Saturday, December 31, 2005

I wonder what a ten letter name for a plant would be if I was filling in POINSETT (blank) A?

Never misspell the same word the same way twice.
sign saying "POINSETTA(sic) $2 00 OFF"
I don't think they believe in dictionaries here in Lower Burrell. Back in November the same landscaper used another creative spelling of 'poinsettia.'

And what kind of price is "$2.00 OFF"? If the discount is for the lack of one out of ten letters, does that make the original price $20 a plant?

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Comparison of SAFE code with YUM! code

I had posted earlier about the communication from Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to the McDonald's Corporation. I sent inquiries about the issues I raised in that post to Dr. Kirkpatrick and to McDonald's. Both responded promptly, and I have been reflecting on what they each had to say.

The response from McDonalds was as follows:

Hello Stewart:

Thank you for taking the time to contact McDonald's. We appreciate this opportunity share information regarding this important issue.

Please know that McDonald's has been seriously engaged with the stakeholders involved, including our suppliers, industry groups and advocacy organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

McDonald's supports and applauds the newly created Socially Accountable Farm Employees tomato industry code of conduct. It is one of the first agricultural programs that provides verifiable protections against slave and child labor plus provides assurances that accurate wages and workplace safety protections are provided to workers. For more information on this program, go to:

For more information about McDonald's social accountability program in general, please refer to

Again, thank you for contacting McDonald's.

McDonald's Customer Response Center

At first I thought their response did not take into account the issues I had raised in my earlier post. However, upon review of the SAFE Farm Labor Employer Code of Conduct alongside the YUM! Supplier Code of Conduct, I realized I had not done a more careful comparison of the two policies.

Although the codes of conduct are not identical, they cover many of the same areas, with very similar provisions. Both of the policies include references to compliance with all applicable local, state, and federal law, which is odd because we are told that that there are actually very few applicable laws. As Cliff Kirkpatrick said in his November statement

farmworkers are explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act which denies them the right to organize, the right to negotiate with their employers, and the right to appeal grievances to the National Labor Relations Board. Current law does not provide farmworkers with overtime pay or secure other benefits such as healthcare.

Both policies require compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. Both prohibit the use of forced or indentured labor. Both have non-discrimination policies. Both require a safe and healthy work environment.

Both have provisions against child labor, but the YUM! policy additionally prohibits use of employees younger than 14.

The Yum! code requires audits and inspections, which implicitly would require that certain records be kept. The SAFE policy specifically requires the maintenance of payroll records and the provision of understandable payroll documents to the workers; it anticipates the development of third-party monitoring of compliance. Both policies seem a bit weak here, and each could be improved.

The Yum! code requires that each supplier develop company-wide policies to ensure compliance and that copies of the policies be provided to the workers. The closest the SAFE policy comes to a provision like this is a commitment to "respectful and open communications with their employees."

The SAFE code addresses housing concerns, while the Yum! policy is silent on this issue.
Participating growers who provide housing will ensure that it meets all the applicable laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which it is located. No employee will be required to live in grower provided housing as a condition of employment.
Given that housing is often an issue for migrant workers, the presence of this provision seems more responsive to the workers than the Yum! policy.

The SAFE policy requires the payment of "no less than the established lawful wages.". On the other hand, Yum! worked out an agreement to pay more for the tomatoes and to require a corresponding raise for the workers. On this front, Yum! seems to have established the stronger policy, achieving actual justice for the workers.

My conclusion: SAFE has developed a code of employer conduct that is reasonable, and in some respects addresses issues on which Yum! was silent, but the Yum! Supplier Code of Conduct together with its side agreement the CIW seems to be a stronger response to achieve justice.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Parting shot in the war on Christmas

"Merry Christmas" letter to the editor, Valley News Dispatch, Dec. 27, 2005, page A6Today's Valley News Dispatch included the attached letter to the editor that strikes me as typical of much of the silliness in the so-called "War on Christmas."

The writer from Harrison suggests that someone has determined "what we should say at Christmastime." Without being able to name a single such person who has attempted to control her speech, she pronounces that whoever they may be, they are "idiots."

And why are these imagined controllers of speech "idiots?" Because the holiday has only one conceivable meaning to the writer. The urging to wish everyone a "Merry Christmas" is not based in any posture of goodwill toward humanity, but rather in an assertion of majority rule and an attempt to deny that people of minority faiths or non-faith have any justification for their attachment to their own holiday observances.

This attitude does not feel like the Christmastide I am trying to observe.

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Year of Opportunity

In the course of doing some planning for worship on New Year's Day at Central Presbyterian Church, I discovered that I had not had the congregation sing a hymn I wrote for New Year's back in 1982. The name of the hymn is "Year of Opportunity" and it is to be sung to the tune "LASST UNS ERFREUEN".

God, give to this community
a year of opportunity.
Bless our starting of the new year.
How greatly have our lives been blessed
With fruitful work and peace-filled rest!
Let us serve God with rejoicing,
Living in hope in the new year.

Jesus invites us to the feast
All, from the greatest to the least.
Greet the dawning of a new age!
Jesus says, "Come I want to give
My life to you that you may live."
I will feed you and uphold you
As my people from all nations.

Lord Jesus, let us not refuse
Your gift of love to freely choose:
Our salvation; our redemption!
May we your gospel tell to all
That they may hear your gracious call
Give us wisdom. Give us courage
For the living of this new year.

God gives to this community
a year of opportunity.
Greet the new day of the new year.
Lord, may we see your vision true,
And lead all nations unto you.
May we show you to all people.
May we serve well in the new year.
There are a few parts of the poetry that seem trite or cliche (after all I was 23 years younger when I wrote the thing), but given the shortage of New Year's hymns in the church hymnal, I guess this hymn will do for another use.

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Recreation rage

So now I'm wondering whether I should take up skateboarding. An article in today's Valley News Dispatch says that there are local skateboarders between the ages of 5 and 52; I certainly fit in that age range.

I need to do some more research to make sure I could do it in a low-impact way, but it sounds like the kind of activity that might be a good way for me to get some exercise. And it looks fun.

Are extreme sports appropriate for a reserved pastor? Stay tuned.

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kindness of strangers

Kindness of Strangers Yesterday afternoon I came across my CD of Kindness of Strangers by Leni Stern. I had misplaced it at some point in one of my recent moves. Nice melodies, uplifting lyrics, very soothing to listen to today.

The title song is about making a human connection with a stranger on Madison Avenue.

The longest track on the CD is "Vedo Il Tuo Viso (I See Your Face)" and was written to be performed with guitar, orchestra and voices in Bologna, Italy at an annual commemoration of the August 2, 1980 bombing in the Bologna train station that killed 85 people and injured 162, most of them children.

I had picked up the CD at an arts festival in an out-of-the-way part of upstate New York, where Leni Stern was performing.

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Monday, December 26, 2005

A deficiency of arm-twisting

After enjoying our Candlelight Christmas Eve Service that was very well-attended due to the good weather, there were approximately 35 people who turned out for our regular Sunday service on Christmas day. The Westminster Choir had prepared some special music, and were about a third of the congregation.

During the sermon, I thought it made more sense to leave the pulpit and stand closer to the small group who had come out. In a smaller group it is possible to enjoy a bit more intimacy.

I asked for a show of hands to find out how many people had experienced any arm-twisting to come to church that morning. Only one hand went up, and after the service that worshipper admitted to me that it was not really armtwisting but a bit of spousal nagging.

Small churches enjoy more flexibility than large ones. Behind the scenes the ushers figured out that they did not need the usual four ushers to collect the offering, and two did it quite adequately.

It was a joyful morning on which we remembered both the Incarnation and the Resurrection.

Blessed Christmastide to all!

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

I'm still looking

Mark D. Roberts is weighing in on the greeting wars (i.e., whether to say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas"), and his series on the topic looks promising. He points out that honoring diversity requires the recognition of specific differences when he says:
When real Americans are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Pancha Ganapati (Hindu gift-giving festival from December 21-25), Winter Solstice, and New Years, "Happy Holidays" lumps together all of this wonderful, rich diversity in a mass of dreary sameness. Wouldn't it be a greater and truer celebration of diversity to recognize and enjoy the variety of Winter holidays, rather than minimizing this diversity with a no-name greeting like "Happy Holidays"?

I agree with him about this, and I suspect that one of the reasons some people say "Happy Holidays" is that they know that there are some European-American Christians in this country ready to take offense at the reminder that there are other Americans who specifically celebrate Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Pancha Ganapati, or Winter Solstice at about the same time. But this year the opposition to diversity seems to have reached a new level. When I overhear conversations between people talking up the alleged "war on Christmas," I regularly hear people around here insist that "the name of the holiday is Christmas." Their insistence does not acknowledge any validity to the holiday observances of people of other faiths or cultures. It is as if they will tolerate diversity only as long as they are not forced to acknowledge that diversity takes specific forms that are different from what is familiar to them. Now that the battle lines are drawn between "Happy Holidays" and "Merry Christmas" it seems as if there is even less willingness to acknowledge diversity.

I blogged earlier about my own fruitless efforts to identify the putative "they" who are attacking Christmas. I lack the personal experience to agree with Mark where he brings 'secularists' into the discussion:
In reality, it seems that the folks who are really upset about public recognition of specific holidays aren't usually Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and so forth, but rather those who would prefer that religion in America disappear from public altogether. "Keep it at home and in church (or synagogue, or mosque, or temple)," is the secularist motto when it comes to religion, including religious holidays.

That motto has not been said to me. There is a big difference between opposing any government establishment of religion and totally banning religion from public life. The two should not be confused. I have not experienced opposition to expressing my faith in word or deed in the public sphere.

Moreover, in my entire life I have never been rebuked by anyone for wishing them a "Merry Christmas!" If there really is a powerful movement of secularists trying to keep religion out of public life, why have I not met them yet? Why have they not tried to put me in my place? Bill O'Reilly can call me a moron, but I am still looking for a shred of evidence that there is a war on Christmas, and I have not found one yet.

If there is a "war on Christmas" I believe that it was started by people who invented a secular bogeyman to raise fears and polarize people. The greeting battle is simply a distraction to Christians who should not be fooled into thinking that badgering a store into naming our holiday makes us in any way like the shepherds who returned from the manger praising God for everything they had heard and seen.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Some good VND reporting on the Tarentum borough council meeting

Yesterday's Valley News Dispatch had a very good article on the same Tarentum Borough Council meeting on which I reported here. I had attended that meeting to support the skatepark, and my intention to advocate for a cause does affect my perceptions of what happened. I appreciate the thorough article in which reporter Tamara Simpson tells what she observed from her more objective perspective.
As the debate continued, residents and council members alike spoke out of turn, interrupted people who were speaking and mumbled offensive remarks to opponents.
This was happening. I have not attended enough meetings of the Tarentum Borough Council to know whether this is the normal way things are done here. There were a bunch of quiet teenagers in front of me. I heard a lot of mumbling behind me, but was not able to make out exactly what was said. The disorder in the room did reach a point where Police Chief Vakulick stepped into the room to tell the crowd to behave in an orderly manner. I did not see or hear an explicit direction from the Council President for the Chief to intervene, but as I have said before, I don't know what is normal for the Tarentum Borough Council meetings.

The VND article also includes a sidebar with a letter from the Tony Hawk Foundation commending the Tarentum Borough for pursuing the skateboard park project. There is a lot of good information on the foundation's website about what needs to happen to get a skatepark into town.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The mythical war on Christmas reaches a new low

Bill O'Reilly has made some advances in his war against Christmas by promoting a spirit of paranoia and mistrust.

Yesterday I helped a friend get to the Rent-a-Center in Lower Burrell to look at ways to trade down to a smaller television. One of the store workers greeted us.

Him: Merry Christmas! I know I'm not supposed to say that but I did anyway.
Me: What do you mean?
Him: I'm not supposed to say 'Merry Christmas!'
Me: Who told you that?
Him: They say that. It's all over the news. We're not supposed to say 'Merry Christmas!'
Me: Who says that?
Him: They don't want us to say 'Merry Christmas!'
Me: Are you telling me that you received a corporate memo from Rent-a-Center telling you how you were to greet your customers?
Him: No. They would never do that.
Me: Then who told you?
Him: It's the government.
Me: (dumbfounded, wondering whether it would be safe or productive to ask him which government said this)

Maybe if we get Bill O'Reilly's permission we'll all be allowed to spread good cheer rather than paranoia. But I don't expect the Grinch to give in too easily.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Tarentum Borough Council meeting December 19, 2005

It was standing room only at the meeting of the Tarentum Borough Council this evening. A camera from WPXI was filming the proceedings, and as I write this blog I have just heard that what they plan to report in the 11:00 PM news is "the battle over a skatepark." The meeting was about 90 minutes long, but the bulk of the time in the meeting involved the skatepark issue I've mentioned before (here and here or even here, for example).

As usual, the most important action taken at the meeting was the one everyone probably thought was the most innocuous: the approval of the minutes. With that one vote they approved the record of everything they had done in the earlier meeting. It passed without any discussion.

It was at the point of the citizen comments that the Council started to hear from the people and organizations of the community, and the crowd present ensured that the Council would be listening to them for a while.

The first citizen comment was from Andy Burch, who rose to call for Council President Magnetta to step down in light of charges (here) against him. Apparently there had been some preliminary court proceeding this morning in that case. I thought the citizen's demanding tone was inappropriate, especially given that Mr. Magnetta is innocent until proven guilty.

I rose to speak on behalf of Central Presbyterian Church in support of the skate park. I'm not sure what set him off, but in the middle of my rather brief comments Mr. Magnetta cut me off and told the Council that he wanted the skate park issue to be "tabled" at this meeting. I'm new to how they do things around here. Nobody had told me there were limits on what issues taxpayers could bring to the Council; no one told me there were any time limits, or that I had exceeded them; and Mr. Magnetta had not told me to sit down, so I remained standing while the Council members figured out how they wanted to use the time on the docket of this meeting reserved for "Citizen comments." Then Mr. Magnetta started recognizing other people to speak, and I waited my turn until he realized that he had not let me finish. When he recognized me I picked up about where I remembered being interrupted and I finished what I had to say.

My comments were basically that young people had been using the parking lot at Central Presbyterian Church for skateboarding for years without incident; that the Council's approval of the grant application for the skate park in 2004 was a positive thing; that the church supported the proposal, and that I encouraged them to follow through on the project.

After I sat down Joe Davidek asked me how many members of the Session of Central Presbyterian Church were residents of Tarentum. I didn't have the roster in front of me so I didn't have the answer at my fingertips. Apparently this was the sole question that mattered to Mr. Davidek and Mr. Magnetta, not how many members of the church are Tarentum residents, not how many people in Tarentum are affected by our church's ministry, and certainly not how many of our activities are focused on the Tarentum neighborhood around our church. These councilmen certainly have an interesting perspective on serving the community by counting noses rather than taking actions that make a difference for people.

There were a number of comments by others in attendance both for and against the skatepark. Some neighbors of the Crab Diamond site were present to speak against the skate park. They raised concerns about the cost of the skatepark, whether there were not a better site elsewhere in the borough, and whether all of the costs of the skatepark project were correctly estimated. There were also residents who came to speak in favor of the skatepark because of the benefits it would bring to the young people of the community. Councilwoman Sopcak offered answers to many of the concerns raised by the citizenry. There was a helpful statement from the owner of the (for-profit) Skatepark of Natrona, about the broad popularity of skateboarding and what was involved. Mayor Wolfe made sure it was known that he was 100% opposed to the skate park.

Mr. Magnetta reminded the Council that he wanted the skate park issue "tabled" so that the 2006 budget could be adopted. Whenever I go to meetings around here I am introduced to new uses of traditional parliamentary terms. I think that they meant that somehow they could adopt the whole budget without amending it in any way, but without implicitly re-endorsing the skate park. But nobody explained what this novel use of the verb "to table" actually meant, so the public will have to watch what happens in January to understand what the Council actually did.

The remainder of the meeting went very swiftly, with a number of perfunctory motions to schedule meeting dates and continue business as usual. Council approved two important repairs: a new boiler for Highland Hose at a cost of $7,750; and the repair of Brackenridge Avenue along Bull Creek at a cost of $118,925.

There was an interesting discussion around the motion to rent space in the Borough Office building to the Borough Tax Collector to be used as the location for payment of taxes. Apparently the new tax collector was to pay a smaller rent for a smaller office than the previous tax collector had paid for a larger office. Councilman Davidek said that the rent charged to the tax collector should have no relation to the size of the space rented. I thought that in the real world landlords and commercial tenants routinely took issues like this into account in their negotiations about rent. But this is Tarentum. And believe it or not, the Council voted for the common-sense proposal to charge less for a smaller space. And that is Tarentum, too.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

In the bleak midwinter

This morning in worship at Central Presbyterian Church the prelude was a solo of "In the Bleak Midwinter" sung by Elena Egusquiza-Miller, one of the middle school young people in the congregation. Elena's participation in the choir along with that of other teenagers has been only one of the many wonderful things happening in worship at Central since Renee Shreffler arrived as our new organist/choir director. A couple weeks ago we were treated to a solo of "Lo, How a Rose" sung by Jessica Mriso. And I understand that there are additional musical treats being planned for Christmas Eve.

The prelude today ministered to me in a way that I have a hard time describing even hours later. I've commented to the congregation that this is a season when many people's feelings are close to the surface; I guess mine are, too. It was a good thing I had a member of the congregation leading the early part of the service, because I needed that time to get recomposed before I did my part.

All of the current fuss about which words Wal-Mart uses to greet its shoppers is so very shallow. If you want to hear a genuine Christmas greeting, just find a worshiping community where the members of the congregation are offering their various gifts to the glory of God.

In The Bleak Midwinter
by Christina Rosetti, 1872
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshiped the Beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Christmas music and carols

Carols illustration for article in VNDThe Valley News Dispatch had an article about the histories of twelve different pieces of Christmas music we are all likely to hear a number of times before the season is done.

I was slightly surprised that the author described all twelve songs as "carols". I realize people are increasingly used to thinking of carols as music associated with Christmas (see, for example, the Wordnet listing here, as opposed to the American Heritage Dictionary listing at the top of the same page.) The Wikipedia has a good explanation of the musical meaning of "carol" here. What is significant about a carol is not the specific season with which it is associated, but the joyful and bright way in which it would be sung and possibly accompanied by dance.

Of the twelve songs listed I would count only six as proper carols:
  • God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
  • Good King Wenceslas
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  • Here We Come A-Wassailing
  • I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In
  • Joy to the World
Of the rest, three are clearly Christmas hymns:
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem
  • Silent Night
And the remaining three are beloved Christmas songs:
  • I heard the bells on Christmas Day
  • Little Drummer Boy
  • White Christmas
This was a good article, that pointed to the variety of sources of the music people treasure during the holiday season. Given the currently embarrassing "War for Christmas" being waged by some sadly misguided individuals, I thought the history behind "White Christmas" was particularly significant as the story of a Jewish songwriter who wanted to find a way to capture in words and music the nostalgic feelings about Christmas as experienced by Christians.

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FireFox 1.5 delivers an improved web experience for me

Update and apology. Dec. 26, 2005. After exchanging email with Blake Ross, who I found through SpreadFireFox, I have learned and verified that the problem I was having had to do with coding errors in my Blogger template. FireFox 1.5 is working fine for me.

The coding errors had to do with extra line breaks that interrupted CSS code that specified fonts to be used. The resulting code was not in accord with the CSS2 specification.

I owe FireFox an apology for this and a special word of thanks to Blake Ross.

Original post.

I had been happy with Firefox 1.0.7, and recently was told that a new improved version of FireFox was available, called 1.5.

However, after installing the "improvement" I discovered that this version has less functionality than the earlier version. It cannot even properly select fonts, and Mozilla doesn't intend to fix this problem until 2007.

I tried re-installing 1.0.7, and it will no longer run. I have tried uninstalling everything from mozilla and deleting the directory before re-installing, and it still won't run.

FireFox 1.5 is a disaster.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Why I can't stomach another so-called "Christmas party"

James 2:1-7 (RSV) [with apologies that I am using an exclusive language translation]:
My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "Have a seat here, please," while you say to the poor man, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the honorable name which was invoked over you?

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Power failure at not related to acquisition

For the last day or so I, along with who knows how many other users, have been having trouble using the social bookmarking service. Yesterday afternoon I had time to look up at least the fact that other people were having the same problem, and in the process I noticed what I had not known, that Yahoo had acquired (or here); a useless bit of information for me the user.

The system troubles have been going longer than expected, and I finally came across the fact that has a blog where more information is available. The difficulties started with a power outage somewhere, and don't appear to have been introduced by being integrated into the Yahoo system.

For me, the extended downtime just means I will have some extra posting to do once the system is up, and meanwhile I am somewhat handicapped in remembering what tags I had created for certain topics on which I have posted. But reading the comments on the service's blog post about the difficulties shows the many ways people have been using the service, all of which does emphasize how important social bookmarking services have become as tools for managing a rapidly expanding amount of information.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Central Presbyterian in support of Tarentum skatepark

Tonight there was a meeting of the Session (i.e., the governing board) of the Central Presbyterian Church of Tarentum. We covered a lot of different issues, and one of them was whether the church should support the skatepark that looks like it's coming to Tarentum on the Crab Diamond site near the borough garage.

One of the elders who lives in Brackenridge asked some hard questions about the proposed park. Then an elder who lives in Tarentum near Mill Street, closer than any others to the site, spoke about how nice it was to live where children played in the back yard, and how the skatepark would be a good addition to the neighborhood.

So the Session voted to authorize me to speak on behalf of the Central Presbyterian Church in support of this wonderful project.

Earlier today it was encouraging to see teams of teenagers going out into Tarentum neighborhoods to gather signatures for the petition to remind the powers that be of the importance of this project. It is something people of all generations in the whole community can rally around, as I saw from the discussion at tonight's Session meeting.

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Tarentum skate park needs a new petition

Things are moving forward with the proposal for a free use skate park for Tarentum, but in the face of vocal opposition from a few, it is once again necessary to circulate a petition to support the project.

It seems to me that the skate park would be a welcomed addition to the region. Young people who want to excel at an extreme sport that requires strength and coordination would have an extra incentive to avoid drugs. If they had a skate park to use, there would be no question of skateboarders posing a risk to pedestrians coming and go from area businesses. A skate park would fill a void in recreational options for local youth.

Sounds good to me. And the people who don't like the idea don't seem to have any alternatives.

If you want to support the project, the attached petition can be completed and sent to Corbet Street Central Perk, 410 Corbet St., Tarentum, PA 15084.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

More insight into the greeting war

The current greeting war seems to become ever more unpleasant and bitter, as it brings to the surface a host of unresolved feelings and disappointments. John Creasy offered a helpful insight into it in his article "Fighting on the Wrong Side of the Christmas War," where he says:
We no longer live in a Christian culture, so lets accept that and be subversive voices calling people to change. Christmas can then be a time of recognizing that Jesus is the one who holds the power of this creation through his incarnation. The power of Jesus can subvert Christmas back to what it should be, a time of liberating the oppressed, caring for the sick, giving to the poor, and doing our best to redeem creation - not consume it.
It is hard for many Christians who remember (or at least think they remember) a time when the Church enjoyed prestige and dominance in society, to accept the fact that the situation has changed. Recognition of the shift in our culture does not need to be a time of second-guessing and blaming, but this recognition is essential if the Church in 2005 is going to find its way to offer a message of hope to the poor, the oppressed, and the over-possessed.

When the Christian Church was a minority religion, long before it had gained the cultural turf that it then surrendered to the secular culture by asking the government or billion-dollar discount retailers to do what was the Church's responsibility and privilege -- back in those days when a tiny band of disciples knew what genuine persecution meant -- the Church carried a treasure that it still carries today without any diminution. And so I leave you with a link to Kellen Plaxco's post for the day.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Allegheny Valley Habitat dedicates new home in Arnold; oh, the Steelers won also

newest home dedicated by Habitat for Humanity Allegheny Valley, 12-11-05Habitat for Humanity of Allegheny Valley dedicated a new home in Arnold today at about 3:00 PM. At the local affiliate's board meeting last week there was some discussion about the fact that the Steelers would be playing at the same time. But the date had been set, the house was rapidly approaching completion, the year was quickly coming to an end, finishing touches being applied to new Habitat home by Tom Hughes, 12-11-05
and there was no way to change the date. So plans went ahead for the dedication regardless of what football or the weather might do to affect the turnout.

I drove in through the falling snow and was early enough to take some pictures of the preparations, such as Tom Hughes installing the striker plate on the front door. All present were very pleased with the new home.

Gallery showing the history of the new Habitat home, 12-11-05There was a gallery of photographs showing the story of the construction of this house, for which Youth United raised the funds. American Eagle Outfitters made a major challenge grant which the young people matched. Young people from some of the church youth groups who had participated in the fundraising were present for the celebration.

Bobbi Livingston family, 12-11-05The dedication included a candlelighting ceremony. The candlelight was a symbol of love, knowledge, and cheer, as well as a reminder that Jesus had explained that he was the light of the world. Dr. James Legge, president of the board of the local affiliate, lit a candle, and shared its light with the Livingston family for whom the house will be their new home. The family then shared the light with the rest of us.

The local affiliate presented the Livingston family with a Bible. The Building Committee also gave them a set of tools that they will need as new homeowners.

Watch for tomorrow's Valley News Dispatch for an article about the house dedication. And if you happened to have missed both the dedication and the Steelers game you'll have an extra reason to read the paper.

Sign for Allegheny Valley Habitat house, 12-11-05

Update 12-12-05: The Valley News Dispatch has the Habitat house dedication as the big story with picture on the front page today. The Steelers' victory also gets mentioned in a reference to Section C.

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Christians can learn a few things from people of other religions

It is probably not a personal attack when someone who does not know your faith greets you and wishes you well.

Today as part of my sermon I spoke about the ongoing greeting wars during this holiday season. One of the parishioners spoke to me afterward about the fact that she works with a Sikh, who regularly receives Christmas and Easter cards from people who do not know his faith. She told me he treasures them, and displays them to others. Isn't that the appropriate and gracious way to respond to an expression of well-wishing?

"Respecting Religion" letter to the editor, Valley News Dispatch, 121005, p. A8
So why do so many Christians treat it as a personal attack when they hear words of welcome and positive regard from others? Yesterday's Valley News Dispatch included a letter to the editor from a Brackenridge reader who put the vandalism of a creche and the use of "Happy Holidays" in the same category of "striking out" at believers.

Christians can learn a few things from people of other religions.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

When in doubt, misdirect

The old Smothers Brothers routine from 1962 comes to mind this morning. They sang a song called "Chocolate." It began with Tom singing the first verse, "I fell into a vat of chocolate."

Dick asked, "What did you do?" So Tom sang the next verse, "I yelled 'Fire!' when I fell into the chocolate."

Dick asked, "Why did you yell 'Fire?'" Tom's response was "Nobody would have helped me if I had yelled 'CHOCOLATE!'"

The Layman Online has an article "UCC pastor elected commissioner to GA," which discusses some of the same issues I wrote about here. Guess what! The big news is that Pittsburgh Presbytery elected five Presbyterian ministers as its commissioners to the next General Assembly. It also elected five Presbyterian elders. And the total number of commissioners elected was ten. The total number of Presbyterians elected as commissioners elected was ten. You do the math.

So why does the headline begin with "UCC"? I guess it's because nobody would have gotten worked up if they'd yelled "PRESBYTERIAN!"

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Children's Christmas Program in Tarentum

On Sunday, Dec. 4, Central Presbyterian Church of Tarentum held its annual Children's Christmas Program with a Tureen Dinner. This was the wrap-up for the final unit of Grand Central Station, our midweek Christian education experience for elementary school age children.

During the week before the program volunteers had painted decorations for the walls to set the stage for the simple Christmas Pagaent the children would do.
Shepherds in the field abiding
Each of these graphics were taken from tiny images, a quarter inch high, at the bottom of some of the pages in the Bible Ventures Centers curriculum materials we had used.
Sages, leave your contemplations
They were enlarged on the photocopier, then placed on an opaque projector so that the designs could be traced and painted on much larger pieces of paper on the walls.
Yonder shines the infant light
We placed the Nativity scene front and center.
Ye have seen His natal star
And we reused a star made a number of years ago, now hanging in the middle of the room.
Crowd lined up for the meal
There were 45 children and adults who arrived for the Tureen Dinner. (For those of you who are not from Western Pennsylvania, a "Tureen Dinner" is what you might know as a "covered dish supper" or a "pot-luck supper". Interestingly enough, there was no tureen present that night.)
Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o'er all the earth
As the first part of the Christmas pagaent, all of the children became angels to fly around the room and bring the good news to the shepherds.
Ye who sang creation's story, now proclaim Messiah's birth
After changing into costumes, the children reappeared around the manger as kings, shepherds, sheep, and angels.
Kings, shepherds, sheep, and angels
After the pagaent was over the children from Grand Central Station gave their families decorated stockings that each had a Christmas prayer inside.

Then, we sang a number of Christmas carols. Verne "Beaner" Bergstrom accompanied us on the piano for a number of them.

Eventually we had a visit from Santa Claus, who brought along some candy for each of the children.
Saints before the altar bending

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Tarentum Borough Christmas/Holiday Tree

Tarentum Borough tree decoration, Dec. 3, 2005
Following Tarentum's Holiday Parade on December 3, a number of residents gathered at the corner of East Sixth Avenue and Corbet Street to decorate the Borough Christmas/Holiday Tree with ornaments donated by local businesses. It was a smaller group than had watched the parade earlier that afternoon, but everyone was able to get along well without quibbling about the name of the tree.

Tarentum Tree decoration, Dec. 3, 2005
Tarentum tree decoration, December 3, 2005
Tarentum tree decorating, December 3, 2005
Bill Tillman brought song sheets to lead the group in singing. When we finished singing the secular holiday carols on the sheets, a number of us began singing traditional religious Christmas carols from memory.
Caroling at the Tarentum tree decoration, Dec. 3, 2005
Caroling at the Tarentum tree decoration, Dec. 3, 2005

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Retailers take Christ out of commercialization

"Retailers take Christ out of commercialization" - by Matt Sober, Valley News Dispatch, 12-07-05, p. D1Ah, the annual battle over the "true meaning of Christmas".

I'm grateful to Matt Sober whose column in the Valley News Dispatch this Wednesday tackled the issue. With the title "Retailers take Christ out of commercialization" the column tackles the greeting controversy at Wal-Mart, the store that appears to be arousing someone's ire by wishing their customers "Happy Holidays or "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas."

Sober closes his pointedly humorous column:

Christmas isn't about superficial stuff like midnight Mass, or good will toward men, or letting God's spirit fill your heart.
It's about anger. It's about paranoia. It's about being offended.
And now, my friends, it's about boycotts.
That's right. I say we don't spend another dime in these stores until they start acknowledging Dec. 25 for what it is — the reason they're able to finish in the black after operating in the red the rest of the year. Once these companies see a difference in the bottom line, you can bet they'll replace the watered-down holiday greetings with what we've all been waiting so desperately to hear.
"Merry Christmas from your friends at Wal-Mart."
And then we'll all be happy, right?
Because nothing captures the spirit of the season quite like a gratuitous "Merry Christmas" from a billion-dollar discount retailer.

"Where's Christmas?" letter to the editor of Valley News Dispatch, 12-04-05, p. C6In the greeting wars earlier this week, a letter to the editor of the VND on Sunday carried a "sad, angry, and confused" warning from a Cheswick reader who threatened such acts of "civil disobedience" as subjecting store clerks to "a pleasant and firm Merry Christmas reply."

And a very Merry Christmas to you, too.

Meanwhile on the Holiday/Christmas tree front in the culture wars, from the West Coast, Mark D. Roberts has been blogging carefully and thoughtfully about the perspectives of each side.

And closer to home, last week local blogger W offered some helpful insight into the lost perspective we too easily accept:
As a Christian, I feel a little more compelled to argue for people to be treated equally and told the truth by the elected officials than to fight over whether it's called a "holiday tree" or a "Christmas tree."

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It wasn't like this last summer

Snow in parking lot in Lower Burrell, 12-09-05

"It wasn't like this last summer," was the comment from my neighbor Pete while we were clearing off our cars this morning.

The first major snowfall of the season was an adventure last night for me. I had attended an event in Pittsburgh last night and got out to discover there was already snow falling and accumulating. So I made my way home slowly during the height of the storm.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

A new batch of Glimpses

This week we received the new shipment of Christian History Institute's Glimpses, which we distribute as monthly bulletin inserts on Communion Sundays. Following up on the commitment I made earlier this year, I have reviewed each of the inserts. I learned something from each of them, and feel confident that they will edify the congregation over the next six months.

The inserts this month are:

193. C.S. Lewis: Chronicles of an Apologist
Just in time to be highly relevant to the release of Narnia in theaters around the country.

194. Sojourner: Witness of Truth
This is a good piece on a major figure in the abolition movement. I learned from this article that slavery had been legal in New York State until an emancipation decree in 1827.

195. Patrick: The Making of a Missionary
This is one of my favorite saints. I often get a response of shock from people when I tell them that Patrick was not Irish.

196. Emma Whittemore and Door of Hope
The inspiring story of one of the key leaders in the Salvation Army and the International Union of Gospel Missions.

197. George Whitefield: The Controversial Evangelist
The story of the great showman preacher of the 18th century.

198. Fanny Crosby: America's Hymn Queen
Even if you are not a fan of Fanny Crosby hymns, it is valuable to know her story.

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McChurch plans to be closed on Christmas Sunday

What's new? Fast food restaurants have been closing on family holidays for years. Why shouldn't McChurch follow suit?

"If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don't go to church, how likely is it that they'll be going to church on Christmas morning?" asks a spokesperson for the Willow Creek Community Church.

If the target and mission of the church is as simple as these churches state it, who is it really who is being worshiped on the Sunday mornings they choose to stay open?

I'm with Tod Bolsinger who says that "worship on Christmas Day seems, well, right."

And it will be right even if there is not a crowd.

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Holiday parade in Tarentum, December 3, 2005

Tarentum had a great holiday parade on Saturday, December 3, 2005. Even the preparations were colorful and festive.

balloons at Central Perk

Balloons at Central Perk

elves arriving by car trailing balloons

Elves arriving by car trailing balloons

The parade looped through West Tarentum before coming under the bridge into East Tarentum and proceeding up Fifth Avenue. At Corbet Street the parade went down to First Ave., where it ended.

Color Guard from Marine Corps League Allegheny Valley Detachment #827 in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Color Guard from Marine Corps League Allegheny Valley Detachment #827

Andy Burch in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Andy Burch

Tarentum Children's Chorus in the 2005 Holiday Parade

Tarentum Children's Chorus

Brownie troop 533 in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Brownie Troop 533

Girl Scout elves and snow women in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Girl Scout elves and snow women

Eureka Fire/Rescue in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Eureka Fire/Rescue

New Kensington Top Hats in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

New Kensington Top Hats

elves, santas, and balloons in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Elves, Santas, and balloons

Representative Frank Dermody, 33rd Legislative District, in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Representative Frank Dermody, 33rd Legislative District

458th Engineer Battalion, New Kensington, in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

458th Engineer Battalion, New Kensington

Allegheny County Sheriff in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Allegheny County Sheriff

Ringer Pet Dog Training in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Ringer's Pet Dog Training

Summit Hose in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Summit Hose

Salvation Army Disaster Services in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Salvation Army Disaster Services

Lower Burrell Volunteer Fire Dept. 3 in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Lower Burrell VFD #3

East Deer EMS in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

East Deer EMS

Deer Lakes High School Drill Team in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Deer Lakes High School Drill Team

Deer Lakes High School Marching Band in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Deer Lakes High School Marching Band

Deer Lakes Marching Band in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Deer Lakes High School Marching Band on Corbet Street

Highland Hose delivers Santa in 2005 Holiday Parade in Tarentum

Highland Hose delivers Santa Claus

There was a good representation of groups in the community, and an exciting time was had by all.

Thanks to Patty Burch for providing some of the photos in this collection.

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