Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Straight Talk About Money

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

Straight Talk About Money
Churches need to be forthcoming about financial matters

To ponder:
1) Is it difficult for you to think about your own financial situation? Is this a topic you tend to avoid?

2) Do you have a hard time asking your church staff for a budget for church projects? Do you tend to pay for church items yourself?

3) Why do you think it's so difficult for people to discuss money? What are some benefits of speaking candidly on this topic?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Making Fun of Christians

Ever felt naughty as you read or watched something that pokes fun at the Christian church?

Personally, I don't like nasty remarks, masked as jokes, about God or Jesus. In that sense, I could understand why Muslims were up in arms about those Danish cartoons of Muhammad.

But I greatly enjoy and seek out satire and parodies about Christians and the church. Up until recently, the publications and shows I'd check out were about Christians, but not written by Christians. It's very interesting for me to see this perspective, and I think it's helped me understand the animosity some, particularly atheists, have for the Christian church.

Wouldn't recommend this for everyone. You've got to have a thick skin, and be able to recognize there's something to be learned from both the mean jokes and your own reaction to them. And you've got to be willing to mentally process the comments, and not just absorb them. (That's my biggest challenge.)

I've recently come across something I hadn't seen before: Christian parody, written by Christians. One website,, was featured in Time magazine. Time wrote that Joel Kilpatrick, the 35-year-old churchgoing Evangelical who created the site, "developed a keen sense of the distinction between the Christian message (not inherently funny) and what he calls its social, institutional and political 'scaffolding' (a big target)."

Similarly, Simon Jenkins, editor of the UK Christian humor webzine, said in an interview, "We think Christians should be restless about the state of the church today, and stirring up unrest in the wider world as well. We want to ask: isn't there a better way to do Christianity than this?"

(Incidentally, I found Ship of Fools through an article from a Christian newswire service. The feature I read was to vote for your favorite worst Christian LP cover; if you go vote, tell me which one you picked.)

I've just discovered the Wittenburg Door, a Christian parody magazine which apparently has been around since I was born. Look forward to checking that one out.

Jenkins said many Christians are uncomfortable mixing humor and the church, and I'm starting to think it's good to be a little uncomfortable.

Laughing with Evangelicals: Joel Kilpatrick of satirizes only the ones he loves (Christianity Today)

Am I Good Enough for God's Purposes?

I've been working on a research paper about the Sermon on the Mount, which I hope will be useful to small group leaders. Just knowing that someone will read the paper, and potentially teach based on my research, has caused waves of anxiety. I've studied the writings of a dozen prominent Christian theologians, pastors, and professors, who've all offered similar interpretations of Jesus' Sermon. Yet I question, What if I'm misunderstanding their words? What if I just don't get it? What if I give those small group leaders bad information?

My fears reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend who's been called into ministry. She told me she was afraid of not knowing enough, not being prepared to do what God wanted her to do. I've had similar discussions with many Christians who are petrified they will appear ignorant of their own faith. So, rather than sharing their faith with folks who aren't believers, or having the conversations with other Christians that lead to spiritual growth, we keep mum. Silence seems a better option than exposing ourselves as people who don't have all the answers.

I told my friend that God would be continuously preparing her, and this was "on the job" training. I told her she had the constant guidance and help of the Holy Spirit, who could give her words that she didn't even know she had--and shut her mouth when necessary. (The latter is one of my regular prayers: "Holy Spirit, shut me up if I'm about to do damage.")

And I told her about one of my major mistakes. Some years ago, I used the words of the Apostle Paul to prove a point I was making about salaries for church workers. Or, I should say, I misused Paul's words. Truthfully, I didn't even know I was making a mistake, but as soon as I'd made the comparison, something was gnawing at my spirit. So I immediately re-read Paul's words. On studying the passage carefully, my mistake was verified. Straight away, I went to the people I'd been speaking with and informed them of my mistake. Yes, I was very embarrassed. But God used that occasion to re-focus me on his will, and to show me I'd been more interested in my ideas than his.

Ever since, I've always prayed before inserting Scripture into my writing. And I never use it to prove my point. God gave us his Word as the example of absolute truth--we can measure any other statement against it. We can use it to correct errors, but only as long as the Bible is the standard. We must never use the Bible to promote our personal opinions as "truth."

I was recently quoted in two sermons, which also terrified me. Then today, I remembered that 12 years ago, before I became a Christian, I was quoted in another sermon. There had been a huge fire in the town where I'd lived and worked as a reporter, and the area was evacuated. In response, I'd written a piece about hope, community, and perseverance. That pastor didn't tell me he'd planned to quote my story, and I wasn't in attendance when he gave the sermon. But I sure heard about it afterward. People from that church approached me and thanked me for the uplifting words.

This was baffling, since I'd felt tremendous hostility toward the Christian church at the time. Why would they find my words uplifting?

God used this back then to soften my heart a bit. And he used it today to remind me he can use anything--and anyone--at any time he desires. Even me: flaws and fears included.

To ponder:
Do you sometimes feel you aren't ready to discuss your faith?

2) Are you ever afraid to talk with other Christians, worried they might think less of you for your lack of knowledge about the Bible?

3) What do you do when these fears hit?

4) If you're feeling insufficient or incapable, pray this:

God, honestly, I think you can't use me. I don't feel ready. I don't feel good enough. It seems like I never will be.

But I recognize that you are God. You are bigger than me. You are strong and awesome. You have the ability--and the right--to use anybody you want for your purposes.

Please give me the courage to speak about you. Please help me to grow into a courageous Christ-follower. Please prepare me for whatever you have in store. Help me to recognize this is on-the-job training. Keep me from feeling overwhelmed at the stuff I feel I lack.

I'm all yours. Amen.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Please Pray ...

Dear H-n-T readers:

I want to share burden I have with you: I found out several friends lost their jobs in the recent downsizing of Los Angeles Newspaper Group (LANG) publications.

Please pray for my friends Gina, Marc, and Walter.

I don't know the exact count, but perhaps 70 people from LANG publications lost their jobs within the last few weeks. Other than the Los Angeles Times, LANG owns pretty much every newspaper in Southern California and the company has a hiring freeze right now. The folks who are out of work are really struggling to find available positions.

I worked at a LANG publication, The Daily Bulletin, in the late 90s. It breaks my heart to see amazingly talented reporters and photographers, who already work for breadcrumbs, struggling this way. Additionally, since LANG isn't rehiring anytime soon, the employees that are still there are under tremendous stress, some doing the job of two or three people without any extra compensation. This is an industry where addiction is common, and it's not unusual for journalists to die young.

Please pray for all who've lost their jobs and for those still working at the newspapers.


Friday, April 11, 2008

What Ever Happened to Community News?

A heads-up to regular H-n-T readers: I'm straying from my usual discussion of issues related to faith and the Christian church today. In light of a recent string of layoffs and firings within the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, in which my friend Walt Weis was let go, I wanted to make some observations about the decline of community newspapers, particularly The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. I grew up with this newspaper and worked there for three years as a reporter, a copy editor, and a page designer. I'm one of the few people who can actually speak openly on this topic without fear of getting blacklisted from the newspaper industry. 'Cause I'm never going back.

I posted the following in response to an article on the decline of Southern California community newspapers in L.A. Weekly; it's also on L.A. Weekly's site:

I'm an Ontario native. My parents were both born in the Inland Empire. They, and everyone in our extended family, had always subscribed to the Daily Report/Daily Bulletin. Not anymore.

That's because its local quality is gone. My parents are working-class folk who didn't want The [Los Angeles] Times. Or The [San Bernardino County] Sun: They wanted to see photos and stories of people within their own community. We have now-yellowed, faded clippings from old Report/Bulletin issues. These include a photo of me at age 3, at Guasti Regional Park. It was taken by Bob Swetnam, a Progress-Bulletin photographer. I never met Mr. Swetnam, but my friend Walt Weis worked at the paper for enough years that perhaps he knew him.

In my youth, I thought of the reporters and photographers at the Report/Bulletin as hometown heroes. My parents recognized their names from reading them daily. These local journalists were well-respected for their tireless work to keep us informed about the happenings in our community.

In 1997, I was thrilled to land a position at my hometown paper, The Daily Bulletin. I still remember introducing my parents to some of the journalists, including Walt. For Mom and Dad, it was like meeting celebrities. (Literally: "WOW! That's the Walt Weis whose name we see in the paper!") That was a wonderful time at the Bulletin: I didn't make much money, but I felt treasured as an employee. Donrey held regular thank-you luncheons for us, and we had monthly clips and photo contests where we were recognized with certificates--and money!--for excellent work. (I loved these paper pats-on-the-back, and still have my stack of certificates.) There was even respect and well-wishing for employees who were moving on: The company bought cakes and gave farewell parties on their last day.

Morale was sky high; personally, I jumped out of bed every morning, excited to get to work. One of my most treasured possessions is a Quill pen with the Donrey logo--employees received this for their one-year anniversary. Lest anyone think I'm overstating how great the Bulletin was during this time, I could refer you to my current pastor: I once called his cell in a panic because I'd thought I lost my "lucky pen" at church! Most of my years at the Bulletin are an excellent memory.

Most of them. When the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (LANG) merger occurred in the summer of 1999, I knew it was time to leave. There was talk of downsizing, specifically within the entertainment/lifestyle department where I worked. As I understand it, these departments are essentially gone now; the articles for these sections are either wire pieces or are written by writers from other papers. But why would anyone pay for this material in the Bulletin when they can read it online for free? My family--and many readers I met as a Bulletin reporter--subscribed to the paper largely for the localized angle, which offered information on OUR restaurants and attractions, OUR events. Our people. The Bulletin even provided recipes from local chefs and housewives. We had stories about the hot styles that actually were trends in the Inland Valley--complete with local models. Our neighbors were the ones featured and photographed in health, food, fashion, and auto stories. We had photos of locally restored and souped-up cars, the ones you'd actually see driving down Euclid Avenue or Foothill Boulevard. Maybe talking about capris being in style wasn't unique, but the quotes about this trend were from residents of Ontario, Upland, Rancho, etc. And the photo of the girl wearing the capris was of a local teen. Yes, Mr. Singleton, that photo of our neighbor's daughter actually sold newspapers. [William Dean Singleton is the founder of MediaNews Group, which includes LANG.]

Obviously, interacting with the community was a lot of work. But it was so worth it when a mother would come into the office and buy a stack of newspapers because her child had been featured. My biggest heartbreak was the disappearance of the Bulletin's "Kids" section, which Shannon Guthrie and I built from scratch as a way to encourage young people to read. Actually, Shannon pushed me into it, but I was thankful for her vision and the Bulletin's willingness to take a risk back then. It was very popular--so much so, Donrey interviewed Shannon and me on how we created the section! Donrey used our success as a model for their other newspapers. Again, here was a section that featured local teens and kids, for which we received tremendous feedback from the community, and it additionally served a higher purpose. Yet it was one of the first sections to fall after the merger.

I'm baffled about the decision to un-localize: to use wire stories and pieces by out-of-area reporters to "save money." To "save the community papers." Articles about locals--and the accompanying feeling of ownership--was the Bulletin's main selling point. As was the celebrity and relationship with familiar, long-time writers and photographers, such as Walt Weis. I'm guessing other locals were as disappointed in the Bulletin's changes as my parents: The Bulletin's daily edition circulation for March 1997 is listed as just over 57,000 on the MediaNews Group website--that's nearly a third lower than it was a decade previous, when I went to work there.

As a reporter back then, I did most interviews face-to-face with community members, because that's how I was taught to do it at the Bulletin. People were excited to meet me. I developed a deeper appreciation for the community that gave me a job, and they in turn developed a deeper love for their local newspaper.

Yes, I know things have changed since then. Yes, I know it's about advertising, not subscription, dollars. But in a day when news about everything is readily available, yet people can't find the news that matters most to them, local papers with a local angle surely could be the new, hot commodity. If, indeed, Dean Singleton truly and nobly wants to save the local papers, then he must save the format, too. Let give readers all the AP stories. Give my parents and their neighbors the story about their friend who makes the best strawberry jam in town. That's what they long to read.

Mr. Singleton, I'd like to appeal to your sense of leaving a legacy for a moment. People long for community. We lack community. There is little that ties us to our neighbors anymore, and as much as we'd like to know one another, we lack a basis on which to connect. You hold an incredible medium to bring people together. As the owner of most SoCal newspapers, you could do something huge that would bring people together. Unite 'em by reminding them of their shared experience, and showing them who their neighbors are.

There was a mass exodus after I left the Bulletin. I'm sad to hear that great talents who hung on, like Walt, were given the boot despite their loyalty. Walter took my wedding photographs, for free, because that's the kind of guy he is. He well knew my situation as a writer who was struggling to pay the rent AND eat because he'd lived it for decades.

[The following paragraph is in response to another comment on L.A. Weekly's website.] Lastly, as a college-educated writer, and as the daughter of a blue-collar union worker, I'm tremendously distressed that someone, who apparently works for LANG, is mocking journalists as "people with college degrees who think they deserve better than what them dumb union hacks get." This is an all-around insult to hard-working people of every situation. Mr. Singleton and Mr. Lambert [Lambert is the current Bulletin editor], if you know who wrote this comment, it is morally incumbent upon you to correct this attitude. Journalists dedicate their lives to giving far more than they'll ever receive. None of your employees deserves such disrespect.

I've posted my full name so as to be accountable for my words, and to encourage LANG journalists who have memories of your own glory days. You are amazing: Persevere!

Singleton's "Small-Town L.A." Papers Nosedive:
Suburban coverage hit hard as the Press-Telegram, Daily News, Daily Bulletin, others, falter