December 2010

Greater Gaston in turmoil after DOM pressured out

December 29 2010 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

Some pastors of Greater Gaston Baptist Association are requesting a special called meeting of the association to clarify circumstances around the sudden resignation in October of Larry McElreath, director of missions for 16 years.

“We want the associational leadership to understand there has been an error made and to make sure going into the future this doesn’t set a precedent for how we do things,” said Greg Neely, pastor of Chestnut Ridge Baptist Church in King’s Mountain.

No one is trying to get McElreath’s job back, Neely said, but “it is cowardice to give a man a good review, then turn around and fire him.”

McElreath, who received a positive evaluation of his work less than three months earlier, was asked to resign by members of the executive team, led by association moderator Wayne Key, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Cherryville. Key said in a December 16 telephone interview that McElreath had been advised over the past five years to seek other employment.

McElreath said that other than a single pastor or two making such a suggestion, he was never officially encouraged to leave.

The request for his resignation from North Carolina Baptists’ second largest association — with 144 churches and growing — came as a complete surprise to McElreath, a former evangelism staffer with the Baptist State Convention, former missionary with the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) and former director of missions in Sandy Creek Baptist Association.

McElreath said the officers asked him to resign after a two-hour session in which he was not present, that he thought was just a budget review. They asked him to submit his resignation at the annual associational meeting, but forbade him to stay after he spoke.

He made a statement at the annual meeting that fell short of actually resigning, then left as some bewildered messengers followed him out the door.

A host of procedural shortcomings has been named in the request asking for a special called meeting. Association bylaws indicate that employment status of the director of missions can only be determined by messengers of the association, and not by the executive board or any sub-committee of the board.

“The bylaws state very clearly you can’t fire the missionary, period. The body voted him in and the body would have to vote him out,” said Joe Drum, pastor of New Faith Baptist Church in Alexis, and a petition signer.

“The thing that bothers me more than anything — and we’re not trying to cause problems — but our bylaws have been violated, big time. If you let this go by what’s saying that down the line they couldn’t do it again?”  

Resignation clouds issue
McElreath eventually resigned in the face of pressure to resign with a severance or to be terminated at the end of the month. McElreath admits a return to his role as DOM in the association is unlikely, but he is concerned that unanswered questions surrounding his departure have sullied his reputation.

Key said he is confident proper procedures were followed. The executive team denied an initial request for a special called meeting, and Key doesn’t see how such a meeting would help.

Petitioning pastors are resorting to a statute in state law governing non-profits, which declares that an organization must hold a called meeting within 30 days after receiving such a request from at least 10 percent of voting members. That would mean a petition signed by about 130 persons for the Greater Gaston Association and in mid-December representatives of almost 40 churches already had signed such a petition. 

Key, whose church is the largest financial supporter of the association, said, “We feel we’ve done it decently and in order and what God would have us to do.”

“We asked for Larry to resign,” Key said. “We did not fire him. I cannot tell you these reasons; they are confidential.”

Key said the executive team provided McElreath a letter of reference and that he “has done nothing immoral or illegal.”

Key, who said he did not know about the petition until a reporter informed him, said, “I sure hope this is not going to happen. It would be detrimental to our association.”

While traditionally recordings and minutes of any associational meeting have been available, Key has denied such requests because “some people want to nitpick some things. We did do things according to Robert’s Rules of Order. It would not be wise of us to let those copies go out.”

Neely said if Robert’s Rules had been followed, the meeting itself would have been declared out of order.  

Office disarray
After the meeting McElreath found his office in disarray and some items missing.

When he told Key he needed to report a burglary Key said there was no break in.

“No one broke into his office,” Key said. “By law we have the right to go in there and look at anything we want.”

Key said whoever was in the office representing the association removed items out of concern that McElreath “would not leave anything we might need.”

“The only things we removed were things we needed to keep,” Key said.

Because he is association moderator, Key has become interim executive director of the association. He is chairing a search committee that includes Tom Kinman, pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Gastonia; Chester Waters, pastor of Ridge Baptist Church in Gastonia; Mike Staton, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Cherryville; and Brian Detrick, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Gastonia.

Key said he stands by the actions of the executive team, saying, “I believe we did the right thing.”
12/29/2010 5:40:00 PM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 0 comments

N.Y. mosque named top religion story of 2010

December 29 2010 by Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

The protracted and contentious debate over plans to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York was the top religion story of 2010, according to a survey of religion journalists.

The imam piloting the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, was voted the Religion Newswriters Association’s top newsmaker of 2010, besting Pope Benedict XVI, Sarah Palin, and aid workers in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Though the mosque project, known as Park51, is far from completion, the story dominated headlines for weeks, especially as the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 approached. President Obama weighed in, saying Muslims have a right to build houses of worship, but other political leaders called the proposal insensitive to Americans still grieving over the loss of friends and family.

The response of faith-based charities to Haiti’s devastating earthquake last January — including child-smuggling accusations against Idaho evangelicals — was voted the No. 2 religion story of 2010.

Allegations that Benedict and other Catholic leaders responded inadequately to the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy; the rise of the Tea Party; and the various faith groups’ responses to Obama’s health-care bill rounded out the top five stories of 2010, according to the survey.

The rest of the top 10 are:

6. Debates over homosexuality among mainline Protestants, particularly the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church.

7. The economic recession’s effect on churches and ministries, including the bankruptcy of the landmark Crystal Cathedral in southern California.

8. The suicide of several gay teens prompted soul searching among American Christians about whether religion contributes to anti-gay attitudes.

9. A survey by the Pew Forum yielded some surprising results, including that atheists scored better than many Christians on a test of religious knowledge.

10. The Supreme Court began its session in October without a Protestant justice on the bench for the first time in history. Six Catholics and three Jews sit on the high court.  
12/29/2010 1:49:00 AM by Daniel Burke, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Illinois church names successor to slain pastor

December 29 2010 by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press

MARYVILLE, Ill. — Twenty-one months after its pastor was gunned down in the pulpit, First Baptist Church of Maryville, Ill., has chosen a new pastor.

Tom Hufty, vice president of collegiate affairs and assistant to the president at Hannibal-LaGrange University in Hannibal, Mo., takes over as full-time senior pastor Feb. 1. For the past 13 months Hufty has served as interim pastor of the congregation grieving over the murder of Pastor Fred Winters on March 8, 2009.

Winters, 46, senior pastor of the church for more than 20 years, was in the middle of his sermon in the earliest of three worship services when 27-year-old Terry Sedlacek entered the 1,000-seat sanctuary and walked toward the pulpit. Sedlacek pulled out a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and fired four times until the gun jammed. The fourth bullet struck the pastor in the heart, killing him instantly.

Horrified worshipers at first thought it was part of a skit.

Sedlacek then pulled out a four-inch knife and began injuring himself. Two men who helped subdue the attacker were wounded. Sedlacek is charged with first-degree murder. In October a judge found him mentally unfit to stand trial. His lawyers claim he is schizophrenic.

Tom Hufty

Hufty, a popular supply preacher during his 13 years at the Missouri Baptist Convention-affiliated university, was among a line of guest preachers — including some prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention — to fill the pulpit at First Baptist Church in the months after Winters’ death.

Hufty agreed to become interim pastor, after refusing twice, on Oct. 11, 2009. The pastor search committee first asked about interviewing him as permanent pastor in May. “I tried to tell the committee that the reaction was typical,” he said. “I told them we had our plans.”

Hufty eventually gave the committee his resume but told them to put it at the bottom of the pile. The stack of 180 resumes was whittled down to two. Hufty was interviewed in November and was the committee’s unanimous choice.

“That’s when it hit us that, wow, this is serious,” Hufty said. The choice was announced Nov. 21. The church voted nearly unanimously to approve the recommendation Dec. 5.

“God has taught us many lessons during this time, but the most important one we’ve learned is the very real power of prayer,” said Mark Jones, minster of worship and interim co-leader at First Baptist Church of Maryville. “He has answered our prayers by giving us a gifted leader in Dr. Hufty.”

Hufty brings 30 years of experience in church work, including 13 years as associate pastor for student and family ministries at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo. He is a graduate of Hannibal-LaGrange and received the master’s in religious education from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1983.

Hufty plans to continue as interim pastor through January to finish some projects at Hannibal-LaGrange and to help smooth the transition to a new vice president.

Hufty’s wife of 29 years, Rhonda, has also worked at Hannibal-LaGrange as director of public relations since 2003. She resigned Dec. 20. They have two adult children and work together leading marriage-and-family conferences in churches and conventions.

Winters’ murder set off a national discussion about church security and prompted debate about whether licensed concealed-weapons holders should be permitted to carry their guns in church.

Winters’ widow, Cindy, has started a ministry of her own called Grace and Hope Ministries.

“I know that for many of you this week brings more hurt than celebration,” she posted on the ministry’s Facebook page Dec. 21. “I have found myself aching and working very hard just to have enough strength to get through each day.”

“I pray that in the midst of pain and sorrow each of us will still see the hope that our Savior brings and feel his strong presence and love,” she wrote. “My heart goes out to each of you.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press. Vicki Brown of Word and Way contributed to this story.)
12/29/2010 1:45:00 AM by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Despite sour economy, religious card sales up

December 21 2010 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

The sour economy may mean fewer presents under the tree for many families this year, but one thing some Christians won’t give up on is sending Christmas cards — especially religious cards.

“It’s the whole message of Christmas,” said Velma Fann, who returned to the Shrine of the Black Madonna bookstore in Atlanta this year to purchase her cards. “It’s what Christmas is really about.”

Fann, who lost her writing job in October, said she doesn’t have “gift money” for presents this year, but she’s still sending cards that feature a trumpet-playing angel, not Santa Claus.

“The cards are just flying out of the door,” said Ewa Omo Aba, manager of the bookstore, which carries religious cards aimed at her African-American clientele and produced by Carole Joy Creations.

“You might not be able to give a gift, but you at least want to give a card. We’ve had an upswing of that.”

Across the country, retailers and card companies report that the economy has not halted Christians from purchasing greeting cards. But they’re bypassing the boxes of cards that say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” in favor of religious cards with nativity scenes, angels, and, often, Bible verses.

RNS photo courtesy DaySpring

Part of a Christmas card from DaySpring reflects the growing demand for religious-themed Christmas cards.

“Christmas boxed cards are doing very well this year, even in a tough economy,” said Micah Carter, spokesman for the Southern Baptist agency that runs LifeWay Christian Stores. “Our customers are looking for Christmas cards with a strong Christian message.”

Target, which would not disclose sales figures, said demand for religious Christmas cards is increasing, with higher sales this year than last.

“We monitor our guests’ needs closely and respond to their buying habits by increasing the assortment of religious cards in stores where they perform well,” said Target spokeswoman Tara Schlosser.

“Religious cards remain popular with our guests, therefore a significant number of Target stores carry an expanded assortment to meet guest demand.”

Hallmark officials also declined to give specific sales statistics, but said religious-themed cards featuring the artwork of Thomas Kinkade are usually among their top 10 best sellers.

DaySpring Cards, a Hallmark subsidiary and one of the largest manufacturers of religious Christmas cards, say demand has remained steady. Christmas cards comprise 73 percent of the company’s sales of boxed cards, said spokeswoman Brenda Turner.

DaySpring cards range from images of church steeples to snowy scenes, and carry messages such as “our hearts rejoice anew at the Savior’s birth.” Even a Peanuts series of cards have a spiritual touch, with one sound card featuring the voice of Linus reading the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.

Overall, Christmas cards — both secular and religious — remain the mainstay of all greeting cards sold, with about 30 percent of them featuring religious or inspirational messages or imagery, according to the Greeting Card Association.

“I’ve talked to some of our publishers this year and they say ... they had seen even a greater interest in Christmas cards, not necessarily religious per se, but expressing spirituality,” said spokeswoman Barbara Miller. “They had seen more nativity scenes, more archangels, Madonnas with child.”

The economy has put a dent in overall sales, however. Last year, more than 2 billion Christmas cards were sold in the U.S., but industry experts expect sales to be between 1.7 and 1.8 billion this year.

The Knights of Columbus, which for more than two decades has distributed Christian Christmas cards as part of a “Keep Christ in Christmas” fundraising campaign, says sales of its religious cards have increased this year from coast to coast.

“The economy does not seem to be a factor in card sales this year,” said Kevin Adler, campaign chairman for the Alaska division of the Catholic fraternal organization. If the Knights learn of someone who can’t afford the cards — which feature Mother Teresa, the Madonna and child or the holy family — they will offer assistance.

“I had an elderly lady this year who only had enough money to purchase a single box of cards,” he said. “We gave her a second box of cards so that she could send (them) to her family.”

But some purchasers say they’re thinking more of the religious message than any drain on their wallet when they send the Christian cards.

“That’s what Christmas is about,” said Don Klippstein, a Kennewick, Wash., retiree who buys the cards with his wife Bonnie every year despite a smaller expendable income.

“We’ve just made the choice that we want to stay in contact. I’d prefer to send out some nice-looking religious cards than something that’s not.”
12/21/2010 3:40:00 AM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Legends abound for ‘Twelve Days’ presents

December 21 2010 by Daniel Burke, Religion News Service

Twelve drummers? Ten leaping lords? Two turtle doves?

Chances are, the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are not high on anyone’s Christmas list this year. In fact, it’s hard to imagine they were ever popular presents. “It’s not a literal song,” said Mickey Mullany, a professional caroler in Baltimore who admits to sometimes forgetting parts of the famously long lyrics. “If it was a literal song, it would be monstrous.”

Indeed, in the NBC sitcom “The Office,” a salesman attempts to kindle romance with a co-worker by sending her presents from “The Twelve Days.” After her cat kills the turtledoves and the French hens nest in her hair, the co-worker begs him to please, stop.

“Is it my fault the first eight days are basically 30 birds?” the lovesick salesman protests.

Given their unsuitability as gifts, how did dancing ladies, piping pipers, and a bevy of birds become part of one of the season’s best-known carols? What, if anything, do they symbolize?

It depends on whom you ask.

RNS photo courtesy of Chrissandra Unger

“Partridge in a Pear Tree” by Canadian artist Chrissandra Unger ( based on the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

The song has French origins, and was published in an English children’s book called Mirth without Mischief around 1780. Most people believe it began as a memory game sung at Twelfth Night parties. The 12 days of Christmas in Western Christianity refer to the time between Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 and the arrival of the Magi to honor the newborn, known as Epiphany, on Jan. 6.

In recent times, the song has been searched for coded references to Catholic doctrine, ancient Egyptian holidays, Roman myths, and the menu at medieval feasts. It has even become an annual index of economic inflation. Purchasing all the gifts from “Twelve Days” would cost about $23,400, an increase of more than 9 percent from last year, PNC Financial Services Group announced last month.

In the 1990s, a story began floating around the Internet that “The Twelve Days” was used as a secret catechism by Catholics persecuted after the Reformation in England. The “true love” who offers the gifts refers to God, according to this theory. The partridge is Jesus, the two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, the three French hens represent the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and so on.

But California folklorists who run, an urban legend site, dispute the catechism tale. None of the tenets supposedly encoded in the song were points of conflict between Anglicans and Catholics, the site notes, so there would have been no reason to keep them secret. Also, it’s impractical to rely on a seasonal song to teach the faith, the folklorists said. What did persecuted Catholics do for the rest of the year?

William Studwell, who was considered the dean of Christmas carol scholarship before he died last August, was also skeptical.

“If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song,” he said in a 2008 interview with Religion News Service. “It’s a derivative, not the source.”

“The song can still be used as an educational or devotional tool by using the symbols as a mnemonic device,” said Dennis Bratcher, a Church of the Nazarene minister and director of the Christian Resource Institute. “Many Christians today hear the song in those terms anyway, regardless of its origins.”

That’s how “The Twelve Days” sounds to Ace Collins, an evangelical author of numerous books about Christmas carols.     

On the surface, the carol seems as nonsensical as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” Collins said. But a deeper meaning lies below the silly lyrics, he said, comparing the carol to “Roll, Jordan, Roll” the gospel song that was both biblical and a code for black slaves seeking to escape the South.

“Whether it was written that way, or adapted that way, either way it allows people to consider things they don’t normally think about,” Collins said of the carol, “and can possibly become a road that leads people to a greater understanding of Christ.”

Leigh Grant, who wrote and illustrated a children’s book about “The Twelve Days,” said the gifts are popular parts of medieval feasts, often held during Twelfth Night celebrations. The birds were eaten while the pipers, drummers, and lords entertained the guests. The five golden rings in the song refer not to jewelry, but to ring-necked pheasants.

But the song is also rife with symbolism, Grant said.

Partridges and pears, for instance, were considered emblems of fertility during the Renaissance, she said. Likewise, geese and swans were seen as intermediaries between the earth and the sky, and thus humans and heaven.

“I’ve heard a lot of theories about this song,” Grant said, “and I don’t know if any of them are true. But what often happens to songs is that people change them, and so does the meaning people find in them.”
12/21/2010 3:33:00 AM by Daniel Burke, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Christmas is prime time for church invitations

December 21 2010 by Brooklyn Lowery, LifeWay Communications

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A study conducted by LifeWay Research found that 91 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, including a majority of atheists, individuals claiming other religions, and agnostics or those with no religious preference.

The study also found that one of the ways 47 percent of households celebrate the holiday is by attending special Christmas Eve or Christmas Day church services, which perhaps points to an earlier LifeWay Research study.

In December 2008, LifeWay Research presented respondents with nine seasons or life moments and asked: “Have you been more open to considering matters of faith during any of the following times in your life?” Among the nine occasions tested, “during the Christmas holiday season” earned the highest response with 47 percent of respondents citing that as a time they were more open to considering matters of faith.

“Our research shows that people are open during the Christmas season,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “When someone says ‘Happy Holidays,’ I’m not sure the response should be snarling ‘Merry Christmas.’ Instead, I’d suggest seizing the opportunity the season provides. Christians should be as bold in their witness as some are in protest.”

In the 2008 study, LifeWay Research found that 67 percent of Americans say a personal invitation from a church-going family member would be the most effective method a local congregation or faith community could use to invite them to attend. Invitations to attend church from a friend or neighbor are almost as effective, with 63 percent of Americans indicating this variety of invitation would be effective.

“Americans celebrate Christmas, but are often disconnected from the birth of a personal Savior,” Stetzer said. “There’s a gap between practice and belief — and Christians need to step into that gap and share why Jesus was born.”
12/21/2010 3:31:00 AM by Brooklyn Lowery, LifeWay Communications | with 0 comments

Speakers: Make Sunday School worth it

December 21 2010 by Polly House, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “If Sunday School isn’t good, isn’t worth the time, how can we expect people to come back?”

It’s a crucial question, said Art Groomes, one of the speakers at the National Black Sunday School Conference sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

About 250 pastors, church Sunday School directors, leaders and teachers from across the United States — and even one from Bermuda — attended the sessions at LifeWay’s home office in Nashville, Tenn.

Groomes, bivocational pastor of First Family Baptist Church in Antioch, Tenn., underscored the importance of great expectations for Sunday School in sessions he led for conference veterans. “People of faith need to be people of great expectations,” Groomes said. In their Sunday Schools, he said, they should “expect new people every week; expect people to say ‘yes’ when asked to participate; and expect classes to grow and reproduce as every healthy thing does.”

Photo by Russ Rankin

Mark Croston Sr., pastor of East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., preaches God’s Word with passion during the National Black Sunday School Conference.

Achieving great expectations entails planning for good things to happen, especially having teachers who are prepared with the lesson, Groomes said.

“You never know when someone will show up for the very first time to Sunday School, someone you never expected to see,” he said. “You have to have thought it through before they get there. Is there fresh coffee made? Are there enough chairs? Are there people there to greet them? Are there enough books and extra Bibles? Are there people who will ask them to sit with them?”

Follow-up also is crucial, Groomes said.

“Follow up with a phone call or visit that very day,” he said. “At least don’t let it be more than a couple of days. Answer their questions. Ask them to join you for a meal.

“For many new people in Sunday School, it’s never as much about the place as it is about relationships,” Groomes said. “Help them feel like Sunday School is a safe place, a place they are wanted, a place they are loved.”

Elgia “Jay” Wells, director of LifeWay’s black church relations area, told the leaders that Sunday School is the best way to help people get involved in a church.

“They come into your Sunday School and you ... let them know they are welcome and important,” Wells said. “They like that. Then, you invite them to your worship service where the pastor supports the Sunday School.”

Wells introduced Mark Croston Sr., pastor of East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., calling him a Sunday School-loving pastor.

“If you want to see what a Sunday School pastor looks like, look at Mark Croston,” Wells said.

Croston, reiterating that Sunday School is where relationships are formed, encouraged participants to look for people who are wounded and carrying guilt and shame.

“Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds,” Croston said. “Sometimes the wounds are self-inflicted. Sometimes they fester because we don’t appropriately deal with them. At the same time, sometimes guilt can just weigh us down. We groan; we’re weak. We feel completely overwhelmed by our sin.”

Sunday School leaders and members can offer the touch that helps healing begin, Croston said.

“Just love on these people,” he said. “Help them out.”

Participants at the October conference had the opportunity to choose from 35 sessions in addition to a large group track for conference veterans and one for new attendees.

Topics included the nuts and bolts of choosing effective Bible study curricula for Sunday School classes; learning how to teach for transformation; age-specific helps on teens in Sunday School; media technology; and developing an effective adult outreach team.

A good Sunday School curriculum is an important means to an end for teaching people to become followers of Christ, but the Bible is the textbook.

David Francis, director of Sunday School at LifeWay, in leading a session on “Teaching for Life Change,” highlighted three facets of teaching in a way that leads to life change in individuals, “three intertwined facets (that) are part of every great Bible study experience”:
  1. Scripture: “The Bible is the textbook for our Sunday Schools,” Francis said, while curriculum is a means to teaching the Bible in a comprehensive, focused and theologically appropriate way. “The key to discovery teaching and learning is asking questions,” Francis added. “Asking questions is a learning method that is appropriate for all ages and learning styles.”
  2. Story: “People don’t just ‘have’ a story; they ‘are’ a story,” Francis said, noting that stories help connect experience with Scripture. “To discover someone’s story, ask ‘What’s your story? How does your story intersect with God’s story?’” Jesus is the perfect example of a storyteller, Francis noted. “If you look at how He answered questions, many times it was not with a direct answer, but with a story, a parable. This led people to discover the answer to their own questions.”
  3. Shepherding: People need to be led; there is security in knowing that someone is looking out for them, Francis said, describing shepherding as the 24/7/365 ministry of Sunday School. “As a Sunday School teacher or leader, you need to know your sheep, your flock,” he said. “Just like the Good Shepherd, you may have to go out of your way to locate a missing one.” 
Free downloads for Sunday School leaders and teachers are available at

(EDITOR’S NOTE — House is a corporate communications specialist with LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.)
12/21/2010 3:23:00 AM by Polly House, Baptist Press | with 1 comments

Celebrating before Dec. 25? Bah humbug!

December 20 2010 by Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — earlier and earlier every year. The evergreens at Rockefeller Center and the White House were decorated in November, radio stations started playing carols after Halloween, and stores have been promoting Christmas sales for months.

But at Nick Senger’s house in Washington state, the carols and blinking lights are not welcome until well after Thanksgiving. Instead, family traditions include setting the table with purple placemats and an Advent wreath, and waiting until Dec. 25 to complete their Nativity display.

“When the kids wake up on Christmas morning, they always look to make sure Santa has brought baby Jesus,” Senger joked.

Call it the “Battle for Advent” — one that, for a few weeks at least, makes traditional Christians unlikely allies with atheists, secularists and non-Christians in the so-called “War on Christmas.”

Advent advocates — boosted this year by a pastoral letter from the Roman Catholic bishop of Utah and a homily by a media savvy Brooklyn deacon — complain not only about holiday commercialization, but also about the loss of an important month of prayer in the rush to prematurely celebrate Christmas.

“Obviously, certain things have to be done before the end of Advent, but it is realistic to expect that Americans will want to celebrate both Advent and the season of Christmas,” Bishop John Wester of Utah explained through a spokesperson. “These are two different seasons: Advent to prepare for the coming of Christ and Christmas to celebrate his coming.”

Karen Westerfield Tucker, a Boston University School of Theology professor, said her Methodist family always waited until Christmas Eve to decorate its tree, keeping it up for 12 days until Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Advent season, in contrast, is a time for Christians to patiently prepare for the coming of Christ and his baptism, she said. “It was a time for repentance and solemn reflection, and certainly not an occasion for festive preparation,” Tucker said. “In current practice, we’ve got the celebrations backwards — before the events rather than afterwards.”

RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

The Christmas tree at New York’s Rockefeller Center goes up in late November, but some Advent purists shun all Christmas decorations and celebrations until Dec. 25.

Part of the problem stems from the Depression-era decision to move Thanksgiving up a week, getting the holiday shopping season — heralded by Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade — started even earlier, said Martin Connell, author of Eternity Today: On the Liturgical Year.

“I was raised Catholic and there would be not one decoration in the house on Christmas Eve,” he said. “It was a way to make Christmas more celebratory, so that the wonder of Jesus’ birth was connected to the sparkling lights and all that.”

Advent advocates say they understand that merchants depend on the holiday hype to get them through the end of the year, particularly during an economic downturn; they also acknowledge that ceremonial Christmas tree lightings have become beloved events eagerly awaited as soon as the turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie are polished off.

Even devout Catholics get into the swing of the season a bit early: The U.S. headquarters of Opus Dei in New York City has a Christmas tree in its lobby, and the Vatican’s tree in St. Peter’s Square is lit in mid-December.

But churches, religious groups and families could benefit by slowing down and savoring the weeks leading up to Christmas as a unique and special season, Advent advocates say. They can deck their halls with purple decorations, Advent calendars, Jesse trees — which show the biblical lineage of Jesus — and Advent wreaths featuring one candle for each of the four Sundays before Christmas. That’s three purple candles as signs of penance and one rose candle for joy. And there are dozens of Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to sing before it’s time for “Joy to the World.”

Observing Advent patiently would help relieve the stress that has become synonymous with the Christmas season, added Deacon Greg Kandra of Brooklyn, who writes a blog for Beliefnet called “The Deacon’s Bench.”

Busy people want to get their Christmas cards out, decorations up and shopping in, and Kandra doubts that “you can put the genie back in the bottle.” But a compromise would be to postpone these kinds of actions until at least mid-December, if not Christmas Eve, and consider having holiday parties in early January, he said.

Senger, a Catholic school teacher, has started polling people on his blog, “Catholic School Chronicle,” about steps they might take to “enter more fully into Advent.” So far, most respondents say they feel comfortable putting up Advent decorations and delaying Christmas displays, but the avoiding Christmas carols and parties before Dec. 25 remain unpopular.

“People are interested in things that don’t interfere with traditions they already have,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect society to change, although society would benefit from Catholics who are more attuned to the Advent season and not so caught up in the buying and the rushing.”

His family gradually begins putting up some Christmas decorations around mid-December, but Senger has decided to keep the radio dial away from Christmas stations until Dec. 24 this year. The children love the Advent traditions, but postponing carols has been surprisingly difficult, he noted.

“I think when we can finally sing them, they will really appreciate them,” Senger said.

“All this is to commemorate the waiting that the Israelites went through and to look ahead, that we’re really waiting for some unknown point in time when Christ will come again.”
12/20/2010 9:42:00 AM by Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service | with 0 comments

Ivory Coast violence: Prayer, unity urged

December 20 2010 by Baptist Press

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Simmering political tensions erupted into deadly violence Dec. 16 on the streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s main city, as Christians called for prayer and unity.

Up to 30 people were killed by government security forces, according to witnesses and news reports, as marching protesters tried and failed to reach the state television building. Heavy gunfire was heard near an upscale hotel currently occupied by former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, one of two men claiming to be the duly elected president of the West African nation.

Clouds of tear gas rose from other neighborhoods where Ouattara supporters confronted government security forces. An Ivorian human rights group said police were firing on people in the city “with the intention to kill.” Troops loyal to competing presidential factions reportedly clashed in Abidjan and other cities and towns.

By Dec. 17, Abidjan’s streets were mostly deserted — except for heavily armed police — as more fighting loomed.

BP file photo

A young man peers through the window of a church in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in this file photo. Violence has erupted in the West African nation as a disputed presidential election has reopened longstanding national wounds. Ivorian Baptists and Christian workers are calling for prayer for peace and hearts open to the gospel.

Ivory Coast, a once-stable nation torn apart by civil war in 2002-03, plunged into a new national crisis following a disputed presidential run-off election Nov. 28. Ouattara ran against incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo. The Independent Electoral Commission declared Ouattara the winner with 54 percent of the vote. He has been recognized as president by the United Nations, the African Union and much of the international community.

But the national Constitutional Council invalidated the electoral commission’s results, citing fraud, and Gbagbo refuses to hand over the reins of power to Ouattara. Both leaders have set up competing governments, each with armed forces. Gbagbo occupies government buildings. Ouattara sits in the cross-town hotel, guarded by U.N. peacekeepers and former rebel fighters.

“We are still in a deadlock and are praying to the Lord to intervene and bring peace and stability in the country,” said Seydou Toure, an elder at Treichville Baptist Church in Abidjan. “We have now two presidents and two governments, and people are trying to do the mediation and solve the political issue.”

Special prayer meetings are being held in Baptist churches across the country, according to Toure. There are 106 Baptist churches in Ivory Coast; 50 of them are in Abidjan.

“The people are discouraged. They are very discouraged and are affected by the situation we are going through,” Toure said. “The churches and pastors are still praying for the Lord to stretch His blessed hand upon Ivory Coast so that peace, tranquility and stability can come.”

Every day the standoff continues, Ivorian people suffer.

“Many Ivorians live day to day, meal to meal in a good week,” an Abidjan-based Christian worker said. “If one day’s work is interrupted, it can dramatically affect their lives. We know that many of our African friends are struggling because of the immediate impact this conflict has already had on their lives economically.”

The violence, he added, reflects longstanding divisions.

“It is interesting that there seems to be the north/Muslim versus south/Christian element, but there also seem to be other dividing opinions as well, especially concerning the economics of the country,” he observed. “Overall, the Christians I know are reaffirming that ‘God is in control.’ They know there is nowhere to go and nothing else to do but trust in His ultimate will and protection.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy was one of several calling for its citizens to leave the country. Some missionaries have been advised to stay indoors by local village leaders until tensions ease.

The election was intended to unify the country after the civil war divided it. The opposite appears to be happening.

“We are praying that God will give us a solution and choose the person that He desires,” said a Christian worker who lives in the north. “Since the civil war here back in 2002-03, the hearts of the people are deeply divided. The people in the north feel like they’ve never had a voice and the ones in the south have been the ones to have all the power and voice. “This (crisis) is indicative of the divided opinions in the country. Pray for peaceful hearts, for people to accept the results, and for them to be able to voice their opinions peacefully, and that they would agree to work together in the government however it is resolved, for them to accept it and work with that government in a peaceful way.”

The worker also asked Christians to pray for open hearts.

“People are not as openly friendly right now ... What we have seen here in the past 10 years that we have been working here is a surface welcome, which is very characteristic of the region, and underneath a pretty strong resistance. Pray for God to open hearts and open doors for the Word to go out, and for people who know the truth to have the courage to speak out. Pray that there will be freedom to proclaim the Word and that people will be free to hear it.”
12/20/2010 9:38:00 AM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Dyer’s Santa shares real Christmas message

December 17 2010 by Norman Jameson, BR Editor

Jim Dyer’s frosty beard, furry hat, red suit, twinkling eyes and easy “ho, ho, ho” immediately identify him as Santa Claus in the dozens of holiday settings where he plays that role each year.

Even without the suit he can hardly walk down the street without people stopping to stare, whisper and point. But it is Dyer’s heart for Jesus that enables him to uniquely meld the symbol of modern holiday excess with the spiritual, deep flowing origins of Christmas that celebrate the birth of Christ.

Some of the men who like Dyer, 64, “become” Santa each November and December, are Christians whose red suits open doors into parties, special events and homes to share the real meaning of Christmas.

“Our role as a Christian Santa is to tell them the background of St. Nicholas and be sure the messenger does not overshadow the message of Christmas,” Dyer said. “We are celebrating Jesus’ birthday.”

The generosity of the original Saint Nicholas and his love for children are the basis from which the modern, mythical Santa Claus arose. Nicholas was born in the third century to wealthy parents who died when he was young. He sold his inheritance to help the needy, the sick and the suffering and eventually became Bishop of Myra in what is modern Turkey.

The legend of Saint Nicholas has been adjusted to the many cultures that adopted it, until today, most churches would not consider having a Santa help them celebrate Jesus’ birth.

This, Dyer said, despite the historical truth that Nicholas was “a pillar of the church, who embodied sacrificial giving and was a defender of youth.” Dyer said more churches are named after St. Nicholas than any person other than Jesus.

Dyer, who grew up at the Baptist Children’s Homes’ Kennedy Home campus, is a retired Army helicopter pilot and a former real estate agent, mortgage broker and corporate chaplain. He was ordained at age 55 by Bay Leaf Baptist Church in Wake Forest.

BR photo by Norman Jameson

Jim Dyer, also known as Santa, checks the list of some children he saw through the Wounded Warrior program at Ft. Bragg. See video.

“The Lord has been good to me,” said Dyer, whose rosy life has plenty of thorns. “I know it’s not theologically sound but it seems like I have a greater joy and the Lord loves me more than others. I have a greater joy than so many other Christians I know that it seems they were weaned on a sour pickle.”

Despite being abandoned by his father and turned over by a mother “with no marketable skills” to be raised at Kennedy Home and despite tours in the battlefields of Vietnam, and despite job and family issues that would drive others to distraction, Dyer’s joy is irrepressible.

Santa from the heart
It is that twinkling eye and genuine love for the task that makes Dyer a busy Santa.

“Being a Santa comes from the heart,” he said. “You have to have the right expression on your face and in your eyes to let children know you love them, and are listening to them and they are special.”

At every opportunity Dyer asks children, “Do you know why we celebrate Christmas?” In private home functions his goal is to be able to pray with the family, and to read the gospel story of Christmas aloud.

Dyer, whose beard is naturally salt and pepper, shaves it off by New Year’s Day because it takes a lot of work to keep it bleached white and groomed.

Photo by

Santa in his finest suit.

Typically he stops shaving after July 4 festivities, and he has a flowing beard by Nov. 1.

“There comes a point when it’s hard to manage,” he said. “Imagine trying to eat with this much hair on your face, and it’s white. I have to drink my coffee out of a sipper cup in the morning or it looks like I have a dirty mouth.”

He has been playing Santa for 35 years. It is not uncommon for him to have three and four engagements a day in December, but he makes time for special events for soldiers and children, especially for those who are ill or under stress. On Dec. 9 he passed up several paying gigs to be Santa at a Wounded Warriors event at Fort Bragg. “I really get a lot of joy out of bringing joy to others,” said the member of Christ Baptist Church in Raleigh. “It energizes me.”  

Tough questions
If a child asks Dyer if he is the “real Santa,” he looks over his glasses and asks, “What do you think?”

Children don’t reason like an adult, so if they see several Santas on a shopping trip, they simply understand Santa can be in more than one place at a time, and that he has a lot of helpers.

Even without his fur trim and red suit, Dyer looks like Santa the moment he steps out of the salon with his beard and hair freshly bleached.

“I’m not self conscious about it until I look up and see a couple kids staring at me and I put my finger to my lips and say ‘Shhhh.’”

To teach children to limit their selfish wishes, sometimes when a child recites a list longer than his arm, Dyer will smile and say, “My word that’s a lot of stuff. Is that all for you?”

He says he might have to review a list of that length. More difficult are the children’s requests for healing a pet or family member.

Dyer has learned from a fellow Santa to carry a book that the child can assume is the “naughty and nice” book. But in the back are the pages where Santa writes the things he is going to pray about.

He will tell the child of those pending prayers, which leads to more understanding of the spiritual aspects of this special season.

“It’s a pretty exciting time to bring the fun of being Santa and the real joy of Christmas together,” said Santa … err … Dyer.  

Visit Dyer’s web site:
12/17/2010 6:20:00 AM by Norman Jameson, BR Editor | with 1 comments

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