Toyota, Recall This Commercial

The first time I saw the commercial I laughed a little.  Well, I did not laugh out loud, but I did chuckle on the inside.  At first glance, the commercial appeared cute.  Frankly, it would be difficult for a commercial featuring an elementary school-aged boy with shaggy blond hair not to be cute.  Where Toyota messed up was in airing the commercial of their Highlander too many times in one ballgame.  Before Monday Night Football was over, I had seen it four times.  By the fourth time, I was no longer chuckling on the inside.

Four times I had heard the cute little elementary school-aged boy explain that in spite of his low tolerance for “dorkiness” his parents insist on transporting him in a vehicle that screams “geek.”  Four times I watched him climb into the neighbor’s Toyota Highlander, after which he pointed out to his audience that just because you are a parent, does not mean that you have to be lame.  You get the picture.  If your parents will or can not buy a Toyota Highlander, then they are lame, dorky, geeks.

I have seen an untold number of commercials in my lifetime.  Why did this hit me the wrong way?  Maybe it was because our church had just completed our Family Promise host week.  This is a ministry that networks local congregations together to provide shelter for homeless families.  We hosted three families, each with their own stories of how difficult it can be to keep a family together.  When I looked at the parents in those three families, I did not see dorky, lame, geeks, but parents who were working and hoping as hard as they knew how that they would be able to take care of their children.  I saw parents who were facing challenges head on and in need of assistance, not a manipulative commercial designed to make them feel worse than they already did.

In fact, when I see parents doing what they have to do to keep their families together, I don’t see lame, dorky, geeks.  I see heroes.  What the cute little boy in the commercial may not be aware of is that not all parents provide for their children.  For the almost half a million children in the United States who live in foster homes, whatever vehicle their parents could provide for the family would be inconsequential compared to the immense satisfaction of  being able to be with parents who are doing their best to be good parents.

What is glaringly absent from this commercial is civility and gratitude.  The elementary school-aged boy walks out of a house, past a minivan, and at least one of his parents, without a hint of gratitude.  He may not have a Toyota Highlander, but neither does he have any appreciation for what he does have.  While we might be surprised to hear words like lame, dorky, and geek from an elementary school-age boy, their use in this commercial takes on a sinister hue when we realize that they were put in his mouth and directed at his parents by the advertising department of a multinational corporation that usually tries to portray itself as responsible.   Responsible adults should not have to resort to such childish language to sell their products.

The bottom line is that cars don’t make families; time spent together does. Lots of time spent together on special days, and on ordinary days, make families.  In cars and out of them, at home and at parks, families become stronger and richer when parents invest themselves in their children.  That may sound lame, geeky or dorky, but that is what it takes to build strong families.

What I don’t understand is why does Toyota need this sort of manipulative and demeaning advertising?  They make great vehicles that last forever and have great resale value. Why isn’t that enough to sell their product?

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A Litany of Questions

O God, for every sin and short coming that we have confessed, you have forgiven us.

Are we more forgiving?

Day by day you wait. You wait for us to give ourselves to you. You wait for us to let you be God in our lives.

Are we more patient?

You hear our excuses. You listen to our reasons for wanting to control our own lives and choose our direction.

Are we more understanding?

You are with us every moment of everyday. We do not take a step without your notice or concern.

Are we more caring?

When our steps lead us in the wrong direction, you find us. When we fall you, you pick us up. When we hurt, you hold us close.

Are we more compassionate?

You came to us to show us your love for us. Living, teaching, healing, loving you died that we would know you and your love.

Are we more loving?

Teach us how to love each other

Lift us to your joy divine.

May we grow in love, live in love and give love to you and one another

Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Year End Giving, New Life Living

As the year was coming to a close, his church’s income was running behind what the church needed for it to be. In a letter posted on the church’s website, the pastor underscored the urgency of the situation. Their church, like so many around the country, had members who were experiencing the ill effects of a bad economy. Giving to the church had not kept pace with the expense of doing ministry. The letter asked the members of the church to give a gift to help cover the $900,000 shortfall that the church was facing as 2009 ended.

Nine hundred thousand dollars is a large number. I cannot imagine having a deficit that large.  It is almost twice as much as our annual budget.

At their Sunday services on January 3rd, Pastor Rick Warren announced that members and friends of Saddleback Community Church had given 2.4 million dollars in response to the letter. On any given weekend, over 22,000 people will worship at one of Saddleback’s five locations. Pastor Warren described the response as “radical generosity.”

When I read the story of this amazing gift, I could not help but think of the members and friends of Ball Camp Baptist Church. You may remember that at the end of October, our expenses were running $19,000 ahead of our income. Granted $19,000 is a long way from $900,000; but before you said your final farewell to 2009, you gave with “radical generosity.”  We finished the year $3,000 to the good. On top of that, you gave with that same “radical generosity” to our Christmas Offering for Global Missions, so that we exceeded our offering goal.

The challenges faced by their members and friends are most likely not all that different from the challenges that we as a church family have faced over the last year.  In the midst of difficult situations and hard times, I have been so proud of the way you have been church to each other.  Certainly, not all of your giving has been through the offering plate. Some of your most meaningful gifts have been directly to each other. Neither do I assume that I know about all that you have done for each other and for others outside our church. That is the way it is with “radical generosity.” It does not wait to be told how to act, nor does it look for recognition.

From families and individuals in our church, to hurting people in our community, to those in need in Eastern Kentucky, to those hungry for grace in North Africa, and to the uttermost parts of the world, your “radical generosity” has made a difference for the Kingdom of God and in the lives of people.

A writer for the USA Today newspaper described Pastor Warren’s letter to his church as begging for money.  While I understand how someone who is unacquainted with the gospel and with church life could see his letter in that light, I also think that  those who have experienced the grace of Jesus Christ, and the supportive love of a church family, know that there is a different motivation at work. Giving is an opportunity to minister. Giving is an opportunity to share the love of Christ. Giving allows us to become a part of the lives of those we give to in a redemptive and loving way. We give because we have received a gift — that gift is no less than the Son of God.  We give generously because the one who gives us life and hope has given to us with a generosity that we can never match.

Even still, I am amazed when I take note of the ways that you have given your resources, your energy, and your time in this year just ended. Truly, the impact of your giving was felt around the world. Thank you.

Nolle prosequi

There was a letter in the News-Sentinel this week that caught my attention. It was written in response to a previous letter, which may well have been written in response to a previous letter, which could very well have been written in response to a previous letter. Such letters have been appearing in newspapers, especially East Tennessee newspapers, at least since July 13, 1925. That date marks the beginning of the trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee.

Scopes lost that trial and was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which prohibited the teaching of evolution. However, the conviction was overturned in the Tennessee Supreme Court. The reversal came not because the Supreme Court gave merit to the reasons presented for the appeal, but because of a technicality. The judge in Dayton had sentenced Scopes to pay a fine of $100.00. At that time, judges in Tennessee could not impose fines of over $50.00. Juries had to do the imposing if the fine was over $50.00.

Even though the Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s decision, and only overturned it because of the technicality, Chief Justice, Grafton Green, recommended that the case be dropped as it was not in the State’s interest to pursue further prosecution.

For the most part, Justice Green’s advice has been ignored through the years as the issue has continued to be debated in courtrooms, newspapers and throughout the court of public opinion. At times, the debate has risen to great heights and employed the expansive, technical vocabulary of both science and theology. Unfortunately, the basic tenor of the argument all too often seems to resemble a playground dispute rather than a learned debate. I am right, you are wrong. I am intelligent, you are superstitious. I am holy, you are godless. I am educated, you are backward. I am righteous, you are hell-bound. The debate continues. As to whether or not it is a helpful debate, well, that is debatable.

The question seems to get the most muddled when those involved in the conversation seek to address concerns beyond their fields of expertise. Namely, theologians try to be scientists and scientists try to be theologians. Science tends to be empirical. It collects data through experimentation and observation in order to formulate and test a hypothesis. Theology is an effort to speak about God. God rarely fits into the categories and methods of science. While science and theology share common concerns at various points, particularly around the ethical and moral dimensions of new discoveries and innovations, they each have their own unique task. Science seeks to understand life and how its many parts relate to one another. Theology seeks to understand the meaning of life and its ethical implications in light of our relationship with God.

Theologians in general, and those who would speak on behalf of the church in particular, would do well to exercise restraint in scientific matters. The church’s record is not so good in this area. In 1633, Galileo who was found to be suspect of heresy, was imprisoned and banned from publishing any of his work. His crime was that he believed that the earth rotated around the sun rather than the sun around the earth, as the church taught. In 1992, Pope John Paul II, conceded that the earth was indeed not stationary. In the 1800s, Church people in the southern United States took great pains to justify the peculiar institution of slavery based on their belief that persons of African decent were inferior mentally, socially and perhaps worst of all in the eyes of God. In 1995, 150 years after a founding rooted in the perpetuation of slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention repented of its wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness. To be certain there have been other times and places throughout history when religious people have arrived at conclusions that lacked any factual basis. That has not kept them from acting and speaking as if their version of the truth was, in fact, the accurate and correct one.

The tragedy of such errors is that they are unnecessary, at least from a theological perspective. If God is God, maker and creator of all that we can see and know, there is no discoverable or observable truth that can contradict God. God needs little from God’s creation in the way of defense or bolstering. No truth that is, in fact, truth can diminish God, as such truth only has its existence within the creative activity of God. Those who believe in the one who is truth embodied ought to celebrate truth wherever and whenever it is found.

There are questions each of us ask about our lives that our belief in and understanding of God can help us answer. What is right and what is wrong? How responsible am I for meeting the needs of other people? What is really important in life? What is my purpose? Can I be forgiven for my mistakes? Do I matter in this world? Do I matter to God? In fact, some of these sorts of questions are difficult if not impossible to answer without an understanding of God and God’s claims on our lives. Suffice it to say that there are some questions that arise out of our life together that science is better equipped to answer, and some that are better suited for theological answers.

Which matters most to God; what we think about how the earth was created, or how we treat the earth? The prophet Isaiah sees a vision of:
The earth that is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken. The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut; its transgressions lie heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again. (Isaiah 24:19-20).
Isaiah speaks these words in response to a crisis. The poor and needy are being mistreated. Political and religious leaders are failing in responsibilities. People are worshipping false gods. While such actions may not seem to pose a threat to the welfare of the planet, Isaiah understands that there is a connection between morals and mountains, between ethics and earth. Human sin strikes at the heart of God’s creation. The prophet’s words, spoken centuries ago, take on a troubling new meaning as we have increased our capacity to break, tear and shake God’s creation.

What does it matter who created the earth if we treat it like it is just another easily replaceable item that we can pick up at the grocery store? Does God care whether or not we give God credit for creating the earth, if we fail to see in it the sacred wonder of God’s handiwork? Does it matter to God that we acknowledge God’s creative activity if, by the way we live our lives, we are undoing God’s creation?