Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sarah Palin Visits Haiti

The world is full of extreme negativity these days. In our public square, people are always beating each other up verbally. Public discourse has become so uncivil and so polarized that people vilify one another and fail to see the good in those with whom they disagree. That situation saddens me greatly for a number of reasons. It is not a healthy situation for our country.

One of my biggest interests is finding areas of commonality amongst diverse groups. In working with my students, for example, I’ve come to realize that we Americans are often not nearly as polarized as the media pundits and politicians make us think. I’ve listened to students with different backgrounds and contrary worldviews discuss their beliefs about hot button issues, and discover to their surprise that they actually have much in common with the folks on the other side of the aisle. They often are stunned to realize that their bottom line views are not as far apart as they would have initially thought. Alternately, they discover that their bottom line positions are different, but their underlying motivations and values are actually the same or at least have similarities. Of course, that doesn’t happen with every issue. But it happens more often than we might think. However, we cannot have such epiphanies if we constantly vilify others and do not even try to listen to them.

Along those lines, I was intrigued by a recent news story about Sarah Palin. Governor Palin is someone who epitomizes the kind of polarization that has befallen the United States in recent years. Many adore her. Others are horrified by her. I have to admit I fall more into the latter category. But I try to keep an open mind and look for areas of commonality.

In that vein, I was encouraged by Governor Palin’s recent interest in the people of Haiti. I was glad she decided to travel there on a humanitarian trip. I was also glad to read of her deep compassion for the human tragedy in Haiti. I was also intrigued (if not surprised) by her suggestion that our government ought to give more aid to help the people of Haiti.

The bottom line is that although I disagree with her on many issues and her political tactics cause me great concern, I do appreciate her shedding light on the suffering of the Haitians, which continues to be so great almost a year after the earthquake. I always appreciate people in the spotlight using their fame to bring attention to overlooked human suffering and tremendous need.

My reaction to this news story does not mean that I’ll be voting for Governor Palin any time soon. Her politics are generally contrary to mine. And I try to not be a Pollyanna. I always have a healthy skepticism about anything that politicians say in front of a microphone and/or camera.

Nonetheless, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and I try to acknowledge the good I see in people. As a Christian, I believe we are all made in God’s image and he loves each of us infinitely. As a result, it is my responsibility to try to see others as God does. It undermines that responsibility if I vilify people with whom I disagree. Vilification denies the good in my brothers and sisters.

The link below contains an article on Governor Palin’s trip:

Hebrews 4:16

Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reality TV

I hope you have had a wonderful holiday season. Our family has been traveling to celebrate Christmas with our family in Texas. They don’t have Wi-Fi, and their computers either have dial up or other impediments to blogging. As a result, I’ve taken a bit of a break from posting to this blog.

We had a great visit with our relatives, but being away from home is always tough. For example, we don’t generally sleep well. I particularly have a hard time sleeping, and woke up in the wee hours several times with nothing to do but sit in the living room flipping channels. There is not a lot on at that hour no matter how many channels you have. I ended up catching up on some reality TV.

Yikes. Surely the end of civilization must be around the corner.

My husband and I both hate reality television, but for somewhat different reasons. My husband thinks everything is staged and there is no reality in “reality television.” Basically, he thinks it is all a fraud.

I don’t disagree with him. And I loathe the basic premise of such staging/fraud, which seems to be to show how screwed up others are so that we can laugh at them and/or wag our fingers at them. In essence, reality television encourages us to judge others and feel superior to them.

My other major source of disgust with reality television is that people are allowing their personal lives and their families’ personal lives to be exploited for monetary gain. That is tragic on so many levels. And it is a bargain that never seems to turn out well, but people keep doing it.

Anna Nicole Smith was one of the early reality TV stars, and apparently her teenage son did not handle the situation well. As I have read, Daniel was a shy young man and a good student with aspirations to go to college, but he began using drugs because of awkward attention at school about aspects of his mother’s reality television show. A couple years after the reality show ended, he tragically died of an overdose.

Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey signed on to do a reality show of their early married life. Marriage is tough enough under the best of circumstances, but I cannot imagine how a young couple can possibly sort out the difficulties of adjusting to being a married couple with cameras following them in their home and on dates. Ms. Simpson and Mr. Lachey ended up divorcing after just three years of marriage.

In my opinion, Jon & Kate Plus Eight is one of the worst reality television debacles to-date. Yet another couple’s marriage fell apart as the world watched it play out on their TVs. It was horrifying that a couple’s personal tragedy was entertainment for the world to watch and exploit in disgusting detail. Of course, the tragedy was exacerbated because the couple had eight young children. (At least Ms. Simpson and Mr. Lachey did not have kids.) As if all of that was not horrifying enough, Kate Gosselin signed on for another show without her ex-husband to let the world gawk some more at her children.

Because of my Christmas vacation insomnia, I saw a bit of two more recent reality TV shows. They were both so horrifying, I couldn’t watch entire episodes. The infomercials looked good by comparison.

The first of the two shows I caught was What Chili Wants. I was a young adult in the 1990s when the musical group TLC was popular, but I haven’t heard what they have been up to since the tragic death of one of their members, Lisa Lopes. What Chili Wants is a new reality show following TLC member, Chili Thomas, as she works with a relationship expert to find true love. In the first scene of the episode I caught, Chili described to the expert what she is looking for in a mate. She explained he had to be physically gorgeous and sexually appealing; there were specifications for both his abs and his genitals. Chili also demanded that her future mate be a believer in God and not consume pork. However, she was a bit more tolerant with regard to a potential mate’s family status; she would accept up to two baby mamas.

My mind reeled. I’ve never heard someone speak so shallowly and so selfishly about finding a life partner. Chili Thomas is a lovely, talented woman. She is about my age and has a son. I cannot imagine someone who is so accomplished, who is a parent and who has arrived in middle age being so self-absorbed and clueless about finding a mate. Consequently, I hope my husband is right and there was no reality to that reality show. Surely, the whole thing was invented to attract viewers. Even so, after about 15 minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore and had to change the channel.

The other reality show I caught during my insomnia was Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

I’m not even sure what to say about that show. I did give it a fair shot and watched almost a full episode. It was absolutely horrifying on so many levels. I’m just not sure where to even start.

And that may be a sign that I ought not even try. Perhaps it is best to not dwell on the many revolting aspects of the show. Instead, I’ll just sum it up by saying: oh, my goodness, I cannot believe we as a nation have sunk to this level.

Somewhat surprising, my apolitical husband is particularly disgusted that Sarah Palin has agreed to do a reality show. He thinks exposing one’s personal life to the cameras like that is about the most tasteless, undignified thing one can do. And he fears that Governor Palin has set a new (low) standard that other politicians will follow. His greatest fear is that we’ll have a president someday who has been a reality TV star.

My husband is not very interested in politics, so (unlike me) he is not even that offended by Governor Palin’s political rhetoric. His chief concern is just the cheapening of our democratic process and the stature of those elected to office. Serving in public office these days is not an opportunity for selfless public service, but simply another opportunity to exploit oneself for economic gain and public attention. In the past, politicians have done that primarily via book deals and honoraria for giving lectures. Apparently now there is a new avenue: reality television. President Snooki or President Palin? As my husband sees it, what is the difference? He has a point.

Mark 8:36

"For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?"

Mark 10:45

"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Prince and the Paupers: A Tax Fable

A friend of mine, Professor Brad Borden of Brooklyn Law School, recently published an article in the Huffington Post. That would be pretty exciting news in the base case, but it is particularly noteworthy because Professor Borden is a fellow tax nerd. We tax nerds seldom get our work included in non-tax or non-academic publications. So this is quite a coup!

I wanted to highlight the article here because I thought it was very well done. The article is written as a fable told to his young daughter. Even people without any interest in tax law can follow and appreciate Professor Borden's points. And he expresses them in a very engaging manner. Who knew tax policy could be so compelling!

I also thought the subject matter of the article would be of particular interest to readers of this blog. It hits upon structural injustices in the context of both our political system and our tax laws.

The link below contains the text of the article. Enjoy!

Deuteronomy 16:19 (New American Standard Bible)

You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Would Jesus Buy? (2007) (Troubled by the Style of the Film)

Although I agree with the substantive concerns of the film and I’m generally glad that a film was made to focus attention on the problems of commercialization and materialism, the style of the film was problematic to me.

What Would Jesus Buy? is described as a documentary. It purports to follow a man named Reverend Billy and his choir as they essentially go on a mission trip across the country. Reverend Billy speaks in an exaggerated preachy Southern drawl reminiscent of people like Jimmy Swaggart. Reverend Billy is a white man with a big bleached pompadour hairstyle and outdated, flamboyant attire. He resembles a blonde Elvis in the King’s later years. Reverend Billy is shown to exorcise people by putting his hand on their heads and pushing back in a dramatic fashion. His effect is like something from an SNL skit lampooning Southern Evangelical preachers. In watching the film, I half expected Lorne Michaels to appear at some point.

Similarly, the members of the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir have a caricaturist style. Despite their message of anti-consumerism, they have elaborate matching long robes. They have rehearsed choreography to accompany their singing. And they flail about enthusiastically in (mock?) rapture when Reverend Billy preaches.

I try to be a good sport, and I think laughter is a gift. Satire can be helpful; it helps us see faults that we might not otherwise see. As a result, I’m certainly not opposed to poking fun at Christians. We should all laugh at ourselves from time to time. None of us should ever take ourselves too seriously. And it is insightful for us to see ourselves as others do.

But What Would Jesus Buy? goes beyond poking fun. The film blurs the lines between reality and satire. In watching the film, it is not clear whether Reverend Billy is a street preacher with sincere Christian faith or a mocking performance artist with a social conscience. It is also not clear if the “Church of Stop Shopping” is an actual religious congregation or the stage name of a group of performance artists who are trying to make a political statement.

The film includes footage of Reverend Billy and the choir in several churches. They seem to be leading a worship service, but the reaction of the folks in the pews was telling. The cameras show several with big, dopey grins. They appeared to be audience members enjoying a funny show, not religious worshippers. As a result, religion seems to be the butt of a joke. I’m not sure how that squares with the purported message of Reverend Billy. If the point of the crusade is to save Christmas, why is that goal of any importance if religion is merely a joke? A broader year-long crusade against materialism would make more sense.

Other scenes in the film are even more troubling. At one point, Reverend Billy speaks to several devout members of an African American church. He represents to them that he is a pastor of the Church of Stop-Shopping. They have a serious dialogue, but Billy seems to be taking advantage of their goodwill and hospitality. If he is a street performer mocking Christians, it seems rather mean-spirited to have represented himself as an actual Christian pastor. That portion of the film had a Borat-esque quality.

In another scene, Reverend Billy and the choir take their proselytizing/protest/show to a Wal-mart where they attempt to exorcise the store. After they are thrown out of the store, but while they are still lingering in the parking lot, Reverend Billy purports to baptize an infant of loving parents who are receptive to his message. A Christian baptism is a meaningful, sacred religious ritual, but in my opinion it was ridiculed by Reverend Billy’s spectacle in a sacrilegious way.

In the end, I appreciated the message and consciousness raising of What Would Jesus Buy? However, I was very disappointed by the disrespectful way the message was delivered.

Luke 18:32 (New King James Version)

For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Would Jesus Buy? (2007) (Agreement with the Film’s Basic Premise)

The title of this documentary is a play on the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” That phrase was coined a number of years back as a quick guide to help Christians discern the right choices to make in various situations. It was particularly embraced by Christian youth who wore “WWJD” wristbands, but the phrase became popular more widely in Christian circles.

As a result of this background, when I originally heard of this film, I thought it would be an examination of ethical shopping choices. I assumed there might be a focus on human rights of workers and the destruction of our environment due to practices employed in manufacturing many retail products. What Would Jesus Buy? does touch on those themes, but it is certainly not the main focus of the film. Instead, the film follows “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir” as they go on a cross-country bus tour before Christmas to warn Americans of the pitfalls of consumerism and to “save Christmas from the Shopocalypse.”

The film was produced by Morgan Spurlock, who is better known for his assault on fast food in the documentary Super Size Me. I liked Super Size Me. In a simultaneously informative and comical way, the film examined a serious problem in our country: the disastrous effects of overconsumption of large portions of very unhealthy “fast food.” The film raised our consciousness while making us laugh. I’m down with that.

Similarly, I generally liked What Would Jesus Buy? As expressed in previous blog posts this year and last, I too have been disappointed and repulsed at the commercial exploitation of this important religious holiday. Christmas has been taken over by marketers in an effort to induce us to overindulge in material consumption. The irony of course is that the exploited holiday is the celebration of the birth of a man who taught us to not focus on material things, but to instead put our attention and energy into more lasting concerns. For that reason, I appreciate the basic concern of What Would Jesus Buy? It points out that Christmas shopping is really just emblematic of our culture’s wider year-long materialism and overconsumption, which the film equates (comically) to a religion unto itself. The filmmakers flag that this focus reduces us to worshipping material things. The film points out that on average Americans spend about 1 hour each week on spiritual pursuits, but about 5 hours each week shopping.

What Would Jesus Buy? explores the notion that Christmas is a marketing coup. Marketers have succeeded in equating childhood love with having material things. The film examines the myth of Santa, noting that parents go to extreme lengths to hide from their kids the fact that toys actually come from stores and do not have a magical origin. It is mentioned that other countries prohibit marketing to kids, but by contrast American kids absorb large numbers of hours of advertising each week and spend significantly less time in meaningful dialogue with their parents. The film mentions that child psychologists say that young children lack the developmental ability to distinguish between entertainment and advertising such that they are particularly receptive to marketing pitches. To illustrate these points, the film also interviews children who discuss the intense peer pressures of having the “right” brand labels on their belongings and the “right” clothes at school. The film also includes interviews with parents who are obsessed with giving their kids “quality” brand name presents, and having their kids celebrate Christmas with a slew of gifts. The film discusses the repercussions of such attitudes, including the financial vulnerability of overextended credit and the exploitation of workers in the developing world due to “big box” stores that emphasize an abundance of cheap merchandise.

Romans 1:25 (New Century Version)

They traded the truth of God for a lie. They worshiped and served what had been created instead of the God who created those things, who should be praised forever. Amen.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas in Southern Louisiana

Having lived in the eastern part of Texas for so long, we’ve known so many people who were originally from Louisiana. In particular, we’ve known a lot of folks from New Orleans and small towns in southern Louisiana. Our family used to go to Louisiana for long weekends. And many evacuees came to our part of Texas after Katrina. As a result of these experiences, I have a special love and affinity for Louisianans, and have been devastated by what they have gone through since the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion last April.

Recently, I heard a really heart-breaking news story about the disaster’s economic impact to the local fishing industry in southern Louisiana. Interviewees spoke about the toll the economic situation had taken on their families. People had lost their homes, couples had broken up, children were stressed about such losses and the continuing uncertainty in their lives. You can read the story at the link below:

For more background, the following blog is dedicated to documenting the damage from the oil spill, and contains a tremendous amount of information:

My heart really breaks for the families in southern Louisiana. That region is not an area of affluence in the best of times. But in recent years, it has been hit hard by hurricanes, and now the local economy has been decimated by a new double whammy. The oil spill contamination in the waters has hurt the fishing industry, and frankly may impact it for generations. And the offshore exploration and development activities that have also been an important part of the region’s economy have been hit by the halt in petroleum industry activity in the wake of the BP disaster.

I wanted to make a donation to help provide relief for the people in that region, but when I did some research on the internet, it was surprisingly hard. Most relief efforts in the wake of the oil spill seem to have focused on the non-human animals harmed by ecological disaster. I love birds, fish and reptiles, but I love human beings more. From what I found in my research, there has not been a lot of humanitarian focus on the people suffering in the wake of the BP disaster.

The Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, however, is the primary food bank serving the region in Louisiana most impacted by the oil spill. Their website is available at the link below. It contains information about the group’s efforts to assist people impacted by the repercussions of the oil spill, as well as information about how one can contribute to their efforts.

Matthew 25: 34-40 (New King James Version)

Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas 2010

The weekend after Thanksgiving this year, our pastor gave an interesting talk. She mentioned that at this time of year people are always going around asking “Are you ready for Christmas?” And she noted what they meant was things like “have you put up your decorations?” or “have you bought all your presents?” She proposed a different response, “yes, I have prepared to banish evil in my life.” She thought that would really shake things up and get people’s attention. I think her point was that we should get back to the real reason for Christmas, which is not the flashing icicle lights, the eggnog or Gameboys. Amen!

Indeed, that point seems particularly apropos this year. The economy is in tatters. Unemployment is still a horrible problem. We have friends and family who have been out of work for well over a year, and have gone to heroic measures to find another job but to no avail. We have friends whose employers are not doing well and their jobs are not secure. And almost a year after the earthquake, the situation in Haiti is still desperate. The challenges and suffering seem to get worse for Haitians. Tropical storms struck people in tents last summer and now the cholera epidemic.

In such times, it particularly seems inappropriate to try to buy a lot of stuff to try to make merry. Many folks don’t even have the basics. Our family is trying to focus on the reason for Christmas. I know a lot of folks strive to do the same thing, but it is very hard to go against the grain. The mainstream culture is so influential and is very hard to escape. I thought it might be an encouragement to hear about the ways our family has found to reclaim Christmas. And I’m always open to new ways if readers have suggestions to share.

First, our kids’ Sunday School teacher gave all the parish’s families a “Jesse Tree” poster to help celebrate Advent. Every night we read a brief story from the Bible and place a sticker on the paper tree on the poster. The stories and stickers symbolize particular events from the Bible. Jesse was the father of David, so the Jesse Tree traces Jesus’s lineage and promise through the Old Testament. It is a simple and neat activity to help us remember the religious meaning of Christmas, and refocus on why it is such a special holiday. Christmas is the celebration of Christ coming into this world. It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring event particularly when we compare human existence before Jesus came to this Earth to live among us and teach us the Father’s ways. The link below provides some information about the Jesse Tree tradition:

Throughout the year our church frequently collects donations for a local food bank. Our family usually participates in them, but it seems particularly important to donate during the holidays. It is anguishing to be food insecure at anytime, but it is particularly hard when the rest of society is over-indulging. And this year in particular, the need seems to be so great. Like much of the country, the economy is really bad here in Arizona. We know plenty of folks who have lost their homes, who have been out of work or who are at risk to lose their job. In that context, donations to food banks have dropped off dramatically while the need has grown tremendously. Those who are fortunate enough to still have a job and a roof over our heads are particularly obligated to help. The following link has information on contributing to food banks in Arizona, but similar information for food banks in other communities is just a Google search away:

Our church is participating in the Angel Tree program, which is part of the Prison Fellowship ministry. Prison Fellowship ministers to the needs of incarcerated people. But incarceration does not just impact the convicted individual. No man or woman is an island. We’re all interconnected, so incarceration impacts families and communities. In our society’s emphasis on getting “tough on crime,” we often overlook the impact on the children of convicted people. They bear the emotional loss of the absence of their parent, the social stigma of being a child of a convict, as well as the economic insecurity and deprivation that often is associated with having a potential breadwinner incarcerated. At the holidays, the Angel Tree program aims to minister to children in that situation by allowing individuals to buys gifts for specific children. Our deacon purposely asked that our church be responsible for sponsoring older children this year because they are often overlooked. More people volunteer to buy gifts for babies and toddlers because they are cute, but not as many people volunteer to buys gifts for older kids. Our family is sponsoring two children this year—a 7 year old and a 10 year old. We have done this kind of sponsorship (through various programs) ever year, and always involve our kids in the shopping and planning. We don’t want to shelter them from the reality that our family is very privileged, and not everyone has the same material comforts and advantages. We should be grateful for what we have been given, and never taken it for granted. We are proud of our kids’ interest and contributions to the shopping experience, and we hope that as they get older, they will do the same sort of thing sua sponte. The link below has information about the Angel Tree program:

For several years, our family has made the World Vision Gift Catalogue a part of our family’s Christmas tradition. World Vision is a well-established and well-respected Christian humanitarian organization that works around the world to alleviate suffering due to poverty (and associated problems such as exploitation and disease). They have a catalogue of gifts at various prices that one can purchase to gift to people in need. The gifts are practical in nature and can make a wonderful difference in the lives of the recipients. You can choose to gift livestock, a water well, medicine, food, educational supplies, clothing, or a host of other needed things. Each year we give each of our children a budget and sit with them to go through the catalogue to let them choose how to spend their budgeted monies. It has brought tears to my eyes when they have chosen to buy things like ducks, blankets, seeds and mosquito netting for other families. I’m proud of the thought and reflection they put into the purchases. I’m also grateful that their own material needs are met, but I’m heart-broken for parents whose precious children are more vulnerable. More information on the World Vision Gift Catalogue is available at the link below:§ion=10389.

On several occasions in the last few years, our family has sent notes and care packages to men and women in the armed services who are serving overseas. The site provides a list of soldiers who are willing to act as the point person for their unit, and lists things that would be most useful and appropriate to send to that particular unit. It has been a privilege and a very moving experience when our family has sent things in the past at various times of the year. We plan on sending a package again this holiday season. Our family has known children whose parents are serving in the military abroad, and our own kids cannot image how tough it is to be separated from a parent like that. As a result, this activity is meaningful to our own family.

Like most families, our own financial resources are limited, so we certainly do other things to keep the focus on the meaning of Christmas. During the holidays, we particularly make a point to spend time with friends and family. Being together and enjoying each other’s company is a better gift than anything you could wrap and put under the tree.

This month, our kids are going to be in a holiday parade with a group of their friends, in which they are participating in a live nativity scene. Our kids and a friend of theirs were designated to portray the three Wise Men. In early January, they are also going to participate in our church’s annual Epiphany pageant, which is a lot of fun. My husband and I will be on hand to help the Sunday School director herd livestock (i.e., preschoolers) at appropriate times.

Our children enjoy the spectacle of Christmas lights, so throughout the holiday season, we take an occasional walk around the neighborhood to admire the light displays. It is fun to take a walk and get some exercise together. In our part of Arizona, the days are very pleasant because of all the sun, but when the sun goes down it can get a little nippy. We make a big to-do about putting on scarves and jackets and mittens when we go for our walks to admire the lights. We don’t otherwise have much occasion to get bundled up and wear such things. And we have to keep moving to keep the blood pumping. Then when we get home we sometimes make Mexican hot chocolate, which is a real treat. As opposed to traditional American hot cocoa, Mexican hot chocolate is a rich blend of chocolate and cinnamon. At our kids’ request, we add a couple mini marshmallows and/or sprinkle some ground up candy canes on top to really make it a party!

We make the long trek to Texas to be with our relatives in time for Christmas. Our family is from South Texas, where eating tamales on Christmas Eve is a tradition. My in-laws are from a small town and buy homemade tamales from someone they know for the Christmas Eve supper.

Our family is composed of people from different faith traditions, but we go to church on Christmas Eve. Before we were parents, my husband and I always went to midnight mass. That is way too late for our kids, so we go to an earlier service. Churches often have one geared for children’s short attention spans.

On Christmas day, one of our family traditions is Jesus’s Birthday Cake. We enjoy making the cake together and letting the kids decorate it with left-overs from prior Christmas cookie baking. Truth be told, they generally go a little overboard with the sprinkles and icing, but we think Jesus takes it all in stride. What mere mortals may consider to be gaudy is surely a work of art in his eyes. We serve the cake with dinner on Christmas day. We turn out the lights, sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, and blow out the candles for him. It is one of my favorite traditions—and not because I have a sweet tooth.

Isaiah 11:1-9 (Contemporary English Version)

Like a branch that sprouts from a stump, someone from David's family will someday be king. The Spirit of the LORD will be with him to give him understanding, wisdom, and insight. He will be powerful, and he will know and honor the LORD. His greatest joy will be to obey the LORD. This king won't judge by appearances or listen to rumors. The poor and the needy will be treated with fairness and with justice. His word will be law everywhere in the land, and criminals will be put to death. Honesty and fairness will be his royal robes. Leopards will lie down with young goats, and wolves will rest with lambs. Calves and lions will eat together and be cared for by little children. Cows and bears will share the same pasture; their young will rest side by side. Lions and oxen will both eat straw. Little children will play near snake holes. They will stick their hands into dens of poisonous snakes and never be hurt. Nothing harmful will take place on the LORD's holy mountain. Just as water fills the sea, the land will be filled with people who know and honor the LORD.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Black Friday

One thing that makes me very sad is the erosion of the focus of Thanksgiving. I don’t particularly mind the Macy’s Parade or the football games. Families and friends can fellowship to some degree while watching those types of things on television. But what really upsets me is the interference from Black Friday.

To be clear, I’m down with capitalism. I’ve spent most of my life working for for-profit enterprises. I appreciate the need of companies to make a profit. I don’t have a problem with Black Friday sales in a very general sense. Certainly, it is upsetting and offensive to me as a Christ follower that the religious celebration of Christmas has been perverted via retail exploitation. But I do pragmatically understand that retailers depend on the consumer indulgence between Thanksgiving and Christmas to stay in business. I don’t want anyone to lose their job. I appreciate that getting a good start to that important retail season is imperative. Therefore, I accept that retailers have to attract shoppers on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

But in recent years, retailers have been pushing up the start of that Christmas shopping season to an earlier and earlier point. Days after Halloween this year, our family was already seeing Christmas merchandise in a number of stores. We started our little backyard garden a bit late this fall and tried to buy some seeds the first week in November. Despite the fact that in our part of Arizona you can grow vegetables year round, a major national hardware store had already gotten rid of its gardening supplies to make room for a huge collection of Christmas lawn decorations.

Black Friday has also started earlier and earlier in recent years. Instead of opening their doors at a reasonable hour (like 9 or 10 a.m.) on the Friday after Thanksgiving, some retailers are now opening their doors in the wee hours of the morning, e.g., just after midnight, 4 a.m., etc. A week before Thanksgiving, the local news was running stories of how people were setting up tents outside a national electronics store (and others) to be first in line for great deals on Black Friday. And each year as Black Friday approaches, I get nervous because in recent years we hear about violence and loss of life as people fight each other for cheap merchandise or stampede when the store opens its doors.

Some retailers have apparently decided there is no need to wait until the day of Black Friday. Some have begun to open their doors for special sales on Thanksgiving Day itself. Some families now plan their holiday meal so they can down the turkey and still make it to the sales on the same day. It is very distressing. Wisely, the weekend before Thanksgiving this year, our pastor preached proactively on the topic and encouraged all of us to prepare ourselves ahead of time to avoid getting sucked up in the culture’s approach to the Christmas season.

I’m always incredulous and disheartened about the violence, the camping out in parking lots, and the rearrangement of one’s Thanksgiving schedule to accommodate shopping. It is just stuff. Stuff breaks. Stuff can be lost or stolen. Stuff cannot give you a hug or say something to make you laugh. Why do so many folks sacrifice so much for stuff? I just don’t get it. It really depresses me that our culture has become so materialistic that we’re trampling over Thanksgiving to pervert Christmas. Such attitudes are just fundamentally counter to my values as a Christian.

But to be clear, I don’t judge or condemn folks who get caught up in it. That would be counter to my Christian beliefs too. I’m not under any illusions that any of us live up to all of Jesus’s teachings. We all fall short. I know I certainly do. Instead of judging or condemning, I mourn deeply for people who get caught up in the materialism of our culture—particularly in the Christmas season. A plasma screen TV, an iPad or snazzy shoes cannot bring any of us lasting joy. Chasing after such things is a losing proposition. It is a distraction from what can bring us true happiness and peace. I really mourn for people who try to find fulfillment in things that will ultimately disappoint them. I would like all my brothers and sisters to find a more permanent source of happiness.

Matthew 6:19-21 (New King James Version)

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reflections on Thanksgiving

I have a confession to make. I don’t really like turkey, stuffing is not that exciting to me, and personally I find pumpkin pie to be gross. Even though I don’t really enjoy the traditional menu of Thanksgiving, I love the holiday itself. I love being with my family and other folks to spend time in fellowship, relaxing and enjoying a festive meal. I also like the time to focus on our blessings and to give thanks.

As a Christian, I know that being grateful for my blessings and giving thanks to God is an important part of my relationship with my Creator and is critical to my own spiritual development. But even if one takes a more secular approach to the holiday, psychologists have been telling us for years that people, who are cognizant of and grateful for the good things in their lives, tend to be happier and more resilient than the rest of the population.

When our family still lived in Texas, Thanksgiving was sometimes sort of stressful to me. In large part it was because neither my husband nor I are particularly adept at the culinary arts. Despite this gap in our skill set, we often hosted many different groups of relatives on Thanksgiving. They were coming from different parts of the large state, so they often arrived and left at very different times. That made it hard to time the meal. And invariably folks would try to visit with me while I was cooking, but I frankly cannot walk and chew gum. So, I’d end up leaving out the baking powder when making biscuits, losing count with respect to how many cups of sugar I had added to the cranberries, or I’d forget to set the timer for the pies.

Despite these stresses, I loved having our many different relatives come together to share the special day. It made me so glad that despite our differences in political affiliation, education, taste in music, and theological belief, we all came together to enjoy each other’s company. Heck, even my mom and dad (who have been divorced for 30+ years) shared the holiday together at our home on many occasions. I was always so proud that they and their spouses fellowshipped together. No pettiness. They came together for the sake of the rest of us. Amazingly, my parents and their spouses actually seemed to even enjoy visiting with one another. Coming together despite differences. That is what family values are all about in my opinion.

1 Chronicles 16:34

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.