Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

How yardwork became a religious experience

April 11, 2011

Older folks out there might recall a childhood game we played called “Pickup Stix.” The point of the game was to drop a collection of colorful sticks, each about the circumference of a toothpick and the length of a pencil, then pick up as many as we could without disturbing nearby sticks.

You younger people brought up on your fancy, hi-tech video games won’t be able to appreciate a contest played in the physical world, of course. Actually, I’m having a little trouble myself reading a description of the rules and trying to fathom how we viewed this as a “game” rather than simply cleaning up a spill. Regardless, we found it fun at the time, especially compared to mourning the assassination of one political leader after another.

Saturday, I spent the afternoon engaged in an adult version of the game. Not “adult” in the sense that you got to be naked; adult in the sense that you do it not because it’s fun, but because it’s your responsibility.

It was the first warm, dry day of the spring that I haven’t had to work. A winter’s worth of twigs and small branches covered my yard, made all the worse by several spring storms in the last few weeks. It’s traditionally the first bit of yardwork of the season to clear away this debris so that mowing and raking and seeding and mulching and all those other chores can take place. Besides, my neighbors were starting to give me dirty looks over a lawn that was beginning to look more like a lumber yard for robins.

I know of no automated way to accomplish this task. We’d never consider cutting the grass one blade at a time, or picking up each individual fallen leaf instead of super-sonically blowing them onto the property next door with a leaf-blower. If the technology didn’t exist, we’d simply accept nature’s ways and allow our lands to grow wild. But picking up twigs — even though it has to be done by bending over and selecting each one individually — we grudgingly do by hand, over the course of any otherwise gorgeous spring afternoon.

I had forgotten, during the long indoor months of winter, just how exhausting it can be to bend over. You watch athletes doing it effortlessly on television all the time, but forget that they’re professionals who have invested a tremendous amount of training into the process of bowing at the waste and going into a half-squat. I bent over perhaps a half-dozen times during the cold-weather months, and most of those occasions were due to deep abdominal pain. I was hopelessly out of shape.

Still, I gave it my best effort as the heat built and the sweat saturated my clothing. I soon learned to conserve energy by picking up more than one stick with each stoop, and what had looked initially like a week-long task now might be mostly finished in a day. Occasionally, I broke the tedium by plucking branches that hadn’t fallen all the way to the ground out of the trees themselves. I was particularly proud of the effort I made to free a 20-foot branch that had dangled and swayed outside our living-room window for months from a crook high up in an oak. I nearly gouged my face out when it finally broke free, yet I was willing to take the risk rather than allow a hardwood with half my education to get the better of me.

About three hours into the effort, I started to see how my work was making a difference. The yard still looked pretty junky, but an impressive pile of sticks was growing ever-larger next to my driveway. I walked around the back of the house to survey an area I thought wouldn’t need much work. Unfortunately, it was every bit as bad as the front yard had been. More hours of physical toil lay ahead.

“Jesus,” I muttered to myself in disgust. Then, as if on cue, I looked up to see a pair of smartly dressed women walking down the driveway from my house. They had just been speaking with my wife to inform her of a man who lived 2,000 years ago … a man who, though now presumably dead, was ready and eager to turn her life around. Rudely awakened after having just finished up a Friday night shift of work at the office, Beth was less than rapturous to hear of such Good News. I, however, looked at it as an opportunity … an opportunity to stop working and start reading the brochure they had left behind.

The green pamphlet was a simple affair, notifying us of two upcoming events sponsored by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that would explain how Jesus “takes away the sins of the world” and would explain “how does he do so?”, “why is this necessary?” and “how can you benefit?”. They would’ve had me if they said He could make the sticks and the twigs rise up and ascend into Heaven.

I was ready to discard the handout and head back outside when a strange feeling came over me. I looked again at the artwork, and had a feeling I had seen this man somewhere before. The figure in the robe and flip-flops, reaching his hand out and beseeching that I join him, bore a striking resemblance to George Clooney. With maybe a little Zach Galifianakis thrown in. And just a touch of American Idol contestant Casey Abrams.

I looked deep into the eyes of Jesus/George/Zach/Casey, hoping to find answers to problems that have left me world-weary in recent months. My eyes wandered slightly higher to the Holy Perm, teased just so. His mouth was formed into a word that I couldn’t quite lip-read. It could’ve been “peace” or it could’ve been “love,” or it could’ve been a lyric in Casey’s rendition last week of the Credence Clearwater classic “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”

I immediately dropped to my knees, even though I knew it would mean yet one more time I had to struggle later to get myself standing again.

“Oh Lord Jesus, or George Clooney, or Zach, or Casey, or whoever you are,” I cried out. “Deliver me from this world of pain and sorrow! I am going to be so sore tomorrow, and I know my doctor won’t give me any more Vicodin. Please, make me whole again.”

I stopped my work for the day, took a refreshing shower, and waited for the Almighty Intervention I’ve sorely missed for so long.

It never came, though we did get hit by a tremendous hailstorm later that evening, freeing a whole new batch of debris and rendering all the work I had done earlier completely useless.

Mysterious ways, I guess.

I find comfort in sacred music

March 28, 2011

As I cast about for solace and comfort in my currently troubled life, I can’t help but wonder if organized religion might provide an answer.

Generally, there are two ways that people come to their god in a prayer of “Hi, how’s it going? Maybe we should hang out.” Most people are born into the faith of their fathers. This is how I came to be a pious Lutheran during the first 16 years of my life. I was an altar boy, I was an off-key alto in the junior choir and I was confirmed at age 14 following a year of catechism study. (To this day, I remember a key tenet: God good, Devil bad). I believed in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, and any other god they might want to come up with.

One of the Gods

Then, in 1969, I experienced a revelation. It came in the form of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, revealing his private parts during a concert performance in my hometown of Miami. An outraged community of South Florida Christians, led by songstress Anita Bryant, decided to stage a “Decency Rally” in the Orange Bowl. The goal was to demonstrate that most area teens were repulsed by the idea of breaking on through to the other side, lighting fires, and touching Jim, no mater how many times he pleaded “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon”.

My church youth group planned to organize a bus trip to attend the rally. By the time they got around to calling and inviting me, my conversion had become complete.

“Gee, I kinda like the Doors,” I told Pastor Papke. And that was the end of my life as a Lutheran.

After a few years had passed, Morrison died of a heroin overdose in the bathtub of his Paris apartment, and Anita Bryant began a long and fruitful career promoting orange juice, homophobia and uplifting music. I had made the right choice.

Now, I am contemplating the possibility of arriving at a religious belief by the second most-common means: a conscious, intentional decision. It’s not a choice I’m quite prepared to make. I’ve spent over 57 years leading a mostly charmed life, free of the major trauma that usually inspires such conversions. (I thought about coming to Christ once around 20 years ago when I got a $280 ticket for speeding in a school zone, but when the judge said he wouldn’t put any points on my license, I lapsed back into apostasy).

Most of American Christianity seems to have been hijacked by right-wing political ideologues and, while I might otherwise consider adopting a mythical worldview involving angels and resurrections and miracles, I’m not quite ready to give up on my belief in national health insurance and the rest of the progressive agenda.

For now, I’m holding onto my plans for a death-bed conversion to each of the top 20 world faiths, hoping the scattershot approach will buy me entrance into somebody’s heaven. (I just hope it’s not Zoroastrianism that turns out to be the One True Religion; I hear they let vultures pluck at your deceased body rather than bury or burn you. Vultures, you may have noticed, are ugly).

See? Ugly, I tell you.

While I might, for now, be able to deny the lure of Christianity, it’s a good bit more difficult to deny that the creed sure has a great soundtrack. Just as I might hate the TV show “Glee,” I still find myself singing along to the cast’s spirited rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. (Ironic, huh?) By the same token, I’ve begun recently to search out the traditional hymns and sacred music I recall from my youth as a halfway measure to giving my life over to Christ.

The Lutheran songbook is a rich and inspirational collection of mediocre music that instantly transports me back to those early years of piety. I listen to “Just As I Am” and remember the procession down to the communion font, where I’d get my first sip of wine. I recall “Bless’d Be The Ties That Bind” and remember having to don a too-tight necktie every Sunday morning. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “How Great Thou Art” remind me of Protestantism’s appreciation for architecture and the classic paintings of the Renaissance.

But there was no piece of sacred music I’ve ever found more uplifting than Handel’s “Messiah.” My parents incessantly played the Eugene Ormandy/Mormon Tabernacle Choir version on their ancient hi-fi while I was growing up, and ever since I’ve been spiritually moved by the soaring 18th-century oratorio. When I went off to college in 1971, that record occupied as hallowed a place in my collection as did Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Deja Vu” and the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Past.” Though my classical purist roommate scoffed at the flaws of the work while simultaneously pointing out it was “Messiah,” not “The Messiah,” and Handel was actually pronounced “Hen-del,” I was inalterably down with George Frederick.

The great "Hen-del"

(The only part I didn’t care for was that you were supposed to stand up during performance of the triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus,” which I always found to be awkward and arbitrary. Why did you have to alter the position of your body just because somebody was playing a catchy tune? Next thing you know, we’d have to bend over for each playing of Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” or put our hands over our ears during Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Actually, that last idea kinda makes sense).

So now, I while away a Sunday afternoon in search of succor, watching funny YouTube videos while Handel’s masterpiece plays over and over as the great composer always intended, on iTunes. Though this particular recording clocks in at just over 100 minutes, the libretto is surprising sparse, encouraging listeners to sing-along.

I love how Handel goes to such lengths to stretch out the lyrics in creative ways. The Mormon Tabernacle singers pronounce “accomplished” as “accomp-li-shed” and turn one- and two-syllable words like “shake” and “desire” into virtual arias of their own: “… and the de-si-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-re of all nations shall come.” He makes it fun to come up with misunderstood lyrics during the few boring parts: “his yolk is over easy and his permanent is light.” Or, “Are we like sheep?” Some of the phrasing is pleasantly cryptic: “He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.” Sing it!

There’s even a bit of frivolity that the Baroque master tosses in near the end, inserting what was meant to be a stage direction — “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised” — that later interpreters have sung as a lyric. (Though I’d love to see someone stage a back-to-the-original performance that actually included bugle-playing zombies).

By the end of “Messiah,” I feel spiritually lifted up, ready to face my modern-day trials with a faith that there is one who is greater than I. Actually, there are probably millions who are greater than I, and just knowing that takes off a lot of pressure.

Even though I may feel guilty spending the Lord’s Day watching piano-playing cats and the evolution of dance, I know that my soul is at peace and that my burden (and my permaent) is light.

Revisited: The life of Martin Luther

January 15, 2011

Martin Luther (1483-1546), widely regarded as the father of the Protestant Reformation and a number of unintended babies, was a German theologian and religious reformer who challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church. He also had a vast influence on European concepts of politics, economics, education, language and hair styling, with his now-familiar bowl cut making him one of the most crucial figures in modern European history.

He was born in Eisleben (later Hitlerville, and then changed back to Eisleben) in what today is Germany. His father, originally known as Hans Luder, had wanted to name his son “Lex” but was convinced by his wife to go with “Abraham Martin and John,” later shortened to simply Martin. The family was descended from peasantry, but Hans made a nice living for himself and his family as a copper miner and part-time fletcher/cooper (roughly equivalent to today’s writer/director).

Martin received his early education at Magdeburg and Eisenach, before enrolling at the University of Erfurt at age 17. Red-shirted during his freshman season, he became an outstanding left tackle for the Fightin’ Furter football team by the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1502. He passed on an opportunity for a pro career — he was projected as high as the eighth round by some scouts — and chose to stay in school to pursue his master’s, which he received in 1505.

He began to study law, as his father wished, but didn’t have enough credits to graduate so he fell back on his undergraduate major – monking — and entered the Augustinian monastery. Within a year, he had so impressed his superiors that he was selected for the priesthood, ordained, and conducted his first celebration of mass. (“Celebration” might be overstating the case, as he kept stumbling over unfamiliar phrasing, once mispronouncing “Madonna” as “My donut.”) He continued his studies in theology, including multiple re-takes of basic Latin, until he got his big chance to go to Rome and check out how Catholicism was done in the big city.

To put it mildly, he was not impressed. In fact, he was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy, especially the way they had substituted vodka shots for wine in the communions they conducted. This led him to question other basic tenets of church, and he gradually came to believe that Christians were saved not through their own efforts but instead by God’s grace. The church leadership was making a tidy fortune off the sale of indulgences, which were peddled to the peasants in the form of mugs, posters and t-shirts (“Rome Rules” was a common slogan for this merchandising). This crass effort disgusted Luther to the point where he suffered from nearly constant vomiting, though scholars recently discovered a sixteenth-century Domino’s menu that led them to believe that salmonella-tainted pizza may have been a contributing factor.

Luther finally emerged into worldwide prominence when in 1517 he was named Holy Roman Empire Today’s “Most Pious Man Alive” and became known for some graffiti he had scrawled on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. This posting of the so-called Ninety-five Theses has been greatly misunderstood by historians and only recently was clarified when the old door itself was located at a garage sale in East St. Louis, Missouri. It was long believed that Luther wrote the theses before-hand and then nailed them to the cathedral door as a sign of protest and to show his growing prowess as a wallboard installer.

In reality, Luther wrote the seminal document on-site, meticulously painting it onto the oak with a fine single-haired brush. What bothered the church elders more than what the manuscript said was the fact that he was always in the way, blocking the main entrance almost constantly during the three weeks it took him to finish. Most of the demands were not that unreasonable – for example, he wrote of the need for sturdier pews to “accommodate the ample Germanic hind.” He also wanted Wednesday night services moved to Tuesday because most members couldn’t TiVo floggings in the public square like the wealthy clergy could. And he wanted the liturgy conducted in native languages because Latin “sounds too much like they’re just making it up as they go along.”

He made it all the way to the next-to-last thesis (“94. Enough with the incense already, it’s giving everybody a headache”) with church officials only mildly curious about the progress of the bowl-headed scribe. On the morning of his final day of work, he began writing the last entry as a crowd of onlookers grew around him. “The pope is not ni…” he began. The throng began buzzing with anticipation. The pope is not what? Nitrogen-based? Nihilistic? Luther slowly added a “c”. Nicene? Nickel-plated? Then he added an “e”. “Don’t get upset everybody – it could still be ‘Nicene,’” shouted one observer, trying to quell the growing distress of the crowd. Then Luther added the punctuation mark that would change European history forever, a period. “The pope is not nice.” The multitude gasped, but soon dispersed when they heard a beheading was being set up across the street.

The Roman Curia, which is kind of like a Senate subcommittee only crankier, began an investigation that eventually led to the condemnation of Luther’s teachings in 1520 and his excommunication a year later. He was summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and asked to recant. His famous assertion of conscience in the face of certain punishment – “No Can Do!” – is most likely apocryphal, but still he was spirited away by Prince Frederick the Wise who kept him in virtual house arrest at his castle.

Luther was able to continue much of his other life work, though it paled in comparison to royally pissing off the entire Catholic Church. He made a little money doing some free-lance translations and sticking his nose into the Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, where he supported the peasants’ political demands while repudiating their theological arguments, a fine distinction that was lost on all the people who had swords. He married a former nun, a widely acknowledged hottie by the name of Katharina von Bora, and continued his writing as his influence spread across northern and eastern Europe.

By the late 1530’s, his health began to deteriorate and he took on an anti-Semitic bent by accusing the Jews of exploiting the confusion he had caused among Christians. This made him virtually unable to locate a decent doctor, and he died on Feb. 18, 1546. His obituary, printed several days later in the Eisleben Picayune-Examiner, included a long list of his works, an even longer list of his children, and the name of his new religion: Martinism, which was later changed to Luthermania, then Lutheranism.

Revisited: ChristianProphet.org website review

January 2, 2011

Normally, I wouldn’t lower myself to the level where I address a mere “dot-org” domain in my Website Review. I’m making an exception because in this particular case, I almost had to lower myself out of my crushed vehicle and into a “Jaws of Life” following a barely avoided collision with a large, colorfully decorated motor home at an intersection near my house.

The RV that nearly sent me to be with Jesus was, appropriately, owned by “bobgriffin.org” and presumably driven by that self-same Bob. Drawn to its huge decals of the burning World Trade Center towers and a Bob-penned book that purported to tell the “real story” of Sept. 11, I hurried home to go online and learn more about this RV of Death.

The website, which also operates under the name “7flames.org,” is a pretty minimalist affair, mostly spent promoting Griffin, his book called “Standing in the Shadows of 9/11: The Vision” and the hare-brained concept that Bob is a genuine Christian prophet. Anybody can predict The Rapture, but Bob takes his gift a step farther and can predict all types of future events, though apparently not the fact I was running a yellow light while he was making a right turn without first coming to a full stop.

Griffin’s story, described in the “About Bob Griffin” pulldown, is best told by the Living Bob himself.

He grew up in a rough neighborhood of Chicago and faced “many challenges” during his childhood (probably code for bullying and/or polio). “After a series of dramatic supernatural encounters, Bob surrendered his life to Jesus Christ … and discovered he had been given a keen prophetic gifting.” This allowed him to “give thousands of accurate words” during his 15-year ministry, words that apparently did not include “look,” “out,” “we’re” and “crashing” on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

Bob’s “gifting” has taken him to 25 nations where he claims to have met with presidents, prime ministers, senators and, most importantly, celebrities to spread his vision of what lies ahead for their various constituencies. Bob also consults with U.S. and international agencies on matters of national security, and “using his prophetic gifting he has located Al Qaeda terrorist cells.” My own guess is that such consultation takes place mostly in airport interrogation rooms after he’s been detained by TSA officers for fitting the profile of an unbalanced lunatic.

The biography concludes with a line that I bet is a real show-stopper on his resume: “Bob is sent with an apostic and prophetic anointing to break the yoke of bondage over individuals, regions and nation.” And he’s available for parties.

The rest of the website is not much to look at. The home page encourages viewers to join in a Thanksgiving conference being held on Nov. 25, 2009 and an assembling of the “armies of God” at a Yonkers, N.Y., church for a special New Year’s Eve service. (While Bob’s busy knocking around in the future, I guess his followers instead live in the past.) There’s an “Events” section, where “currently no events are available.”

The “Media” area is mostly links to YouTube videos of Bob and his wife Jayne and their five lovely but extremely embarrassed teenage daughters, featured in clips from his popular weekly internet television show. The video I sampled involved the Griffin family riding around New York City in their RV, talking earnestly to the camera while the wicked streets of Manhattan whiz by behind them.

Filmed the day of that brutal windstorm that took down hundreds of trees in Central Park last summer, the Griffin girls gleefully recount how Dad is interpreting the event as a preview of God’s plan to harvest enough wood to “build an ark in the park.” Other segments show the teens describing how a homeless man tried to break into the van but decided otherwise when divine intervention reared its head; how “demonic spirits” were driving the recipients of free copies of Bob’s book to toss it in the trash can; and how the youngest daughter encountered a Muslim who grilled her about her father’s ideas.

“Soon he will be a witness to scales being removed from his eyelids,” the tween-aged girl says uneasily, knowing how dead she will be when her middle-school friends get the chance to ridicule her on Facebook, while still delighting in the bright future that probably awaits her in the field of ophthamology.

But the whole reason for the website seems to be selling copies of the 9/11 book, the first chapter of which I was able to download for free. It tells, a bit cryptically, the story of how Bob got started in prophecy back in the mid-1990s. One day he was confronted by a “very large face” who told him that “landscapes are changing!” Most of us might simply think a close-talking itinerant gardener was offering to rake our yard. Bob, however, knew this was different.

“It was piercing the night just like traffic lights below were stabbing at the night with their melancholy rhythms, cars sailing through the night traversing the arteries that bring evidence of life to the darkness,” Bob writes. “And why so fast?”

(Again, I might point out the light was yellow.)

Next, Bob was pulled through time to witness the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, then back to Sept. 10, 2001, in what he acknowledges was “a confusing moment for me.” In 2001, he sees the Statue of Liberty crying a single tear, “liquid light sliding down her face,” while twin towers standing next to her go up in flames.

It’s hard to tell if Bob was actually in Lower Manhattan on that fateful day. He talks about a “giant cloud of dust roaring toward me,” then turning to run toward a fire escape which he climbs with “supernatural strength.” A giant ball of choking grit engulfs his vision, then he hears a voice saying “I’ll be with you in a minute” (McDonald’s drive-thru?), then he’s flooded in the bright lights of a television studio and greeted by a producer who says “He is going to do for you what He did for us.”

Bob replied, “What was that?” The producer responded, “Worldwide web, worldwide radio, worldwide television. TELL-A-VISION!”

This is Bob’s cue that he needs to tell people about his visions because the “FUTURE is the place where FEW TOUR,” and now it seems this whole ministry of prophetic giving thing is descending into a play on words.

There’s one last scene from the first chapter that may give us a little more insight into Bob’s rare powers. He’s going out with the rest of the office to a staff lunch at a quaint restaurant near a lake. He’s preoccupied during the lunch with ducks and geese walking on the backs of carp, “the bubble-blowers and the water-walkers” he calls them. He asks the group “has anyone ever cried real tears in your dreams before? I have! I did last night!”

Bob writes:

“Pass the rolls,” I heard them say. I felt the stabbing pain of rejection again, along with the anger which always tries to rise up. I heard one of their thoughts. “Oh boy, here we go again with another dream.”

And you thought your co-workers were weird.

Reading over the website and the book excerpt again, I think I may have figured out the source behind the Griffin magic. The main heading across the home page reads “Let My Love Open the Door to Your Heart.” The book, again, is entitled “Standing in the Shadows of 9/11.”  Another line in the book reads “Here comes that tear again.”

I think Bob may have hit his head while the RV was making a sharp turn one evening, then fell into semi-consciousness while Z-93, playing ALL hits from the sixties and seventies ALL the time, blared from his radio. Fragments of song lyrics from the Who, the Four Tops and Jackson Browne coalesced in his concussed brain and he awoke to believe the future is past, the past is future, and that a fat carp was being lifted from the water and then was no more.

Do I remember a song by Neil Young called “The Fat Carp Was Lifted”? I think I do.

Revisited: Website Review of BillyGraham.com

December 28, 2010

The death last year of televangelist Oral Roberts leaves behind only one other elder statesman of Christianity, if you don’t count God. The Rev. Billy Graham has spent much of his 91 years ministering not only to his Southern Baptist base but to presidents, world leaders and millions of participants in his crusades around the globe. He even found time during the turbulent 1960s to run the Fillmore music venue in San Francisco, introducing the nation to seminal bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

No, wait — that was Bill Graham, promoter and rock impresario.

See, I could keep these two straight if only I’d visit the Billy Graham Library, a Charlotte, N.C., site that houses memorabilia from the famous minister’s life. Built in 2007, the 40,000-square-foot “experience” allows visitors to discover the life and legacy of America’s pastor. The 20 landscaped acres include the “barn-shaped” library itself, a multimedia presentation about his dynamic journey from farm boy to international ambassador of God’s love, a prayer garden and the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar, featuring sandwiches, salads, cookies and ice cream (as it is in Heaven, no outside food allowed).

Billboards throughout the Carolinas promote the library with the tag line “No Books to Check Out … Just His Story,” lest potential visitors be scared off by the prospect of having to read something. However, the advertising is probably intended more for those who are just passing through, as those of us who live here are already well aware of the now-retired reverend’s impact on the area. Visitors to Charlotte are still alarmed to find that, in order to drive to the airport, you have to “take Billy Graham,” the parkway named in his honor, not the actual man, who is too frail to do much air travel these days. Locals take the influence for granted.

Now I’m not about to start making fun of an elderly, gentle man of God, even though he may have made some questionable political choices during his career. Despite early associations with right-wing nutcase Bob Jones and a well-known chumminess with Nixon, Reagan and assorted Bushes, Graham did oppose segregation in the South, even going so far as to bail Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail at one point. So while I may be willing to give him a pass, I reserve no such restraint for the website promoting his library, which is the subject of today’s Website Review.

The home page includes some basic information about the library (obvious things like closed Sunday, no firearms or pets permitted, MasterCard and Visa accepted at the gift shop) and an overview of key features. There are re-creations of historic moments in Graham’s life, “amazing” films and more than 350 photographs, and an opportunity to “submerse yourself” in a special room dedicated to his late wife, Ruth. There’s also a brief video, slickly produced but a little lacking in audio quality, in particular the introduction that at first listen sounds like “experience the journey of one simple mind that impacted millions.” And there’s a description of the site’s centerpiece, the restored Graham Family Homeplace, which was rebuilt using 80 percent of the original materials and, presumably, 20 percent of stuff from Lowe’s.

The home page also includes news releases and testimonials about the power of God as exercised through Rev. Graham. There’s a statement in reaction to Oral Roberts’ death — Graham “loved him as a brother” and “looks forward to seeing him in Heaven” — and one from Billy’s son Franklin, who has taken over much of the day-to-day operations of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin, naturally, had spoken to Roberts’ son Richard, and judiciously avoided saying anything about how his father could now beat up Richard’s father.

The testimonials are mostly from average Christians who have visited the library recently. “I can’t think of a better place to spend my birthday other than Heaven,” notes Chrissy from Louisburg, N.C. “I lived across the street from the Smithsonian in Washington for many years and it has nothing on this library,” says Fred from Lexington, S.C. “My son is addicted to meth and was ready to commit suicide,” writes one father, a bit off-topic.

There’s also a long piece from a former atheist and alcoholic (there’s a difference?) who came to Christ after being told by her bartender she should attend the local crusade, then showing up and hyperventilating among 65,000 Christians, then fleeing to the sidewalk outside to catch her breath, then becoming “completely transformed” because the sermon could still be heard in the parking lot. Now she has a radio show and is available through the Captivating Women Speaker Bureau.

There’s a Reservations pulldown encouraging advance arrangements for parties larger than 15 people, so theoretically Jesus’ 12 disciples could just show up unannounced but will be advised to wear comfortable shoes, allow at least two hours for the visit, and need to provide their own strollers and wheelchairs. A Get Involved section solicits volunteer library workers who have prayerfully considered their ability to stand on their feet for four hours at a stretch (no mention of requiring familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system).

The Special Events area describes two recent happenings, a Teddy Bear Tea Party and something called “Bikers with Boxes,” and promotes the currently running “Christmas at the Library” festivities. The latter actually sounds like fun, with a live nativity, horse-drawn carriage rides through a beautiful lights display, strolling carolers and holiday goodies. If you can nudge the Joseph actor to break character and burst into a giggling fit, you might even qualify for a free plate of Mother Graham’s poundcake and hot apple cider, though that’s unlikely since I just made it up.

There’s an extensive Books and Gifts section with some great ideas for holiday giving, such as DVDs, festive cards and the library barn Christmas ornament. A daily prayer journal with insights from Billy Graham will help you keep track of which requests God has already granted and which are on back-order. And there’s a whole collection of resources “equipping tweens to live for Christ” called the “Dare to be a Daniel” series. I checked with my son, who is an actual Daniel,  and he hopes there’d be minimal emphasis on being eaten by a lion and more about going out to movies and Taco Bell with friends.

The pulldown about “Billy Graham, The Man,” is one I will respectfully decline to deride, other than to note that his answer to the question he hears everywhere he goes is that hope in the future is possible “through Jesus Christ,” and that he looks ridiculous in his white wedding  tuxedo.

Finally, I’ll mention a Special Announcement that will be of interest to anyone who plans to visit the library soon. It will be closed. Despite being in business for only two years since its construction, the facility will shut down for several months of extensive upgrades and improvements beginning Jan. 11 and continuing until spring. Local news reports at the time of the announcement indicated that there are significant issues with acoustics in many of the exhibits, allowing sound from adjacent rooms to bleed through the walls. So, for example, during quiet reflection in a chapel you may suddenly hear what seems to be the Lord Almighty ordering a tuna salad sandwich and a chocolate milkshake but is in fact bleed-through from bustle in the Dairy Bar.

But the website will continue to remain in service during construction, so you can virtually enjoy the glory of God as reflected in his humble servant Billy Graham from the comfort of your own personal family homeplace or barn.

My annual interview with the cats: Christmas edition

December 22, 2010

Every year or so, I step away from this blog’s human-centric perspective on the universe and check in with some of God’s lesser creatures. I interview my cats.

We have three — Harriet, 14; Taylor, 5; and Tom, 4 — and in the time I’ve “owned” them, we’ve established a certain language between us. They say meow, I feed them. They say meow, I clean their catbox. They say meow-meow-meow and I presume they’re sick and take them to the vet.

Deeper than any verbal communication, however, is the power of mental telepathy. Now, before you think I’m some kind of psycho pet lunatic, I’m not claiming I can read their minds. Actually, I am, but I don’t do it in a malevolent or intrusive sort of way. It’s just a manifestation of the bond that occasionally develops between one species and another species that sits on top of it. We stare at each other and can just tell what the other is thinking (most days, it’s Me: “You’re a good kitty, yes you are, yes you are”; Them: “This guy is both warmer and softer than any pillow.”)

In previous interviews, we discussed aspects of the relationship between man and his animal companion and, in a landmark December 2009 interview, a range of political issues and current affairs. Two of the three correctly predicted the Obama honeymoon was just about over, and that the GOP would become ascendant and sweep into Congress in 2010 (Harriet, instead, chose to lick herself). Though all three consider themselves Democrats, there’s just enough of an independent streak in them to give any halfway moderate Republican a chance to win their favor in 2012.

But this is the height of the Christmas season, and I was interested to hear what they think about how we humans celebrate our grandest of holidays. I wanted to hear their take on the religion behind Christmas, and whether there were any similar festivities in the cat world. I sat down with the panel near a window sill on a sunny afternoon recently to see what they think about Christmas.

Me: First, let me say Happy Holidays to you all. I won’t use “Merry Christmas” because I presume you’re not practicing Christians.

Tom: No, we’re not. I thought about converting a few months ago but it’s too much hassle, considering you won’t let me out of the house.

Me: Really? You thought about becoming a Christian?

Tom: "I thought about converting (to Christianity) but it's too much hassle."

Tom: Actually, you can do it online. My claws make it pretty hard for me to type, though. And, I needed to get a hold of your credit card, which isn’t easy either.

Me: My credit card? Why would you need that?

Tom: The Methodists had a nice no-money-down, no-payments-for-six-months offer that included a free toaster and I was really tempted. Then I realized, what am I going to do with toast? Probably just push it around the kitchen floor until it ended up under the refrigerator. No, mainstream Christianity is not for me.

Harriet: I toyed with Buddhism in my youth. I have a little Siamese in me, you know. But it’s way back on my mother’s side.

Me: Taylor, how about you? Agnostic, I presume?

Taylor: Yes, that’s right. I don’t believe it’s possible for the living to know for certain what heaven and hell and the afterlife are like. I presume it’s just vast, eternal nothingness, but what do I know? I thought that thread dangling from your shirt the other day was wild prey that I had to kill and eat, so I’m not even a real good judge of reality, much less the great beyond.

Me: Well, Christianity teaches that only humans have souls anyway, so you’ve all probably made the right choices for yourselves.

Taylor: Yeah, I’ve heard that too, and it bothers me. Makes it sound like God thinks you’re better than us.

Me: I think it’s just a matter of you being unable to accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your Lord, at least as a conscious choice.

Taylor: How do they know we can’t make conscious choices? Maybe not well-informed choices, but we can certainly act intentionally when we want to.

Me: I don’t know if that’s it, yet I can see … oww! What’s with the biting?

Taylor: Just wanted to prove I can do things on purpose.

Harriet: I think that’s why I was attracted to Eastern religion for a while. You might be a cat in this life but then you get reincarnated into something else in the next one. I was hoping I could make a kind of grand tour of all life forms, sort of shop around for one I liked and when I found it, stop being a believer and just remain what I had become. I was hoping for elephant but would’ve settled for rhino or hippo or really any large hooved mammal.

Tom: That’s not Buddhism, I don’t think. Isn’t that Hinduism?

Taylor: No, you’re thinking of Zoroastrianism.

Taylor: "I can do things on purpose, you know."

Harriet: No, that’s the one where they put your body in a tower when you die and the vultures pick your carcass clean. They do that instead of burial. I didn’t like the sound of that one.

Taylor: You’re an idiot. That’s not what they believe.

[Brief spat erupts between Taylor and Harriet, with much hissing and batting but no one gets hurt].

Me: Okay, okay, maybe I should change the topic away from something as contentious as religion.

Tom: I think you’re trying to make us fight amongst each other. Last time, it was all political questions and now we’re talking about what we believe spiritually. These are emotional questions and we all obviously have strong feelings about them.

Me: Well, let’s take it out of the spiritual realm and talk instead about the “reason for the season,” as we like to call it. You can at least acknowledge the birth of a very wise man, and how it’s probably a good thing that so many people structure their lives to emulate his good works and loving philosophy.

Taylor: Or pay lip service to it anyway.

Me: No, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it at all. I’m a lapsed Christian myself, and yet you can’t help but admit that a lot of good gets done in Christ’s name.

Harriet: The only time I hear you mentioning “Jesus” or “Christ” is when you stub your toe on your way to pick up the TV remote.

Me: That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to all the charity and the fellowship and the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Tom: So that’s why you make us get down from the kitchen table while it’s perfectly okay for you to eat your breakfast up there.

Me: I don’t think that’s quite the right analogy. I’m just trying to keep you from tracking cat litter into my cereal. I’m talking about the compassion for other living creatures that brought you guys into our home in the first place.

Taylor: Oh, here we go. The noble human plucks us from the wild, civilizes us, makes us eat that crappy Science Formula, and we’re supposed to be eternally grateful for your kindness. Did you ever stop to think maybe we liked being feral animals? Just because living on birds and squirrels and sleeping under the deck isn’t for you, don’t assume other species want your kind of life.

Tom: He’s right. You Western European descendants were always out to save the savages of the world, not stopping to think maybe the aboriginal lifestyle of American Indians and native Africans and the bushmen of Australia was something that worked just fine for them.

Me: The bushmen? You’re bringing our treatment of the bushmen into this?

Harriet: The bushmen are totally relevant to what we’re talking about.

Me: Alright, I think we’re losing focus here a little bit. Let me ask you this, then: Is there any equivalent myth in the feline world to the ones we have, about God’s son coming to earth to die for our sins so that we’ll have eternal life in Heaven?

Taylor: No, we couldn’t come up with anything that creative. Remember, we’re simple beasts driven only by hunger.

Tom: What about that story we all heard growing up about a glorious kitten being born to a virgin, growing up as a simple cat, assembling a core of disciples, then threatening the power of the human legions and ultimately being put to sleep at the Animal Shelter only to rise from the dead three days later?

Harriet: I believe your thinking about that zombie movie Beth was watching that time.

Harriet: "The bushmen are totally relevant."

Tom: No, no. You know the story I’m talking about. A group of Wise Tabbies come from the East bringing gifts to the young kitten, they follow a star to find him, he’s got a halo on his head …

Taylor: Again with the Wise Tabbies, huh? You made up that story yourself just to make you and your kind look good.

Harriet: Everybody knows Tabbies have a mean streak. That story doesn’t hold any water.

[Again, a fight ensues, this time with all three chasing each other up and down the hallway.]

Me: Look, it’s obvious you’re all a little out of sorts at the moment. Let me feed you your dinner and we’ll finish our discussion when saner heads can prevail. Kitty, kitty, kitty! Who wants some cat food? Kitty, kitty, kitty.

[All telepathy is temporarily halted as Harriet, Taylor and Tom rush to their food bowls, and wolf down their meals.]

Tomorrow’s installment: We discuss the secular side of Christmas.

Revisited: Christo, the reason for the season

December 19, 2010

Only a few more days till the big day is here. Most of us have finished our shopping, finished our party-going, and are just about finished with being cheerful. The time has now come to settle back with loved ones, and let the true meaning of the holiday wash over us.

It’s time to put “Christo” back in Christmas.

The man whose birth we celebrate Saturday came from humble beginnings, only to emerge later in life as the transformative fabric artist we all know. Even if we don’t worship him as a God, virtually everyone acknowledges the positive impact he’s made on Western culture.

The performance/outdoor installation master we know today as Christo began life as Christo Vladimir Javacheff, born in a tiny Bulgarian town in 1935. His actual birth date was probably around June 13 (scholars have arrived at that date from contemporary descriptions of flocks in the field and from well-maintained birth records in the registrar’s office) though we now stage our celebration around the time of the pagans’ winter solstice.

His father, Vladimir Yavachev, was a scientist, yet he didn’t allow unblinking loyalty to the scientific method to cloud the metaphysical belief that his son was the Christo Child. Mother Tsveta Dimitrova worked two full-time jobs, as both a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts and as a virgin (the latter position didn’t pay very well but had great benefits in a time when Europe was ravaged with venereal disease).

Young Christo displayed artistic talent at a very early age. Legend has it that once, when his mother experienced a chill, he picked up a throw rug and draped over Tsveta’s shivering shoulders, presaging a career that would see him wrap both natural and manmade objects in immense swaths of cloth and label it “environmental art.” He studied at the Sofia Academy and in Prague for four years, then spent the spring break of 1957 on a train trip to Austria after bribing a railway official to let him out of the Communist bloc.

In October 1958, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Precilda de Guillebon, the mother of the woman who would become his wife and partner for the next fifty years, and known simply as Jeanne-Claude. Initially attracted to her half-sister, he got Jeanne-Claude pregnant instead (sounds like a tragically missed encasing opportunity). Already engaged to another man, she proceeded with the wedding at Christo’s insistence — it’s said he was intrigued by the prospect of seeing so many covered packages among the wedding gifts – but abandoned her new husband immediately after the honeymoon. Jeanne-Claude’s parents were displeased with the relationship because he was a refugee, even though they had plenty of other good reasons.

By 1961 Christo had become wealthy with the invention and patent of the cooking oil Crisco, allowing the two young artists to begin their first major work, covering barrels in the German port of Cologne. In 1962, without the consent of local authorities and as a statement against the Berlin Wall (?), they blocked off a small street near the river Seine with a different set of barrels, while Jeanne-Claude convinced approaching police to let the piece stand for several hours. Somehow, this made them famous in Paris, which convinced them to leave for the U.S.

Flying to New York on separate planes to ensure that both would not die in the same accident, unless of course the two planes crashed into each other, the duo began their American careers. Christo struggled with the English language (as he had struggled with French, and Bulgarian, for that matter), which led him to simplify the crediting of work done by both he and his wife. Even though Jeanne-Claude was the natural organizer, the extrovert and the one who dyed her hair bright red and smoked cigarettes, it was “Christo” who was famous artist. It wasn’t until 1994 that he retroactively gave her half-credit for the work.

Christo loved the freedom of America, and loved how many things it had to wrap. He had been “stateless” since his arrival in Austria years before, and decided to become a U.S. citizen in 1973. He studied hard to pass the citizenship exam, and had to take it several times until it finally sunk in that cotton, denim, acetate, acrylic, nylon, flannel and microfiber were neither presidents nor provisions in the Bill of Rights. One of his proudest moments would come in 2005 when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was okay with him if Christo wanted to erect his most famous project, “The Gates,” in Central Park, as long as he cleaned up after himself. It was that signature piece — 7,503 gates made of saffron-colored fabric and placed on paths throughout the park — which cemented Christo’s image in the public consciousness.

His other most notable works included “Documenta 4,” an inflated air package that hovered 280 feet over Europe for ten hours in 1968; “Running Fence,” a curtain of fabric that ran through the mountains and into the sea; “Surrounded Islands,” the wrapping of eleven islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay in pink woven polypropylene in 1983; and the 1995 packaging of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in fabric. He also installed thousands of umbrellas in Japan and California in a seven-year project appropriately called “The Umbrellas,” that ended colorfully (blue for Japan, yellow for the U.S.) but tragically (two people killed) in 1991.

Not all of Christo’s work was so serious as to be potentially fatal. An important part of Christmas is the fun and levity the season brings, and this is reflected in some of his most light-hearted work. After cartoonist Charles Schulz drew an episode of his comic strip “Peanuts” with Snoopy’s doghouse wrapped in fabric, Christo constructed a wrapped doghouse and presented it to the Schulz Museum in 2003. The artist is also considering ways to enrobe some other popular animated figures, including the Taunting Robot who jumps up and down in the corner of the screen during Fox TV football broadcasts, and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.).

Tragically, Christo’s life partner Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm last year, casting a pall over the current holiday season. But knowing Christo’s resilience and his central role in the seasonal theme of new life, he’ll probably take that pall and wrap it around something festive, much like he folded himself into sackcloth to create the Shroud of Turin during his early years in Europe.

So as you finalize your Christmas preparations, don’t forget to take time to remember the reason for the season. When you wrap up that last present and put it under the tree, don’t forget that it was Christo who was born into this world to save mankind and to offer the idea that gifts temporarily concealed by gaily colored swathing was a great way to celebrate the advent of a Savior.

Christo: He’s in there somewhere

Revisited: Getting into the Christmas spirit

December 18, 2010

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and I’m definitely starting to get into the Christmas spirit. But if being joyful and merry means I have to start being nice to people, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to make that commitment.

See, I have a problem with goodwill toward men. I’m usually too impatient going about my daily activities to take the time to stop, chat, and have something akin to normal social relationships. It seems that if you took every opportunity during the course of a day to “chew the fat” with every acquaintance you met, your arteries would be hopelessly clogged and you’d never get anything done, except perhaps an emergency balloon angioplasty, and you’d have to squeeze that in.

Take, for example, my almost-daily stop at a cafe near my house, where I’m working right now. There are several regulars that join me each afternoon, and by “join” I mean that we share approximately the same coordinates on the face of the globe. (Once, we shared exactly the same coordinates, but that’s only because they didn’t look behind themselves before sitting down). I’ll exchange at most a nod with these folks, because I’ve seen what happens when you do anything more.

This one guy in particular is also working on his blog, as well as a book about why African-Americans should be flocking to the Republican Party (talk about a Christmas miracle). I’m not sure how he gets any work done, as he’s constantly shooting the breeze with baristas, cashiers, and anybody else that comes within a six-foot radius.

“Are you on Facebook?” he asks the blood-spattered EMT tech who stopped for a quick double espresso. “What’s your email address again?” he inquires of a passing toddler.

The other day he sighed loudly and said, to no one in particular, “I’m so glad I’m almost finished writing this book.”

“Oh, you’re working on a book?” the friendly man sitting behind him might ask, though it’d probably be the last thing he says for the next half-hour.

I am not that friendly man. I’m the bitter curmudgeon who responds in one of two ways when I see a familiar face enter the store — I switch to the other side of the table to put my back toward the door, or I’m suddenly transported into ultra-focused concentration on my work, internally debating the merits of comma or semicolon, dashes or parenthetical aside, new paragraph or yet another run-on. (Oh, damn, here he comes anyway.)

However, it’s Christmastime, and even I am experiencing a buoyant spirit that pushes me beyond my normal inhibitions. I want to do something to reach out to others and share in the seasonal cheer, but I don’t want it to be mistaken for anything more than a limited-time offer. Don’t expect this kind of amity when January rolls around, because I’ve got the whole month penciled in for being dour.

Maybe I could just hand out twenty-dollar bills. I tried that once with the homeless guy off the interstate exit ramp, however I ended up beaten in a culvert three states over.

What I’m considering now is, for me, a radical step. I’m thinking of attending a holiday church service. This would allow me to kill two birds with one stone: devote a concentrated period to fellowship then get on with my life, and also soak up a little of the yuletide pageantry that I seem to be lacking in the broken 1989 Mannheim Steamroller cassette that continuously loops through the same song and a half. Three birds, actually, if you count saving my soul from eternal damnation.

I come from a Christian family tradition, and regularly attended church as a youth, until I was confirmed at age 15 and promptly found better things to do. I have extremely fond memories of those times, as they’ve now become a colorful blur that fortunately excludes those excruciating sermons about how it’s good to be good, and bad to be bad. The music and decorations and family warmth, though, were wonderful.

So I made a tentative recon sortie this past weekend, attending a “cookie walk” at the local Methodist church. Not exactly a formal date on the liturgical calendar, the annual sweets sale on the second weekend of December does provide a great opportunity to get a quick taste of the season with minimal human interaction. For $6, you get a small box from a friendly-but-distracted church lady, then walk down a row of decorated tables, pointing at the baked goods you want to be stuffed into your box. It’s a little like communion, only these dispensers handle the goods with sanitary gloves and don’t mumble quite as much.

I made my way down the aisle with limited conversation, mostly a mix of “that one,” “this looks good” and “are those chocolate chips or raisins?” I was friendly without being grating, sincere without being affected, and completely superficial, just as I like it.

When my box was full, I headed to a cake table where another slightly more eager Methodist stood watch. As I admired the Amish friendship bread, I heard the question I feared: “What church do you attend?”

“Uh, none locally,” I stammered, hoping she’d think I was from a land far away.

But now, I’m thinking I might be ready for a deeper experience that centers more on my eternal soul and less on my weakness for red-sprinkled shortbreads shaped like Santa. I’m looking at the church directory in our local newspaper for a house of worship that might possibly accommodate my belief that it’s possible a single small South Carolina parish is not the only group to have cornered the market on everlasting life. As you might imagine, there are many that don’t look particularly hopeful: the Real Life Assembly of God, the New Vision Freewill Baptist Church and the Calvary Ultimate Life Shield of Faith Evangelical Ministry, to mention a few.

These don’t sound especially flexible in their theology (though I bet all the jumping up and down they do makes them quite agile physically), so I harken back to my Lutheran heritage. There’s a Missouri Synod branch called Epiphany Lutheran, though I believe I read that this synod maintains a strict belief in bad pro football teams (the Kansas City Chiefs, the St. Louis Rams, etc., hardly what you’d call solid rocks on which to build a church, especially their offensive lines). There’s Emmanuel Lutheran on Main Street, probably the town’s old-school congregation with old-school parishioners.

I think I’m going to choose Grace Lutheran, not far from the local college. It offers both traditional and contemporary services and has a pastor named E. Ray Mohrmann, a great name for a Lutheran. They do claim to have communion at all services, not something I’d necessarily brag about but not a deal-breaker for me. Maybe there will also be communion in a larger sense, and I’ll get the chance to fraternize with cheerful, Christmas-addled types and consume wheat-based foodstuffs at the same time.

“Take and eat, for this is the Body of Christ,” I imagine E. Ray will ask me. And I’ll be ready to respond: “Thanks for the snack. Hope you’re ready for the holidays. Have you gotten all your shopping done? I can’t believe those lines at the post office. I hear we might get some snow next week. Give my best to your family.”

Finally the year we cancel Christmas: An editorial

December 2, 2010

It’s becoming as clear as the nose on Rudolph the Reindeer’s face. The Christmas season is here.

Never mind what happened in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago, let’s talk about what happened in Des Moines, Iowa, last weekend. Sculptor Sarah Pratt carved a full Nativity scene out of giant blocks of butter. Created for a local charity, Pratt said she wanted to show the Holy Family “desperate and lost,” like many troubled families today. She called it her “most reflective work yet,” at least until it starts to melt.

This seemingly obscure event may just have been the tipping point in a debate America has been having for a while now. The time may finally have come that everyone agrees: we have to cancel Christmas.

People have long complained about the commercialization of Christmas (and the pasteurization of butter, for that matter) and how it was perverting the true meaning of the holiday. But we continued the orgy of excess anyway, even expanding it so that decorations start appearing in the stores in October. During eight weeks of build-up to the big day, we spend a few minutes here and there appreciating our families and worshiping our Lord, but the rest of the time we’re standing in line at Target or falling-down drunk.

Every year, we say “next year will be different,” and so finally, this year it is. There will be no Christmas.

What’s the big loss? Some may point to the struggling economy, and say that all those retail sales are needed to stave off a double-dip recession. Don’t think God doesn’t agree that the unemployment rate is too high, though He is confident the November numbers being released this week will show upwards of 95,000 private-sector jobs created last month. Think, however, of all the extra productivity America’s work force can create when it isn’t stuffed full of holiday treats. It more than makes up for the positive economic impact of having Dad the Temp work two months of five-hour shifts dressed up as Santa.

This would be a good year to start the end of Christmas because Dec. 25 falls on a Saturday. People who still wanted to celebrate could do so in silence behind blackout curtains since they’d still have the day off from work. But they’re going to be much less likely to spend three straight days in church (Christmas Eve through Sunday). After that much time in prayer, they’d be way too good for the rest of us anyway.

There should be positive effects on the environment. Mountains of waste that only days before represented the excitement of gift-giving — and I’m talking here about not only the discarded wrapping paper and bows but also the useless crap inside — won’t be clogging our landfills. There’ll be no holiday travel burning up trillions of tons of gasoline. The accelerated global warming seen in large areas of the Arctic will be lessened when Santa and his factory elves are put out of work and forced into refugee camps in Finland’s federally-administered tribal areas.

Children will probably be hurt the most, at least those in the U.S. receiving their manufactured trinkets if not those in China who are assembling them. We can still give our kids something to set their hearts soaring as they race to where the Christmas tree would’ve been on that magical morning. Give them a book to read. Your local library has thousands of these they’re willing to give away.

Let it be noted that this decree does not cover New Year’s Eve, which can be celebrated as usual as long as I’m invited to the party.

As for the giant buttery Nativity scene, it’s already been made so we might as well let the people of Iowa enjoy looking at it. It’s on display in a cooler at the headquarters of the Des Moines Catholic Diocese, and could conceivably be kept edible and vaguely reminiscent of a jaundiced Joseph, Mary and Jesus until Easter. If someone will then cook a giant cross-shaped pancake, we won’t have to consider the Christmas season a complete loss.

Mary, the Mother of God, is surprisingly low in cholesterol

Revisited: Church calendar confusing to many

November 27, 2010

The wave of fresh converts to evangelical Christianity appears to contain many who are confused about certain details of this, their first holiday season.

“I’m still learning my way around,” admitted Sonya Bennett. “I mean, I believe in Jesus and all that stuff; I’m just a little hazy on the reasons for some of these celebrations.”

Much of the bewilderment became apparent during yesterday’s so-called “Black Friday.” Large numbers of newly minted Christians showed up at post-Thanksgiving sales at Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers, thinking they were observing the day Jesus was crucified at Calgary.

“I guess I was thinking of — what is it? — Good Friday,” said Heather Thompson. “I thought Black Friday was the day the altar was draped in black cloth, and a somber service acknowledged our Lord’s ultimate sacrifice for mankind. Turns out, it’s more about low, low prices.”

Thompson said many of her friends were also confused about the day. She said she felt that the Church of Christ, of which she became a member earlier this year, and the nation’s retail sector were “just asking” for there to be such widespread misunderstanding.

“I mean, think about it: Good Friday marks an occasion when something bad happened, and Black Friday marks a good day, a day of door-busting bargains. That’s just plain screwy,” Thompson said. “You’d think it would be the other way around. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one expecting up to 60% off the cost of my salvation.”

Bennett, a recent convert to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, said the church calendar at first didn’t make sense to her. She said she had time to meditate and reflect on her faith while waiting in line from midnight till 4 a.m. outside the Valley Hills Mall in Seattle.

“I finally puzzled through it,” Bennett said. “It just wasn’t possible that Jesus was crucified in late November, then born in late December, and then ascended into heaven in March or April. I know He can do some amazing things, but this just seemed totally whack.”

Similar puzzlement was expected during next week’s “Cyber Monday,” which has become the day on which close to a third of on-line Christmas gift sales are made. Either that, or it’s something to do with Simon Peter, or maybe the Immaculate Conception, or maybe Zhu Zhu pets.

“The one that always messes me up is Maundy Thursday,” said Oscar Bennett, who joined the Southern Baptist denomination in February. “I mean, is it a Monday or is it a Thursday? I’m all for talking in tongues, but come on. How can we have effective outreach to non-believers with this kind of double-talk?”

Raymond Price, a new member of the fundamentalist Mercy Schmercy Catholic Church in suburban Atlanta, defended Christianity’s elaborate calendar as something that novices should study and become comfortable with.

“It’s really not that complicated when you put your mind to it,” Price said. “Ash Wednesday is the day we remember volcano victims. Palm Sunday celebrates the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem in triumph after inventing the handheld personal digital assistant. Corpus Christi, in mid-June, marks the beginning of beach season on the south Texas coast.”

Price said his personal favorite day on the liturgical calendar was Ruby Tuesday.

“Any day that honors both the Rolling Stones and the Seaside Sensations combo platter is truly a holy day in my book,” Price said. “Ruby Tuesday — Fresh Taste, Fresh Price.”