Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

When our children were little we would spend New Year's Eve with friends whose children were the same age as ours. When we arrived at their house the clocks would all be set ahead 2 hours. At ten o'clock we would ring in the 'new year' with our children, put them to bed, and then go on with our celebration.

Our kids eventually caught on and celebrated with us in real time. Now they are grown and off doing their own celebrations. I have to confess, though, that I wouldn't mind a bit if I arrived at friends' house tonight and the clocks were all set ahead two hours. For tradition, of course.

"Pink Slime"

That's what is in a McDonald's or Burger King hamburger, and maybe your grocery store ground beef too. Actually, it is beef renderings treated with ammonia to kill the pathogens. The treated meat is then mixed with ground beef. The process was devised by a company Beef Products as a way to treat and use less desirable parts of the animal and thus bring down the price of ground beef. The company also claimed that when the ammonia-treated meat was mixed with the rest of the ground beef pathogens in the untreated meat would also be killed.

The FDA allowed the company to not label ammonia as an ingredient in the meat, but numerous large-scale buyers of the beef like schools and prisons have complained about the ammonia smell in the meat. A former USDA microbiologist called the processed beef "pink slime" in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

The company 's processed meat had a USDA exemption from regular testing of its meat but that exemption has now been lifted as random testing by other agencies has found pathogens in Beef Products meat, and it has come to light that in response to complaints about the ammonia smell the company has lowered the level of ammonia used. This takes care of the smell problem but potentially raises the level of pathogens left in the meat.

For consumers of ground beef this whole process is just now coming to light. Who knew our "100 per cent" ground beef contained "pink slime?"

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Passing of a Mentor

When I arrived in Youngstown, OH, young and fresh out of seminary I had no clue about what it meant to be a pastor. I was incredibly fortunate to find there a former pastor of the church who served as a mentor and who became a great friend. Dick Speicher had been pastor at Woodworth Church of the Brethren in Youngstown during the 1960's. He was one of "liberal" pastors of his day who introduced the Revised Standard Version of the Bible to the congregation. He lost families at the church because of that and some people were still talking about it when I was there.

He had gone on from serving as pastor there to serve as a campus pastor at Youngstown State University and then as Executive Director of the Mahoning Valley Association of Churches. Dick died a week ago today. His memorial service is tomorrow in Youngstown.

When I arrived at Woodworth Dick was very careful to stay out of my way as a former pastor who didn't want to step on my shoes or violate ethical guidelines in respect to being involved with former churches. But he took me out for coffee regularly and was a great listener. He hauled me around to every ecumenical event in the Youngstown area. And eventually with my encouragement and after more than 15 years of staying away, he began attending Woodworth again and became involved in doing nursing home and senior visitation. He was also - and I didn't learn this until near the end of my eight years there - a quiet advocate on my behalf in many ways.

Every pastor needs a Dick Speicher in their congregation. One day I hope to be able to return the favor when (if?) I retire. My thoughts and prayers are with the family.

There are Martyrs and then...

there are martyrs.

The cable news and even the once respectable network news has been going on non-stop about the failed attempt of Abdul Mutallab to blow up a plane in the hopes, I imagine, of being greeted in heaven by 27 virgins.

Meanwhile the Times of London has nominated for person of the year a real martyr, Neda Soltan:

Neda Soltan was not political. She did not vote in the Iranian presidential election on June 12. The young student was appalled, however, by the way that the regime shamelessly rigged the result and reinstalled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ignoring the pleas of her family, she went with her music teacher eight days later to join a huge opposition demonstration in Tehran.

“Even if a bullet goes through my heart it’s not important,” she told Caspian Makan, her fiancé. “What we’re fighting for is more important. When it comes to taking our stolen rights back we should not hesitate. Everyone is responsible. Each person leaves a footprint in this world.”

Ms Soltan, 26, had no idea just how big a footprint she would leave. Hours after leaving home, she was indeed shot, by a government militiaman, as she and other demonstrators chanted: “Death to the dictator.”

Arash Hejazi, a doctor standing near by, remembers her looking down in surprise as blood gushed from her chest. She collapsed. More blood spewed from her mouth. As she lay dying on the pavement, her life ebbing out of her, “I felt she was trying to ask a question. Why?” said Dr Hejazi, who tried to save her life. Why had an election that generated so much excitement ended with a government that claims to champion the highest moral values, the finest Islamic principles, butchering its own youth?

A 40-second telephone clip of Ms Soltan’s final moments flashed around the world. Overnight she became a global symbol of the regime’s brutality, and of the remarkable courage of Iran’s opposition in a region where other populations are all too easily suppressed by despotic governments.

Freedom is on the march right now in Iran. Young people are in the streets facing down a brutal, despotic government. The government is Muslim. And so are the protesters who want to be Muslim and free. If they succeed it will be because of the bravery of people like Neda Soltan.

BTW, it strikes me that Neda Soltan was "not political" in the same way that Jesus was not political. Being not political like Jesus and Neda can get you killed.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mental Health Break Winner

The Daily Dish (Andrew Sullivan) is conducting its annual election for the best and worst sayings and videos of the year. For the Mental Health Break category, the voting is for second place because this video of a young girl getting a surprise visit at school from her father "would have blown away the competition." Yes it would have.

EMBED-Tricked On Halloween - Watch more free videos


Ross Douthat comments today on the pantheistic message of Avatar and of Hollywood movies in general. I haven't seen Avatar so I can't comment on it's message. I tend to see the veneration of nature as displayed in Disney movies from the days of Bambi right up to the more recent Lion King and Pocohantas as useful popular corrections to the usual commercial propaganda that progress and technology and capitalism will save us. I am not sure they really make a dent against this omnipresent propaganda, but I appreciate the efforts to plant the seed of a different kind of message in young minds.

But I want to take a little issue with this comment by Douthat:
At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.
I don't think this is quite right. Pantheism isn't really for anyone who "pines for transcendence." Pantheism collapses the transcendent into everything around us. For the pantheist God is in everything and there is nothing more, nothing transcendent.

For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, there is panentheism, which holds that the everything is holy but the holy is not defined by everything. There is something more - transcendence - even if that something more is not a personal God of the Bible who exists "wholly outside our world but intervenes with some regularity.

It's a small but important distinction.

Apparently there are those who are attracted to Orthodox traditions because of its panentheism. For those of us who don't find the bells and whistles of Orthodoxy meaningful, there is another panentheistic alternative. It is called liberal Christianity.

"He Cannot Turn Himself into a Heterosexual"

Via Andrew Sullivan:

"With Gareth coming out publicly and our divorce being finalized in the New Year, I feel a chapter is closing and, although I feel sad and wish it could be different, it's for the best. This is who Gareth is and it is something which cannot be changed, but it has been so hard coming to terms with that... He will always love me, but he cannot turn himself into a heterosexual. If he could, I would still be married to him. We will always be the best of friends and I couldn't feel prouder of him than I do now," - Jenna Thomas, former wife of Gareth Thomas, the Welsh rugby player who came out last week.

In 2005, Thomas captained Wales to their first Grand Slam victory since 1978 and was capped 100 times for his nation - more than any other Welshman in a country where rugby is a civil religion.

60 Votes

Last night, or early this morning, the Senate passed its first procedural hurdle on the health care bill when 60 Senators voted to cut-off what will be the first of several filibuster attempts by Republicans.

Much will be made of the bipartisan failure of this effort. Not a single Republican supported it. But I don't look at it that way. The way I see it the current Democratic Party is incredibly diverse, with conservative Democrats who in other times would be moderate Republicans working on the same team as more traditional liberals. The far-from perfect bill that is soon to be passed by the Senate is the result of much deal-making and compromise, the kind that would typically be done between parties but is now being done intra-party. It is much like what happens in one-party towns like Chicago or my old Youngstown, OH. When one party dominates the only game in town is within the party in power and you get the kind of diversity you would typically see among various political parties within that one party.

That's pretty much the reality of the US Congress right now. You have one very diverse party in power and one tiny fringe party that has no interest and really no compelling reason to play ball. It's pretty telling when Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who was part of the gang of six Republican and Democratic Senators who negotiated all summer and produced a bi-partisan blue-print that was initially ignored by the Senate, but now gets a final bill that looks pretty much like what she helped produce, won't vote for the final bill because it is being "rushed." She was never going to vote for any bill. Her participation in the gang 0f six process was designed to slow down and helpfully kill health care reform.

Getting 60 Senate votes - even if 58 of them are from the same party and 2 are Independents - on any contentious issue is pretty remarkable. It's not the bill I hoped for, and of course there is more work to be done in reconciliation, but by any reasonable standard that looks fairly at the current political distribution of power in Washington it is a "bi-partisan" political victory.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Songwriter Feinstein says Christmas isnt' just for Christians

Michael Feinstein explains in the NYTimes why Jews write Christmas songs:

The evolution of Christmas is reflected to a degree in its music. As the holiday has become more secular, so have its songs, with religious and spiritual compositions largely supplanted by the banalities of Rudolph, sleigh bells and Santa. Many Christians feel that the true essence of Christmas has been lost, and I respect that opinion. It must be difficult to see religious tradition eroded in the name of commerce and further dissipated by others’ embrace of a holiday without a sense of what it truly means to the faithful.

Yet I also hope that those who feel this encroachment will on some level understand that the spirit of the holiday is universal. We live in a multicultural time and the mixing, and mixing up, of traditions is an inevitable result. Hence we have the almost century-old custom of American Jews creating a lot more Christmas music than Hanukkah music.

If you look at a list of the most popular Christmas songs, you’ll find that the writers are disproportionately Jewish: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” (yes, Mel Tormé was Jewish), “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “Santa Baby,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Winter Wonderland” — perennial, beloved and, mostly, written for the sheet music publishers of Tin Pan Alley, not for a show or film. (Two notable exceptions: “White Christmas,” introduced in “Holiday Inn,” and “Silver Bells,” written for “The Lemon Drop Kid.”)

...In my holiday shows, I’m always looking for novel expressions of the season, and when I introduce a new song I don’t usually think about the religion of its creator. That said, I’m always pleased to discover a surprising juxtaposition. It doesn’t take Freud to figure out that the sugarplums, holly and mistletoe all tap into a sense of comfort, longing, security and peace that so many fervently desire; that we all wish the clichés were true. As Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists and everything in between, we are all more alike than we are different. That’s something to celebrate.
Feinstein is right-on here. Jesus and what he stands for isn't just for Christians. The real problem, if there is one, isn't that Christmas is being stolen or commercialized or lost; it's that for the most part Christians don't pay any attention to it's meaning for the rest of the year.

Keillor Tells Unitarians and Jews to not mess with Christmas

Garrison Keillor having a little fun in a Salon article:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write "Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we'll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah"? No, we didn't.

Christmas is a Christian holiday -- if you're not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah.

It's getting big-time coverage here in his home state and is apparently lighting up the blogosphere.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bigfoot Spotted in MN

This is what happens when it gets cold here in Minnesota. The brain cells sloooow waaaay doooown and we see things that are not really there, or find ourselves paying attention to stories like this that we would normally ignore.

It seems a deer camera mounted in northern Minnesota caught this image on a recent night. It must be true; I read it in a reputable newspaper.

Buy a Real Tree

I don't really understand the appeal of artificial trees. I guess it is just a matter of convenience. Or safety. We have a fake tree at church because fire code requires it. But there is nothing like the smell of a real tree. And, they are grown locally; artificial trees grow in China. Real trees are also more environmentally friendly:
Live trees actively photosynthesize as they grow from saplings, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. After they have been cut and Christmas is over, they're usually chipped for mulch. As mulch, the bits of tree very slowly decompose, releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. So in the end, a real Christmas tree is carbon neutral, putting the same amount of carbon dioxide back into the air as it took out (albeit much more slowly).

The tree farms that grew the trees also replant after the trees are cut.

Artificial trees, on the other hand, don't come out even in the carbon balance. Petroleum is used to make the plastics in the trees and lots of carbon dioxide-creating energy is required to make and transport them.

Because these trees just end up in landfills after a few years' use, "those greenhouse gases are lost forever," Springer said. "There's really no opportunity to recycle those."

Buy a real Christmas tree this year.

It's Cold Up Here

It's warmed up to 2 below. We got about 8-9 inches of snow out of the mega-storm that moved across the country. It is quite beautiful outside and bitterly cold. Yesterday afternoon there were five robins sitting briefly in a tree in front of our house and I image the conversation was something along the lines of "whose bright idea was it not to fly south this winter?"

Congrats to Meagan

I just received this text from my daughter: "Just turned in my last assignment of my college career." She graduates this Saturday and I am very much looking forward to seeing her receive her diploma.

For the last several months she has been fretting about job prospects; they are bleak and in a few months she has to start paying back the student loans. But hopefully for a few days at least she can enjoy the moment and feel a sense of pride in her accomplishment. I am happy for her and proud of her.