Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Interpreter

Ever since Babel's tower, learning languages has been the main hurdle in cross-cultural communication.

At that time, man's pride was so audacious that he felt he could do anything, even build a stairway to God's dwelling place. It's interesting that God recognized man's nearly limitless potential, and to hear the Bible tell it, he had to twist their tongues to keep them from reaching it.

Generations in the future, even with all our advances in computers and technology, our inability to talk to each other still limits our capacity to work together across borders.

In college, I thought I'd take a step toward fixing that by learning Chinese. I had been on missions trips to China and felt I'd have a better chance at communicating with sensitivity on future journeys if I used the people's heart language. Not to mention that it would help me travel, and it wouldn't hurt my job prospects if I could speak a language that almost a sixth of the world's population uses every day.

It's been hard. Chinese is a tonal language, and a word like ma can have 5 different meanings depending on the inflection of the voice. Chinese is also monosyllabic, meaning one word is usually one syllable, represented by one character. But today's Mandarin Chinese employs a lot of compound words like feiji, the word for airplane. "Fei" means to fly, and "ji" means machine, forming the literal and quite logical "flying machine."

Even with my struggles, I've had one strength in Chinese that a lot of foreigners don't have (and I'm only saying this because people have told me so): I can keep myself from imposing a standard of what the language should and shouldn't do based on my English-tinged mind.

The point of learning a foreign language is that it's foreign, something outside the realm of what your mind has processed before. This is both the maddening and the beautiful part of tackling the task of conversing in a different tongue. Getting there can be tough, but even in little victories you feel like you've opened up another identity, taken up a new self and joined an exclusive club.

Following God is like that, too. He's so holy, set apart, so other, that everything about his character is incomprehensible to us, infinitely more difficult to understand than Greek or Chinese to the English speaker.

I think it's pretty obvious that spiritually, weakness, sin and selfishness are our vernacular, and it's going to take some hefty studying in life to get to the point where our conversations are seasoned with salt and productive for his kingdom.

I like to say I'm "studying Chinese," probably because it makes me sound impressive and exotic (to people who don't already know better). Truth is, I rarely pick up my many Chinese books, and I've failed to get a language partner who can help smooth my conversational skills.

The same goes for learning God's language. The vocabulary of forgiveness, grace and peace pop up in my head too infrequently. The textbook is often too heavy on unfamiliar themes. I rarely speak to God on his terms or listen when he pronounces how I should order my steps. A language is a way of life, and I disregard with my actions that which I desperately desire to master in my head.

Good thing God sent an Interpreter who makes plain the complex realities of who God is. His Word is my spiritual dictionary.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Living Water

America has two obesity problems. Along with our bellies, our billfolds are getting fat, flabby and out of shape.

Just as eating good food isn't bad, padding our pockets isn't necessarily a negative thing. But gorging ourselves leads to weight gain, causing health problems that could be avoided with exercise and a smart and disciplined diet.

Financially, it's the same principle. Hoarding our wealth is a symptom of selfishness, a stem that sprouts out of the roots of pride and selfishness. Building a fortune to serve ourselves, to prop up our comfortable lifestyles, causes clogs in the arteries that lead from our heart to God's and undue strain on the system that circulates his love and ideas throughout our lives.

Today I've been listening to the audiobook of "Revolution in World Missions," a semi-autobiography by the founder of a ministry I support called Gospel for Asia. The ministry seeks to mobilize native missionaries throughout Asia to bring the name of Jesus to their own people.

K.P. Yohannan, the author of the book and the founder and president of GFA, describes the vision as a cost-effective and timely way to reach the most unreached peoples of the world with culturally relevant Gospel teaching. He pits this idea against the paradigm of Western missions, sending "blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white people" to areas throughout the globe where their presence is often unwelcome or forbidden.

In these situations, Mr. Yohannan argues, it often takes years to learn language, secure the requisite immigrant status, build relationships, learn cultural mores, and finally, to plant churches. Gospel for Asia operates by cultivating trained native missionaries who are ready to go to their own people for a fraction of the cost of Western missionaries, if only someone will send them.

A native of the Indian state of Kerala, Mr. Yohannan didn't come to America until he was college-aged. He didn't speak English until he was 16. He'd always heard about American affluence but finally experienced it when he came to study on scholarship at a seminary in Dallas. To make a long story short, he was appalled by the way that U.S. citizens went about their days with little idea of how filthy rich they really were.

One day's meat for us was enough to feed an Asian family for a week, he said. A $3 latte at Starbucks is the equivalent of three days' wages for more than a billion people living in poverty. After meetings where he spoke about the lost and dying, he was shocked to note that the after-church meal he ate often cost more than what he had collected in his love offering for the support of native missionaries who were suffering for Christ.

In fairness, Mr. Yohannan isn't all self-congratulating. He grapples with these issues in the text, and he admits the failures when he fell into the same traps. But his message is clear and unabashed: The Church in the U.S. and other wealthy Western nations has been financially blessed so that it can help faithfully bankroll the work of reaching the lost for Christ in some of the most untouched places.

GFA has grown tremendously out of this vision. A turning point in the ministry was creating $30/month (about a dollar a day) sponsorship plan so that a believer here can support a believer there. That remains a cornerstone of GFA's fundraising efforts.

The problem is that it's hard to get Americans to sacrifice anything. If the current financial crisis tells us anything about ourselves, it's that we haven't yet begun to loosen the grip that materialism has not only on our culture, but on our hearts as Christians and our churches as well.

I propose a way to combat this, and in the process, waistlines will likely slim.

We spend tons of money going out to eat every week, some of us more than others. For many, getting a drink with a meal is second nature, nevermind the fact that it usually adds about $2 to the bill and hundreds of calories that our waistlines are fighting hopelessly against.

Maybe we should try to only drink water (offered free at most establishments) when we eat out and put the money that we saved away so that we can support GFA or ministries like it. I think we'd be surprised at the millions we could raise so quickly and easily. Jesus said that there would be untold blessings for anyone who gives a cup of cold water to nourish his disciples. With this plan, we can even drink the water ourselves and still reap the spiritual benefit. It's dying to self in a small way. Starting here, it's possible that we could begin to walk the path of true, sacrifical giving that invests in God's kingdom rather than our own.

What does anyone out there think?

Click here to support a Gospel for Asia missionary.

Download "Revolution in World Missions" after you sign up for email updates.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Every Tribe and Tongue

A new ministry is building an online community to expedite Jesus' goal of making disciples from every tribe and tongue.

Using open-source wiki technology and an army of volunteer translators, Gospel Translations is looking to provide online access to Gospel-focused books and articles in a variety of languages.

Wiki is a code framework used for collaborative Web sites like Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia where registered users can contribute and edit articles.

Gospel Translations builds its English library by partnering with ministries that allow the use of their copyrighted content (See list here). Then, volunteer translators convert the resources into other languages on the site.

The goal is to quickly and efficiently provide a knowledge base for Christian leaders in parts of the world where there is a dearth of suitable theological materials or where traditional print distribution hasn't kept up with the demands of the rapidly growing church.

The leaders of the effort say the Christian center of the world is shifting away from its traditional seat in the West as the evangelical populations of Africa, Asia and Latin America multiply exponentially.

In some of these areas, the Bible is the only Christian literature available. In places like China, many resources are published, but they're regulated by complex rules.

The emotional fervor of Christianity can spread like wildfire, but if a spiritual movement is not based on true discipleship, it's ultimately an exercise in fanaticism. Yes, God's Word has everything we need for the process of discipleship, but a broader base of knowledge provides protection against heresy and a check against the temptation to interpret difficult passages based on presupposition rather than truth.

The one spiritual commodity the West has available for export is biblical knowledge. What would my spiritual intellect be without the insight of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity? How would I have started to understand the supremacy of God in day-to-day life without John Piper's Don't Waste Your Life? If not for Donald Miller's Searching for God Knows What, who would have colorfully explained the mystery and wonder of finding identity in the person of Jesus?

Resources like these need to escape the stuffy libraries of ungrateful and complacent hoarders like me. This new platform gives them a chance - through telephone lines, underground wires and fiber optic cables - to really spread their wings.

Projects have already begun in Arabic, Russian, Bahasa Indonesian and other languages, including an entire portal in Spanish. See the complete list of languages on the homepage.

Click here to become a translator.

Watch Gospel Translation's intro video below. It is an initiative of OpenSource Mission:

Potty Training

My three-year-old niece is potty training. She did something really hilarious the last time we saw her. This is only funny because she is my niece, not my daughter.

She talks pretty well now, so she came and announced to us that she had to use the bathroom. Number 2, it was. So we all urged her to go sit on the potty and deal with the business that had arisen.

She didn't make it.

But she's a considerate lass. She walked into her bedroom and dug out the wet wipes, brought them back into the living room and handed them to her dad (my brother).

"Here's some wipes, daddy!"

We all burst into laughter. The consensus around the room was that if your daughter can hand deliver the means to cleaning up the mess, there's no reason it should have been created in the first place.

As amusing as that was, it's sobering to think that the same principle applies to me sometimes. God has given me guidelines. He's showed me the neatness of his commands, how his direction can save me from the soil of sin, apathy, passivity and laziness.

But many times, I don't make it. And my response is the same as my little niece.

"Daddy - Lord - Here are some wipes! Clean me up!"

God is a good father. If we come to him and ask to be cleaned, he washes us. But he probably shares a similar brand of amusement every time we fail. Shouldn't I be past the potty-training phase of Christianity?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dumpster Diving

My Fast-Food Cups Runneth Over

I just practically scored a free Coke out of a recycling bin. Yep, just plucked seven caps off the top of the heap. With the codes entered online, I'll be one cap away from a 20-oz.

You might think this is nasty, but it's just something I do. I scour Craigslist for free items that I might be able to use or sell. I check for deals online. And to a limit, I'll dig through trash. Some might say this is unhygienic, strange or just downright dirty. I tend to believe it's practical to take refuse and turn its latent value into treasure.

Just ask my friends. In college, four of us fashioned a dumpster-diving scheme that netted us some big bucks and high-flying benefits. A fast-food restaurant was giving away free airline tickets with drink purchases. The thing was, you had to accumulate the drink cups, cut out proofs of purchase and send them to the restaurant, which credited your account at the airline with the free trips.

Instead of purchasing the 64 drinks required for the round-trips, we decided to take a quicker route, cutting out that pesky middle man. We'd just get our plunder right out of the dumpster.

Now, it must be said that only college kids can come up with stuff like this. I make actual money now and have a real job that I wouldn't want to risk to spend all night knee-deep in discarded chili, wading through bags of grease and cups saturated with ketchup and other, unidentifiable substances.

But we had a few things going for us that made the perfect recipe for dumpster-diving success: a propensity to stay up late, a desire for mischievous adventure and a desperate need for cash.

I won't say we started small, for our first undertaking was a lofty feat. Armed with headlamps, latex gloves and garbage bags, we raided 13 dumpsters across at least five different cities. The idea for the initial mission was to get enough cups that we could all have two round-trip tickets throughout the continental U.S. When dawn broke, we were sitting on a stack of more than 500, enough for each of us to fly free to Seattle and back - twice.

With our hard-earned but rousing success, we began thinking of how we might further capitalize on our newfound and profoundly disgusting hobby. A light bulb went off in my brain. Ebay.

We checked the online auction site, and cups were going for more than a dollar a piece, sometimes for even more than it would cost to actually get a large Coke from the restaurant. Dollar signs began to dance in our heads. It was almost too much joy to take in, especially after the grueling sortie we had just endured. In our eyes, those yellow squares of cardboard printed on the cups were bricks of gold.

But all good things come with a price. Dumpster diving is not for the faint of heart - or stomach. Fast-food dumpsters are the repository for anything and everything that is unholy about American cuisine, if you can even dignify it with such a name. If hell had a specially tailored torture method for each of the senses, the smell test would employ the very odor emitted by those metal boxes of horror.

Inside the dumpster, a light undertone of ketchup permeates everything. Rotting burgers, flat sodas of various flavors, moldy chili, limp french fries and tossed salads create a vortex of olfactory assault that makes my innards churn even now. Every restaurant has a heavy black bag of the night's cooking grease. Eventually we made a game out of finding it, like a putrid Easter egg hunt.

We had to do something to stay entertained. You see, that first night only the beginning of month-long effort to gain as many cups as possible. We made a solemn pact not to share our discovery with outsiders. That way, no one could interrupt our supply. We'd split all the cups we got with the group, even if they were gained on an individual mission.

We devised a system to optimize the our cup-harvesting capabilities while diminishing the disgusting aspects of the job. We traded smaller latex gloves for the dish-washing variety that covered the whole forearm. We used headlamps to free up our arms. When dumpsters were full enough, we learned we could stand outside instead of plunging in. When we did have to enter, we'd throw cups out to other team members who'd quickly stash them in garbage bags. We'd process them later at home. Sometimes we split into teams of two and set out in opposite directions to cover a broader swath of north Georgia.

Soon, others began to catch on. We uncovered a cup-smuggling ring in Columbus, where a guy was bribing workers to hand over a nightly stash. In Commerce, we ran into a guy in the dumpster. We booted him out and jumped in, just to flee before the dump truck emptied the dumpster's contents into its trailer.

The Athens market was saturated with scavengers and soon dried up. The promotion finally ended. We had gathered more than 2,000 cups. We gave the tickets we won as gifts or sold them on Ebay. Even after expenses and a botched Ebay deal, each of the four of us still walked away with $364 and two round-trips.

You can't beat free business class on the way back from your honeymoon in Arizona. As I looked beyond the curtain that separated me from the plebeians in coach, I raised my free glass of wine to fast-food and opportunistic friends.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

18 Years Adrift

I became a Christian at age 6. Impossible, you say? Not at all. Children understand better than adults the dynamics of punishment and the need to be rescued from it. And like Jesus said, kids are more likely to latch onto faith. This is rare for grown-ups, whose minds and hearts have been subjected to the gradual erosion of calloused education.

At that tender age, I only knew a few things. I had done wrong. I had acted against my parents' will. I had lied, cheated, stolen, hated, physically harmed others, discriminated, made fun of people, overindulged, complained, neglected God and acted in a generally selfish manner since the womb. Conviction, the nagging sense that I was imperfect, did not need to be proven from scripture. Experience was enough.

This guilt provided the foundation for faith. My step-dad was a pastor, and every week I heard about the option to leave guilt behind by trusting in Jesus and the work that he did through his cross and resurrection. This grace, this unmerited acceptance, was life's get-out-of-jail-free card, and I knew - however childishly- that I needed to break free from the prison of my young heart's crimes.

That's what led me to ask God to save me and to guide my life, allowing the punishment Jesus' received to become my own. Email me if you're curious...

We need the faith of a child to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus said as much. But he didn't intend that we keep drinking spiritual formula and never move on to solid food. At 6, I was saved, but there was no way I was a finished work. Just ask my elementary school teachers.

As I grew, I began to put flesh on my scrawny skeleton of faith. I memorized the order of the books of the Bible backwards, a useless skill to be sure, but impressive to fellow church members. I started highlighting things in my teen study Bible and really listening to sermons. As my spiritual digestive tract began to churn, I devoured books and conversations and teaching throughout high school.

In college, I weathered the intellectual assaults of Buddhism class and the evolutionary mindset of anthropology. I led Bible studies and played worship music. I raised money and traveled across the world to build God's kingdom. I built a network of like-minded believers.

I'm now 24, a year and a half out of college, with both feet in the real world. My intellect and my intentions are full of the words of God and a desire to do his will. I've now been a Christian for 18 years.

Still, I mostly fail.

I'm packed with ideas, knowledge and ability, but I see little fruit. I'm spurred on by compassion for the needy, but I don't act on their behalf. I burn for those who don't know the freedom of Christ, but I rarely tell them.

In many ways, I'm still adrift, floating backwards from the place I began at 6 years old. Then, I was enamored with God. I loved him and felt his comfort. I really knew something not just with my head, but with my heart.

I've moved onto solid food, but I've forgotten to devour each day the meat of the Gospel, that Christ has saved us from our misdeeds and brought us into freedom - not just from this detached notion of sin - but from ourselves. We no longer are slaves to the patterns of the world. We don't have to live the lie of self-indulgence. Like our savior, sacrifice is our fulfillment. Obedience is our mission and joy.

I pray God will reinvigorate my faith with the love of a child. Only then will my spiritual muscle spring into action.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Recent Meetings

I've periodically updated this blog with boasts about some of the interesting people I've met or encountered in my day-to-day life as an international business reporter. The last update was August, so I figure it's time for another.


-Kursad Tuzmen - a charismatic leader who swam the Bosporus Strait, Tuzmen is Turkey's foreign trade minister. I didn't meet him, but I did see him at a breakfast with Coke CEO Muhtar Kent.

-Charles Stith - former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania under Clinton, now director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University. Just edited a book compiling writings from former African heads of state on the challenges that face the leaders of their respective countries.

-Antonio Patriota - Brazil’s ambassador the U.S. Mr. Patriota could've been high-brow, but he was a diplomat to the core, courteous and thoughtful, eloquent and pensive. I spoke with him uninterrupted for about 15 minutes at an event celebrating Atlanta's new Brazilian consulate. We talked about the state of Brazil-U.S. relations, energy in Brazil, his former diplomatic post in Beijing, and how he loves to go the High Museum of Art when he's in Atlanta.

-Pierre Vimont - French ambassador to the U.S. I had to present an award on behalf of my company to Mr. Vimont in front of an audience of more than a hundred people. Talk about nerve-racking.

-Shirley Franklin - Atlanta mayor. You can say a lot of things about Shirley, but you can't say she's not a nice gal. I spoke to her at the High Museum, where she told me that she was head of Atlanta's cultural affairs 25 years ago, her "favorite job."

-Henri Loyrette - the day after presenting our special report on the Louvre Atlanta partnership to the French ambassador, I got to meet Mr. Loyrette, the president and director of the Louvre. I interviewed him in front of a huge lion sculpture that leads into the Louvre Atlanta exhibit.

-Zhou Wenzhong - Chinese ambassador to the U.S. The High Museum has been a happening place in the past few months. I've covered the opening of the Louvre exhibit's final year there, and I was also on hand for a media preview of the terracotta army exhibition. The 2,200-year-old figures and related artifacts come from the tomb of Qin Shihuang Di, the first emperor who unified China's warrings states. See another attempt at a video report.

-Friis Arne Petersen - Danish ambassador to the U.S. I interviewed him before he gave a speech on what could potentially be a scary topic: the EU as a rising superpower.

-Paul Oram - Minister of business, Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Apparently they have more than just well-known dog breeds in the northeast Canadian province. Oil and gas was the "savior" when there was a moratorium on cod that paralyzed the economy and caused communities to shut down. Now, the province is diversifying.

-Faida Mitifu - Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the U.S. I found out she has a house in Columbus. She taught at Columbus State University and maintained her place there because she liked my hometown so much.

-Andrew Young - former Atlanta mayor, Georgia congressman and ambassador to the United Nations. I couldn't help but feel like I was sitting across from history. Mr. Young, a prominent civil rights activist in the 1960s and beyond, was there on the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.

-Tom Kloet
- CEO of the Toronto Stock Exchange. Most of what he said I didn't understand. Let's just be honest.

-King Tut - a bunch of artifacts from the boy king's tomb have made their way to Atlanta. The exhibition at the Atlanta Civic Center puts Tutankhamun in the historical context of all the great pharaohs in an informative and entertaining way.

-Ojo Maduekwe - Nigeria's foreign minister. Mr. Maduekwe delivered a speech on Obama's election and its implications for Africa. He was very thoughtful and gracious enough to speak with my publisher and I to make sure we understand what's going on.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Solar Rip-off?

One of the main impediments to the widespread adoption of solar energy is that it takes years for the energy savings generated by solar panels to offset their high-flying initial price tags, and the cost of photovoltaic energy compared to fossil fuels is astronomical.

Last year I went to a luncheon with the head of one of Germany's leading trade groups for photovoltaics. He said that a rooftop system would cost about $20,000 and would take two decades to pay for itself on average.

His solution? "We should not talk about instruments; we should talk about goals." See full article here.

Translation: Don't worry that the economic model that the Germans use would never work in the U.S. It's more important that we bow at the feet of today's renewable energy fad than think about the system's economic sustainability in the long run.

But according to articles I read recently in Foreign Policy and Time magazines, solar proponents recently have had the chance to have their cake and eat it too, thanks to new thin-film solar panels that can be produced for a fraction of what they used to cost.

Given the benefits these systems supposedly provide for a planet environmentalists say is in danger of overheating because of man-made carbon dioxide emissions, this could be a huge breakthrough for the environmental movement.

But Foreign Policy's list of top 10 stories you didn't hear this year let's us in on a little secret. Nitrogen Triflouride, or NF3, a gas used in the production of these newfangled panels, is 17,000 times more powerful in contributing to global warming than CO2, and it might be in the atmosphere in greater abundance than previously expected.

It's still a blip on the global warming radar because it was not regulated under the famed Kyoto treaty and it's nowhere near as prevalent as CO2. Scientists worry this isn't the only gaseous culprit floating around out there. Check out the article for the details.

This reminds me of when the journal "Science" came out with a study earlier this year about how the hasty trend toward biofuels actually results in a net increase in greenhouse-gas emissions because rain forests - natural CO2 suckers - have been cleared to grow feedstocks for biofuels.

I'm all for protecting God's green earth. Let's just use our heads and look at the big picture as we make attempts to do so.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ready for Heaven?

As I pulled into the bank today, the radio was playing a Kenny Chesney song. He sang in his usual lighthearted twang, staying true to the beachy feel that runs throughout many of his hits.

He was singing about heaven, how everyone wants to go, but only after they've soaked up all this world has to offer.

"Everybody wanna go to heaven, but nobody wanna go now," he crooned.

Sad, I thought, but true. When most of us consider the idea of heaven that has been ingrained in our church doctrine and circulated through pop culture, our hearts sink.

The vision goes something like this: We die, leaving behind all those we love. Wings sprout from our backs and halos appear above our heads as our disembodied spirits ascend to a cloud where we'll laze around for eternity, playing harps and singing 1990s worship music as our bearded, venerable God basks in the praise while seated idly on his golden throne.

Or as Chesney sees it:

"Someday I want to see those streets of gold in my halo
But I wouldn’t mind waiting at least a hundred years or so"

Why not wait? If what we've believed is true, we're not missing out on much. Is it better than eternal suffering and everlasting fire that cannot be quenched? Sure. But not by much.

Randy Alcorn offers us a different view of heaven in his book by the same name. He explains why the image we've concocted is so disheartening, why the prospect of this ethereal dwelling place can't inspire us.

"We do not desire to eat gravel. Why? Because God did not design us to eat gravel. Trying to develop an appetite for a disembodied, non-physical existence is like trying to develop an appetite for gravel. No matter how sincere we are, and no matter how hard we try, it's not going to work. Nor should it" (7).

Instead, we desire what our savior has promised, through his word and actions. We are physical beings designed for a physical place. We want to live in communion with the resurrected Christ in a new body, on a new earth, and surprisingly to many of us, "our desires correspond precisely with God's plans."

Through a nearly 500-page comprehensive study filled with theological evidence and experiential research, Alcorn reconstructs a view of heaven as he interprets it from scripture.

Here's how he addresses a few misconceptions:

-Heaven, in its final state, will be on a resurrected earth, not in some galaxy far away.

-We will not be disembodied spirits. Instead, we will be like the resurrected Christ in body. He ate and allowed his disciples to touch him, but strangely he was also able to walk through walls.

-We will be restored to the dominion we were promised before the Fall. We will not become pudgy cherubs but will have real, tangible rewards, real territories to look after, real dominion over a real realm.

There is more. Alcorn makes it clear that we should not presume to know everything about heaven, but we can know something. We can use our imaginations to interpret our day-to-day experiences in a way that gives us glimpses of eternity.

In other words, when sin marred the earth, it didn't take away all that God had pronounced good. The taste of fresh fruit, conversation with the ones you love, beautiful scenery - they all point us back to God's ideal, the perfection that we've lost through the decay of sin but which Jesus will restore when he comes again and institutes his kingdom on earth.

Part of the reason we have trouble seeing this is that we've made Christianity more about tenets than the experience of the Gospel, more about articles of faith than the trust and hope they're supposed to point us to.

Christianity is not just right in an intellectual sense, like bullet points you'd use in a throwdown argument with an atheist. Christianity jives with the way we all experience the world, and it explains things that we know inherently.

-We're screwed up, unable to do what we know is right.
-We long for community but are terrible at fostering it.
-We desire beauty, safety, love, adventure and peace, and we notice when those things are lacking.
-We've had thousands of years of history, and our basic inclination toward self has not changed.

Jesus fixes our sin for us. He gives us sacred communion through sacrificial love. He tells us that the beauty we desire is a foretaste of things to come. Through his death, he shows us how submission and obedience to God's will frees us from the bondage that comes with self-love.

In essence, all the things we long for at our core are restored when God's will is done earth as it is in heaven.

So don't lose heart. Eternity is adventure that's already begun to happen.

For more, check out the resources at Randy Alcorn's Eternal Perspectives Ministries.

Photo: Meditation in Xinjiang province, China. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2006.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Will Smith's Guide to Marriage

It's hard to believe, but actor Will Smith recently turned 40. It seems like only yesterday that the Fresh Prince was rapping his way into hearts across America, terrorizing Bel Air with his West Philadelphia ways.

Now, he's one of the most sought-after movie stars on the planet. His films have grossed more than $5 billion around the world.

Barbara Walters interviewed Big Willie Style for her special on 2008's Most Fascinating People, which aired tonight.

He's gotten wiser with age. After a failed first marriage, he tied the knot with Jada Pinkett Smith, and he's got a new outlook that all of us married folk could learn from, especially in a country where half of our "lifelong" commitments fail.

On his second time around, Smith says, divorce is not an option.

"If divorce is an option; you're gonna get divorced," he told Walters. Spoken like a man with four decades of experience, and I don't think he was acting this time.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

UGA Still Top 5 in One Ranking

While the University of Georgia has fallen from its preseason perch at the top of the college football rankings to No. 17 after its loss to rival Georgia Tech, the old alma mater is still top 5 in one important ranking.

For 2007-08, UGA had the fifth-highest amount of students enrolled in study abroad programs of any school in the country, public or private.  Georgia's flagship institution doubled the techies in that regard, 2086 to a meager 1001.

That doesn't take the sting (pun intended) away from Tech's 45-42 victory and UGA's freefall over the course of the highly anticipated 2008 football season, but at least we can take pride that we'll have a globally minded, highly educated state population. 

Because that's what everybody cares about on the weekend of the SEC championship game, right?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Forbidden Fruit

I've solved the mystery. The forbidden fruit that caused the fall of man was not an apple. It was definitely a pomegranate.

The sinfully sweet and sour sphere is amazingly tart and delicious. I had my first one today. After Katy chopped in half and picked out a few seeds, she turned it over to me, warning me that my shirt would suffer its splatter of red wrath if I wasn't careful.

I wasn't. My shirt paid dearly. It's now tossing and turning in the washing machine, and I hope the detergent can destroy the splotchy evidence of my carelessness.

Despite the way it mercilessly marred my shirt, I couldn't stop eating the pomegranate. I kept going until I ruined an undershirt as well.

As I was digging out seeds with a paring knife, deep crimson juice running over my fingertips, I couldn't help but sympathize with Adam. How could he have resisted when Eve was holding this in her hands?

How ridiculous they must have looked when the Lord found them walking in the garden, mouths stained with red, fingertips looking as if they'd stabbed someone.

No wonder they hid. Pomegranates take commitment, and there is always collateral damage. There is no playing it off with a pomegranate. If they stayed in view, they'd be caught red-handed.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Gas-price Irony

Many folks were attacking the Bush administration for high gas prices as they started skyrocketing this spring, in the midst of a heated election season where the candidates wanted to distance themselves from the incumbent by blaming him for any and all economic woes.

Some people thought that surely Bush, Cheney and their oil cronies were making a killing as prices went through the roof and consumers suffered at the pump to the tune of $4-plus per gallon.

According to a USA Today article, it turns out that gas stations are making higher profit margins as the price plummets because they're able to capitalize on a variety of factors not seen by the untrained - or unwilling - eye.

Wholesale prices are dropping faster than the gas stations have had to lower retail prices, and the stations pocket the difference. Convenience store sales are up because people are returning to the pump more often because they want to buy gas after prices have fallen even more. For more factors, read the article.

Just goes to show you that the rhetorical winds from politicians usually blow the listener away from nuance and more towards dogma, impairing the ability to judge a situation based on reality. May we - on both sides of the aisle - resist the urge to follow the herd at the expense of our critical thinking skills.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

America the Beautiful

Culture is a funny thing. The movement of people and their ways of life is bewildering to examine.  How people structure their existence within a community and how geography and history shape that process is a subject you could study forever.

My job incorporates some of those elements. As an international business reporter for a local publication, I learn about new cultures and to examine how they interact with the modern American city in which I live, how they place their firm and distinct imprint on it, and how this swirling mass of humanity survives through this great global bartering system we call economy.

For all my pursuits in other countries, America has never lost its intrigue. Our country is a tapestry woven with threads of freedom and opportunity, pride and expansionism, brashness and humility, infamy and never-ending compassion. We have a lot of faces as a country. For some, we're imperialists. For our enemies, we're the terrorists. For the hungry, we're often the savior; for the oppressed, the lifeline.

To some, we're an enigma, the third-largest country by population but soaring above all others when it comes to wealth. We're a paradox, at once xenophobic and incredibly open. We have a history of suppressing the freedom of our own people, but because our founders recognized our evil, self-serving nature, we've managed to become the freest country on earth.

When immigrants come to this country, I imagine they sift through a flood of perceptions, their images of "America the Beautiful" influenced by the media, the people they've met, their country's relationship with ours and even their own expectations, which color perceptions as much as anything that's not actual experience.

They're probably drawn to the opportunity that the stars and stripes represent, but they probably fear that they'll be lost in the shuffle, trampled under the great English-speaking machine of society.

To balance the ambition and fear, they create communities within communities, little pockets of home miles away from where they were born.

Georgia is an interesting place to see these forces at work. I went to the mall on Black Friday, the most American of days, the day after the most American of holidays. Only in this country can we have a day to take stock of our overflowing abundance, only to rush out and buy more before the sun rises on Friday.

But I saw no backlash to this ethos among the hundreds, probably thousands, of foreigners I saw at Northlake Mall in Tucker. I must've heard 10 or more languages as I slalomed through the throngs of shoppers eager for that after-Thanksgiving bargain.

A Chinese lady told her daughter she looked great in that jacket she was trying on. The daughter agreed before commenting that the Old Navy store had "hao duo ren," a heck of a lot of people. A Mexican woman spoke of the "pavo grande" (large turkey) they cooked the day before. An Indian man from my apartment complex waited as the checkout line at Kohl's stretched halfway across the store.

An white guy remarked in a awestruck tone that the leather jackets were only a few more dollars than a leather belt. "Yeah, it's kinda crazy," I said, giving his indignance the indulgence it seemed to be seeking. "Naw, they're not crazy. They're smart as hell, but we're smarter."

Outside the store, Muslim women with dark skin and headscarves corraled their children, laughing as two families reunited. I walked further, and Mediterranean women tried to sell me skin products. A Hispanic woman gave me a sample at the Chinese restaurant, and I sat down to eat, dumbfounded by the diversity.

We live in an amazing time. The movement of cultures has never been so pronounced and widespread. Our country still offers opportunity for the persistent and refuge for the downtrodden. Many new faces are taking us up on the offer, and we're even more beautiful because of this.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Terracotta Army Video Report

I'm still working on becoming a full-fledged media man. I've got the basics of writing down (notice, I said the basics), and now I'm delving more into the nitty gritty of new media and how to use the Web's capabilities to make the news come alive.

At GlobalAtlanta, we're incorporating more video and audio, which adds a different dimension to our reports. It's one thing to quote somebody like former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, a historical figure who's admirable and at times controversial. It's another thing to let viewers see him say what he thinks.

Almost two weeks ago I got a chance to visit the "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army," a group of 2,200-year-old artifacts from Xi'an, China. The life-size terracotta figures and other related artifacts are now on display at the High Museum of Art here in Atlanta.

More than 1,000 of these figures have been excavated since 1974, when farmers digging a well uncovered a corner of the vast tomb complex of the man historians believe to have first unified the heartland of what we now know as China. Archaeologists estimate that 6,000 more are buried, waiting to reveal more of the emperor's secrets.

This exhibition is really cool, as was the fact that President Jimmy Carter, the Chinese ambassador and other officials were on hand to kick things off. I put together the following video report to breathe life into my article about the exhibition. Check it out and let me know how I did:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Modern America

I was talking with someone the other day about how amazing it must be for old people to see the changes that sweep through our world. Even in my 24 years, the times have become irrevocably different. The world has integrated beyond what anyone could have imagined, and with the Internet we've had a front-row seat to it all.

My generation, the computer-savvy, globally connected generation, has grown up in a post-WWII era where prosperity has been the operating paradigm, spoon-fed to us since we were born. As a result, the virtue of thriftiness is rarely found in our country, a dire symptom of our materialism shown even more clearly by recent turmoil in the financial markets.

The root of all these problems, the insidious foundation we build our culture of consumerism upon, is a lie. At its core, it's the idea that like winning the lottery, we can get something for nothing.

America tells my generation that it can build a house with no money down and "own" a car with a list of bad credit that runs longer than the buyer's morning commute. America tells my generation that health care is a right, that Uncle Sam will look after us because we can't take care of ourselves. America tell us that inefficiency will be rewarded with government support, while success will be indirectly and unfairly punished and discouraged.

America used to be the nation of innovation, where hard work and know-how came together to solve problems and to create the most competitive workforce in the world. We're still good at a lot of things, but unfortunately we've become too proficient at living the lie discussed above.

It must be hard for those who hoarded potatoes and scrounged to survive during the Depression to imagine this generation as destitute as they once were. We're nowhere near that point. Neither are we - even with these money crises - even remotely approaching heartfelt appreciation for the ease with which many of us have waltzed through life.

In our world, everything's in a can. Food gets tossed into our car from windows as we roll by the restaurant. We are the fast food nation, and that culture attaches itself to every segment of our society. It's a leech that sucks out our ability to recognize what's truly valuable - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom does not mean government-subsidized ease. It means freedom, and that is enough.

Traveler Update

Not too long ago I wrote this post about my first encounter with the Irish travelers, a mysterious and misunderstood people group that lives in a big village of mansions and trailers North Augusta, S.C.

Since that time, I've gotten an enormous response (at least by this blog's standards) from casual readers and actual travelers - some of them even from Belfast, Northern Ireland - who have stumbled upon the blog. They've been kind enough to offer their opinions about some of the ways they're perceived in their communities and clarify some of my misconceptions I've gained since reading about the travelers.

If I can get to Augusta again, I hope to interview some of them, but until then, check out the comments on the original post to see some firsthand accounts.

Now, if I could only get as many comments as I did on my Aga Khan piece...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Those Who've Gone Before

I'm glad I didn't lug a book with me. I wouldn't have had time to read a page.

Despite predictions that voting could take more than three hours, I exercised my democratic right and duty today in only about 5 minutes. My polling place had absolutely no lines, and I quickly marked the box with an X to send McCain one step closer to victory in Georgia.

Our state is in the first round of poll closings (7 p.m.) and McCain will need a win here to defy the doomsday, landslide predictions and make this historic election closer than the experts think.

The fact that the lines were so short leads me to a few possible conclusions. One is that not as many folks turned out as expected. Generally, new voters tend to favor Obama, the change-monger, so if this could boost McCain's prospects. The more likely scenario is that the 40 percent of Dekalb County voters who cast their ballots early helped the rest of us avoid the tragic fate that befell some of them - lines of three to five hours.

What propelled so many to the polls early? I think it was a simple herd mentality, the fear that election day crowds would be too great. Funny that by succumbing to this sentiment, they actually created the scenario they wanted to avoid in the first place. I think the state government did a bad thing by pushing early voting and only opening select precincts that couldn't accommodate the crowds. This created the quagmires that suckered people in for such long waits. We should never have to wait two hours to vote. It's interesting that we have mismanagement of these processes and wonder why our turnout rates are so low.

If you were one of those who stood in line, I applaud your patriotism and I feel sorry for you, but I thank you for going before, preparing the way for my easy waltz to the ballot booth. Maybe next time you'll take the advice of my wife, who says, "None of this early voting, absentee stuff. Just go to the polling place on Nov. 4 and get your historic election day experience!"

Caption: Georgia flag outside the Governor's Mansion. Copyright Trevor Williams 2008.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Voter Registration Test

I'm glad I went to eat Mexican food tonight. Otherwise, I might've gone to vote next Tuesday without some vital items of information. Here are a few things I learned from the diners speaking loudly at the table next to us:

-Barack Obama's campaign is predicated on a lie. While Obama started his campaign calling himself black, new information found on the Internet (that always-infallible source) reveals that he's actually half white, 4 percent black and 46 percent "Arabic." And according to Chelsea Lately, a late-night satirical talk show host, Barack really wasn't raised by his mother, stepfather and then white grandparents. His Kenyan dad was around all the time.

-John McCain is going to immediately overturn Roe v. Wade when he comes into office because he's "against a woman's right to choose."

-We're all going to get drafted into the army to fight unjust wars.

-Why are we giving millions of dollars in aid to countries that don't have food? Why don't we give that rice to the people living under the bridge? And what about me? I only got $11 in my pocket and I gotta spend $5 of it on food tonight.

This conversation embodies all that's wrong with our democracy, where people are flush with information but have no desire to actually find out the truth. In this environment, people can find "facts" to justify any point of view without considering their source. The mainstream media is bad enough, but at least it has to show some discernment. When people start seriously citing late-night shows and obscure conspiracy Web sites in political conversations, it's time to fear the fact that these same folks have just as much say in choosing our leaders as we do.

Take the above quotations. I'm not a big Barack Obama fan, but I think we can at least give him the courtesy of getting his ethnicity right. Yes, his middle name is Hussein and he did spend time in Indonesia. But there's no doubt that his dad was black, whether his dad was from North Africa or West Africa. And how do you become 46 percent of an ethnicity anyway?

As far as his dad goes, I'm pretty sure Barack only saw him once after returning to the U.S. from Indonesia.

The abortion quote illustrates how a tidbit of truth can sometimes be twisted. Yes, McCain says he is staunchly pro-life, but he doesn't have the power himself to single-handedly overturn Roe v. Wade. The president does not interpret the law. Hopefully our friends at the adjacent table were referring the fact that the president will probably appoint tons of judges to lower federal courts and possibly the Supreme Court over his first term. While Obama has said his appointees would have to feel empathy for the little man, McCain says he's going to appoint folks based on credentials, not ideology. See this article for more...

President Bush recently announced troop reductions in Iraq. Certainly this is a better time to start drafting people than when we made the troop surge last year.

Oh, and the last quote. Why do we give aid to other countries? I guess we should hand over millions to people who have not taken advantage of the opportunity our country - the most prosperous on earth - has given them. Maybe we should hoard our affluence, keeping it within our borders and leaving millions of innocent victims of natural disasters to fend for themselves. See cyclone in Myanmar and earthquake in China.

I encountered these folks a week after listening to this Howard Stern segment where Obama backers voice their support for policies that are actually John McCain's and even agree that Sarah Palin will make a good pick as Obama's VP.

All this combined makes me wonder whether or not we should have a voter registration test, a quick quiz on the basics of the candidates' positions before being allowed to cast a ballot. I mean, that's the assumption behind having a voting age, right? That once we're 18, we have the ability to discern.

That skill was not evident around the dinner table tonight.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Key to the Battle

I've been lucky enough never to have to experience war firsthand. Because others sacrificed their lives, I've had the privilege of living in peace. And because our country remains prosperous and vigilant, I've never been called upon to carry the burden of freedom's defense.

But I was ready to enlist today, as the television confronted me with the precious gift that I've received from the brave soldiers who have protected the U.S. throughout our history. Ironically, I turned on the TV to watch football and waste my Saturday away like only spoiled Americans can do. While flipping channels, I came upon a Pearl Harbor documentary and couldn't take my eyes away.

After that was over, a Band of Brothers marathon kept me glued to my couch, its velvet upholstery making me feel like a pansy as the airborne infantry dropped into Normandy to take care of business. I stayed there for the next four hours, switching from football to battlefields with listless clicks of the remote.

I thought about how football - and other sports - are like harmless, silly little parodies of war in a nation so blessed with peace. Strong men fight it out on the battlefield while civilians watch and wave banners, hoping desperately for victory.

This is both sad and wonderful for our generation. It's sad that we're so starved of purpose that we've created and invested so much in these metaphoric battles, but it's amazing that our country is blessed enough that we have time and energy to devote to leisure.

Why do we love war stories enough to create games that mimic them? I think it's because as we follow the characters through their crises, we see how the prospect of death reveals the simplicity of life. Soldiers facing their end value things like milkshakes, as one Pearl Harbor survivor said, or a peaceful plot of land, as a Band of Brothers character put it.

We also see how being embroiled in epic conflicts helps soldiers gain a firm sense of purpose in their roles. Each soldier depends on his group, and each mission is critical to the overall war strategy.

Although our lives aren't filled with mortars and hand grenades, the Christian life seems, at least metaphorically, very similar. We are to live with a singular purpose on one mission for our King, carried out with the help of our brothers in arms. We don't always see the fruits of our missions, but we trust our commander that our effort is a worthy part of a grand victory scheme.

In Band of Brothers, one elite paratrooper becomes petrified with fear as soon as he hits the drop zone. When battle starts to rage, he ducks into a hole, screaming and covering his ears while bullets whiz by. Then he remembers the advice of one of his fellow soldiers: We're all scared, but if you consider yourself already dead, you'll have the strength to fight without the influence of fear.

The key that helped the fearful soldier fight is the key to the battle of our lives. When we turned to Jesus, we counted our old selves dead. We need not fear the fight or the scars we may receive in the battle. The war is won and our fates sealed in him. We are wrapped up in his story. If we follow his objectives, we will receive the glory of the kingdom he is building.

Photo: WWII Memorial in Washington. Copyright Trevor Williams 2007.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

My interview with Louvre Director Henri Loyrette

I'm not too artsy, but even I got excited when I was told I'd be able interview the top official from arguably the greatest museum in the world about his interaction with Atlanta's High Museum of Art. See the video below. The article will be posted on GlobalAtlanta's Web site later today.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Other Side

Last year I blogged about how interesting it has been for me to watch diplomats at work. I've interviewed about 20 ambassadors in the past year. Their lives are full-throttle, but even on camera, they're always sharp, fresh and ready to answer tough questions from the perspective of their countries.

Last week, I interviewed Brazil's ambassador to the U.S., and he was as poised as I expected. Today, I listened as the French ambassador to the U.S. spoke about France's objectives in its last three months as head of the European Union. Some tough questions about the global financial crisis came from the crowd, but Pierre Vimont handled them in stride, showing an impressive breadth of knowledge.

I think I admire diplomats because I'm unsure I will ever attain their level of professionalism and intelligence, but today was a big stride for me. For a few moments, I shared the stage with Mr. Vimont in front of a luncheon crowd of about 150 people.

With a small cheat sheet in hand to make sure I didn't melt down, I commended Mr. Vimont for his support for Atlanta and presented him with the copy of a special report that GlobalAtlanta recently completed about the partnership between the Louvre and the High Museum of Art. It was a small gesture and probably seemed mundane for the folks in the crowd. For me, it was an affirmation that I could hold my own on the other side of the camera.

Watch the short video below and let me know how I did.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Jesus or Cola?

As I pulled into the drive-thru at McDonald's today, I thought about whether or not I should buy a soft drink to wash down my other selections from the dollar menu. The conversation in my head went something like this:

A Coke with my double cheeseburger would be awesome, but I've already had a cola today, and if I just get water, I'll get out of here wasting less cash and saving more calories.

I love Coca-Cola, and although I try not to make impulse buys, sometimes I fiend for a swig of the caramel-colored nectar in the late afternoon. Like a cheap addict, I've resorted to collecting Coke caps and cartons from recycling bins and trash cans for the reward points. Eight caps scores a free 20-ounce Coke, which means that I can save $1.50 when my next binge hits.

As I drove up to the window to pick up my water, I thought about how absurd it is that we spend money on cola when restaurants offer water for free. Packed with high fructose corn syrup, acids and food coloring, Coke isn't great for your teeth, and it doesn't do much for your body either. Water, on the other hand is the basic element we need to stay alive. It makes up 70 percent of our bodies and has zero calories.

Compared side by side on these factors, water seems the easy favorite. The spoiler in the equation is that little thing called taste. Although water is a necessity, it's also bland. Coke is sweet. With short-term pleasure as its goal, the part of the brain that thinks about the long-term impact shuts down.

Sometimes Jesus is like water to me. He's the necessity. He's pure. And He's free. You'd think he'd be the easy choice. But I often turn away from him and choose the saccharine substitutes the world offers, even digging through the trash of sin to finance a fix when there's a faucet pouring with life just inside my front door.

Photo: Old World of Coke building at Underground Atlanta. Copyright Trevor Williams 2004.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A View of Tensions in Xinjiang

The New York Times recently released an article that calls into question the veracity of China's claims of a "terrorist" attack by Muslim Uighurs that killed 16 officers in the northwestern province of Xinjiang on the eve of the big Olympic party.

The Chinese government said at the time that Uighur terrorists drove a truck into a formation of officers as they were out for their early morning run. The two assailants, the reports said, then hurled explosives and attacked officers with knives. I'll let you read the article if interested in the details, but the gist of it is that three eyewitnesses watching from a hotel window told the Times a strikingly different account of the events that unfolded.

I'm not saying that the Uighurs had nothing to do with the attack, but the new accounts leave just enough room for doubt. The Chinese government has proven in its dealings with the Dalai Lama that it's not prolific at PR battles, but I think the authorities are astute enough to know that if they link the words "Islam" and "terrorism," they can get support from Americans who don't understand the nuances of the situation.

But Xinjiang is a tense place full of nuances and bubbling over with ethnic tensions . I know from experience. I was there two years ago, near the border with Kazakhstan. I was kicked out of one town for failing to register with the police while staying with a Mongol family. After that, two friends and I were sent on a road trip that bounced us between four or five different cities. Along the way, we were questioned by officers in every single city.

Because it's such a sensitive area - closer to Kabul, Afghanistan, than Beijing - the authorities are skittish about foreigners roaming around Xinjiang. Only select hotels are allowed to house "overseas guests." These are delineated by gold plaques that usually hang behind the front desk - "Fixed Hotel for Overseas Guests," they say.

I had an interesting experience the first time I tried to check into a hotel in the province, in a city where Uighur independence movements were active during the 1940s. The hotel attendant asked if we were from Kazakhstan. When we said no, we were Americans, they told us to find other lodging arrangements. At that point I knew we were in for a wild ride.

During one of our many interrogations, we were asked - politely, mind you - whether we could speak Russian or if any of us served in the U.S. armed forces. Thankfully, we could all truthfully say no.

I say all this not act like a cool secret agent. We were just backpacking. But our experiences underscore the sensitivity in the region and why Beijing might be apt to exaggerate a terror threat to legitimize its crackdowns on dissidents.

Every Uighur we met was nice and helpful. Many of them are sick of the Han Chinese immigrating into their homeland and starting new developments. You can't really blame the common Chinese folks, who are just looking for economic opportunity and feel like they're helping the region. But some Uighurs don't feel like they should be subjected by force to the Chinese brand of prosperity.

The city of Jinghe is a perfect example. A crossroads town between the provincial capital of Urumqi and the large city of Yining, we stopped there for lunch to break up a long bus ride. The entire center of town was dug up to make way for runaway development, and new storefronts had sprouted up everywhere.

We didn't interview Uighurs, but on the way into town we saw cemeteries with the Islamic crescent moons topping the grave markers. To the outsider's eye, it seemed that this had been Uighur country just a few years before.

Caption: Brad and I don the touristy attire of Mongol kings.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Don't Forget the Price

The Price of Freedom from Chuck Holton on Vimeo.

I've been connected in strange and tangential ways to the military all my life. My mother works as a dental hygienist on Ft. Benning, the largest infantry base in the world, near my hometown of Columbus, Ga.

My ex-step-dad's (told you this was tangential) father is a Korean War and Vietnam veteran.

More recently, I've become really close friends with two former Army Rangers, and I've gained a mentor who flew helicopters during Vietnam and is never at a loss for wartime metaphor when he's discussing his life and journey of faith. (Here's where this gets tricky).

One of the Ranger guys used to run a coffee business that gives a portion of its proceeds to organizations that help the troops on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. He then passed the business off to my new mentor, who now has involved me in the company.

As I'm mulling aspects of the business, particularly a new opportunity that's opened up with a completely different guy in Afghanistan, I get this video in an e-mail from the other former Ranger. His name is Chuck Holton, and he's an author and journalist who's been to Afghanistan once and Iraq multiple times. The video he shot reminds us to never forget the price our heroes pay in these difficult wars. And it reminds us that we should never stand for candidates using their sacrifice as a political football during the election season.

To support the troops by buying and drinking Ranger Coffee, click here.

For Chuck's "Boots on the Ground" blog on the sobering reality as well as the positive side of America's efforts in the Middle East, click here. Or visit his personal blog, which focuses on faith, military issues, travel and lifestyle design.

For your own side-splitting good, PLEASE watch this video Chuck shot of a real Afghan bachelor party during a recent trip.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Break Fast

Sometimes when I watch people of other faiths live out their rituals and practices, I feel inadequate, like my faith is nullified by my lack of piety.

Case in point: A few weeks ago I went to an iftar celebration at the Istanbul Center, a cultural institution in Atlanta that a missionary here described to me as a sort of "soft power" way for Muslims from Turkey to introduce their views into the community.

The iftar is the breaking of the daily fast during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During the entire month, Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours. When the sun goes down, everyone gets together and eats a meal to celebrate the passing of a God-filled day.

You see, the idea behind Ramadan is that by forgoing bodily necessities, the practitioner is able to wean himself from self-dependence and focus more on devotion toward God. The idea is basically the same as Christian fasting: giving things up makes us realize how much they detract from our worship of God. Not eating makes us focus on Jesus as our food, just like he said we should do.

In Islam, the Qur'an requires that worshippers pray five times per day toward the holy city of Mecca. During Ramadan, they are expected to observe this minimum prayer threshold and even up the ante a bit. All the extra time that could have been spent eating is often devoted to what Muslims sometimes call "remembrance"of God through prayer.

Sins, already considered intolerable on normal days, are especially frowned upon during Ramadan. The facilitator at the Istanbul center read us a verse (or ayat) from the Qur'an that basically showed how God does not consider your hunger or thirst worthwhile if you're showing no regard for his commands. I see this as an echo of Jesus' call to avoid becoming like the Pharisees, who always wanted to pad their pride by making it obvious when they were fasting. To fast for personal gain - just like sinning while fasting - is a negation of the promise that the ritual represents.

The outside observer might assume that the special Ramadan month and the Islamic faith in general imposes considerable obligations on the adherent. That observer would be right, but it's the same in Christianity, and I think both are beautiful in that they point to this basic tenet: Loving God requires obedience, which often requires submission.

But here is where I get the most troubled about this whole thing. As far as I understand Islam, under its system the believer can never really tell whether he or she is saved. You can say the shahada, that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his messenger, but that proclamation is not a fail-safe formula for salvation. Works and faith are needed to escape the great wrath of God.

To complicate matters, Islam has no doctrine of Original Sin. Instead of being an ingrained condition as it is in Christianity, people are considered inherently good, but they sin when they fail to remember God, when the devil draws them from the right path with his crafty temptations.

So, in my outsider's view, the act of faith in Islam is never a cold-turkey turn from death to life or the regeneration of spirit through grace that Christians believe occurs when we trust Jesus to repair our broken relationship with God through his sacrifice. In Islam it seems that salvation is always a guessing game, and those dreaded scales that weigh our deeds must be appeased.

Which brings me to my point (putting aside the question of how "backslidden" one must be to lose his Christian salvation or validate that it was never real in the first place). If Muslims can love God enough to sacrifice him even as they (on some level) try to earn his approval, shouldn't Christians, who have supposedly already received an unconditional pardon through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, be able to give up a few things for God?

Jesus said that if we love him we'll keep his commands. I feel like I love him, but in my experience, the second part is of that statement is much more difficult act out. But maybe that's the beauty of how we Christians believe that God dreamed it up. My lack of piety doesn't nullify my faith. It shows why I needed in the first place, why I keep returning to it when the scales aren't tipping in my favor. And that trust is the key to salvation. As the Bible says, perfect love casts out fear.

I welcome any corrections in the comments on this site about my interpretations of Muslim belief. I want to get it right, and I've been careful here to say "as I understand" as much as possible.

Captions: A tour through this mosque in Amman, Jordan, gave me a new appreciation for Muslim architecture - and modesty. I wore shorts that day and was forced to wear robes like the women.

Left: Ever wondered how people determine the direction of Mecca from 30,000 feet in the air? This screen is your answer.

Score One for Obama

I never thought I’d find myself working the phones in the Barack Obama headquarters, especially on a night the president was set to give an important address to the nation about the financial crisis. But there I was, and I had little other option.

I had gone running that night, and as I was listening to Chinese lessons on my mp3 player and pounding the pavement, I somehow lost my key. This was stupid on a variety of levels. For one, it was completely avoidable. I could have left the key under the mat at my house. I could have tucked it inside the little key pocket in my brand new running shorts. Instead, I chose to hold it in my right hand, along with my mp3 player, both of them swinging by the pendulum of my arm as I jogged.

That’s not to say this type of stupidity is completely uncharacteristic of me. I’ve been known to have a clumsy, idiotic streak. Once in China, I padlocked myself inside a house that had no indoor plumbing. As you can imagine, without getting into detail, the consequences were less than pleasant.

With no key, phone, or wallet, it was almost like being stranded in the wild and left for survival, only with concrete and cars all around. Katy wasn’t due home for two more hours, so I decided that I’d retrace the mile and see if by chance I could see the key gleaming in the streetlights. By now the sun had dipped behind the earth’s curve, and darkness was falling fast.

I figured I couldn’t lose in this situation. If I found the key, I performed a miracle. If I made the loop again with no luck, I had at least gotten another mile’s worth of exercise, which was the point of this whole thing in the first place.

I’ve always felt sympathy for the homeless, but I found a new empathy for them that night. I was scouring the pavement for the tool to give me entry into a nice apartment where Katy and I joke - and I emphasize joke - that we enjoy the luxury life. They often make a similar search for throwaway food scraps to simply keep them alive.

You feel a lot of new emotions when you’re powerless, but that’s a blog post for another day. I’m sure if you’ve read this blog before, you’ve noticed that God often strips me of pride to teach me humility, only to watch me later go after the same self-sufficiency again.

I walked by the railroad tracks and listened to the harsh, metal-on-metal squeal of the MARTA train’s brakes as it pulled into a station near my house. I watched the sun fade completely, and streetlights became beacons to get me home.

Then it occurred to me that Katy might worry about me if I didn’t answer her nightly call as she left work. This realization came to me at the same time I had walked into a parking lot to check out an old tire shop that has been redeveloped into loft space for businesses. In the window of one of the two occupied spaces, a huge blue O with red and white stripes taking up its bottom half was painted on the glass.

People were sitting in a circle in a room plastered with posters in red, white and blue. A Barack Obama quote was written in cursive on the wall. I had found the Illinois senator’s Decatur campaign headquarters.

These folks are doing a fantastic job for their candidate. If you could empirically predict margin of victory by yard signs, Obama would be leading by something like a 98 percent in Decatur. The reason I knew the sign of the O stood for Obama is because I pass a homemade one nailed to a tree on my route to work. On that same street, I was recently following a car with an Obama bumper sticker written in Hebrew.

Despite my political differences, I needed a phone. I tapped on the glass, and a lady opened the door. I explained my situation.

“Only if you vote for Barack Obama,” she said with a wry smile.

She probably thought that was a safe bet in Decatur.

“I can’t guarantee that, but I hope you’ll let an enemy into your camp for a moment,” I said.

I made the call, and Katy was relieved. As I walked home, I thought this was a bit ironic: I had no change, and I went to Barack Obama. He won’t get my vote, but he gets my gratitude.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Historic Chinese Religious Delegation Visits Atlanta

The first-ever American-Chinese Multi-Faith Religious Exchange brought top leaders from China’s five government-recognized religions—Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism—to Atlanta last week for four days of meetings with government, civic and religious leaders.

The trip was organized by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of about 3,000 churches and individuals that conducts evangelistic and community-building efforts all over the world. The difference between CBF and many other Christian groups with regard to China is that it works in conjunction with the Communist government rather than with underground house churches.

Covering the delegation for GlobalAtlanta, I was able to meet Gao Feng, president of the China Christian Council. His organization is the umbrella group that supports all the government-registered Protestant churches in China. To talk with him for 15 minutes was an amazing experience for me. I have long read about his organization and its partner, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in books about Chinese Christianity, and now I have his business card.

Read the full story here. More about the forum and CBF to come.

Photo: Gao Feng

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Cemetery Stroll

I think I should walk in a cemetery once a week. It sounds morbid, but if you came with me, you might understand. Not only is it good physical exercise, but it also gives your spirit a bit of a workout.

What I mean is that when you walk through a cemetery, you can't help but think of mortality. On the surface, that sounds like a bad thing. We should be thinking of life, you might say, and all the opportunities that lie before us. You might recommend that we not dwell on death.

I walked through the Decatur cemetery the other day. The historical marker said that some of the graves predate the 1823 incorporation of the city. There are more than 50 rolling acres filled with graves, old and new. The older slabs of stone have more character. Their inscriptions are cooler, and their mystique is multiplied by the fact that you have to really work hard to read them.

The newer graves are neater and prettier. Less weathering and more precise stone-cutting instruments make it that way.

When you look around, it's really surprising how much life there is in a cemetery. Birds chirp, squirrels call, city employees mow lawns and trim hedges. Cars whir by outside the cemetery gates. Freshly piled dirt and vividly colored flowers show that people were just here to mourn someone whose mortality caught up with them. I even saw a guy (alive, mind you) lying asleep in one of the grave plots.

These signs of life only underscore my point about the power of thinking permanently about our impermanence. They give us hope because even in a place devoted to death, life goes on. And they show that when we're reminded of death, life is easily noticed and cherished. The opportunities ahead of us will be lived more fully if we're conscious of how fleeting they are.

It's kind of like running or swimming. The athlete that knows the last lap is coming will not let up.

We don't know exactly when our race on this earth will end, but it's good to be reminded that it will.

When it does, we'll be judged on how we hustled, even when the finish line was nowhere in view.

Photo: Gettysburg National Cemetery. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2007.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

State of Christian Persecution in China

On Aug. 8, I watched the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies in Atlanta with about 100 Chinese people. They cheered with each spectacular act of choreography and acrobatics. They were dazzled by the thousands of colorful, luminous costumes. They sat stunned by each passing vocal or dance performance. At commercial breaks, they scrambled to answer Olympic trivia questions. As an outsider, I saw a moment of pride unfolding.

And so it should. China has come a long way since most of them have been alive. Many in that room lived through the Cultural Revolution, when young people ruled the nation and sometimes imposed a state of near anarchy in their zealous pursuit of Chairman Mao's ideal of revolution. During that time, all things foreign, intellectual and religious were considered regressive and "counter-revolutionary" and targeted for humiliation and destruction.

Contrast that climate with China's current hospitable stance toward foreign investment, global brands and even iconic American athletes like Kobe Bryant, and it's easy to see the substantial progress over the past three decades since reform and opening helped China begin to shake off its dour international face and march towards political integration.

But just like in the U.S. and every other country, progress simply means strides toward an ideal, not its achievement. China still has ample room for improvement on that eternally wide continuum between totalitarian regime and full-on democracy.

For one, the Chinese economy's dizzying growth has produced a cavernous wealth gap. Many companies are targeting China's emerging middle class, but it should also be said noted that classes of super rich and super poor are being created along with this new consumer market. Peasant farmers still make up the majority of China's population, though many believe that a massive urban migration will occur over the next 20 years, at which point three-fifths of the country's 1.3 billion people are projected to live in cities. That huge movement of humanity will create a whole new set of problems.

During the Olympic run-up, human rights have been the buzz word. Even as the festive echo of fireworks hangs in the Beijing air, many residents have been forced from their homes and businesses. Dissidents have been jailed or cordoned off while the foreign press is present. Farther off, in areas like Xinjiang, Tibet and Sichuan provinces, periodic unrest has forced the government into defense mode, meaning more crackdowns on groups that don't exactly share the Party's point of view.

This has far-reaching implications for leaders of Christian house church networks and foreign missionaries, who often operate outside the realm of legality for the sake of theological and organizational independence. A missionary friend told me that the well-meaning efforts of many believers looking to "win China" during the Olympics were making it difficult for the folks on the ground there, who have to deal with government monitoring and interrogation in a very real way.

So how bad is Christian persecution in China? I often wonder how to answer that question. I've read and heard firsthand horror stories, but its easy to extrapolate incorrectly when working from emotional anecdotes. A few ministries have made it their mission to compile these stories into a systematic and ongoing study of the fate of believers in China.

The China Aid Association is led by former house church pastor and Tiananmen democracy activist Bob Fu. The association tracks stories of persecutio, using the power of public opinion by reporting their untold stories. Recently, the association partnered with Voice of the Martyrs, a group that ministers to the persecuted church worldwide. Fu joined Todd Nettleton, VoM's director of media development, for a conference call moderated by "Charisma" magazine.

A few highlights:

-The Olympics are being used as a massive PR tool by China. "This is our party, our face to the world. Don't do anything to cause a bad impression." That was Fu's summary of the Chinese government's justification for jailing pastors and kicking many out of their homes in Beijing.

-Bush urged to attend house church. Instead, for the second time, the president decided to go to a registered Three-Self church and advocate for religious freedom from the front steps. Bob Fu says it wasn't enough: "By choosing to worship in government-sanctioned church again, it will further validate the government's stance," he said, adding that 80 percent of Chinese believers worship in unregistered house churches.

This point of view ignores many of the diplomatic and cultural issues Bush would face in going to a house church. Fu has the luxury of ignoring such considerations. Bush doesn't.

-Amity Press in China recently celebrated publishing its 50 millionth Bible. Many believe this is a sign of openness. Nettleton points out that most of these are exported, and even if they were all Chinese, they'd only be half of what's needed for all the Christians there.

-House churches that have relations with foreigners and sophisticated networks may be targeted more heavily by the government. The highest ideal in Chinese politics is stability, which the government perveives is threatened by belief.

-China Aid found instances of persecution in half of China's 22 provinces in 2007. Labor camps are still prevalent as a tool of the government to "re-educate" offenders.

-Nettleton rejects the idea that we can't use capitalism as a tool to convert them to our ways. "I think that's a myth, that we're gonna trade them into democracy, trade them into relgious freedom," he said. Personally, I think it's a way to work from the inside.

-With local officials running their own fiefdoms, there's no end in sight for rural and urban persecution, but government policies have gotten more receptive to a general idea of religion.


Photo: Our bags confiscated at a border stop. Notice the green hats of the border patrol agents. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2008.

August Access Recap

I don't do this to put more notches into my belt or to tout my accomplishments, only to show how much God continues to bless me by putting me in situations where I can meet prime decision makers on the world stage. I still don't know what God's preparing me for in the big picture, but for now, I'm enjoying the ride as an international business reporter at GlobalAtlanta. Here's an August recap of the officials I've been able to meet or cover.

-Lord Mayor of London David Lewis, an alderman elected to a one-year term as head of the City of London, a small area within Greater London that handles the city's financial institutions. I conducted an e-mail Q&A with him. Article here.

-U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the first Asian-American to serve in a cabinet position. She's been in President Bush's administration for more than seven years and has a great story that goes from immigration at 8 years old to one of the highest offices in the land. Article here.

-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. On his second trip to China, Mr. Perdue called back for a conference with media to tell us what he was up to. Turns out he was representing Georgia at an international forum called the Regional Leaders Conference in Jinan, Shandong province. Article here.

-Presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Elias Antonio Saca of El Salvador and Alvaro Colom of Guatemala, along with U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. All the men were in Atlanta for the Americas Competitiveness Forum, a gathering of government and business leaders from around the Western Hemisphere to share knowledge on how to cooperate to better the region's standing in the world economy. Read my article here.

-Chilean Economic Minister Hugo Lavados, also in town for the forum. Conducted a video interview with him at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. For video and article, go here.

-Alessandro Teixeira, head of Brazil's export promotion agency, ApexBrasil. He gave a speech at the forum and a presentation about the Brazilian economy at a local law firm. He cited ethanol as one of the largest areas for potential trade between Brazil and Georgia, already the South American powerhouse's third largest state trading partner. Click here.

-A long-anticipated Brazilian consulate opened in Atlanta. I was on the scene. Click here for my coverage.

-Indonesian Ambassador Sujadnan Parnohadiningrat (I can actually spell his name by heart now.) He serenaded an audience with his saxophone at a gala I attended last weekend. He needed something to break the ice after the stat-filled speech he gave. My job is to make his comments interesting. See the article and video here.