Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kettle Record

Stretching back well over forty years manning a kettle every season has been a Sears family tradition. I have not missed a year since starting in 1967. In past years Jonathan, Josh and I would take a kettle for a whole day, which given our schedules has not been possible for the last two years. Tomorrow I will out again, but it will not be near the 60 hour record that was recently set. My respect and hat is off to the various people who stood for so long.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Christmas Message and Greeting to Family and Friends

Earlier today I sent a Christmas greeting and message to my staff. Upon reflection I realize that the message and greeting is equally applicable to both my family and friends. I am posting the message as sent to the team and allow family and friends to allow their own filters to make the necessary slight adjustments.

During our family’s first Christmas in Iowa people were taking issue with the City hanging only white lights in the Ped Mall, along downtown streets and for calling the seasonal decorations “holiday decorations”. While the City had been using religious neutral language for years, the decision to switch to all white lights crystallized concerns about the change in lights further destroying Christmas.

Our little congregation was not immune from the debates. With several members asking for my view I elected to address the matter the first Sunday of Advent. Interestingly, on the Friday afternoon as I was refining my thoughts the local newspaper asked my opinion as they were polling various religious leaders for an article that Sunday. Fifteen years later the essence of my response to address to a wider matter still shapes my thinking.

While the birth of Christ is at the heart of the season we recognize that the church adopted the Roman solstice festival to tell the birth of Christ story. Since other cultural, pagan and Christian rooted, traditions became attached as Christmas progressed to its current state in the USA and Canada. In those countries Christmas is more of a cultural holiday than a religious holiday that calls the faithful to reflect upon their faith, examine their own lives and relationship with their neighbors. It is such a cultural event that people of non-Christian faiths are readily engaging in its activities and affirming elements of message.

There is little doubt that Christmas as we celebrated it today has become so overlaid with cultural characteristics ranging from gift buying and exchanging to parties, from Santa to a day off work, from family gatherings and travels to festive decorations in the home and at work, from bargain shopping to days jammed full of special activities. The season is so full and filled with trappings that pausing to reflect upon the message of Christ…redemption, inner and interpersonal peace, and no one is beyond the hope change, and taking joy in life…is lost.

We must also affirm that while Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Christian faith is an Easter faith, not a Christmas faith. The Christian message and hope is grounded in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and upon the resurrection morning. While the angels called us to celebrate the coming of hope and salvation, they were pointing to the work of the cross and the resurrection.

While Christmas is a wonderful cultural and religious holiday that I greatly enjoy, I noted my concern that both the congregation and I could so readily be caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season, be so distracted by the ancillary cultural aspects that we would not take time to pause, reflect upon the meaning of the Christmas message and to reach out generously to others in peace. Hence I was far more concerned about the spirituality of our congregation than about cultural controversies such as the color of the lights or greeting phrases.

That Sunday afternoon as I read the paper I realized they quoted me far more than I expected and more extensively that any other person, clergy, civic and non-clergy. Seeking to detach myself from the controversy I feared that I made myself and the Army a target. Fortunately, to my surprise, not only did receive no negative calls or letters, we received only positive comments. At the January ministerial many of the clergy thanked me for altering the focus.

Each holiday season since, I continue to remember the response. I value each member of our development team. I appreciate your dedication to helping others, for your grace and passion. My desire is in keeping with my 1996 reflection, that you will take time to reflect upon Christ’s message of hope. I pray that the reflection will be more than just a short moment or two to read the Christmas story. Though this is our busiest time of the year, as we arrive at Christmas Eve and Day, I encourage you … no, I implore you to set aside your job. Forget all that you have to still do, any and all work issues. Focus upon the essence of the season, enjoy time with your spouse and family.

I hope you will affirm your love for your faith and values. Affirm to your spouse and family that you love them and hold them dear. I hope you will dedicate afresh your heart and mind to be generous towards all, to seek to be a builder of others, to be a vehicle of hope and grace.

May the joy and peace of the Christ child fill your life and heart. May His presence be with you and all whom you love. May you have a wonderful and joyous Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Babe Homeless?

If you had a home and job in town A and while traveling to point B your car broke down, and as it could not be repaired for a few days, would staying in the Greyhound bus station for a night or two (hotels all full) mean that you are now homeless? Why or why not?

Would you consider yourself homeless if you were stranded at an airport due to a storm closing down flights for the night? Why or why not?

If you traveled from home to visit another town, arrived to discover when you arrive late at night that the hotel you had booked was over-sold, and so are all other hotels, if you stayed the night in your car, would that mean you are homeless? If you were given a tent to pitch in the local campground, what would that say about your status? Are you homeless or not? Why or why not?

In neither case, would I consider myself “homeless”. Nor would I consider you “homeless” as you have a home. I doubt that most of my friends or family would see themselves or their friends in such situations as homeless. You may be without traditional shelter but your state is temporary, and you do have a home whereas those who are truly homeless lack the means or ability to secure their own permanent shelter. To count amongst the homeless those have a home but are temporarily not at home and are sleeping in alternate locations would do an injustice to understanding homelessness and addressing those who are truly homeless.

Joseph and Mary had a home in Nazareth. Joseph had a profession. Since they were looking for hotel accommodation in Bethlehem does not that suggest that they had the means to pay for room. While they could pay for a room, all rooms were full. They were not destitute per se. If none of us would see ourselves as homeless, why then do some preachers and Christian say that Joseph and Mary were homeless? Should we not allow our dramatics to push us to go beyond what the text states, that though they had the money, by the time they arrived the hotels were full that night (they may well have had a hotel room a day or two nights later)?

Further, if we twist/embellish well beyond the text, are we doing it justice and in doing so are we being faithful to it? If we are embellishing and adding over the text other teachings that are beyond the text and add incorrect elements, are we being truthful and thereby not keeping the faith with the text that we turn to teach us eternal truths?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Value Voter Conundrum

The Republican primary race has been most interesting to observe as candidate after candidate postures themselves to court and please evangelical and tea-party voters. Given Mitt Romney is a Mormon and Mormonism is considered a cult and heresy, the evangelical Christians, and many tea-party members are facing a challenge as to which Republican candidate to support. I wish it were otherwise, but a canadate's religion still impacts a canadate's acceptability.

A series of non-Romney candidates have risen and then fallen. No doubt many statements are pandering in nature rather than firmly held core values. While the challenge is to keep from being fooled by shallow emotional appeals or false statements of piety, when “value voters” stress and emphasis religious piety, the typical chameleon politician will put on that mask.

Early flag bearers have been found lacking the necessary skills and balance to be President. Some have uttered views that sound right but lack an ability to argue their way out of a paper bag. Two who have balance and thoughtful positions are not considered as they lack the dynamism of an evangelical preacher that value voters prefer.

The latest non-Romney hope, Newt Gingrich and thrice married serial adulterer, is presenting a conundrum for the value voters who hold the sanctity of marriage so high, and living out those values tend to see it as one of the bedrock elements. Twelve years ago value voters and evangelical Christians lambasted Clinton, then called for his impeachment over the matter of being an adulterer. Clinton the example of what many evangelical preachers encourage from their congregants in such situations, the Clintons worked through matters and remained married, and Bill Clinton changed his life.

Gingrich is not only twice divorced but the manner in which he announced the end of his marriage to his two wives is highly troubling. Further troubling is that Gingrich’s first wife and children had to turn to their church for financial support for a period when he did not provide child support. Value voters are troubled further in that not providing child support goes to essential character and fathers not fulfilling financial obligation to their children is another major issue with value voters.

There is little doubt about Gingrich’s golden tongue. As one of the fathers of the current political climate of winning at all costs he put that tongue and his disarming smile to use in spinning things that sound thoughtful and intellectual. Gingrich is skilled in positioning himself to be highly appealing to Value Voters. But Value Voters are left wondering if what they are hearing is well contrived spin designed to seduce them.

Hence, these same voters find themselves in a box, they want to support Geingrich but doing so goes contrary to what they have argued in the past as being bedrock values.

For a host of reasons Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Adams were wise in noting that we must be take care not to align our faith with our religion.

At the end of the day, I hope that the Republicans will give the nation a viable choice. Unfortunately, I do not see much of the current slate of current or former front runners as a solid candidate worthy of my consideration.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Family Pictures

After church today was the taking of the annual family pictures. I had the designated photographer use my camera for our family picture. Then I took a picture of Jonathan and Maggie. After the family photo was taken, we headed off to Prime Time, a local sports bar, for brunch where there is good food and a host of NFL games at a time that are on the various large televisions lining the walls. Hmmm...I wonder if we could go for brunch on New Years and watch three bowl games at a time? Or dinner?

Here is the 2011 family picture.

Jonathan and Maggie's first Christams picture.

Lastly, Saturday evening Evie retired while I was looking through marketing ssignments from the George Mason University marekting class in which I have been involved this past semester. After about a half hour Hypatia and Darwin disappeared. Below is a picture of what I found about twenty minutes later. By the way Hypatia is experiencing her first heat, and it will be her last.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Evangelical Church and Racism

Ever so slowly I'm working my way through Robert Putnam’s "American Grace", in which he examines the nature of religious life and its interaction with politics throughout the last one hundred years. Putnam’s work is filled with survey data, demographic trends and basic observations which gives one much food for thought. The work articulates in a coherent manner volumes of data confirms various of my observations and of which is that the evangelical church entering a period of significant decline. Also the book is making numerous new connections such as the correlation between religious attendence declines in young adults and the level of politically activity the evangelical church.

Putnam demonstrates that following WWII religious life in North America across all denominations underwent a dramatic increase. Soldiers returning from the horrors of war attended all churches at a much higher rate than prior generations. The mainline churches plateaued and then started to decline in the late 1960s, a decline that has only slowed in the last decade.

As mainline churches went into decline the evangelical and fundamentalist church grew (the two groups though similar are not identical). Interestingly the Canadian churches saw some of the same patterns as their American brother and sisters, but not to the same degree. The Canadian fundamentalist churches did not increase as much as the evangelical churches and the Canadians growth came in three surge waves versus the four and larger surges experienced by their American counterparts.

As the mainline church suffered dramatic declines that corresponded with each growth surge experienced by the evangelical church, the evangelical surge was primarily transfer growth. Hence, the evangelical surges were for the most part movement of existing church attenders than the “conversions” of unchurched “heathens.”

Putnam demonstrates that the surges in the American evangelical and fundamental churches corresponded with four sociological-political events; the birth control pill and sexual liberation, ERA/feminist movement of the mid to late 70s, civil rights movement, and the Roe v. Wade ruling. As mainline churches being less judgmental about the use of the pill and sexual liberation, they suffered lost of people and the more dogmatic evangelical and fundamentalist churches gained. Roe v. Wade and mainline churches talking about empowering women to become business and church leaders (an female ordination), drove another group of conservative leaning families out of the mainline churches to evangelical and fundamentalist churches that provided clear directives and kept the issues simple.

If one looked at it from a marketing perspective, a perspective evangelicals would reject, evangelical churches captured these families by shaping their message to appeal to those who need less equivication and more rigid frameworks. The evangelicals distinguished themselves by speaking against each of issues (ie: contraception is contrary to divine law, a woman’s place was in the home raising the family, women in the military on the front lines blurs the distinction between men and women, sex must be saved for one’s marital partner, etc.). Though the language and postions on various issues has changed, the evangelical buzz from that age continues to be part of its core language is that they stand for “traditional family” values and preach only the Bible.

Putnam’s data clearly indicates civil rights with the integration of schools and the office was also a major cause for the shift. While mainline churches marched with Dr. King and other civil rights activists, encouraged their members to support integration, evangelical leaders for the most part took a contrary postion. They not only shied away from advocated for civil rights but it was not uncommon to hear pastors and evangelical leaders speaking openly against civil rights or quietly despairingly of integration and reinforcing stereotypes. For the Canadian reader, this is the one element which was for the most part missing from the Canadian scene.

Evangelicals would argue that their different message was not a marketing decision but as being faithful to the preaching of the Word. I concur that it was not a marketing choice. Yet as on all but abortion the evangelical church has changed its message significantly on each of the three areas, faithful preaching of the Word rests on shaky ground. Even on abortion the mainline church membership and pastors have as diverse positions just like the evangelical members and pastors. Rather than marketing and faithfulness to the Word as being the cause, the root is that evangelicals (and fundamentalists) are naturally disposed to being more politically conservative and that in the two decades of significant social shifting, the more conservative elements in the mainline churches found greater identification with their more conservative evangelical friends. Hence, in turbulant times the strength of bent of one's politics tended to determine where one worshipped.

As noted, the Canadian scene was different regarding civil rights. Not only did I not experience despairing comments about race relations in my evangelical congregation, its leadership spoke that equality between races was a biblical principal. Our congregation was not alone as high school friends in other evangelical churches were hearing the same message. Hence subtle despairing comments I heard in my Kentucky dorm and heard at the college from my peers, and some faculty, was perplexing. Though the college leadership acknowledged that integration must happen, its steps were measured least they offend their more conservative alumni and funders.

Today I understand the issues more fully than I did then, that racism was part of the American evangelical and fundamentist scene throughout the 60s, 70s and early 80s. It was more blatant in the 60s and more subtle later, and though rarely as blatant or as widespread, thirty years later it still exists in a subtle manner. Though the majority of the criticism and caricatures of President Obama does not involve racism, one has to be void of sight and intelligence not to understand that some caricatures and criticism are racist in nature and motivation, and that too many of those individuals fill leadership positions in a fundamentalist or evangelical church on Sunday.

As remanents of racism continues to linger as a part of the evangelical church I was not surprised by this story about an evangelical church voting to ban an interracial couple from membership and participating in a worship service…