Signs of the Times

Rural Churches Grapple with a Pastor Exodus

Time magazine reports that America’s rural churches are fading even faster than America’s rural areas, as it becomes increasingly difficult to attract and keep a pastor in sparsely populated areas. According to Trace Haythorn, president of the nonprofit Fund for Theological Education (FTE), fewer than one half of rural churches have a “full-time seminary-trained pastor.” That figure can drop to as low as 1 in 5 in some areas of the Midwest. Pastors fresh out of seminary are turning in ever greater numbers to the suburbs, where they can more easily find a salary that will help clear their debt. Dwindling congregations in rural areas simply can’t sustain the normal starting salary $35,000 a year for a pastor. “It’s a religious crisis, for sure,” says Daniel Wolpert, pastor of First Presbyterian in Crookston, Minn. “And to the extent that these churches are anchoring institutions, it’s a crisis of community.”

Obama Revamps Faith-Based Office

WASHINGTON — President Obama revamped the White House headquarters for faith-based initiatives Thursday, creating a staff that will stress more work with neighborhood groups than the model founded by President Bush. “There is a force for good greater than government,” Obama said. “It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back.” The renamed White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will work with community groups on challenges ranging from poverty to teenage pregnancy, according to a plan released by the White House. The office will also cooperate with the National Security Council to foster an “interfaith dialogue” worldwide, particularly with Islam, the plan said. The office will be headed by Joshua DuBois, 26, a former associate pastor at small Pentecostal church in Cambridge, Mass. He also served as director of religious affairs for Obama’s presidential campaign. The office will use new media and other tools “to make sure groups across the country have access to the faith-based office,” he said.

Obama Confused – Abortion is the Killing of Innocents

OneNewsNow —President Obama revealed his stance on pro-life issues at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast. During his first prayer breakfast in Washington, President Obama discussed the peaceful coexistence of different religions. He denounced death-dealing terrorism and then made this statement: “There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being.” Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League, recalls that Obama is the most pro-abortion president in America’s history. “There’s several times he’s said things to that effect, that you cannot kill an innocent person, an innocent human being,” he notes. “He just doesn’t make the connection, obviously, that the unborn child is an innocent human being and that he supports that kind of killing.”

Ø JJ Commentary: Just as there is an anti-Christ spirit in the world that blinds people’s eyes to Jesus, so too does the “god of this age” blind people to the truth about abortion. The devil and his minions are murderous liars who must be exposed.

Traffic Deaths Way Down

USA TODAY — Traffic deaths fell sharply across the nation last year, dropping in at least 42 states and the District of Columbia as Americans battered by high gasoline prices and the sour economy cut driving by a record amount. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia registered double-digit percentage declines, sending death totals in some places to levels not seen in a half-century or more. The only states reporting increases were Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming. Since 1995, the annual U.S. total has ranged between 41,000 and 43,000. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in December that traffic deaths through the first 10 months of 2008 were down nearly 10%. The fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled also dropped during that period from 1.37 in 2007 to 1.28, she said. If the national rate stayed at that level for all of 2008, it would be the lowest since 1966, says DOT spokeswoman Karen Aldana.

Army Suicides Rise Sharply

WASHINGTON — January could be the Army’s worst month for suicides since record-keeping started in 1980. The service announced Thursday that 24 soldiers may have killed themselves last month. Seven suicides have been confirmed, the Army said, and 17 are suspected. If all are confirmed, it means that more than twice as many soldiers died by their own hand last month than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten soldiers died in combat last month. The announcement comes a week after the Army reported a 25% increase in suicides last year over 2007. With 128 confirmed cases last year and an additional 15 suspected suicides, 2008 set another record: It was the fourth consecutive year of increases in soldier suicides.

Ø JJ Commentary: The increased suicides coincide with extended and repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan which violated military protocols and promises.

Poll: Ethics Stumbles Not a Big Deal to Most Americans

WASHINGTON — Early stumbles by the Obama White House over some high-level appointments caused a furor in the capital and on cable TV this week, but most Americans dismiss them as just a normal part of staffing a new administration. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Wednesday, those surveyed say by nearly 3-1 that their confidence in President Obama’s ethical standards and his ability to manage the government and improve the economy has gone up rather than down since his inauguration last month. “They’re willing to cut him some slack,” says political scientist Gary Jacobson of the University of California-San Diego. “They’re more interested in things like what’s going to happen to their jobs and their incomes and their 401(k)s. This other stuff is just a distraction.”

Ø JJ Commentary: Three high-level appointees failed to pay their taxes, and the public doesn’t care? The problem is bad enough, but the reaction is even worse. The majority of Americans are more concerned about what they can get from government than whether it is ethical or not. End-time avarice is rampant.

Obama Signs Children’s Health Insurance Bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama has signed a bill extending health coverage to 4 million uninsured children. The East Room signing ceremony on Wednesday represented a much-needed win for Obama on health care a day after his administration suffered a major setback with the loss of his nominee to lead his drive for sweeping reform, Tom Daschle. The bill calls for spending an additional $32.8 billion on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Lawmakers generated that revenue by raising the federal tobacco tax. Obama said it is a key step toward his promise of universal health care coverage for all. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program covers children in families that make too much for Medicaid, but struggle to buy private insurance.

Senators Prep for Stimulus Fight

WASHINGTON — Responding to dire economic warnings from the White House, Senate leaders are vowing to act quickly on a $937 billion stimulus plan despite rising partisan tension. After nearly a week of negotiations on the economic recovery bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said late Thursday that he hopes for a compromise but is prepared to move forward on the legislation, with or without Republican support. Reid predicted there is already enough support to eke out the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster on the bill and pass it. Reid suggested work would continue today and possibly into the weekend. Compromise may hinge on a group of Senate moderates who hope to trim as much as $100 billion from the measure to capture support from fiscal conservatives.

Ø JJ Commentary: This bill is so pork-laden it should be scrapped entirely.

Job Losses Mount; Jobless Rate Surges to 7.6%

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Employers slashed payrolls by 598,000 in January, the most since the end of 1974, catapulting the unemployment rate to 7.6%, now at the highest since September 1992. Last month’s job reductions were the largest since 602,000 in December 1974. “January’s sharp drop in employment brings job losses to 3.6 million since the start of the recession in December 2007,” Commissioner of Labor Statistics Keith Hall said in a statement, and “about half the decline occurred in the last three months.”

New Jobless Claims Surge to 26-year High

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The number of workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits jumped to a 26-year high last week, according to government data Thursday that pointed to a rapid deterioration in the economy. In addition, the number of people staying on the benefit rolls hit a record high, showing that the weak labor market has yet to hit bottom. In the jobless report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment insurance benefits rose 35,000 to a seasonally adjusted 626,000 in the week ended Jan. 31, the highest since the week ended Oct. 30, 1982. The number of people staying on the benefits roll after drawing an initial week of aid surged by 20,000 to a record 4.788 million in the week ended Jan. 24.

Furloughs Begin for Calif. State Workers

SACRAMENTO (AP) — More than 200,000 state government employees were expected to stay home without pay Friday as California began its first-ever furlough, a move intended to save money during an ongoing fiscal crisis. State agencies scrambled in the days before the furloughs took effect to avoid confusion for the public, such as people trying to register vehicles or obtain professional licenses. Among the offices to be closed Friday are those of the Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Consumer Affairs. The governor’s Office of Emergency Services also would be dark as part of a cash-saving move ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Critical and revenue-generating agencies were scheduled to remain open, including fire stations, parks and employment centers that process unemployment insurance claims. California’s unemployment rate is 9.3%, a 15-year high.

Stores See January Sales Fall

NEW YORK (AP) — Shoppers grappling with rising layoffs and shrinking retirement accounts dug deep into survival mode last month, resulting in sharp January sales declines for many retailers and raising more concerns about the financial health of the industry. As merchants reported their sales figures early Thursday, the malaise crossed the spectrum of retailing, from department chains to teen chains. “Sales are coming in extremely soft, and we see more of the same for at least three to six months,” said Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics. “Shoppers continue to be under pressure. They are fatigued and tapped out. They are feeling pressure from all fronts. And there’s absolutely no incentive to shop.”

More Consumers Fall Behind on Paying Credit Cards

USA TODAY — Credit card delinquencies are hitting record highs as more borrowers fall behind on bills amid rising unemployment and falling home values. The amount of credit card debt delinquent at least 60 days reached 3.75% in December, the latest month available, surpassing the previous high of 3.73% set in February 1998. Late payments on credit cards, a precursor to charge-offs, rose during most of 2008 before sharply accelerating in the fourth quarter. In December, credit card charge-offs — when banks write off the debt — rose to 7.5%, the highest level since 2005, when thousands of consumers rushed to file for bankruptcy and erase their card debt before a new law made it harder to do. Experts expect charge-offs to approach 9% in the second half of 2009.

Navy Watches as Pirates Nab $3.2M

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — As U.S. Navy ships looked on, Somali pirates sped away Thursday with $3.2 million in ransom after releasing an arms-laden Ukrainian freighter — ending a four-month standoff that focused world attention on piracy off Somalia’s lawless coast. The Navy said it couldn’t seize the bandits for fear of endangering 147 other seamen still held hostage on other hijacked ships. So, within sight of two nearby U.S. warships, the pirates counted the cash — air-dropped by parachute — then took off in motorboats, pirate Aden Abdi Omar said, speaking to the Associated Press by satellite phone after arriving in the central Somali town of Harardhere. More than two dozen pirates made their escape aboard motorized skiffs, navigating the choppy waters in small groups. The seizure of the MV Faina, loaded with Soviet-era tanks and other heavy weapons, was one of the most brazen in a surge of pirate attacks on shipping off the Somali coast. Piracy is big business off the coast of war-ravaged Somalia, which has not had a functioning government for 18 years. Pirates made off with up to $80 million in ransom in the past year, seizing 42 vessels off the country’s 1,900-mile coastline along the Horn of Africa.

Mubarak blames Hamas for spilling Arab blood

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak voiced unusually harsh criticism against Hamas on Wednesday, accusing the radical Islamist movement of being responsible for the shedding of Arab blood. “How long will Arab blood continue to be spilled, only to hear those who admit to miscalculating the scope and scale of Israel’s response?” Mubarak asked in a public speech to honor police. Mubarak’s comment came in reference to remarks reportedly made by Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal, who admitted at the end of the recent three-week Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip that he did not anticipate the scope of Israel’s operation and had hoped the “Arab street” would rise up to pressure Cairo to open the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah made similar comments at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Mubarak went on to say that resistance movements must take responsibility over the welfare of their people. “The resistance must take into account victories and losses. It is responsible for the people, who in turn should settle the score [with the resistance] over the gains it has achieved, but also the sacrifices, the pain and the destruction it has caused,” he said. The Egyptian president also suggested that Hamas and other militant Palestinian factions are serving the Iranian agenda in the region, especially since the fighting in Gaza ended.

Pakistan: 10 Trucks Torched along U.S. Supply Line

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Assailants torched 10 trucks stranded in Pakistan by the bombing of a key bridge on the main supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, an official said Wednesday. Increasing attacks on transport depots and truck convoys heading to bases across the border have raised doubts about Pakistan’s ability to protect the vital road as the U.S. prepares to send as many as 30,000 more American forces into Afghanistan this year. U.S. officials have played down any concern about running out of food or fuel, despite pressure on their supply lines. American forces stockpile enough supplies to last 60-90 days in the event that their supply chain is severed, U.S. officials say. About 75% of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan currently travel through Pakistan.

Kyrgyzstan Says Decision to Close U.S. Base is Final

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyzstan will not reverse its decision to close a U.S. air base on its territory that is key to American and NATO operations in Afghanistan, a top Kyrgyz security official said Friday. The statement by Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Council chief Adakhan Madumarov appeared to dash any U.S. hopes of securing a last-minute reprieve for the Manas air base, which is located just outside the capital of Bishkek. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev stunned Washington when he announced the closure of the base earlier this week after securing more than $2 billion in financial aid and credit from Russia. Losing Manas now would pose a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s plan to send up to 30,000 more U.S. forces to fight surging Taliban and al-Qaeda violence in Afghanistan.

Russia to Allow Transit of U.S. Military Supplies

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia said Friday that it will start allowing U.S. military supplies for Afghanistan to cross its territory. Russia’s opening of routes for non-lethal supplies could provide an important alternative to roads through Pakistan that are increasingly threatened by militant attacks. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not specify if Russia would provide land or air corridors but the U.S. and other NATO have mostly been interested in land routes that would let them to more cheaply move bulky cargo. By welcoming the transit of U.S. supplies, Lavrov appeared to send a signal to Washington that Russia is ready to help on Afghanistan if the U.S. deals with Moscow when it comes to Central Asia.

Sharia-Based Laws Creep into Half of Indonesia’s Provinces

Compass Direct News reports that as candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. Opponents say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.” Such laws could become a key campaign issue. Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), but more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. A lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass, “Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails.”

Flooding Rains Wreak Reptile Havoc in Australia

SYDNEY (AP) — Rain-battered residents in northeastern Australia were on alert Wednesday for snakes in their bathrooms and crocodiles in the road following repeated storms that have sent local wildlife in search of dry land or a safe haven. More than half of Queensland state was declared a disaster area Tuesday because of the rains that started in late December and are expected to continue. Wildlife Carers volunteer Lana Allcroft said the service had been overwhelmed with injured and displaced animals since the floods began.

Millions Lack Drinking Water as Drought Worsens in China

BEIJING (AP) — China declared an emergency Thursday in eight provinces suffering a serious drought that has left nearly 4 million people without proper drinking water and is threatening millions of acres of crops. The Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief called it a drought “rarely seen in history.” It said the government had allocated $58.5 million for relief work. China suffers from an uneven distribution of its water resources. Weather patterns in the arid north and flood-prone south cost the government tens of millions of dollars in lost productivity each year. The latest drought began in November and has affected 24 million acres of crops, one-third of them seriously. News broadcasts have shown dry, cracked farm fields and crops withering in the ground.

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