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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Christmas! (It's not an endangered expression)

We had a lively discussion at our last Session meeting about the words "Season's Greetings." One of our Presbyterian Women circles had hung a piece of poster board in the narthex for members to write Christmas greetings to one another. A few Session members thought it should be changed to "Merry Christmas."

They pointed out that a church, of all places, ought to be where people are perfectly comfortable using the word "Christmas."

I'm quite sure the PW member wrote "Season's Greetings" in all innocence. She could just as well have written "Merry Christmas." She had no idea she was stepping into the middle of an ongoing debate about the so-called "War on Christmas."

Is there such a "war?" I have my doubts. I think the whole concept of a War on Christmas is something TV pundits dreamed up in order to boost their ratings. Of course there are secular contexts, like department stores, that have to be mindful of their Hanukkah shoppers as well as their Christmas shoppers! Most reasonable people never thought this was a problem until some TV commentator told them it was.

A friend of mine, David Leininger, addressed this subject in a sermon circulated online. He says it better than I could, so I think I'll just let him speak for me:

It has always felt good for me to say [Merry Christmas]. And, to be honest, I never worried much about it. I have tried to be somewhat sensitive and not extend the wish to my Jewish or Muslim friends. That would have made no sense, but I have never felt particularly reluctant to say it. Have you?

What brings it to mind is this bizarre concern that some people have been supposedly feeling in recent years about being prevented from wishing folks, "Merry Christmas." Apparently, it all started when somebody on FOX News started a "Christmas Under Siege" campaign noting that many businesses were not wishing shoppers, "Merry Christmas" upon the completion of their transactions, but rather something innocuous and non-specific like, "Happy Holidays." The ultra-right wing John Birch Society said the same thing in the 1950s calling it a conspiracy concocted by the Godless United Nations. Not to be outdone, Focus on the Family's James Dobson started something called the Alliance Defense Fund running a project with the motto: "Merry Christmas. It's okay to say it." Jerry Falwell launched a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," with promises to file suit against anyone who spread "misinformation" about how Christmas can be celebrated in schools and public spaces. He said he had 750 lawyers who were ready to pounce if, for example, a teacher were muzzled from leading the third graders in "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Of course, those 750 lawyers did not come cheap, so your tax-deductible contributions were most welcome to insure the success of this important venture.

One of the FOX News folks, John Gibson, even published a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Huh? I am a liberal, and proud of it, but the only thing I have ever plotted at Christmas is how to survive without going into bankruptcy.

Truth is, America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it and considered the celebration un-Christian. The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritans faded away. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the devil had stolen Christmas "and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting, and swearing." 

Christmas began to gain popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's Visit from St. Nicholas and Thomas Nast's drawings in Harper's Weekly that created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders' worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and shooting and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. And, we have been battling that ever since, with a notable lack of success -- and to the great relief of the nation's retailers who do their best business of the year just prior to Christmas.

These days, the "defenders" of Christmas are not just tolerating commercialization -- they are insisting upon it. Shop at the places that will wish you, "Merry Christmas," not just, "Happy Holidays."

Enough already! Christmas is just getting caught in the political crossfire. We are living in an America that, I am convinced, is not nearly so divided as some folks who have been exploiting us want us to believe. The vast majority of us agree on the vast majority of issues -- social, political, theological, whatever. There are some fringe issues about which we might disagree, but so what? We do not have to agree on everything to successfully live and work together -- ask any husband or wife. My advice is simply this: do not get caught up in these controversies. They are not worth it, they serve no purpose except to those who are trying to exploit them and us, and they certainly do not reflect well on us as Christians.

All I want for Christmas this year is grace -- just grace. The story of Christmas is, after all, at its heart, a story of grace. The coming of Jesus Christ into our world is the affirmation of God's unmerited favor to us. Look again at that little New Testament "postcard" (it's hardly long enough to be called something as highfalutin as an "epistle") to Titus: "For the grace of God that brings salvation ... Jesus ... has appeared to all ..." (Titus 2:11). Grace -- the essence of Christmas.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Alternate Utility Companies: Check Them Out Carefully

Here at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, we just received a visit from a congenial salesperson from an electricity provider that markets themselves as an alternative to Jersey Central Power & Light. She explained that her company, Gateway Energy Services, sends people like her around to check on what JCP&L is charging us, and to see if her employer can get us a better deal by providing a variable rate.

She explained that Gateway provides electricity wholesale to JCP&L and that we can save money by buying power directly from them. The discounts, she explained, would be "locked in" for two years.

While this was going on in the outer office, I started Googling "Gateway Energy Services" on my computer and quickly discovered a whole lot of consumer complaints. Some of them were related to "slamming" - changing a consumer's electricity provider when the consumer has not, in fact, agreed to do so. Others had to do with wildly varying rates, with those increases being absorbed by the consumer, not the company.

I'm no expert on these things, but it looks to me like this company would be inviting us to speculate with them on varying utility rates. Yes, they could save us money, under certain favorable conditions. Yet, if the conditions prove to be unfavorable, we - rather than they - would be assuming most of the financial risk.

I believe this is legal. But I also believe that, as business practices go, it's ethically questionable.

In the meantime, a church staff member had provided the salesperson with our JCP&L account number, which she entered into a tablet computer to show us the savings that would be possible.

We did not, in fact, agree to a change of service providers. We explained that the church staff does not have the power to make that kind of decision and asked the salesperson to provide a written proposal to submit to the appropriate Session committee. She grudgingly went out to her car and came back with an information sheet.

We subsequently called JCP&L and learned from them that, when a request comes to change a customer's service to an alternative energy company, their practice is to send the customer a letter, notifying the customer of the request. The customer then has seven days to get back to JCP&L and cancel the change before it goes into effect.

We'll wait and see what happens, but - based on what we've read about other customers' experience with this and similar alternative-energy companies - I think it's possible that we'll receive one of those JCP&L letters notifying us of a provider change request. We never agreed to that, but as long as the company has our JCP&L account number, they have the capacity to tell JCP&L that we made such a request.

We'll watch the mailbox and, should such a letter arrive, we'll immediately notify JCP&L that we have not authorized a change.

Should your church receive a visit or phone call from such a salesperson, my advice is to make no commitments, get everything in writing and not share with them your utility-company account number.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has a helpful guide to shopping for energy providers, that includes a list of specific questions to ask before making this kind of decision.

Clerks, please pass this column along to your Session's finance or buildings and grounds person.

Caveat emptor....

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Tale of Two Widows: Pensions for Cuban Pastors

Imagine going on a trip to track people down and give them tens of thousands of dollars. What a joy that would be!

But what a challenge it would be as well, if the place you're visiting is Cuba!

That task has been the passion of several very persistent staff members of the Presbyterian Board of Pensions for a great many years. It's a tale of knocking on the door of U.S. government bureaucrats again and again, for years, and simply refusing to take "No" for an answer.

An article referenced in a recent Board of Pensions newsletter tells the story. The heroes of the tale are Frank Maloney, a longtime Vice-President of the Board, and Ernesto Badillo, who made a number of trips to Cuba, even as he was receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

There was growing urgency to complete the task, because many of the surviving pensioners are now in their 90s. Were they ever to benefit personally from this money they'd earned decades ago - as opposed to simply knowing that their heirs might see it someday - something had to change, and soon.

Which is where Frank and Ernesto came in. Like the persistent widow in Jesus' parable, they just kept banging on the government officials' doors until someone finally took action.

The backstory here is that, until a few years after the Cuban Revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, Presbyterian churches in Cuba were part of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Cuba was part of the Synod of New Jersey, and Cuban pastors would travel here for Synod meetings. Their churches contributed money into the Board of Pensions, so their pastors would have retirement benefits.

The Revolution changed all that. The U.S. regarded Cuba as being behind the Iron Curtain, and so embargoed all financial transactions. Long after relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (later Russia) had normalized, the Cuban embargo remained firmly in place - as it does even today. Meanwhile, the pension payments from the 1950s and 1960s sat in designated accounts, earning interest.

The Cuban churches subsequently formed their own national Presbyterian church, independent of the U.S.A.

A few of us - including myself - have managed to travel to Cuba as part of presbytery-to-presbytery mission partnerships, and have been able to receive occasional Cuban visitors as sisters and brothers in Christ (as our government granted them permission to come, on a case-by-case basis). During my two trips to Cuba, I've been impressed by the strength of this vibrant, rapidly growing denomination. Since Cuba adopted its new Constitution in 1990, they have been free to pursue their denominational life in a country that now practices religious tolerance.

Speaking of widows in Jesus' parables, there's another tale he told about a widow. This one is the familiar tale of the widow's mite. The widow in that story contributed a small coin - all the money she had - to the Temple treasury, while a nearby Pharisee took great pride in giving a larger sum that represented only a small portion of his great wealth.

La Fernanda Presbyterian Church
This story also includes a tale similar to the widow's mite. An earlier Presbyterian New Service article tells the story of one of the retired pensioners, Maria Josefa Nunez, a Christian educator. When Maria - who is in her 90s - learned that she would be receiving a $30,000 windfall from the Board of Pensions, she decided to use the money to buy a house adjacent to the overcrowded house-church she attends - La Fernanda Presbyterian Church, near Havana - so they could expand to accommodate their overflow crowd of worshipers. Thirty grand sounds like a lot of money to us here in the U.S.A., but in Cuba - with its controlled economy where U.S. dollars are worth a good deal more than Cuban money - it's a huge fortune.

So, the tale of the widow's mite - or, The Widow's Might, as the PNS article puts it - takes on new life in this present-day context.

Praise the Lord for good news stories like this one!