Friday, August 29, 2008

Ministering to Poor Governments

It occurred to me this morning just how much suffering in this world is caused by inept government and how much could be avoided by competence.

A lot of us in the United States think we know all about inept government (FEMA during Katrina, for instance), but I'm actually thinking of a level of ineptitude that is somewhere in the middle between, say, the old Katrina-FEMA on the mild side and Zimbabwe on the extreme side.

I'm thinking of nations whose officials are at least kinda-sorta trying to do a good job, but for lack of training they simply don't have the best skills.

It seems that for cases like this it would be good to have a Christian ministry made up of government officials from countries around the world who would occasionally take some of their vacation time and spend it with their governmental counterparts in poor countries. Public works directors matching off with public works directors, planning department officials spending time with planning department officials, ministers of finance hanging out with ministers of finance. They could just spend time with each other talking about how they do their jobs and how they might do them better.

Having suggested that, a big red flag comes to mind, which is that often ideas that seem good to western visitors are not good at all.

For example, I have a friend with a large organization that was doing work in Africa. The westerners had finished their work in the country and were leaving but still had a lot of their food left over, so my friend gave it to his driver, a national, who gave it to a group of nationals. They all ate the western food and all got sick because they were not used to such a high protein diet.

My point is that good intentions need to be matched with good understanding.

But having said that, it seems that with some cultural training and a large dose of humility, a ministry by government officials to government officials in poor countries might be very helpful. In fact, though I haven't heard of it, maybe it already exists. If you know about such an organization, let me know; I'd be interested.

UPDATE: After watching FEMA performing quite well during Hurricane Gustav, I felt I had to update this post to make clear that I was talking about FEMA during the Katrina hurricane. I'm delighted to see how much the agency has improved!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Top Christian Colleges - 2008

I just saw a rating of colleges by Forbes Magazine and thought it would be interesting to pull out the Christian colleges and see how they compared.

I found a list of Christian colleges and was surprised how few (just 32) were on the Forbes List. Not even Point Loma in California. Weird. I think they need to expand their list a lot. Also, I don't think the Forbes rating considers all the factors a Christian would consider in looking at a Christian school, but still, I find it quite interesting. I would have thought Wheaton would have come up first on the list, but it doesn't. It is second, with a college I hadn't heard of, Huntington University, coming in first.

So, here is the list. The number at the beginning of each line is the Forbes rating:

65 - Huntington University Indiana
89 - Wheaton College Illinois
95 - Erskine College South Carolina
116 - Carson-Newman College Tennessee
117 - Covenant College Georgia
129 - Mississippi College Mississippi
131 - George Fox University Oregon [added in update]
149 - Master's College California
159 - Goshen College Indiana
163 - Oklahoma Baptist University Oklahoma
165 - Whitworth College Washington
185 - Oklahoma Wesleyan University Oklahoma
191 - Houghton College New York
205 - Biola University California
211 - Northwestern College Iowa
213 - Asbury College Kentucky
257 - Westmont College California
271 - Northwestern College Minnesota
281 - Grove City College Pennsylvania
282 - Union University Tennessee
308 - Taylor University Indiana
340 - Cedarville University Ohio
343 - Gordon College Massachusetts
352 - Baylor University Texas
357 - Messiah College Pennsylvania
358 - Vanguard University California
372 - Calvin College Michigan
374 - Dordt College Iowa
435 - Seattle Pacific University Washington
443 - Corban College Oregon
444 - Abilene Christian University Texas
456 - John Brown University Arkansas
465 - Azusa Pacific University California

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Church Architecture

I recently stumbled upon a curious old volume on Google Books called Housing the Sunday School, which you may wish to read if you are on the planning committee to design a Sunday School building, but it reminded me of a really excellent book I read a long time ago by 19th Century art and architecture critic, John Ruskin, called The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

I'm sure there are excellent newer books with a wider perspective, but I thought Ruskin's book was excellent. Even though it isn't exclusively about church buildings, a lot of it is. I highly recommend it, especially if you are on a church building committee.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In Praise of Mindlessness

I am really not very tidy. And I come from a family of not-very-tidy people (my mother even has a sign that says "Neatness causes cancer in laboratory rats"), and generally I've considered neatness to show a certain lack of creativity and of a mind in a rut.

Well... I've been rethinking that and am now prepared to say I was wrong.

I think what changed my mind was reading David Allen's fine book, Getting Things Done, in which he advocates a very rigorous tidiness. One of his main themes, as I recall, is that if you put (and keep) everything in its place - especially schedules of things to do - then your mind can switch itself off on these topics because it knows that your "system" is doing the remembering. (My wife looked at the book and kind of yawned. She's been living this for years and kind of wonders what's taken me so long to see it.)

Anyway, so now I realize the value of mindlessness. If I'm tidy, I won't have to think about where I put my pen, or the sander, or the crescent wrench, or the computer files I've been working on for Ann. If I just put things where they belong, I can mindlessly grab them and do what I need to do with them. If I already thought once about where to keep the harmonica, why waste my time thinking about it again? Just put it back in its place when I'm done with it!

So I was wrong. Tidiness doesn't cause me to be uncreative or put my mind in a rut or cause cancer in laboratory rats. In fact, it helps by giving me more time to think and be creative; time I wouldn't have if I always had to spend it thinking about where I put stuff.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

I just finished a book by a notable Bible scholar who at one point discussed the difficulty of Jesus' words on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

He gave a long and scholarly answer, basically saying that Jesus' words were a quote from the opening line of Psalm 22 and that they reflect the depth of his passion.

Well, yeah, that's true and okay as far as it goes, but it should go a lot farther.

To me, it seems the question is, Did Jesus' cry mean that he didn't understand what was happening to him?

And the answer is a very straightforward no; it doesn't mean that at all. In fact, it shows that he understood very clearly what was happening to him.

I'm quite sure that Jesus - who in these last moments of his life was probably incapable of giving a lengthy sermon, but even then yearned to reach out to people - quoted the first verse of Psalm 22 as a way of saying: Psalm 22 is all about me and I am fulfilling it in your sight. Go back and read the whole thing and you will understand.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Encroaching on Charity - Hooray!

I've always believed that charity should be mostly reserved for tasks that cannot be dealt with by profit-making businesses. So, for example, I'm not sure that stamping out smallpox throughout the world would pay a direct monetary dividend to the organization that did the stamping out, so that seems like a good project for a non-profit group.

But it always excites me to hear of someone figuring out a way to tackle a beneficial but seemingly money-losing task and still make a profit, because if they make a profit, they'll keep doing it and do more of it, and other people will do it, and relatively scarce charitable money can be redirected to those areas that can't be handled by profit making organizations.

With that lengthy preamble, I really want to recommend this article, Babble Rouser, a Forbes article about Denis O'Brien, who empowers poor people with cheap cell phone technology - often in defiance of their own corrupt governments - and thereby boosts the living standard of whole countries, and in the process makes a profit!

I wouldn't have thought it could be done, but I'm delighted to be proven wrong.

Friday, August 01, 2008

How to be Happy

Yes, I'm serious. I'm going to talk about how to be happy, but just to clarify before I get started, let me lay out a few qualifications.

First, even though I'm a Christian and am tempted to talk about the ultimate happiness of heaven, I don't mean that kind of happiness (but if you are interested in becoming a Christian, see here).

Second, I don't mean swooning bliss; all I mean is the everyday kind of happiness that millions of people already have but is a little harder for some of us.

Third, there are some people who have an talent for being happy while laying on the beach or watching television all day. I'm not talking to them. I'm talking to people who start to get a bit antsy after spending an hour and a half in the cool breezes watching the palms sway and the waves crash on a beautiful beach in Maui. In other words, slightly driven people who are kinda like me.

Okay, ready for the very simple secret? Here it is:

Make a daily to-do list and work through it.

Wait! Don't go away yet. I know it sounds stupid, but hear me out.

For some of us, there is a lot of satisfaction in accomplishing tasks and scratching them off our list. It's what makes us everyday-happy. Maybe we're psychologically stunted, or maybe other people are. Whatever. But we gotta work with who we are.

Here's a little more detail.

Get a little notepad (I use a 3" x 5" spiral notepad) and in the evening (or early morning), write down everything you want to do the next day, from the important to the trivial. Then put an A, B, or C in front of each item, depending on its level of importance. (Or, sometimes, I number them in the order that makes sense to do them.) Then, start working on the most important item (or the first item if you number them) and work your way through the list, scratching each item off the list as you complete it.

It may not sound exciting (who said anything about excitement?) but there is a lot of satisfaction in scratching off each item and at the end of the day seeing a bunch of completed tasks.

Now the really interesting thing that I've discovered is that it really doesn't make much psychological difference how important the items are! It is as satisfying for me to scratch off "Have coffee with Dad" as it is to scratch off "Complete programming task for Ann."

I have had long periods of not having a regular job and therefore not having anything important to do, and yet if I write a list of trivial tasks and mark them off throughout the day, the psychological effect is much the same as if the tasks were actually important.

Now, one objection I can anticipate is that I'm suggesting we all become workaholics. No! Not in the least!

I already mentioned "Have coffee with Dad." I assure you, that is not work. How about these:

Take nap
Go swimming
Go on bike ride
Paint cat (a picture of a cat, not a real cat)
See Batman movie

See? Just list goofing-off things along with the productive things and you get the pleasure of taking a nap and the pleasure of marking it off your list as an accomplished task.

What could be better?