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End of year stories show mixed attitudes toward religion

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In this last week before Christmas in Boston, an odd collection of news stories points out the very unusual state of religion in the world.

Methodist pastor defrocked for performing gay wedding

The Rev. Frank Schaefer, a Methodist pastor from Lebanon (in central Pennsylvania), who performed a wedding for his gay son, has been defrocked by his local Board of Ordained Ministry, because of his decision not to abide by the church's Book of Discipline, which currently forbids gay marriage. After he refused to surrender his credentials, the Board officially defrocked him. Central Pennsylvania (which, interestingly, is also home to one of the largest concentrations of Amish, a relatively conservative sect) is known for generally less-than-progressive theological views, compared to areas like Philadelphia or New York City. Ironically, the pastor performed the ceremony not in Pennsylvania, but in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal!

As a potential happy ending to this story, it was just announced that the pastor has received a job offer from the Methodist bishop in California, the Rev. Minerva G. Carcano, who doesn't agree with the national Methodist Church's policy on homosexuality.

As a postscript: it's unfortunate that this incident had to happen in a Biblically-named town like Lebanon, in the weeks before Christmas. Whatever happened to Jesus' message of welcoming all outcasts and marginalized people, no matter what their race, beliefs, politics, or gender status? Shame, shame, Methodists!

Russian Pussy Riot religious protestors to be freed

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin announced that the two imprisoned members of the punk rock band “Pussy Riot” (see Examiner story published August 19) will be freed under a government amnesty order that is also releasing 30 Greenpeace environmental activists who had been jailed for protesting Arctic drilling. The Pussy Riot band members had been arrested for their crude “punk prayer” criticizing Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church as part of a protest they staged in Moscow's main cathedral. Obviously, religious liberty is not something the Russians believe very strongly in. A rebel like Jesus, whether he called himself a traditional church music devotee or a punk music fan, would probably have been similarly accosted and imprisoned for his radical views of faith and politics.

The good news, of course, is that somehow the Christian practice of mercy and forgiveness is still alive in Russia!

Tis the season to be non-religious

And, Cathy Lynn Grossman of Religion News Service reports that while nine in ten Americans will be celebrating Christmas this year, increasing numbers are more inclined to view it as a secular, cultural holiday, not a religious holy day.

In fact, nearly half of Americans say they'd prefer to hear a non-religious December greeting like “Happy Holidays” out of sensitivity to people of all faiths, up from 44% in a 2010 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

And, how about this news byte: 66% of young adults would like to see stores and other marketers skip the religious greeting entirely. "They didn't grow up with a stigma attached to being unreligious,” said Robert Jones, CEO of the institute. So if you're marketing to the under-30 crowd, religious expression is definitely not part of the vocabulary.

Christmas? “Bah, humbug!” seems to be the prevailing sentiment, according to this cultural/demographic trend. Congregations wishing to attract more younger church-goers need to take note of this, because the same old, same old appeals that worked in grandfather's time are definitely falling on deaf ears these days.

Whose birthday is it, really?

And, finally: a private boarding school in Massachusetts, on its final all-school meeting day before the Christmas break, had its usual number of birthday announcements from students celebrating during the last week in December – but it took a teacher to remind the student body that despite all the other announcements, everybody had forgotten the most important birthday of all, which the school was about to observe during the upcoming vacation break: the birth of the Christ child!

Oops! Sorry, Jesus! If you're not on the hockey team, or a Big Person On Campus, you don't count, apparently.

Perhaps on December 25th, one of the best Christmas presents we can all look for under the tree is a mysterious renewal of the Christian spirit – a revival of the faith that started in a humble manger over 2,013 years ago!

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