This being my last column of 2013, I decided to look forward to the coming year. Here are few things I'd like to see less of or more of than in the past 12 months:
Less Christmas; more Christ. Every December, a subset of Christians gets riled up about somebody's supposed war against Christmas, which, as nearly as I can tell, boils down to store clerks wishing customers "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Oh my gosh, it's the end of the world as we know it! Some war, huh?
Personally, although I'm a Christian — in fact, because I'm a Christian — I'd love to see a real cultural war against Christmas. Led by Christians themselves.
How do we currently mark the incarnation of God into a poor baby born in a Bethlehem stable?
With a nonstop, unbridled orgy of consumerism. By maxing our credit cards to buy people we barely like doodads we can't afford, and they don't want. By teaching little children to lie awake anticipating receiving Barbie castles from an overweight elf.
Christmas, as we celebrate it, is nothing but a marketing strategy. Don't worry, fretters; as long as Internet shopping and big-box stores exist, there will always be a Christmas. But it's not in any sense holy and hasn't been in my memory.
Shut contemporary Christmas down, I say. Good riddance.
Instead, we might sing a few carols together in church on Christmas Eve, then share a Bible story and a quiet meal with family the next day. We'd all be better off.
Less paranoia; more faith. The spectral war against Christmas is just one manifestation of a larger Henny Penny Syndrome that afflicts religious groups.
The sky is always falling.
The antagonists in these looming apocalypses vary, depending on the impending victims' theological and political predilections.
The Affordable Care Act will force Christians to support ungodly medical procedures or go bankrupt. The Tea Party will catapult the worldwide economy into dystopia and mass starvation. Coal-fired power plants will choke us to death, if the melting icebergs don't drown us first. Gay marriage will provoke God to incinerate us with sizzling brimstone, just like Sodom and Gomorrah.
I wonder sometimes: Whatever happened to faith?
It's not that I don't find some events worrisome.
Even so, we churchgoers are supposed to believe that God has a larger and beneficial plan for us individually and for the world. We're supposed to believe he's known the end from way back in the beginning, and that he has maintained his control all along, whether or not we're able to discern his whole plan.
Anyway, many things are beyond our control. Why not just trust the Lord? We can do our best to fix whatever problems lie within our domain, and we should. But the future largely belongs to God. And that's a good thing.
Less Phil Robertson; more Pope Francis. The pope lately reminded us that it's possible to hold fast to your religious beliefs and moral tenets without thrashing or trashing those who don't see the world exactly as you do.
Mind you, as a lifelong churchgoer, I know where Duck Dynasty star Robertson was coming from when told GQ that gay sexual behavior was contrary to traditional Christian teachings. I've heard those teachings all my life. If Robertson's consistent, I assume he also thinks adultery, divorce and premarital straight sex are inappropriate, since the Bible that discourages gay sex bars those behaviors, too.
(As for his boneheaded comments about how happy black people were under Jim Crow — well, a 10-minute foray into survivors' accounts of those days would have disabused him of that idea. Lots of black people acted happy around white people, usually in the interest of self-preservation.)
The paradox is, Pope Francis' Roman Catholic Church would, to an extent, agree with Robertson on what is and isn't appropriate sexual behavior.
The difference is in degrees and delivery.
It's one thing to acknowledge that your religion doesn't regard all varieties of sexual expression as ideal, but also recognize it's really not your job to obsess about that, much less to say mean things, since you aren't God but only a fellow traveler trying to figure it out as you go along. To my ear, this is what the pope does so well.
It's another thing to compare consenting gay adults — or, by extension, heterosexuals cohabiting without benefit of clergy — to those who practice bestiality.
With either response, you'll catch flak. Many people of all stripes become angry at even a hint they might be imperfect in any way. Others get mad if you don't bust a vein over what strangers do in the privacy of their bedrooms.
Still, on all subjects, including sex, thoughtful Christians try to strike a balance. They try to adhere to what their religion interprets as truth — while filtering those truths with genuine love and a humble awareness of their own imperfections.
The Christian view of almost everything, or at least my Christian view, was best summed up by the radical Baptist minister Will Campbell, who described the gospel message as, "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."
That message is never going to please everybody. It wasn't meant to.
But Pope Francis' approach is far more mature, kind and near the heart of the matter than Robertson's.