Transparency vs. Privacy

My eyeOne of the qualities of a good Christian leader is the kind of transparency that leads to trust. Jesus Christ is our best example of that. His life and teachings were documented very well, and many people saw and heard how He lived among us. He spent much of His time in public, openly proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He made it obvious that He was human, getting tired, hungry, and thirsty, suffering pain, being tempted, etc. He openly proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven both with authoritative words and perfect actions.

What about privacy and confidentiality? Isn’t that sort of the opposite of transparency? The Lord Jesus also spent time in private, in prayer, and in rest. He also spent more time with his closest students, and explained and showed more to them than to the larger crowds, explaining things to them that He chose not to explain to the larger groups. (He still does that, through His Holy Spirit.) Some things may not be appropriate for the larger group for various reasons and at various times. Jesus also needed time spent alone with His Father, to tune in to exactly what the Father’s heart held for Him. So do I.

We should not live totally transparently and in public, lest you lack intimacy with God. Nor should we live in total privacy, lest we lose our ability to be a witness for Jesus Christ to those around us. It is not either/or. It is another balancing act. 🙂

Miracle Tale of a Christmas Baby

Rachel napping, Christmas Eve 2005Last year at this time, I was in Manila, staying at a guest house with a precious 10-month-old baby girl, waiting for the legally-required 5 days to pass before I could fly her home to meet the rest of her new family. A couple of years earlier, my wife asked me to pray about applying to adopt a little girl– something that has been on her heart for years. We dearly love our three boys, mind you, but this desire was strong in Lori. I was, to be honest, ambivalent. Raising a child is a big responsibility, and lots of work. Nevertheless, I promised to pray about it. I did. The Lord directed me to apply. Since I knew it was Him, we did. After much paperwork and waiting, we got a notice in August 2005 that we had been matched with a baby girl who needed a loving home. Due to some miscommunication and misunderstandings between the relevant agencies in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea (where we lived at the time), nothing happened after September, because both offices were waiting for the other. While the people in their offices were content with this situation, I was not. Our daughter was in an orphanage instead of with her family.

In December, after it was abundantly clear that nothing was going on or likely to go on to bring the release of our daughter to us, I prayed about it and the Lord told me to go to Manila via Port Moresby and meet with the appropriate people in person. The ICAB representatives told me not to come, because they weren’t ready. I obeyed God, and went. At both places, breakthroughs happened that would not have happened with telephone, mail, email, or fax communication, and the process was in motion again. It still took a while for the paperwork required to release Rachel to be completed, but it was completed on the last working day before Christmas. Rachel was released to her family well before other people told us it was possible for the paperwork to be done, and in shorter time than was experienced by others in similar situations.

We aren’t totally done with the adoption paperwork, yet, but at least the rest of it can be done with Rachel living with her family. Praise God!
Every month is significant in the life of a developing baby or toddler. We prayed for health and healing for Rachel since before we were notified of the match, even. When I was finally able to pick Rachel up to go home, they sheepishly gave me an update on Rachel’s health records. The revealed little details like “primary complex” (infant TB) and that they were treating her for breathing troubles as if she had asthma. She also showed signs of malnutrition when our pediatrician examined her. No matter. We got the right medicine for the “primary complex” and finished it, since it is really just a very long course of antibiotics and vitamins, and finished those. They tasted nasty, but did no harm, even though the doctor couldn’t find any evidence of TB. (Sugar helped the medicine go down.) We never saw any evidence of asthma, so didn’t treat for it. God delivered a healthy girl to us– healthier than what the orphanage thought they had. To God be the glory!

Rachel runningWhat is amazing that I didn’t expect was not only how good being in our family was for Rachel, but how good Rachel has been for our family. She has won the hearts of her big brothers, and given them a better outlook on life. I believe that God has even more good plans for this miracle baby.

I’m really glad that Rachel was born in a country with a strong Christian influence on their laws; a country where abortion is illegal. I wonder how we can eradicate the kind of depravity that makes people think that it is OK to murder babies in their mother’s womb, especially if the child was conceived in the act of rape or incest. The sins of a biological parent should not result in a death penalty for an innocent baby– a baby that could be accepted into a loving family and grow to do great things for God.

Cultural Relativism and Modesty

Woman dressed for the Goroka sing-sing 2004I find comfort in the moral absolutes in the Holy Bible. I really do. I like to know what is right and what is wrong. The Ten Commandments are pretty clear to me. So is the Law of Love proclaimed by Jesus Christ. If you search the Scriptures (as I did) on modesty and clothing standards, it is pretty sketchy in terms of when it is good to expose what parts of skin and when it is not, or what styles of clothes are best. It does say a lot about avoiding lewdness, behaving modestly, and clothing oneself with good deeds. The Bible associates nakedness with shame in several passages, usually when that nakedness is caused by extreme poverty or deliberate humilitation. (I’ll not list them here. You can search the Scriptures yourself.)

I believe that if modesty were about square centimeters of skin exposure, looseness or tightness of clothes, or style of clothes, the Bible would have said so. After all, since God wants us to behave modestly, He would be fair enough to show us how, right? I believe the Judge of all the earth is fair as well as loving, just, and merciful. (Again, read the Holy Bible yourself for the evidence that supports my claim. Or, dispute my claim. Just read it.) Therefore, I believe that modesty (being the opposite of lewdness) has much more to do with attitude, sensitivity to the effects of your actions in others, and context than it has to do with legalistic measures of hemlines or skin exposure. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture and situation may be offensive in another situation. I may boldly walk in the nude between locker and shower in a public locker room, wear only a swim suit at a beach, and wear a nice suit or tuxedo at a wedding. In each of these cases, I would be totally out of place dressed as if I were at one of the other places.

The complexity of understanding what modesty is and is not grows when crossing cultural barriers. Take, for example, a woman dressed in traditional attire for a cultural celebration in Papua New Guinea. Chances are better than even that the clothing and decoration will not cover her breasts. Having lived in that hot place, I understand that. Now, when sorting through photos to share with the world at our most recent photo gallery (as well as our old Papua New Guinea photo gallery), I had a dilemma. I had many good and culturally insightful photos to share that were in no way offensive in their own context, but which could possibly be considered inappropriate by some of the people in other cultural contexts who would see those photos. (This works both ways, by the way. There are some things commonly seen in the USA and Australia that would be considered totally inappropriate in many of the Papua New Guinean cultures, including some things commonly seen at church.) Of course, I realize that I can’t please everyone (especially certain Muslim extremists), but I can at least be sensitive to Christian members of cultures I’m familiar with.
So, what is a Christian web editor to do? Engage in culturally-sensitive image selection, creative cropping, or in some cases, resolution reduction; and hope that my Christian brothers and sisters practice the grace of God as well as appreciating the grace God gives us. 🙂

Email Postcards and our Web Contact Form

VultureYour normal email is less public than this web posting, but not by as much as you probably think. I’ll not get into how easy it is to intercept unencrypted email, except to say that it is very easy to do. Sometimes it is not only easy, but cheap to intercept your email. Yes, there are laws about such things, but some morally challenged people don’t care about those laws any more than the average spammer cares about the laws they break. Besides, those laws don’t reach everywhere your email travels. Even domestic email can be routed outside of the country you are in. Usually, you will have no clue that your email has been intercepted, read, or analyzed by someone you would not like reading your email. The unauthorized reader could be anywhere in the world: criminals, competitors, religiously violent people opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, hostile governments, terrorists, etc. You would be amazed the routes your email takes, even when you aren’t on a particularly vulnerable network (like a wireless hot spot or cybercafe).
Sometimes I’m not really concerned about the privacy of communications. Sometimes, I intentionally put a message (like this one) in public view. Sometimes, I want more privacy, because the communications are personal, financial, proprietary, easily misconstrued, or something that could endanger someone if revealed to the wrong person. Sometimes I just feel like some communications should be private, even if there would be no harm in saying the same things openly.
OK, so what can we do about email privacy? Actually, there are some high security solutions, some medium security solutions, and some insecure solutions. For high security, use end-to-end encryption, like GPG or PGP. For medium security, use TLS or SSL encryption between your email client and your mail server. Although it is not hard at all to use GPG with Enigmail in Thunderbird, once it is set up, it does take a bit of effort to set up, and some learning to understand the concept of public key cryptography. Actually, that isn’t all that hard. Getting all of your correspondents to use GPG, however, is nearly impossible. That is why SSL and TLS are so attractive. With either SSL or TLS, the email is encrypted between the email client and the email server with no effort required from the user other than to get the initial settings right in the email client when setting up the email account. With SSL and TLS, the email is decrypted at the email server, and may be transmitted between email servers unencrypted, depending on how the email servers along the route are configured. This, naturally, makes this solution much less secure than end-to-end encryption, but it does get the email encrypted past the most vulnerable last leg of the journey, which might be at a wireless hotspot or some similar extremely insecure network. The SSL or TLS solution works well, however, within one organization (like SIL and its affiliates), which use only a few servers run by trusted parties in secure locations, and all email transfers between those servers are also encrypted. Of course, any email to or from a server that doesn’t support the encrypted transfer protocols (which most don’t) is like a post card.

Public key cryptography has a known weakness in that it is subject to a man-in-the-middle attack if you are not careful about making sure that the public key you use to initiate a session is actually the one belonging to the party you wish to communicate securely with. Philip Zimmermann, the creator of PGP, solved this brilliantly with the concept of the “web of trust” based on digital signatures on keys for which you, or someone you trust to do it right, has verified the identity and ownership of a public key. It is brilliant except for its asking people who spend much more time watching TV than reading about math and cryptography to care about key signing, let alone understand it. With SSL and TLS, the method of certifying key ownership is a more centralized system with a strict hierarchy of trust. It is worse in that failure in the security of just a few agents could essentially compromise the security of major portions of the secured Internet, but better in that average users need not understand much about how it works or do much to make it work.

To truly be immune to a man-in-the-middle attack with SSL or TLS, however, you need to (1) have a secure web browser and email client on a secure computer, (2) know what to look for in terms of security indications, like the padlock icon that is part of the web browser and not part of the web page, (3) set up your email client properly for SSL or TLS email, and (4) heed any security warnings you get.

That last one was a problem for us on our secure contact form until last week. You see, getting a security warning could mean that a man-in-the-middle attack was in progress, but it also could mean that I didn’t spend lots of money to get a rich corporation to verify my server’s key each year, digitally signing it so that it could be verified with one of the digital certificate authority credentials built into the common web browsers. Another solution was to create my own certificate authority and ask everyone using my site or email servers to import my certificate authority credentials into their web browser and/or email client. However, I found cert.StartCom.org, a service on the web that would act as a certificate authority for free, and which already had its credentials built into the most recent version of several web browsers, including my favorite, Firefox, as well as Safari, Konqueror, Seamonkey, Mozilla, and a couple others. Microsoft Internet Explorer and Opera users still have to install the StartCom certificate authority credentials to gain the full security benefit, but that beats starting from scratch with all of the browsers.

Now, people who use a browser with the StartCom certificate authority credentials in them (either pre-built or installed later) can use our web contact form without getting a security warning. It is important to get rid of the false alarms, so that people can recognize when a real attack might be under way. That form is a much more secure way to contact us than via regular email, because the message is encrypted in transit from your browser to the server via SSL, and from the server to my computer via Gnu Privacy Guard (GPG). Of course, my reply to you would be unencrypted once it leaves my email server, but even having a one-way secure line of communication is helpful.

You might wonder what that vulture picture has to do with this. Actually, not much, except that it was flying over the JAARS Center, which is the same place where I saw a computer security demonstration of how easy it is to pull off a man-in-the-middle attack, thus inspiring me to get a properly signed SSL certificate on several of my web sites, including eBible.org and cryptography.org.

Thanksgiving – it is all about God

Mount Antero with snow blowing from the peakThanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but also one of my favorite attitudes for any time. God enjoys our thankfulness. Today, I’m thankful because:

  • God answers our prayers.
  • God is good.
  • God is wise.
  • God loves me and my family.
  • God heals us of both big and small things. He just healed my wife and daughter of a cold.
  • God provides abundantly for our needs, even when things don’t look so good.
  • God blesses us where He sends us.
  • God gives us great joy.
  • God’s mercy and loving kindness endure forever.
  • God creates great beauty.
  • God enjoys blessing His children.
  • God washed away my sin with Jesus’ blood.
  • God is patient with us.
  • God is fun to be with.
  • God will never leave us or forsake us.
  • God enables us to overcome difficulty and win battles.