Friday, November 25, 2011

My Problem with Christmas Shopping: Losing Sight of Jesus' Message

A re-post of a blog post (with slight edits) from last year from my old blog:

I will be honest I have a problem with Christmas shopping. A major problem!

I started thinking about this when I was driving through Ohio last week and flipping through the radio channels. I happened upon an Christian radio station hosting a talk program. The topic being discussed was the so-called "War on Christmas". One of the people suggested that Christians should walk around giving out items saying "Merry Christmas" while they shop this Christmas season to win "the war".

Here is my problem with Christmas shopping: It reflects values more of consumerism than of Christ, which is the bigger than whether or not one can say Christmas in a public space. (I will not call it a war.)

In two days, 138 million Americans will set out to shop on so-called Black Friday in search of Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa) gifts for loved ones. They will wait in line to buy stuff, that was probably made in the third-world by someone working for a fraction of the wage that would be paid in the US. A person might even be trampled to death again, like what happened a couple years ago, in the panic to buy the perfect gift at a super low price. I used to believe in this tradition of buying gifts for Christmas, but after working in areas of extreme poverty over the years, buying stuff has slowly lost its appeal to me. Then a couple years ago my immediate family decided to play games and do activities as a family, instead of giving each other gifts, on Christmas Day.

So, now with this new family tradition, I do not give consumerist gifts on Christmas. Because how does this whole commercial-frenzy honor Jesus' ministry? How does giving a big screen TV convey God's love for the world that God gave God's only Son? I still believe in gift-giving and I love to give and receive gifts, but this practice does not just revolve around Christmas for me anymore.

In Quakerism, there is a belief that every day is holy. Sadly this belief is losing traction among Friends. About ten years ago, I read somewhere that Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, didn't start giving their students a Christmas break until around 1930. At the time, as a high school student on Winter break from a public school, I thought that idea of having no Christmas break was ridiculous (I loved my breaks from school), but now I see the logic of upholding this important principle. Every day is another chance to live into Jesus' message to love and care for each other, especially the least among us, in God's name.

Jesus advocated a different way of life, of following him down a difficult path. In Matthew 19:21, He said, "If you want to be perfect, sell what you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then follow me!" He didn't say: "OK, go buy a lot of stuff in my honor once a year. Oh yeah, drop your leftover change in the Salvation Army can on your way out of the store and feel good about yourself." I am not advocating for perfection or saying I am perfect, but instead I want to advocate being more conscience about the true meaning of Christmas and honoring Jesus' message, in the midst of the Christmas shopping season. If people buy gifts, please try to buy from sources that uphold God's creation and workers' rights and dignity, for they are children of God too.

On Black Friday this year (2011) I am spending the day with my girlfriend, Jenn, and other friends, instead of shopping. In a month we will visit our families and give gifts that we made, instead of buying gifts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Brief Thoughts about the Occupy Movements

Below are two quick thoughts about the Occupy Wall Street movement:

1. Last week I wrote a paper on how the parting of the Red Sea helps to understand God better. As I wrote the paper, I took many breaks to follow Facebook updates on the Occupy Wall St., Occupy Philadelphia, Occupy DC, etc... protests. Last week I ended up thinking a lot about God's liberation of the Israelites and how God's liberating force is still working today. I haven't arrived at clear, well-thought-out conclusions, except that I still see God working in today's world, in these protests and in many other ways.

2. On Monday, as I was walking around Princeton, I saw an unsigned poster advertising Occupy Wall St. On the poster, it encouraged people to join the protest, but at the same time it used the either you-are-with-us or against-us mentality, implying that if I, the reader, didn't go down to Occupy Wall St. right that moment, then I was against the movement. This mentality really soured me. This mentality has been used to divide people on many issues before, like the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

But from what I have read online, this one poster doesn't represent the whole movement. I trust that most people involved know that not everyone within the 99% can come out to the occupations due their own situation and circumstances, but that does not mean that we/I don't support the movement.

I hope this continues and I hope to visit the occupations in Philadelphia and DC soon.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My First Post in Awhile

I have not blogged much lately. I have been busy with falling in love, moving several times, traveling, spending two months at Pendle Hill as the Assistant Coordinator of the Young Adult Leadership Development Program. Tomorrow I will move up to Princeton, NJ to start at Princeton Theological Seminary for a Masters of Arts in Youth Ministry.

Another reason I have not blogged much lately is that I have seen several blogs where the writers speak with a self-righteous tone, thinking that what s/he have to say is the ultimate over-arching truth. I have spent some time exploring how this makes me, the reader, feel.

I hope to strive with this blog to keep people updated on my life and have a place to share my thoughts on issues that I feel passionate about. I hope to share what I believe to be true, but I hope not to get ego-driven and blur the line between sharing my thoughts and speaking with an authoritative voice. If I do, I hope friends will keep me honest and humble.

Mostly I just want to keep people updated on my life as I enter a new phrase in life and have a place for some of my writings.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Helping to Grow: Gardening and Youth Ministry

In February I applied to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Masters in Youth Ministry. Additionally over the last few months I have applied for several jobs working with youth and young adults in a variety of settings. For more than eight years, I have been active in youth ministries starting when I was still a teen myself. I did not even see that work as youth ministry until a couple years ago. Now youth ministry is part of my life's calling. Also in the last several years I have become more interested in gardening. As Spring begins, I am reflecting on the connections I see between these two activities.

In the fall of 2007, while living in Greensboro, NC, I started to see the connections between gardening and youth ministry. I spent most of my time there working with children and teens or on a farm or in a garden. As I look back on my time in Greensboro I see this period as crucial to my development as a youth leader. While living in Greensboro I volunteered with youth groups from two Friends meetings, worked in an after-school program at a Friends School, and spent one weekend a month serving as an adult presence at retreats for a yearly meeting Young Friends program. In addition I worked on a local farm a couple hours a week, usually getting paid in vegetables, and volunteered in a couple area schools' gardens. That fall I did not earn a lot of money, but I loved my time there because all my work involved helping with the growth of living creatures (both plants and youth). By the time I left, I would tell people that if I combined all of my activities, I would be helping to grow organic children.

In my mind, youth ministry and gardening have a lot of similarities. First, I watch for growth and I try to sense what I should do to nurture the growth, whether I need more or less of this or that. A tricky balance exists in giving too much or too little freedom to youth. I want to allow space for them to explore and learn, but I also need to set boundaries for safety. It is the same way with watering a garden; Too much or too little water can harm a garden's growth. The balance is important for the growth of both healthy youth and plants.

Second, both youth work and gardening require preparation. I plan out my garden plot and in youth work I plan the activities I lead. To work with teens, I realize I need to be ready and think on my feet, because my plans could easily fall flat and I need to be quick to act while seeming very confident, so I always have back up plans too. For my gardens, I need to plan where I put my plants to maximize the space but still allow the plants to thrive.

Third, I have seen the lasting impacts of both activities. At harvest time in the garden, I am able to eat what I have grown and I try to share the bounty with friends. In youth work, I have witnessed some of the teens I have worked with growing into adulthood and go off to college.

Lastly I have found that sometimes all I can do is to plant seeds and hope they will grow. For example in my last job leading workcamps (service projects) in Washington DC, usually I would only work with a group for a very brief period of time, like less than a week, and the groups would come from over the US, so I would only work with the group once. Often I felt frustrated about not being able to build a stronger connection with the groups, so we could have deeper meaningful reflections about the service work we had participated in together. In the end, I would sustain myself through imagining that the week of service planted a seed in each participant that would germinate much later into a newfound passion or life learning. I know, like in a garden, that not every seed will sprout, but some will. That hope helped to keep me going in my job for two and half years.

These two activities will continue to be integral in my life and I look forward to the lessons and joys they both bring.

Friday, February 25, 2011

An Example of the Slow Death of Journalism in the US

I just read something that infuriates me, so I will share it, even if no one reads it.

Earlier tonight, I clicked on an article on my lovely hometown newspaper's website about Missouri repealing a minimum wage law, passed by the voters in 2006.

Here is a part of the article:

Members of a labor rights group called Missouri Jobs for Justice said the state should keep its current law in place. They said it helps workers keep up with price increases for things they need, such as food and housing.

“To working people (a minimum wage increase) really isn’t a raise,” said the group’s director, Lara Granich. “It’s really just a way of making sure you don’t fall behind.”

Alluding to lawmakers’ desire to cut spending and balance the state’s budget this legislative session, Granich also told committee members that workers who don’t make enough to keep up with inflation end up relying on state service funded by tax dollars.

Parkinson said he has seen pink and black bumper stickers from Prince’s business on many cars around the state. When the lawmakers said that demonstrated the loyalty of the store customers, Prince said the loyalty is the result of close ties his customers have to his employees.

“They’re loyal to Matt and Orlandez and the 23 other employees who work here because they’re really good at what they do,” he said.

In the second to last paragraph I became confused, because who are Parkinson and Prince? They never come up before or after in the article, so I searched for the same AP story in Google.

On Yahoo! I found the same AP article. Here is the same section:

Members of a labor rights group called Missouri Jobs for Justice said the state should keep its current law in place. They said it helps workers keep up with price increases for things they need, such as food and housing.

"To working people (a minimum wage increase) really isn't a raise," said the group's director, Lara Granich. "It's really just a way of making sure you don't fall behind."

Alluding to lawmakers' desire to cut spending and balance the state's budget this legislative session, Granich also told committee members that workers who don't make enough to keep up with inflation end up relying on state service funded by tax dollars.

Lew Prince, the owner of a vinyl record store in University City, said paying more than the minimum wage has helped him hire better workers than national chains paying minimum wage.

"I can compete on service," he said. "If we can force the large out-of-state companies to compete with me, I have the advantage."

Parkinson said he has seen pink and black bumper stickers from Prince's business on many cars around the state. When the lawmakers said that demonstrated the loyalty of the store customers, Prince said the loyalty is the result of close ties his customers have to his employees.

"They're loyal to Matt and Orlandez and the 23 other employees who work here because they're really good at what they do," he said.

See two more complete paragraphs! I learned that Prince is a small business owner in University City. Also I accumulated further evidence that the News Tribune cannot edit AP stories properly and likes to conveniently take out paragraphs they do not agree with, like a small business owner who pays his employees better to compete with big box stores. Their motto is "Reporting the News We Agree With".

(Another example of their news coverage is that they will print a story about a judge overturning the Health Care Reform law on the front page, while not mentioning at all when a judge upholds the same law. How convenient!)

Now after reading the article on Yahoo! News I knew who Prince is, but who is Parkinson?

So, I went back and searched Google. I failed to find any stories that actually give more details about Parkinson. I will assume he is an employee of Prince, but why cut out crucial information about him, like identifying him as an employee of the record store.

I think this article just highlights the state of the news today: Shoddy and incomplete. How can we be informed citizens if our news outlets will not give us coherent articles? This article show the lack of journalism basics!

I was not even looking for an example of bad reporting. I just wanted to be informed of an issue in my state!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reflections on Revitalizing the Quaker Message

Yesterday at my monthly meeting's, Columbia Friends Meeting, Meeting for Business, the clerk opened the meeting with queries on outreach from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice. The positive responses to the queries encouraged me to share my thoughts from a workshop I just attended, entitled Revitalizing the Quaker Message (FYI: PDF File and the workshop changed names), in order to start a longer discussion within the meeting about outreach.

The workshop was presented by Brent Bill at Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana. Last year, Brent wrote a great piece, A Modest Proposal (PDF File), on the topic of revitalizing the Quaker message and the weekend was based on his proposal. On his blog, Brent gave a good wrap up of the session in a series of posts: First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth. Since he gave a great overview, I don't feel like writing my own overview of the whole weekend.

I attended the workshop, because since moving back to Missouri and reconnecting with Illinois Yearly Meeting, I have been invited by a Friend to start exploring the idea with her of promoting outreach within the yearly meeting.

Here are a couple key points from the weekend that I think are important for liberal unprogrammed Friends to consider:

First, Brent mentioned that revitalizing the Quaker message is as much about in-reach as it is about outreach. How can we deepen the experience within the meeting to nurture our existing members? In the last twenty years, Friends General Conference (FGC) has only added 1,000 members, which is about one and a half new member per meeting affiliated with FGC (I wonder if the numbers could be skewed by the recent addition of Intermountain Yearly Meeting to FGC, which has about 1,000 members). When we grow, how do we also keep members already there in the meeting?

An example of a good program to help with in-reach is Quaker Quest where a meeting meet for four weeks to talk about topics such as Quakers and God and Quakers and Peace. Then they will repeat the series but this time invite the public to the talk. This is a great experience for the meeting members to articulate their beliefs to each other.

Another way to retain members is for the meeting to actively nurture spiritual growth within their members. One point from A Modest Proposal is entitled The End of Quaker Pastorate. From the title, it seems like it has nothing to do with unprogrammed meetings, but oh it does. Brent talks about how the profession of Quaker pastors should end and instead pastors be called released ministers. Instead the discussion that followed brought up several questions for me:

How can unprogrammed meetings improve the process nurturing their members and attenders and renew the tradition of recording ministers?

On the flip side, how can meetings improve eldering and spiritual guidance to their members and attenders?

A church, where the members are engaged and feel nurtured, radiates this feeling and visitors can sense that. Vice versa is true too, churches that are struggling with issues between its members give off a negative vibe to its members

Second, someone mentioned the Belief-o-matic quiz at meeting for business today. This quiz has a well documented bias towards Quakers (1). Here is an outreach tool for meeting that is not related to Quakers. When someone receives Quaker as one of their top results, the person will then search for the nearest meeting to them in Google. What will they find when they search:

Does each meeting have an inviting, engaging website that seem alive? The website doesn't need to be fancy or cost a lot.

Does the homepage say anything about welcoming visitors?

Are there pictures, besides the meetinghouse?

Are all the information current and up-to-date?

Do all the links work?

Currently FGC is looking into helping meetings improve their web presence. Also in a meeting there is a good chance of someone who possess web developing talents. Lastly there is Word Press and it is simple to set up a modest website for free.

Third, when newcomers come, how do meetings welcome them before worship start? How do we inform them about meeting for worship beforehand? Brent related a story about going to meeting for worship while visiting New York City and no one greeted him beforehand. To a visitor, who has no prior experience with meeting for worship, worship can seem very different, maybe even intimidating. Without a proper introduction, they could feel uncomfortable leading to a negative first impression. After meeting for worship, how do meetings engage the guest? Talk to them! But don't engage with them because you just want another person to attend meeting, engage with them to find out who they are. People can sense fake hospitality. Martin Kelley has a great idea: Invite them out for lunch! Make them feel welcome.

I have a lot more thoughts on the workshop and the topic of Quaker outreach, but I think this is a good stopping point for this post. These three points are a good place to start a discussion on outreach and I am looking forward to continuing this conversation with my monthly and yearly meetings.

Apologies to Brent if I misrepresented anything he said.

1. "An issue of Newsweek magazine reported that a "disproportionate number" of respondents to the quiz identified themselves as 'liberal Quakers.'" The article notes that the page on the BeliefNet web site devoted to Quakers has become one of Beliefnet's top 50 links!"