Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Heart Michele Bachmann

[Note: Blogger's interface would not allow me to insert a heart symbol in the title between the words "I" and "Michele."]

I have to admit I am rather a fan of Michele Bachmann. 

I’ve alluded to that before in prior posts.  However, it is rather a curious thing because I disagree with her on pretty much every political issue.  I’d be hard pressed to come up with a political issue on which we have much common ground.

Nonetheless, I am excited that such an eloquent, strong, intelligent Evangelical woman has become so prominent in secular politics.  That seems a rather remarkable development in many ways because Evangelical theology typically views a rather narrow role for women and shuns non-familial vocations for them. 

Because of my interest in Michele Bachman, I’m going to devote the next few blog posts to news items that caught my attention about the congresswoman last fall.  They may seem a little old since she subsequently ended her presidential campaign.  Nonetheless, she is still a highly visible member of the House of Representatives and I would envision a high profile for her political career in the future.  Even though she is no longer actively campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination, her star has not permanently wanted.

Judges 4:4-5

And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, judged Israel at that time.

And she dwelt under the palm-tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Issues Impacting Women

Last summer I wrote an article on certain problems within the legal profession that particularly impact women who are mothers.  In the past, I have never been terribly interested in women’s issues.  It probably wouldn’t have been accurate to characterize me as a “feminist.”  But in doing the research for that article, I learned a lot about women’s issues and they are becoming particularly interesting to me.

Last fall, I wrote for a while in this blog on issues involving women.  I got sidetracked with blogging about issues involving the secularization of Christmas and the work of missionaries.  But I would now like to get back to a focus on women’s issues for a while.  I have several specific issues to explore in the near-term. 

Such issues are very relevant to a blog about Christianity and the law.  I’ll briefly describe a few reasons why this is the case.

Jesus taught about the sacredness of human life.  He did not teach that women’s lives were less sacred than other humans.  Indeed, Jesus spent time with women, even when others around him shunned them.  He respected women and taught them about the Kingdom of God.  He also healed them when they were sick and defended them against attack from others. 

These points are particularly noteworthy in that Jesus lived in a very patriarchal society.  Women were nobodies in his culture and in the power structures of his day.  That concept cannot be emphasized enough.

Nonetheless, women were not nobodies to Jesus.  He very much bucked the norms of his culture and even violated deeply entrenched taboos to include women in his ministry.  Women were a deeply entrenched part of his inner circle, not just merely peripheral acquaintances.  We know that women (who were not related to him) were part of his group as he traveled.  (That fact would have been especially scandalous in Jesus’s culture.)  We also know that Martha and Mary were close friends of Jesus.  Women were among the few that stood by Jesus at the end of his earthly life as he suffered on the cross.  Interestingly, when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not first reveal his resurrection to men.  It was women who first learned the good news of Jesus’s triumph over death.

Despite the teachings and example of Jesus, our secular Western culture continues to advance male privilege in a number of subtle--and sometimes not so subtle--ways.  Secular laws sometimes reflect or even enable such privilege in various ways.  As a result, in my view, as a Christ follower, it is important to note and advocate against disparate treatment of women even in non-Christian settings. 

Luke 23:55-56 (The Message)

The women who had been companions of Jesus from Galilee followed along. They saw the tomb where Jesus' body was placed. Then they went back to prepare burial spices and perfumes. They rested quietly on the Sabbath, as commanded.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Render Unto Rome by Jason Berry

Following up on the last post, religiously affiliated organizations are often on the front lines of providing relief services to those in extreme poverty.  I mentioned that unfortunately there is no guarantee that private organizations are using their funds appropriately.  Indeed, oversight of private organizations is often a real problem in many contexts.  Somewhat related to this point, there is a fascinating, new book I want to recommend: Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church by Jason Berry. 

This book particularly intrigued me because of my own experience with the denomination profiled.  I’ve mentioned before in this blog that for most of my Christian walk, I was a Roman Catholic.  To be sure, I was not a once-a-year-on-Easter Catholic.  I was a devout, active parishioner for well over a decade.  My husband and I met in the Catholic Church.  Many of our “dates” were going to mass and/or taking part in other activities at our church.  We were married in a wedding mass, the liturgy for which we planned in great detail and with much enthusiasm.  Every member of our nuclear family was baptized in the Catholic Church.  My husband and I were very involved in a variety of ministries over the years; they were so numerous that I don’t think I could even list them all at this point. 

Before I say anything about this book by Jason Berry, I want to be very clear that I do not have an anti-Catholic bias or even any hard feelings against the Church.  Our family did not leave the Catholic Church because of a big disagreement over theology or policy. Instead, we simply grew to feel more spiritually at home elsewhere.  I mention this explicitly because sometimes when former Catholics engage in constructive criticism of the Church, they are characterized as being bitter and having an ax to grind.  Nothing could be farther from the truth for me.  The Catholic Church was my initial gateway to Christianity, and it was my spiritual home for most of my adult life.  As a result, I have tremendous gratitude towards the institution, and much love for my brothers and sisters in that denomination. 

Reading Jason Berry’s book, I realized that when I was a member of the Catholic Church, I had not asked tough questions about budgetary matters and I had had too passively accepted vague information I was given about finances.  This happened repeatedly in multiple parishes over many years, not just in one or two churches in an off year or two.  I now recognize and regret my passivity.  I won’t make excuses for it, but will endeavor to do better in the future even though I now have become a member of a different denomination.

Indeed, Jason Berry’s book is an in-depth examination of a lack of financial transparency in the Catholic Church, but similar issues exist in other churches.  Like most nonprofits, church finances are often run by volunteer laypeople and full-time staff (typically clergy).  There may not be enough financial savvy of those doing the books.  Volunteers are important and such a blessing.  But when busy people with primary responsibilities elsewhere are merely doing church financial review and planning on the side, things can easily get overlooked.

Further, I think that as Americans, we’re often not comfortable talking about finances in the base case.  In a church setting, we may feel particularly uncomfortable.  In my experience and observation, many Christians feel like it might be insulting or simply bad form to ask questions or request more detail on church finances.  Many of us have been taught to tithe.  There is a sense of religious obligation to give to the church.  As a result, we often feel that it might be contrary to that obligation to ask what happens to the money once we give it to the church.  That shouldn’t be the case.

It is not disloyal to ask questions about church finances.  No one should feel attacked if congregants seek more information on financial topics.  God provides us with whatever material goods we have.  It is up to us to be good stewards of those gifts.  We need to be good stewards of our personal and familial gifts.  But we are called to fellowship in churches; we must also be good stewards of the collective gifts God brings to our faith communities.

1 Peter 4:10

[E]ach according as he has received a gift, ministering it to one another, as good stewards of [the] various grace of God.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Debt, Political Accountability and Foreign Aid

Our government’s budget has been a huge mess for a number of years now.  We don’t take in enough to cover all of our expenditures. 

As I understand from what I’ve read and heard, there is not enough discretionary spending in the federal budget to fix the situation without increasing revenues (i.e., raising taxes).  But politicians exploit the situation for political gain and don’t make the tough decisions to fix the problem. 

Yet if we don’t do something to stop the deficit spending, we could end up like Greece.  The news out of that country is truly frightening.   Riots, widespread unemployment, huge cuts to people’s wages, employees unpaid for months, crimes of desperation.  These are all things the Greek people are dealing with right now.  Financial turmoil can cause havoc on a society and lead to huge amounts of human suffering.  The following news reports shed some light on what Greeks are going through during the current debt crisis.

I hope for my kids’ sake we in the United States never experience anything like Greece’s debt crisis, but things are not looking good.  We blame politicians for budget deficits, but the reality is that in a democratic nation like ours, politicians represent us.  We elect the people who are failing to make the hard decisions.  They do so because they don’t want to tick us off and be voted out of office. 

I heard a report recently on polling data about Americans’ attitudes on spending cuts.  Basically, when we are asked about specifics, we as a people want lots of government spending in a bunch of different areas.  The only area of federal spending there was consensus on that we should cut spending was foreign aid.  We want to buy a lot with our tax dollars, but we don’t want to pay for it with taxes.  Obviously, that is not a winning approach.  It is certainly not a sustainable approach.  The day of reckoning will come.  The link below includes the polling data about our attitudes on government spending.

I’ve read and heard data like this before.  Foreign aid tends to not be a popular line item in our country.  I guess the thought is that either poor people in other countries have to fend for themselves or private aid groups should take care of that kind of thing. 

I hope that most people in the United States don’t think we should turn a blind eye and let the poor in other countries fend for themselves.  I think that would be morally wrong, but I recognize that my values as a Christ follower do not necessarily apply in setting secular budget priorities. 

But even for non-religious reasons, I think such an attitude of benign neglect would be imprudent.  It would be incredibly short-sighted.  That simply would increase the need and incentive to immigrate.  Even if we were to make our laws more welcoming of legal immigration, it is not a feasible solution logistically to have all the poor in the world move to our country.  Moreover, allowing such suffering to continue also provides a context where desperate and dangerous measures become appealing, e.g., terrorism or the revolutionary embrace of toxic ideologies like communism and fascism.  Such measures can eventually become a huge threat to our own well-being and safety.

But leaving such responsibilities solely to private entities is not a panacea.  There is no guarantee that they are using their funds wisely and/or operating in a laudatory manner.  Indeed, when multiple NGOs are operating in a particular area, it can be difficult to coordinate and make efficient their various programs. 

Proverbs 22:7

The rich rules over the poor,
and the borrower is the slave of the lender.

Luke 18:22

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Missionary Work in Uganda

Several years ago my husband came across a blog called “A Place Called Simplicity.”  He was just amazed by the posts and often told me about them.  Eventually I began reading the blog for myself from time to time.  It is available at:

The blog is written by a woman who is married to a pastor.  They really take seriously the New Testament command to care for orphans.  They have several biological children but have also adopted a large number of children.  The couple is white, and their adopted children come from a variety of backgrounds.  They are now a multiracial, multiethnic family.  Their family members have origins around the globe.  The blogger is open that she and her husband are at retirement age, but their children range from adults to a baby and everywhere in between.

The blogger and her husband have a real passion for the people of Uganda.  They have spent a lot of time there.  They particularly work with vulnerable children—some live on the streets and some are in orphanages.  My husband and I have been so moved by the experiences they share as they work with these children.

I encourage you to take a read of the blog.  The things memorialized in the blog are quite extraordinary.

Because of their love for orphans around the world, the blogger and her family have started a new ministry called “International Voice of the Orphan.”  The ministry’s website is at:

James 1:27

Religion that God the Father accepts as pure and without fault is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help, and keeping yourself free from the world's evil influence.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Young Asian American Missionaries in the People’s Republic of China

Our family is biracial.  My husband and I are European American and our children are Asian American.  Our kids were born in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).   Consequently, in the last ten years, we have traveled to the PRC several times. 

While in the PRC, I have been to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.  I have stayed in high-rise Western-style hotels, shopped at large malls, and eaten in nice restaurants in large cities.  I have even eaten at a sparkling KFC in Beijing and had kosher take-out in Guangzhou.  Those are all impressive aspects of the PRC.  They give the impression of affluence and modernity.  They seem familiar to those of us from the West.  But I have also been privileged to be able to travel to more remote areas of the PRC that are rarely visited by Westerners. 

In the United States, we currently seem to think of the PRC as an economic powerhouse.  In reality, the PRC has a staggering population and relatively scarce natural resources.  The country has a lot of land, but much of it is so rugged that it is not habitable by humans or productive for human needs.  As a result, there is still a tremendous amount of poverty in the PRC. 

When you drive away from the large modern cities, things look much different in the countryside and in smaller towns.  There can be long stretches of road before there is any place to get clean drinking water or to go to the restroom.  When you do find a restroom in such outposts, it may just be a stinky hole in the ground with lots of flies.

I have visited the orphanage where one of my daughters spent part of her infancy.  It was a powerfully moving experience.  The orphanage facility was very humble and quite dreary.  The lives of the children there were bleak.  Without family or an opportunity for a decent education, their futures were uncertain; they are vulnerable.   Because of the plight of the children, I spent much of my visit at the orphanage with tears streaming down my cheeks.  I couldn’t seem to get them to stop.  What I witnessed was pretty overwhelming.

On a happier note, I have also had the fascinating opportunity to worship at a Christian church in the PRC.  It was a small, crumbling Catholic church built by European missionaries in another century.  I could not understand precisely what was said when I was at the church, but the Catholic mass is pretty standard world-wide, so I definitely caught the gist.  And some of the songs had familiar tunes though the lyrics were sung (with great gusto by the congregants) in a Chinese dialect.  Later I also had occasion to visit several times with the church’s priest, who called himself “Father Tom.”  His English was not that strong, and my Chinese is non-existent, so I had a hard time understanding him.  But when we asked about freedom of worship, he seemed to indicate there was no problem whatsoever.  My American friends and I were quite skeptical of this assertion.

In truth, the officially Communist nation persecutes various religious groups.  Foreign missionaries are not welcomed at the present time and many Christians have gone underground. 

Our family has some American friends who currently live in the PRC.  Because the husband was a Christian pastor until a few years ago, it was tricky for them to get a visa though he is now employed by a secular company in a non-religious position.  The family has to be very careful to not proselytize openly.  They are also very cognizant that they are being monitored and have warned friends in the U.S. against explicitly discussing Christianity or missions in their communications.  The family has known other Westerners who have been expelled for suspected missionary work.

With that background, I came across an interesting report about clandestine mission work in the PRC by a group of young Asian Americans.  The report apparently ran on Current TV, the progressive news channel founded by Al Gore.  I don’t regularly watch that channel; I came across the report on the internet.  The link below contains a video of the report.

I admire the passion of the young idealistic Christians in the video.  They are risking a lot to proselytize in the PRC.  They must be careful and creative.  But they apparently traveled so far and work under tough conditions because they have a great deal of love for the people they serve in rural China.

I also like this particular news report because it demonstrates that missionaries are not all of European heritage.  White missionaries are the ones who traditionally have garnered the most attention in the media.  In prior posts, I’ve also mentioned that most of the people, whom I’ve personally known to do mission work, were Anglo Americans.  But the reality is that Americans from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds make sacrifices to do important work as missionaries.  It is nice to see those contributions recognized.

Luke 24:47

…and that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations, starting at Jerusalem.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

John & Wanda Casias in Mexico

I have known a lot of people over the years who have done short-term mission work in Mexico.  This is perhaps not a great surprise because I have lived in states along our southern border for most of my life.  However, I have even known folks from northern parts of the United States who have gone to Mexico on mission trips.  Mexico has traditionally been an attractive place for Americans to do mission work because of its proximity.  Many people drive from their homes to the specific location in Mexico where their mission project takes place.

Typically, the folks I have known who have done mission work in Mexico have been white, Anglo Protestants with little or no familiarity with the Spanish language.  Generally, they go to rural areas of Mexico that are underserved and experiencing tremendous poverty.  I have known people who went to build schools, churches or homes.  I have also known folks who have gone to work with children in orphanages or to help Mexican communities set up their own non-Catholic Christian churches.  The people I have known generally have gone on these short-term mission trips under the auspices of their own home church in the United States.  Occasionally, these trips are organized in conjunction with a larger organization like Habitat for Humanity.

In recent years, the drug trafficking violence in Mexico has escalated dramatically. In some areas, it seems to have spiraled out of control and lawlessness reigns.  As a result, traveling in Mexico for pleasure or in service of others has become much more dangerous.  During this time, I haven’t heard of as many ministries reaching out to serve the people of Mexico. 

Not long ago I came across a news article about two American missionaries who were killed in Mexico.  Those missionaries were John and Wanda Casias.  I did a little more research and found their website:

The Casias were Baptist Christians from Texas.  They moved to Mexico to serve full-time as missionaries almost 30 years ago.  They gave up a comfortable lifestyle in their own country to minister full-time to people in a fairly remote part of a foreign nation.  And they did this not for just a brief stint, but for a significant portion of their lives. 

I have read a lot of the Casias’ website and I probably disagree with some of their theology.  But I admire their sacrifice and dedication.  I admire the great love they clearly had for the people of Mexico to have served them for so long.  Their love was apparently so great that they did not leave when violence in Mexico became more pronounced in recent years.  That is quite a testament to their faith and to God’s love.

John 15:13

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Modern Day Missionaries

I’ve written before that in my teen years I was an atheist.  My opinion of Christianity was not high at the time.  And I particularly was repulsed by what I knew of missionaries.  At that point in my life, my very limited exposure to Christian missionaries taught me that they were mostly white people who typically came from deeply racist cultures with segregated churches, but who nonetheless went to proselytize in countries where the people were not white. 

There seemed to be an attitude of condescension from what I could see of such missionaries.  There also seemed to be a great deal of cultural ignorance and insensitivity.  I also viewed the missionaries’ work as hypocritical because they were often worshipping with people in other countries whom their home churches in the U.S. would not welcome because of the color of their skin.  At the time, the Poisonwood Bible had not yet been published, but if it had been, the character of Nathan Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel would have reflected my image of missionaries.  Not a flattering picture.

When I was a young adult in college, I became a Christian, but my attitudes towards missionaries did not change overnight.  They began to change a few years later when I taught in a parochial school in a poor parish in San Antonio, Texas.  My boss (i.e., the school’s principal) was a veteran nun.  Sister Rose was a tough lady, but also very compassionate and soft spoken.  It was the mid-1990s and she had just returned from several years serving as a missionary in Liberia.  Her order had long sent nuns to work in a very remote area of the country.  Sister Rose had not wanted to leave her work in Liberia, but her order had reluctantly decided that the civil war violence made it too dangerous to continue.  The order closed its mission in the country, much to the disappointment of the nuns like my boss who willingly risked their lives to serve the people of their adopted home.

During the year I worked for her, Sister Rose told me about her order’s work in Liberia and it was fascinating to me.  They were like no missionaries I had ever heard of!  They did not explicitly proselytize to the people they served in Liberia.  In the Catholic denomination, the theology is different from that of Evangelical Christians who focus on “saving” souls.  Catholics pray for souls even after the death of the physical body.  In Evangelical theology, there is no point.  One’s fate is sealed once the physical body dies. 

Because of their theology, the nuns were in a sense liberated from explicit proselytizing and instead focused their work on ministering to the crushing poverty of the Liberians where they lived.  In particular, the nuns focused on two goals: providing clean water and education.  They drilled wells, built schools and taught the children.  The nuns believed that showing God’s love in such tangible ways was doing his will. 

They also believed that such a Christian witness was ultimately more effective than explicit proselytizing.  If they were asked, the sisters were certainly willing to share their faith with the Liberians they served.  But that was not their primary goal.  And they didn’t believe you could force God’s love on anyone.

I was so impressed by this form of missionary service.  The focus was not on words and outward professions, but instead on tangible expressions of God’s love.  It has been over 20 years since I worked with at that parochial school, but this model of missionary service has really stuck with me. 

In recent years, I’ve become more and more interested in missionary work.  As a mother with young children, this is not the season in my life to go off to a remote corner of our planet.  But it is something of increasing interest to me. 

My husband is currently studying to be an RN.  We aspire that at some point he might become involved with medical mission work.  I half joke that I could go with him to hold his medical bags and do the in-take paperwork.  Probably not a lot of need for corporate tax lawyers in the places he might serve!

Because of my interest in missionary work, I’ve done some reading on the topic in recent years.  The next few posts will focus on the work of modern missionaries.  I find it very inspiring and hope you will as well.

Matthew 28:16-20

 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Modern Christian Writer’s Take on Christmas

To conclude this series of posts on our modern approach to Christmas, I wanted to share one final perspective on this topic.  It comes from Relevant magazine. 

I’ve written before that the magazine’s target demographic is young adult Christians, so I enjoy reading it but always feel a little old and particularly un-hip when I do so.  Nonetheless, I appreciate the thrust of the magazine: the struggle to make one’s Christian faith “relevant” in the modern world.  The writers and readers of the magazine don't want to live in a cloistered setting isolated with other Christians.  Instead they want to bring Christ's message of love, hope, redemption and reconciliation to humankind in order to foster joy and peace.  To me, the articles exemplify the aspiration to be “in this world, but not of this world” and to be the hands and feet of Jesus to hurting people.  I admire the passion, the reflection and the determination of the voices represented in the pages of Relevant magazine.

In that vein, the article below exemplifies a modern Christian’s struggle to find meaning in the secularized, exploited holiday that Christmas has become. 

John 17:14–15

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Amish Christians and Christmas

A while back I wrote about the book Amish Values by Suzanne Woods Fisher.  In her book, Ms. Fisher mentioned a blog called “A Joyful Chaos.”  It is written by a woman mothering young children and reminiscing on her own happy childhood in a close-knit Amish family.  It a beautiful blog, which I have enjoyed tremendously.  I recommend it highly.
However, for purposes of this blog and the recent themes I’ve been exploring, I particularly wanted to recommend an account the “Joyful Chaos” blogger shared of a typical Amish Christmas from her childhood.  The link below contains that post. 
Again, like the account in Little House on the Prairie, the celebration of Christmas in the blogger’s family was not just about gifts.  It was about spending time together with those you love. 
Personally, I like that emphasis.  It seems to better honor the reason we as Christ followers celebrate Christmas.  And in my opinion, the gift of time together is the best gift there is anyhow.  Happy memories last longer than material objects.
In her post, the “Joyful Chaos” blogger describes having no money such that the material gifts that were given at Christmas had to be made by hand with items already in her home.  When you have to make your own gifts, that certainly puts a limit on how many you give and how extravagant they can be.  Forcibly, material gifts become less important in that context. 
I’m not sure that our family will ever limit our gift giving entirely to handmade items.  But it is something to consider.  At the very least, giving homemade gifts is something we could incorporate more in the future.

Psalm 66:8

Bless our God, O peoples, give Him grateful thanks and make the voice of His praise be heard.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Different Approach to Celebrating Christmas

The last few posts have focused on my disagreement with (and dismay over) the modern consumer frenzy, which the celebration of Christ’s birth has become.  I’d like to end this series of posts with different visions for how we might choose to celebrate future Christmases.  The first comes from children’s literature.

I like to read with my kids and last summer we read Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  It was a fascinating read on many levels.  I don’t think I ever read it as a child.  As an adult, it is now interesting to read a child's perspective of a white family who attempted to homestead in land set aside for Native Americans.  Though our family was shocked and taken aback by the ugly attitudes of the white homesteaders towards the Native Americans, there were many other parts of the book that we enjoyed.  We were particularly intrigued by how the Ingalls family celebrated Christmas. 
Even over a hundred years ago in a remote part of the United States, Christmas was apparently a very special occasion.  But living in an isolated prairie farm, there was no question of indulging in an orgy of materialism.  Instead, there were just a couple simple gifts, for which the Ingalls children were truly grateful.  The author describes that her few treats were almost too much and she was overwhelmed by the bounty. 

That was an amazing characterization to a modern day reader like me.  When I read it, I was thinking that most American children today (my own included) would have turned up their noses and thought themselves quite deprived if they had only received the few simple gifts the Ingalls children received at Christmas.  Nonetheless, life on a remote prairie homestead was hard; there were few diversions or treats.  The couple of simple gifts they received on Christmas were cherished.  The bulk of the day was spent enjoying each others’ company and a special meal.  Gifts were not the main focus.

Psalm 66:8

Bless our God, O peoples, give Him grateful thanks and make the voice of His praise be heard.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Diane Rehm Show: “Holiday Shopping and the Economy”

As the holidays approached at the end of last year, I was at home in late November and doing some cooking for our family.  I like to have the radio on when I do housework and so I ended up catching a really fascinating episode of The Diane Rehm Show.  It was broadcast the day before Thanksgiving.  It had been a hectic semester and I was really happy to have some time at home with my family.  I had a lovely time working in the kitchen for an extended time and listening to some interesting radio—two things I don’t always have time for.

As I began to get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving and our family was about to kick off our observation of Advent, The Diane Rehm Show that day focused on the retail sector at that time of year.  The show is accessible at the following link:

I really encourage you to take a listen.  Alternatively, the link has an option where you can read (or just skim) the transcript.  The show was an hour long.  There were several guests with differing perspectives.  Many fascinating themes were discussed.

Author James Roberts was a guest of the show that day.  He apparently had a new book that sounded intriguing:  Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have In Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy. 

In the radio program, Mr. Roberts talked about how the advertising industry is so skilled at convincing us we need or want things we could or should do without.  Interesting point. 

I never really thought about the role of advertising until I became a parent.  Our family rarely watches TV with commercials, and when we do, we talk with our kids about what the producers of the commercials are trying to do.  My kids don’t even like commercials.  And when we watch TV programming with commercials, they get annoyed at all the interruptions.  Nonetheless, I’ve been horrified for years at the impact these commercials have on children.  Other parents have shared similar experiences with me.

First of all, some of the commercials are just inappropriate.  They have violent or sexual images that scare kids or attempt to sexualize them. 

Second, even with some parental education about what advertisements are doing, I’ve been appalled at how effective they are.  My first experience with this was when my older daughter, who is a real tomboy and hates dolls, was just a toddler.  As a treat, we turned on a Christmas special on one of the networks.  During one commercial for a Barbie product, she was staring with wide, almost unblinking eyes at the television and announced loudly that she wanted the Barbie on the screen.  She had always been repulsed by Barbies in the past, but now she was entranced because of the commercial.  The way she was just staring hard at the screen was spooky—like some sort of science fiction movie!

In The Diane Rehm Show that day, Mr. Roberts spoke of the concept of the “materialism-happiness disconnect.”  He noted that Americans now spend a lot more money than we did in the 1970s, but we’re no happier than we were at that time past.  Statistics indicate we are in fact actually more depressed, stressed and anxious about our lives than we were 40 years ago when we spent a lot less. 

As a Christian, this point rings particularly true.  Our Lord warned us about this a lot during his brief ministry on this Earth.  It is a type of slavery to be so focused on the accumulation of material things.  Those things cannot bring us happiness, but actually do quite the opposite.  We fear losing our material stuff, which is a significant type of stress. 

My husband and I have known a number of adults who were raised in upper middle class, fairly wealthy households, and their adult lives have been consumed by making money, accumulating assets and otherwise keeping up with the Joneses.  Our sense is that when you are raised in that context, it is hard to unload, pare down and do with less.  It becomes unthinkable.  Having a lot of stuff becomes a necessity.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should all aim to be destitute and live in abject poverty.  My husband and I have also known people raised in such conditions who in adulthood are similarly consumed with the acquisition of material things.  Want and deprivation can do horrible things to people and blind them to true riches.  If you’ve experienced miserable, grinding poverty, it is understandable that you would possibly be desperate to avoid that experience again and fight hard to keep your children from going through it.

Nonetheless, in The Diane Rehm Show, Mr. Roberts made good points about understanding what our true needs are and being mindful to not go too far beyond our actual needs with our purchases.  That is hard in our culture.  It requires us to go against the grain.  We have to be willing to not keep up with the Joneses, and accept that some may actually think poorly of us as a result.  But such things are ultimately not important anyhow.

Matthew 19: 16-22

A man approached him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good. If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”

The man said, “Which ones?”

Then Jesus said, “Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. 19 Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

The young man replied, “I’ve kept all these. What am I still missing?”

Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”

But when the young man heard this, he went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pattie Mallette’s Stand Against the Santa Claus Myth

This is likely to be a huge surprise to those who know me, but I think Justin Bieber is rather fascinating.  I am not an expert on his music.  And what I have heard seems fairly mediocre.  But I think his “backstory” is intriguing. 
Mr. Bieber was a white Canadian kid from a single parent family without a lot of money in a small town.  He idolized African American musicians, emulated them and through the miracle of YouTube became an international teen heart throb.  I don’t necessarily endorse or approve of his popularity, but I think his upbringing is really interesting.
And let me clarify, it is probably not Mr. Bieber himself who fascinates me so.  I’m really interested in and would love to meet his mom.  If Pattie Mallette wrote a parenting book, I’d definitely read it.  It is not that I want my own children to become celebrities.  Not at all.  However, from what I’ve read and heard in the news about Ms. Mallette, she had a lot going against her when she became pregnant with Justin.  Nonetheless, she seems to have been a rather remarkable mom.
Ms. Mallette was a teenager and was unmarried when she became pregnant.  She gave birth to Justin and raised him with the help of her parents.  (I’m pretty fascinated by them as well.)  Clearly, Ms. Mallette sacrificed a lot for her son.  Her life would have been a lot easier if she had not become a single mom at such a tender age.
Interestingly, Ms. Mallette is a Christ follower.  She has been quite open about that point in the press.   I first heard about her faith fairly early on in Justin’s fame.  At that time,  I barely knew who he was, but Christian radio stations I listen to began to report that Ms. Mallette had publicly asked people to pray for her son to remain grounded as his career took off.
By all accounts, it seems to me that Ms. Mallette has really embraced motherhood despite all she had to sacrifice at a young age.  She raised her son in a very thoughtful, loving way as far as I can see.  As a fellow mom, that is admirable and interesting to me.
Although I don’t tend to follow “celebrity news,” in December I did come across a “news” story about Justin Bieber that caught my eye because of my interest in his upbringing.  The link below includes an article about an interview where Justin Bieber explained why his mom was honest with him about Santa Claus and he did not grow up believing in the myth. 
I applaud Ms. Mallette’s principled and courageous parenting decision.  But predictably the article takes a pretty negative spin on that decision.
The article appeared in Us Weekly, a magazine devoted to “celebrity news.”  It is a secular periodical with very typical secular values.  The article in question begins with the commentary: “Bah humbug!”  So, Ms. Mallette was being compared to Ebenezer Scrooge, the fictional heartless miser who is so tightfisted that he refuses to give any money to the destitute even at Christmas.  However, as I understand Ms. Mallette’s position, this is a really weak comparison.  She kept her son from indulging in worship of a secular myth because she was concerned that it would be an impediment in his belief in God.  The comparison to Charles Dickens’ fictional miser is just silly, but it accurately captures the secular attitude surrounding the sacred belief in the Santa myth.
The headline of the article in question is also revealing.  It screams: “Justin Bieber: My Mom Never Let Me Believe in Santa Claus!”  Although the headline is written in the first person, if you read the article, this doesn’t appear to be an actual quote from Mr. Bieber himself.  The phrase “never let me believe” sounds negative and suggests that he disagreed and was unhappy with his mom’s decision.  But in the text of the article, his actual words suggest a very different attitude.  He seems to be very respectful of her decision. 

Exodus 23:1
Don’t spread false rumors. Don’t plot with evil people to act as a lying witness.