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A letter from Eric Hinderliter in Lithuania

Advent 2013

Becky and I continue as classroom teachers at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. Since I teach economics, I am drawn to the predictions of economists. The interesting question in economics is not so much what is happening now, but what will happen in the future.   Many see our times as an age of the "economics of superstars" and “winner take all markets” in which machines talk to machines in the “Internet of things.” In a new and widely noted book, Average is Over (2013), economist Tyler Cowen examines how the growing power of artificial intelligence embodied in machines is changing labor markets by dramatically affecting wages and incomes. Cowen predicts that people with the right skills will complement smart machines and become very good at making all sorts of decisions in business and in life.  Less adept people with the wrong skills will do poorly.  His prediction is stark: society will become a "hypermeritocracy" in which an elite 15 percent will be richly rewarded for their adeptness in harnessing technology but the remaining 85 percent will be consigned to a precarious existence.  Their wages will stagnate; few get a second chance at success. The "right" skills in today’s world command a premium wage.   A recent survey on literacy in Europe revealed a huge skills gap among adults. Countries with greater inequality in skills proficiency also have higher income inequality. Low skill means more unemployment, lower health status, and much lower incomes.  All these trends lead to the prediction, ”This will make it easier to ignore those left behind” (The Economist, Sept 21, 2013). We tell our students that the question “How can I be rich?” is a good one.  But a better—and harder—question is “Why are people poor?”  It’s the principal question in my economics classes.

We enjoy hearing what our students have to say. Listening is a critical skill in teaching.

 

What if we read "the signs of our times" from a biblical perspective?  What would a modern-day Isaiah offer as prophetic words?  The Book of Isaiah is widely read during Advent.  Isaiah harshly and unmistakably condemned the hypocrisy and arrogance of his day. Religious leaders were labeled “rulers of Sodom”; showy religious festivals were rejected as self-serving demonstrations of false piety.  What God wanted, Isaiah prophesied, was liberation, justice and compassion:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
(Isaiah 58:6-7)

So how are the graduates of LCC International University coping with the demands of the labor market?  Do they have the "right" skills?  Are they concerned about justice, poverty and compassion? 

We’re always pleased when students "catch the vision" of being change agents in the world. A number have landed good jobs doing interesting and valuable work—for the common good.  Several graduates work for international agencies such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Albania and Lithuania. One of our graduates now works for the TEAR (The Evangelical Assistance and Relief) Fund, based in Britain.  She is a logistics officer for South Sudan. Here’s what another graduate from Moldova wrote recently:  "I finally settled down at the new job, more or less. It's been hectic since I started, but now things start to clear up a bit. I am a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at a consulting company. They just opened an office in Chisinau (the capital of her native Moldova)… They do serious analytical stuff for clients like UN, World Bank, DFID (Department for International Development, the British overseas poverty eradication office) and governments. I will be dealing with questionnaire design, data analysis, and reporting. My first project is for UNICEF, and I am traveling to Kenya in a couple of weeks. There is much stuff to learn, but it's a very good place to be. I will learn skills that are very hard to find in Moldova right now."  These young people are seeking direction in their lives from trusted and caring adults.  We tell them that the world needs their skills, especially their business and accounting skills.  Good intentions, missiologist Anthony Gittins says, are not enough: appropriate skills are required if we want to help those in need.

So what will the New Year 2014 bring? When we pray, we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  Jesus was very clear about what his kingdom would be like.  It would be an age of social justice, mercy and compassion, and sharing. This little child whose birth we celebrate has a message for us today.  His first sermon, called his “Nazareth manifesto,” was a challenge to the hypocrisy and arrogance of his age—and ours: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
 (Luke 4:18-19)

We feel sure God has called us to this work with students here in Eastern Europe. We invite you to join us in prayerful discernment as we do our best to help our students understand the signs of their times.   Please know that your faithful giving keeps us at this task.  Your gifts to Presbyterian mission matter greatly to us—and to our students.

Grace and peace to all of you at Christmas.  Pray for good things for all peoples. Merry Christmas.

Becky & Eric Hinderliter

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 284
The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 313

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