write about, but I need to wait a week or two and then - well, then I get busy and out of the writing "mood". You know how it goes I'm sure. Anyway, I'm back today with some thoughts on security. Some of these thoughts were triggered by a CBC interview on The Current (May 15) with Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute. If you have a chance, listen to the interview. It's at - just scroll down to "Feature Interview".

So I'm thinking about the issue of security. We often think of security as all about safety - we want our government to ensure our personal safety in the face of military threats, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, etc. In fact, we're SO committed to security that we're quite willing to give up some of our rights and freedoms (and the rights of freedoms of other people, especially the suspicious ones!) in order to feel "safe". I think the rationale goes something like this: we live in this great country where we have a very good life - we're nice people and we just want to continue to live in peace and prosperity - we don't want anyone to mess with our comforts.

That view is starting to fray a bit around the edges. Climate change, terrorism, the global food crisis, the dramatic rise in gas prices - these are things that the average middle class Canadian can no longer ignore. I'm an average middle class Canadian and I've also had the opportunity to travel a bit in low income countries - specifically Kenya, Bolivia and El Salvador. And I read a lot and listen a lot to the news. I even teach a course on Globalization. So, not that I'm an expert on all of this, but I can't help but notice...

When we think of security we think of personal and national safety - protecting ourselves from threats of all sorts. BUT, security in much of the world is of a more basic nature: having safe water and enough food to avoid malnutrition or outright starvation. When your life is spent simply trying to survive, personal and national safety issues seem to take a back seat.

Maybe it's just that I'm paying closer attention, but it also seems that the number and brutality of incidents of violence in these low income countries is escalating. I'm thinking that people can only be pushed so far before they push back. One could argue that these situations - take the unrest in Kenya after the presidential election in December, for instance - are very complex. On the other hand though, maybe it's quite simple. Maybe it's just a matter of people pushing back against the oppression and injustice which leave them hungry and helpless as their children get sick and die of diseases that CAN be cured or prevented. By the way, UNICEF reports that the number of such deaths of children under the age of 5 is currently just under 10 million per year (see That's about 26,000 child deaths EVERY DAY!

OK - I won't go on and on about that - even though I'm tempted! Just notice that SECURITY may look and feel a lot different in that context.

Perhaps you've heard the latest figure for military expenditure - that is the amount of money spent in one year on military budgets globally. It's now at $1.2 TRILLION. Please understand me: I'm not making any political statement here about particular militaries or campaigns. I just think we need to step back and look at the BIG picture. What if we redefined security to include access to sufficient food and safe water for the entire population of the planet? What if that were the number one priority of all of our governments... and their armies? Maybe then we wouldn't need such well armed military forces...

Monday, February 11, 2008

How do we measure "poverty"?

I've been thinking a lot about poverty these last weeks and months. And just when I think I understand poverty, something doesn't quite line up - a new bit of information or a stray thought challenges my basic assumptions. I know that economists and policy makers differentiate between relative poverty and absolute poverty. Relative poverty is a comparative measure. You're poor if your income falls so far below the median income in your setting. Absolute poverty has to do with whether or not you have the things - food, clothing and shelter - necessary to sustain life. You're poor if you literally don't have enough food to eat or adequate shelter. Of course it's pretty obvious that lots of people - both in wealthy nations and in impoverished nations - manage to survive in horrific circumstances.

But I've long argued that poverty isn't just about what we HAVE or what we LACK in terms of material stuff. I'm convinced that there is a direct link between poverty (broadly defined - that is, not just an economic measure) and dignity. I have two observations to make:

First, it IS possible to live in abject poverty - not enough food or water, insufficient shelter and access to sanitation - and still have dignity. And secondly, it IS possible to live in circumstances of incredible (maybe even obscene) affluence, and yet lack dignity. So, clearly, dignity and economic means are not tied together. There is no necessary correlation.

When I was in Kenya last summer with a Short Term Mission team, we were amazed and humbled by the dynamic faith of many women we encountered. These women - poor by any economic standard - have a strength of faith that we admired and even envied. And, there was no doubt that the vibrancy of their faith was somehow a product of the hardships they have endured. Despite the hardships - or maybe BECAUSE of them - these women are full of hope, and they draw on that hope to mobilize their communities to work together to ease some of the circumstances that are at the root of their hardships. They cheerfully and relentlessly organize their communities to use the resources they have to address the needs that threaten their very lives.

Yes - they are poor. BUT, they have dignity and - I think somehow this is the real issue - they have HOPE.

In contrast, I think of so many middle class people in our communities in Canada, who can and do take so much for granted - water, food, shelter, clothing, heat, medical care, education, transportation, recreation - and yet seem to be perpetually unhappy and stressed out. We never seem to be content. I can't give you a source for this so I can't stand by the accuracy of this figure, but I heard recently that one in three Americans is on anti-depressant medication. What's THAT about?

I'm not suggesting that there is no place for, or need for, anti-depressant medication, but one in three? Maybe that says more about our society than it does about individuals... Check out this short video clip from CNN:

From a JUSTICE perspective, where should we focus our energies - providing funds so that people have adequate food, clothing and shelter OR seeking to understand and foster the less tangible and elusive objective of supporting dignity and hope? Even as I write this, I KNOW that it's not a question of either/or - one or the other. If you're hungry, your stomach wants food. If you lack dignity and hope, your soul longs for wholeness. Maybe this is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples and us. Maybe this is what integral mission is really about.

As usual, I have more questions than answers.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Unrest in Kenya

If you've been watching the news over the past few days you've likely seen some coverage of the tensions in Kenya following the December 27th election in which the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was re-elected by a small margin. Amidst accusations of corruption and election irregularities, pockets of the country have erupted into a kind of violence which is hauntingly reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Having been to Kenya twice in the last few years and with friends currently living there - several in Nairobi where much of the violence is centered - I've been paying careful attention to news reports.

As we watch the scenes from the safety and tranquility of our comfortable living rooms, it's hard for us to imagine how neighbors can turn on one another so brutally. Many of us may be tempted to conclude that such scenes could never happen here... that we simply are incapable of such brutality... that Canadians are far too reasonable and "nice" to be caught up in such atrocities.

Last week in our adult Sunday School class we talked for a few minutes about the situation in Pakistan following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Again, there was a surreal sense that those people are just not like us. And one of the more senior members of the class - a woman who years ago visited her son while he was living in Bangladesh - pointed out very matter of factly that "they have nothing". There were some quiet murmurings of concurrence but I really don't think we can understand what it's like to live - day in and day out - with the uncertainties of poverty. And then, when you add to the mix, tribal or other linguistic or ethnic differences - well - let's just say that it's a powerful mix that can be very easily ignited...

It's become fashionable these days for us to talk about our "tribe". It somehow has the effect of "connecting us" to those from places like Pakistan and Kenya. It's like saying - "yeah, we know about tribes. We're part of a tribe too...". And we are. But maybe our view lacks depth.

A little over a year ago I happened to be in Vancouver, British Columbia when there was a boil water order in effect. It was pretty inconvenient for people who are used to being able to turn on the tap to get perfectly potable water. Bottled water was hard to come by because the demand went up dramatically, literally over night. There were reports of scuffles breaking out at the local Costco over bottled water. It was pretty bizarre - people in Canada actually fighting over water! A colleague who lived in Africa for a time noted the irony and said something like "we wonder why Africans resort to violence and we're inconvenienced a little bit and we're up in arms!".

I live in a small fishing community and over the last 10 years or so, we've had some "migrant workers" from another province arrive to work at one of the fish plants. At first the newcomers were welcomed. When summer came, however, and the newcomers had all the low-end jobs tied up and it was hard for local students to find work, the atmosphere changed pretty quickly. Yeah - we have our tribes all right, but we really don't know how strongly we're attached to them until push comes to shove - until there isn't enough to go around. Scarcity does strange things to people.

So let's not think too critically of our global neighbors in Pakistan or Kenya - some people may be behaving badly - even brutally - but let's not think our "tribe" is any more virtuous than any other, at least not until we have faced the same kinds of scarcities and insecurities.