Archive - November, 2011

New Poll: What Do Americans Think About the Holidays?

Love the holidays or hate them? Well, it seems that we Americans love our holidays, with 90 percent of all Americans taking part in the celebration of Christmas.  In fact, even 80 percent of atheists warm up to the yuletide.

Our 2011 American Holiday Study being released here shows that Christmas is by far the most important holiday celebrated among Americans.  Surprisingly, Independence Day outranks Thanksgiving and Easter as the second most important holiday.  Certainly, the fact that Americans are patriotic is seen in this data, possibly impacted by the ten years in which the U.S. military has been engaged in wars.
Most Important Christmas Activities. Dickens got it right; old Scrooge was wrong.  The top Christmas activities revolve around meals, gifts, decorations and parties. Seventy-six percent of us will exchange gifts, 63 percent will decorate their homes and 58 percent will trim a tree.

Interestingly, more people will attend a holiday party than a worship service; 55 percent will make merry compared to 47 percent attending worship services. Watching our special holiday movies (48 percent) ranks right alongside worship.

One of the oldest Christmas cards housed at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University

And while some of us “elf ourself” and send Christmas emails (36 percent), most Americans (61 percent) will still send Christmas cards. More of us will buy a present for ourselves this year (31 percent) than volunteer time to an organization serving the poor (21 percent).  However, donations become an important part of our activity at Christmas, with 42 percent making a monetary donation.

What we enjoy most, least

The most enjoyed activities at the holidays seem to center around connecting with others. Sharing a meal rated the highest at 25 percent, followed by 14 percent traveling to visit friends or family.  Attending worship services (5 percent) and volunteering time (5 percent) were among the top seven Christmas activities Americans enjoy.

Santa, take note:  the activities that we enjoy least about the holidays include shopping for gifts, visiting Santa, attending a sporting event, purchasing a present for ourselves, attending a parade and attending worship services.

Attending a worship service was the only activity listed among the top six in both the most and least enjoyed.

The activity with the most meaning

The activities that have the most meaning to us are sharing a meal (54 percent), attending worship services (14 percent), traveling to friends/family (10 percent) and exchanging presents (4 percent).

Those of us involved in planning meaningful worship experiences might take pause at some of these facts.  While worship is meaningful to 14 percent of Americans, what is making a worship service one of the most and least enjoyed activities?

‘Holidays are too commercialized’

Generally, attitudes toward Christmas remain positive, but 60 percent of us think the holidays are too commercialized, and 32 percent wish they were simpler.

Most Americans do not think Christmas is overrated or that the holidays have lost their meaning.  A majority of respondents indicate they are likely to give more to the needy this year (58 percent) and to emphasize worship more (54 percent).

Many Americans appear more pragmatic about Christmas spending as well.  We will create budgets for presents and take time to match presents with the recipient. Most people will spend $250-$499 on presents.

Americans like to show their Christmas spirit. Forty-eight percent believe public displays of Christmas scenes are appropriate. But many say that spending on decorations for themselves will be limited to less than $50.

Giving to charities during the holidays will be higher among older age groups, with about a third of respondents 55 and older indicating they will give more than $100 this year.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

This study was commissioned by United Methodist Communications.  A third party conducted the consumer opinion poll on the agency’s behalf in June, canvassing 870 adults 18 years of age and older.

 

 

What do you live for? What would you die for?

“What are you willing to die for? Because you’re doing it right now.” Those fourteen words on Twitter set Dewitt Jones to thinking. Jones is one of the most creative photographer-writer-thinkers we are blessed with today.

Surprisingly, he said he had never really thought about it. And in giving it thought he comes to a belief that he’s a seeker of beauty. His photography demonstrates this in spades. He’s one who shares beauty. He decided to post a photo a day on his Facebook page with a commentary that reveals beauty.

Jones’ column in Outdoor Photographer led me to reflect on the same question. But I’ve considered this question many times before. What am I willing to die for? It’s occurred to me when I was gathering stories in places where circumstances were risky and the outcome wasn’t quite certain. I recall having to sign a release to climb aboard a UN flight into Mogadishu years ago. The release made clear the destination was unsafe, that I was aware of the risks, and I would not hold the UN accountable in any way in the event of my death. That focuses your mind rather clearly.

As we landed and prepared to depart the plane, a guy from Oklahoma working for the U.S. government put on a flak jacket. More focus.

My takeaway from Jones’ wonderful column is that there are things we live for and things we’re prepared to die for. And it’s good to know what they are.

I’ve always told myself in dicey situations that I’d rather die telling a good story than from a heart attack while waiting in line for a Big Mac.

Storytelling is a act of faith. It’s an attempt to connect, to bridge the distance that sometimes causes us to forget that we’re all in this world together, and that we have more in common than we realize.

When we discover our shared humanity we understand life differently. If we are wise, we see other perspectives and understand both our differences as well as our similarities. We discover our shared humanity.

Annette Simmons writes that a good story simplifies our world into something that we feel like we can understand.

To live in this world we must find meaning and purpose. Stories help us to discover who we are in relationship to others, what is important and what gives us meaning. From this we can find our purpose and seek to live more fruitfully.

For Jones it’s finding, capturing and sharing beauty daily. For some of us, it’s telling stories. For others, it’s a myriad of interesting, exciting and challenging pursuits. And the answer doesn’t have to be found faraway, it’s as close as we wish to pursue in our daily lives right where we are.

For me an exciting paradox lies in the question, “What are you willing to die for?” The paradox is this: when we discover what we’re willing to die for, we also discover what we’re willing to live for.

Thank goodness for beauty and for stories that guide us on the journey.

What are you willing to die for? What are you living for? These are wonderful, fascinating and exciting questions to pursue. And thank you Mr. Jones for putting them before us.

Getting By and Giving Thanks

I awoke this morning at two a.m. to the sounds of a car idling in front of our house. When I peeked through the window, I saw a young woman transferring newspapers from the back to the front to make it easier to toss them as she moved down the street.

I’ve done that job. Throwing newspapers was one of the first jobs I had as a young person. Wake up at midnight, collect bundles of papers, roll them (in those days with rubber bands), stuff them into a bag, climb aboard an overloaded bicycle and head into the darkness to deliver them. By four a.m., I would stop at the Beltz bakery for fresh doughnuts, still hot and dripping with icing. Then, I’d go home and get ready for school.

Things have changed since then. Throwing newspapers is an adult job now. It will eventually become a job of the past. I said a prayer for this young woman. My guess is, this is a way to get by. You don’t aspire to work like this. Today, it’s probably one of two, or three, similar jobs you do to stay afloat.

The papers she dropped at our house contained three inches of circulars advertising Black Friday sales. The front page photo showed people camped out at a big box retailer waiting for the opening of a sale to purchase flat screen TVs for $200.

The accompanying article discussed the difference in buying practices of the wealthy and those who are camping out on the sidewalks for the bargains. The wealthy will pay full price and shop in a more leisurely manner during normal store hours, the article says.

The lead editorial in the N.Y. Times reminded us that one in three persons in the United States lives in or near poverty. That’s 100 million people. It discusses the claim of some economists that the goods that even the near poor in the U.S. can afford–a cell phone, refrigerator, coffee maker and other stuff—make it difficult to build a case for true hardship. The editorial counters, saying these are requisites today, not luxuries. A more practical measure is the ability to afford education, health care, child care, housing and utilities. These determine quality of life, and by this measure we’ve made progress. Government programs are helping many, but the numbers of the economically vulnerable continue to creep upward.

It also makes the case that we live in neighborhoods defined by our respective economic clout. And the result, says a Stanford economist, is an isolation that threatens our concept of the common good. The poor and the affluent experience different realities. The prosperous who don’t live with the daily challenge of surviving paycheck to paycheck as the near poor, or hand to mouth as those in poverty; are less likely to support public schools, parks, mass transit and other investments that benefit the broader society.

The first words my wife spoke to me this morning after wishing me happy Thanksgiving were, “I don’t like this time of year because it’s so hard on the children.” She works in an urban school district with kids from low income families. She says the expectations created by hyped up advertising are so great and the disappointment so deep, it hurts.

The ads promote desire, and hold out the false promise that happiness rests in owning this or that gadget. But reality for these kids is different. They are among the 17 million who, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, face bigger problems like hunger, overcrowded living conditions, parents who can’t pay the rent or mortgage and can’t afford health care.

As we talked, I got an email note from a poverty-fighting friend. Likely, he was writing from one of his usual haunts overseas, a village where poverty is bald-faced and crystal clear. He gave thanks for our friendship, a job, a warm bed and shelter over his head, things, he notes, that billions the world over don’t have. I thought of Jesus’ followers who ask in Matthew 25, “Lord, when did we see you?” And his reply, “When you did unto the least of these, you did it to me.”

The struggle to survive occurs in the early morning darkness as a young woman tosses newspapers, doing a job no one would relish, but one that helps her to get by. It occurs in the dry plains of Somalia, in ravaged Darfur, teeming city slums, townships, favelas and forgotten rural villages the world over. Unseen.

Reading the paper this Thanksgiving morning was like reading the Bible.

Stay Connected or Opt Out? The Choice is Obvious

Yesterday, I sat in a video conference room in a company in Nashville where executives hold conversations with their counterparts in India and other global locations, sometimes several times a day. They not only see and hear each other with crystal clarity, they view the same spreadsheets and images, and work on them together.

Technology not only shrinks the world, it connects us in remarkable ways.

Cell Phone Charging Station in Haiti. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Recently the world surpassed 5 billion cellphone users. Many are in rural areas once described as remote but now connected. Each month, more than 734 million unique users log on to Facebook. They stay in touch with family and friends around the world. Hyper connection.

It’s sparking a burst of creativity. Mini Silicon Valley-like technology centers are sprouting the world over–Nairobi, Guatemala City, Mumbai.

Technology entrepreneurs are creating solutions for long-term problems of isolation, lack of knowledge and access to information, lack of voice and power. Sometimes they’re solving problems people didn’t know they had because they were socially marginalized and geographically isolated.

As a result, children across the world are developing media skills, creating content and sharing it through these media in ways that were beyond imagination only a few years ago. This is changing how we form community, share information, see ourselves in the world and even how we think.

I reflected on this recently as I tried to get in touch with someone who had not activated his voicemail and doesn’t use email. He lives in a different world, the world before global hyper-connection. That’s hard to imagine.

An exciting new world

We can choose to live outside the media ecosystem that has developed around us. But because these technologies are shaping the lives of billions worldwide and fueling cultural changes that sometimes we can’t predict beforehand, it’s hard to understand why some choose to opt out.

I’m not talking of sleeping with your cellphone, being online 24/7, interrupting meetings to text or replacing face-to-face interaction with screens and keyboards. I’m not suggesting ignoring your children or spouse to hunch over a screen.

But there is a universe of information-sharing, conversation, engagement and interaction that’s fascinating, enlightening, informative and connective that, I believe, enhances life. It’s not the whole of life, and it has its drawbacks, but it’s an interesting, often exciting, new world that we all live in.

Acquiring skills and relevance

I think it’s essential to understand how people use media for good and ill purposes. We need to know how social media are being used to build community and sustain relationships, as well as how they’re used to manipulate and misinform. We are beyond the reading and writing skills of the past. They won’t go away, but they are being complemented, supplemented and sometimes replaced by new media skills.

We need to understand how content is created and distributed, and we need to participate in the evolving media ecosystem that is re-shaping our cognitive ecosystem (our brains) individually and collectively.

Dan Gillmor writes that solid communication skills are becoming necessary for social and political participation. I would add that without these skills we become (at best) less effective in communicating our ideas, and at worst irrelevant. The new media culture will move forward without us.

There are so many different worlds to explore, to choose to not engage them puzzles me.

 

Entering A New Age Of Faith

Do we stand at the dawn of the Age of the Spirit, as theologian Harvey Cox writes in “The Future of Faith,” or the end of the religious era, as Bob Roberts Jr. writes in “Glocalization: How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flattened World”?

Harvey Cox

Cox believes the world is becoming more religious, not less, and that faith is being reclaimed as a way of living and acting in the world as we stand before the mystery of God. Roberts writes the future of the church will be the story of the non-religious follower of Jesus, as I reported in a previous post.

These two views are not as incompatible as they seem at first glance, nor are they unique. Shane Hipps takes a similar tack in “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture,” and Tex Sample makes the case that faith is best communicated among working class people as practice and not as belief (“Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus,” Abingdon Press).

This points to the ferment stirring in religious communities worldwide. It’s ferment about how faith is defined, its place in the world and how faithful people express it.

As we move toward global interconnectedness and a mediated culture that is image-based, viral and relies on stories, it looks more like the oral culture of Jesus than not. The paradox is that technology gives us the ability to communicate directly and to tell our stories broadly.

Trust vs. belief

Cox reminds us the earliest followers of Jesus were said to follow “The Way” (Acts. 9:2). Faith, Cox says, meant a dynamic lifestyle nurtured in communities guided by men and women that reflected hope for God’s coming reign.

The earliest Christians affirmed that “Jesus is Lord.” To follow him meant to do as he said in Matthew 25: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, give drink to the thirsty.

In the long chain of history, however, Cox says this dynamic view of faith got changed.Trust in Jesus became belief about Jesus, Cox writes.

Trusting in Jesus, however, meant recognizing the kingdom of God that he proclaimed is here and now. It meant the world has unrealized potential and the faithful are called to help fulfill this potential even in the face of setbacks and death itself. It is a commitment to hope. Both Roberts and Cox end with this hope. It is the foundation for faithful living.

‘A God-sized challenge’

Faith is best expressed in community—something each of the writers I’ve cited also makes clear. Jesus used the poetry of Isaiah to explain his call to his followers to be outward-bound people acting in ways that not only usher in the kingdom of God but also affirm its reality here and now.They are called to be servant people who affirm the reign of God.

This is a challenge in a globally interconnected world. How do we live our faith locally and globally? As I read these writings about faith as practice, I’m left with a root question: How do we seek justice locally and globally? Cox admits it’s an unresolved question. Roberts offers a partial answer by calling for local faith communities to have global relationships.

But if we are really called to transform the world, which is what Matthew 25 is about, then that means change of a significant scope and scale. It will require collaboration, partnership and global vision beyond anything we’ve experienced before. If following Jesus means pursuing the kingdom of God, that’s more than humbling; it’s a God-sized challenge.

I think that’s the new age we’re entering—a new age of faith with a global vision.

 

 

 

Living Faithfully in a Post-Religious Age

When Bono spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago, he spoke about the need for the world to put an end to poverty and to tackle the diseases of poverty. He spoke with a clarity that got headlines and an op-ed in the New York Times.

 Bono did not speak as a member or participant of a religious group. In that sense, he was a non-religious advocate for values and practices that are compatible with most religious groups, particularly Christian.

Bob Roberts Jr. says the primary story of the future for the church will be the non-religious follower of Jesus. (“Glocalization: How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flat World,” Bob Roberts Jr., Zondervan)

Melinda Gates

Four years ago, I attended the Gates Foundation Malaria Forum where Melinda Gates addressed professionals working to end malaria. She sent shockwaves through the audience when she called on the world to eradicate malaria. Only minutes before she arrived, the group had debated whether malaria could be eradicated or eliminated, the latter defined as controlling the disease within a specific geographic area. Eradication means ending it globally, once and for all. It was a “no-no” word until Ms. Gates issued her challenge. After that, it became the goal.

A few days ago, Ms. Gates, at the second Gates Foundation Malaria Forum, cited the work of the people of the The United Methodist Church who have made it their business to take up the fight to eradicate malaria.

The prophetic voice not only challenges but also affirms, and in these instances the prophetic words call the world to claim a “God-sized” vision to put an end to poverty and eradicate a killer disease.

Living beyond religious language

We’re in an age in which voices outside the religious community challenge us to heal a hurting world. This is a biblical imperative. And for Christians, it’s a call to follow the teachings of Jesus, but it’s not phrased in religious language.

Some scholars say we are living in a post-Christian era, but that term is a misnomer. Perhaps we’re in a post-institutional era (and I’m uncertain about even this phrase), but faithful living is even more necessary. The teachings of the Bible are more relevant than ever.

To Micah, it wasn’t complicated: “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what GOD is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously– take God seriously.” (Micah 6:8,9, “The Message”)

Similarly, as recorded in Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear how his followers should enter into the world: “… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. …Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 35,36. 41, “The Message”)

Micah and Jesus talk of justice with compassion and humility. They say faithfulness involves serving the poor, sick, dispossessed and oppressed. It’s about connecting with others. And from this connection grows the recognition that we belong to God and that God is reaching out to us in a gracious embrace that is life-giving.

Catching up with God

To follow Jesus is to find where God is at work and try to catch up. It is living in the assurance that under the pain and beyond the chaos of life lie meaning, fulfillment and abundance – not abundance as in the material world, but abundance as in a life rich in connection with others, coherence, creativity, hope and positive action. Faith helps us find this place, and finding it requires us to serve. When we serve as Jesus called us to serve, we discover it’s life changing and potentially world transforming.

It’s a world of connections and engagement, collaboration and partnership between religious and non-religious. In the new horizontal world of global interconnections, faith is viral, passing from person to person, multiplying and becoming an expansive, transforming movement that reveals both our mutual needs and strengths, and, to our surprise, we discover the kingdom of God in our midst.

Open leaders have open meetings

When Bishop Warner Brown said at the United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting yesterday that bishops need a “safe place” to discuss issues they are uncertain about, he was raising the dilemma many leaders of public organizations face in this new world of horizontal communications. Public discussion is often beyond our control. And that is unsettling, sometimes leads to inaccurate attribution and puts the speaker on the defensive unfairly.

Bishop Brown pointedly looked at the journalists in the room and said he could not speak tentatively or test new thoughts in their presence, for these very reasons. That’s the dilemma.

He wasn’t helped, however, by the first response of Fred Miller, the consultant who is advising the Interim Operations Team about how to re-organize the general church. Miller was advising the bishops about how to become a “leadership group.”

He outlined a strategy that at times sounded manipulative and concealing. Miller told the bishops to present their most inconsequential and boring material in such an exhaustive way the press would get bored and leave the room, and then the bishops could get to the meaty subjects they really want to discuss. He said this is his advice to boards of public organizations.

In a wide-ranging conversation that included a call to honesty and open leadership, courage and perseverance, this wasn’t the only bad advice Miller gave the bishops. He also told them one way to deal with conflict is to escalate the complexity of the issue so that the opponents get confused and the issue so muddled that the original disagreement gets resolved in the fog.

Not exactly a prescription for open leadership in the 21st century.

Miller did seem to comprehend the dark chasm he had stepped into with regard to journalism and much later expressed support for the fourth estate. He told the bishops the best way to deal with Bishop Brown’s concern was to be transparent and put everything on the web for all to see. Then, he said, it’s possible to assess such things as metrics, by looking at trends and avoid referring to the personal failures of individuals, or discussing opinions. This fact-based approach de-personalizes the discussion and  gives data for discussing disputes, he said.

This is a more healthy way to assess much that we care about in the church. What was not spoken in this discussion is the fact that the Council is allowed to operate under its own rules of procedure with regard to the open meetings provision of Paragraph 271 of the Book of Discipline, the book of church law by which all church entities operate – though it is expected “to live by the spirit” of the paragraph.

The council has the option to go into executive session pretty much at will, and it uses it often. The day following this exchange, for example, the council spent the day in executive session.

Why closed meetings?

Sometimes, it’s not clear why this leadership group chooses to meet behind closed doors. When they launched the very important “In Defense of Creation” study, instead of streaming their discussion on the web as a way of showing why creation care is a crucial faith concern and how they were struggling with it, they went into executive session. They missed an opportunity to share with the whole church how they connect theology and faithful practice to protecting the Creation.

Even as a journalist, I’m sympathetic to the need for leaders to have a way to discuss nettlesome matters they must deal with. We need the ability to think out loud without being locked into positions that we raise in a speculative way. We don’t want to be misquoted or held to some position that we don’t really support merely because we asked a question about it. And that happens.

But it happens whether the journalists are in the room or not. It happens when people gossip. It happens when leaders speak to staff and staff read between the lines and make assumptions. It happens when we make a jocular comment in a hallway conversation that ends up on Twitter as a more definitive statement than we could have imagined. It’s the horizontal communications world we live in.

Leaders in a public organization lead public lives. At United Methodist Communications, we offer training to episcopal leaders and others about dealing with the media. We offer resources for creating social media strategies. We offer crisis communications management training. We offer support for strategic communications planning. Few bishops take us up on these offers.

Changing the climate

The current climate in which we live is a climate that starts with skepticism. We’ve been worked over by institutions that had harmful agendas. We’ve seen 20-plus years of mismanagement of sexual abuse cases by the Roman Catholic Church, and religious figures from many backgrounds fall to the same private practices they publicly condemn. We’ve seen politicians lie, business leaders abuse trust, and our public institutions and corporations abandon the people who depend upon them. Trust is broken.

Sunshine is the best antidote. Honesty is still the best policy. We’re all human. We’re all anxious and afraid. We all need a safe place. A community of trust that allows us to be human will be based on openness, honesty and accountability.

And we desperately want leaders to take us there – leaders with open hearts, open minds and open doors.