The Advent Conspiracy

Three evangelical pastors were fed up with Christmas because “its meaning, beauty and holiness had been sucked clean and dry.” Out of their shared complaints, the Advent Conspiracy was born in 2006 and became an annual worldwide effort to embody the spirit of Advent’s four weeks of prayerful focus before Christmas. Pastors Greg Holder of Windsor Crossing, Chris Seay of Ecclesia Church in Houston and Rick McKinley of Imago Dei Community in Portland, Ore., came up with the campaign’s four themes: to worship fully, to spend less, to give “more gifts that matter” and to “love all.” Word of the Advent Conspiracy has spread from three churches to thousands since 2005 as videos update their projects, and free online resources (www.adventconspiracy.org) are offered to help congregations “conspire together to do the unexpected.” Windsor Crossing donated “every dollar, dime and check” to Living Water, a Houston-based non-profit group that addresses water needs village by village worldwide. By 2009, Advent Conspiracy churches raised 25% of Living Water’s funds, underwriting 340 new wells, serving 200,000 people. An additional 99 wells were in the works this past year.

Alternative Giving Trend Grows

Despite the economic doldrums, altruistic giving of charitable donations instead of gifts is a growing trend. “We’ve had many more people in the last two or three years ask us about this type of giving than ever before,” says Virginia Esposito, president and founder of the National Center for Family Philanthropy in Washington, D.C. She has worked in philanthropy for 30 years. “These gifts are thriving at a time when the non-profit sector isn’t,” she says. Those who turn to gift donations, charitable birthday parties or non-profit wedding registries claim a profound sense of fulfillment that they don’t get from giving or receiving traditional gifts. They emphasize that less really is more for them. The key to successful alternative gift-giving is to choose something the recipient cares deeply about, Esposito says. She reassures donors who worry that giving in the name of someone else will be like giving a gift card. “It’s actually significantly different because these causes that people support are fundamentally meaningful to (the recipient).”

Pentagon Study Says No Harm in Letting Gays Serve Openly

The Pentagon study that argues that gay troops could serve openly without hurting the military’s ability to fight is expected to re-ignite debate this month on Capitol Hill over repealing the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Officials familiar with the 10-month study’s results have said a clear majority of respondents don’t care if gays serve openly, with 70 percent predicting that lifting the ban would have positive, mixed or no results. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who have both said they support repealing the law. Representatives of the Obama administration and top military officers were unable to name a single benefit that would result from the change. But they did acknowledge the military would encounter some risks and “temporary” disruptions due to widespread opposition among the troops, particularly among chaplains and soldiers serving in ground combat and special operations units. Administration representatives acknowledged that as many as 60 percent of Marines oppose repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

  • · The harm is the continuing decline of morality and respect for God’s social order – but, just as the Bible foretells, the spirit of lawlessness is increasing as these end-time march on

Clinton Blasts State Department Leaks as an Attack

The Obama administration scrambled Monday to control the diplomatic damage from a quarter-million leaked State Department documents reverberating across the nation’s capital and around the globe. The White House ordered a government-wide review of procedures to safeguard classified data and vowed to prosecute anyone who broke U.S. law by leaking the latest trove of documents to the online whistle-blower WikiLeaks. “This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “It is an attack on the international community — the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations, that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.” Attorney General Eric Holder said the government was conducting a criminal investigation and would hold responsible “anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law.” Governments in Europe also condemned the leaks.

At the heart of the heated reaction Monday to WikiLeaks’ latest giant government document drop were fundamental questions about the role of a free press in a democracy: Would the publication of secret State Department information serve the public good? Or would it merely endanger diplomats, jeopardize international relations and complicate the war on terror? In an editor’s note, The New York Times stoutly defended publication of the documents as serving “an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match.”

  • · In an age of too much government secrecy, the role of the free press is more critical than ever

Rape Charges Land WikiLeaks Founder on Interpol List

Interpol has placed the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks on its most-wanted list after Sweden issued an arrest warrant against him as part of a drawn-out rape investigation. The Lyon, France-based international police organization has issued a “red notice” for 39-year old Julian Assange — the equivalent of putting him on its most wanted list. The issuance by Interpol was expected after a Swedish court in mid-November approved a motion to have Assange brought in for questioning. The notice, posted on Interpol’s site Tuesday, is likely to make international travel more difficult for him. Assange, whose whereabouts are unknown, is suspected of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. He has denied the allegations, which stem from his encounters with two women during a visit to Sweden in August.

  • · It seems a little too coincidental and convenient for these charges to be brought just when many governments are incensed over his leaks of confidential documents

Government Approves Second Clinical Trial Using Embryonic Stem Cells

For the second time in less than six months – and in U.S. history – the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the use life-destroying human embryonic stem cells in a human clinical trial. Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT) received the government’s approval to people suffering from Stargardt disease, a rare genetic disorder that often leads to blindness. Only 30,000 Americans suffer from this particular disease; however, researchers say they hope to gain information for other progressive eye diseases. Geron Corporation was the first to get the FDA’s OK’d to inject embryonic stem cells in patients whose spinal cords have been crushed. Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for Life Sciences with the Family Research Council, said that these firms are aware that their embryonic cells won’t work past one or two weeks after the injury and that they should be using adult stem cells instead. “Adult stem cells are really helping patients now,” he said. “Thousands of patients, dozens of diseases and it doesn’t rely on destroying human life.”

Senate Passes Bill to Boost Food Safety

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday to make food safer in the wake of deadly E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, potentially giving the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food. The $1.4 billion bill, which would also place stricter standards on imported foods, passed the Senate 73-25. Supporters say passage is critical after widespread outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce. Those outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA as the embattled agency struggled to contain and trace the contaminated products. The agency rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all. The bill would emphasize prevention so the agency could try to stop outbreaks before they begin. The legislation stalled as it came under fire from advocates of buying locally produced food and operators of small farms, who said it would could bankrupt some small businesses. Senators eventually agreed to exempt some of those operations from costly food safety plans required of bigger companies, rankling food safety advocates and larger growers but gaining support from farm-state senators.

Supreme Court to Hear Ariz. Campaign Finance Case

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to take up a nationally watched dispute over an Arizona campaign finance law that gives extra public funds to candidates who face well-off, privately financed opponents. The case to be heard in early 2011 revolves around a state’s interest in curbing the potentially corruptive effect of big campaign money. It specifically tests the constitutionality of a state “matching funds” provision that seeks to equalize resources among candidates by providing extra subsidies to candidates who face privately financed rivals. Challengers to the law, including individual legislators and a political action committee of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, say government cannot offer public funding benefits to particular candidates. The challengers, who successfully persuaded the Supreme Court to block the law last June before the Arizona primary, say it violates speech rights because the law penalizes them for having more campaign money.

Ariz. Governor Outlines Tax, Economic Development Plan

Gov. Jan Brewer on Tuesday outlined a package of economic development proposals that include tax incentives and an income tax cut for businesses. Brewer said her goal is to retain and attract businesses with steps intended to promote new investments and create quality jobs. The steps include a phased-in reduction of the corporate income tax, a separate income tax break mainly helping manufacturers, and a variety of other tax breaks and tax credits. The package also would create a new $25 million state fund to provide grants to businesses considering Arizona for expansions, easing state regulation and transforming the current Commerce Department into a quasi-private entity, the Arizona Commerce Authority. The package requires legislative approval.

Economic News

Americans’ confidence rose to a five-month high in November. The Conference Board, a private research group based in New York, said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 54.1 in November, up from a revised 49.9 in October. The November reading is the highest since June, when the index stood at 54.3. It takes a level of 90 to indicate a healthy economy, which hasn’t been approached since the recession began in December 2007.

Home prices are falling again in the nation’s largest cities, and a record number of foreclosures are expected to push prices down further through next year. The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index fell 0.6% in September from August. Eighteen of the cities recorded monthly price declines. The 20-city index had risen 5.9% from their April 2009 bottom. But it remains nearly 28.6% below its July 2006 peak.

Online shoppers flooded retail websites Monday, taxing Web servers and stressing mobile websites. Sales at 500 retail websites were up about 19.4% over Cyber Monday 2009. That fueled hopes that Web sales would offset lukewarm sales in stores over the long holiday weekend.

Extended unemployment benefits for nearly 2 million Americans begin to run out today, cutting off a steady stream of income and guaranteeing a dismal holiday season for people already struggling with bills they cannot pay. About 2 million Americans stand to lose their unemployment checks by the end of December after Congress failed to extend benefits Tuesday, threatening to crimp consumer spending in a fragile recovery and critical holiday shopping season. A motion by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to pass an extension on a voice vote fell short Tuesday. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates extending benefits for a year would cost about $56 billion.

President Obama proposed a two-year freeze on federal pay, casting the proposal as a step toward cutting the size of the federal debt. “Small businesses and families are tightening their belts,” Obama said during brief remarks at the White House. “Their government should too.” The proposed freeze — which must be approved by Congress — would not apply to the military, Obama added. Freezing other federal salaries would save the nation $2 billion during the rest of the current fiscal year, and $28 billion in cumulative savings over the next five years. The current federal debt is pegged at more than $13.7 trillion.

Afghanistan

A secret diplomatic cable released Tuesday by WikiLeaks says Afghan President Hamid Karzai freed dangerous detainees and pardoned suspected drug dealers because they had connections to powerful figures. The cable, which supports the multiple allegations of corruption within the Karzai government, said that despite repeated rebukes from U.S. officials in Kabul, the president and his attorney general authorized the release of detainees. The cable said that in April 2009 Karzai pardoned five Afghan policemen caught with 273 pounds of heroin because they were related to two heroic figures of the Afghan civil war fought in the mid-1990s. According to the cable, Karzai also tampered with the narcotics case of Haji Amanullah, the son of a wealthy businessman and one of the president’s supporters.

North Korea

China knows less about and has less influence over its close ally North Korea than is usually presumed and is likely to eventually accept a reunified peninsula under South Korean rule, according to U.S. diplomatic files leaked to the WikiLeaks website. The memos — called cables, though they were mostly encrypted e-mails — paint a picture of three countries struggling to understand an isolated, hard-line regime in the face of a dearth of information and indicate American and South Korean diplomats’ reliance on China’s analysis and interpretation. China is Pyongyang’s closest ally — Beijing fought on the northern side of the Korean War and its aid props up the current regime — and its actions have often served to insulate North Korea from foreign pressure. It has repeatedly opposed harsh economic sanctions and responded to the latest crises by repeating calls for a return to long-stalled, six-nation denuclearization talks that the North has rejected.

Iran

Iran‘s president accused Israel and the West of being behind a pair of daring bomb attacks that killed one nuclear scientist and wounded another in their cars on the streets of Tehran on Monday. He also admitted for the first time that a computer worm had affected centrifuges in Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials vowed that the nuclear program would not be hampered by what they described as a campaign to sabotage it — whether by assassination or by the computer virus. The two bomb attacks occurred when assailants on motorcycles attached magnetized bombs to the cars of two nuclear scientists as they drove to work in separate parts of the capital Monday morning. They detonated seconds later, killing one scientist, wounding another and wounding each of their wives, who were in the cars. At least two other Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in recent years, one of them in a similar attack.

Haiti

Ten months after the magnitude-7 earthquake that killed 230,000 people and destroyed at least 60% of Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, some relief agencies have not spent the bulk of the donations they raised after the disaster. They say they want to use the rest for the country’s long-term recovery, but they can’t get rolling because roads are torn up, government agencies aren’t functioning, and the economy is at a standstill. Agencies are also working to contain a rapid-spreading cholera outbreak. “The pace of recovery is slow,” says Randy Strash, World Vision’s strategy director for emergency response. Agencies that want to build shelters for the 1.5 million people left homeless after the quake, he says, struggle with lost records of land ownership and insufficient available land. World Vision has built 393 of the 3,520 shelters it planned. Overall, the United Nations says, relief agencies have built 19,000 shelters that can house about 94,000 people, about 6% of the homeless.

Afghanistan

Taliban militants are holding eight members of an Afghan demining team after ambushing the group Wednesday in eastern Afghanistan. Fazel Wahab, a deminer working for OMAR, a humanitarian group working to find and dismantle homemade bombs, said militants attacked the 16-member team near the Torkham border crossing in Nangarhar province. Several hours later, the Taliban released eight of his colleagues, who contacted the organization to report that they had been freed, Wahab said. The militants are still holding the other eight.

Pakistan

Groups providing aid to millions of families displaced by flooding in Pakistan say their U.S. fundraising efforts for the disaster lag behind other recent major calamities. Flooding in Pakistan, which killed about 1,700 people and destroyed 1.9 million homes, left 7 million people homeless and “displaced” about a million more, according to the United Nations. That compares with 1.2 million people displaced by the January earthquake in Haiti, 1.5 million displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and 1.7 million by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The floods resulted in the U.N.’s largest-ever appeal for funding, but only 49% of the $2 billion needed has been raised; 42% of that from the USA. Another $239 million was raised for purposes not identified in the U.N. appeal, the U.N. says.

  • · Though less than other disasters, U.S. giving is still much higher than any other nation

Earthquakes

A 6.9-magnitude earthquake has hit Japan swaying large buildings in the center of Tokyo. The earthquake hit Tuesday afternoon, centered off the country’s southern coast,. There are no immediate reports of damage or injuries and no danger of a tsunami.

Weather

A severe storm system that raked the Deep South with tornadoes and heavy rain set its sights on much of the Eastern Seaboard on Wednesday. Severe thunderstorms are possible from the Florida panhandle to Maryland, with the possibility of flash flooding forecast from northern Georgia into Vermont and New Hampshire. The system slammed into metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, Tuesday, damaging dozens of homes and snarling the afternoon commute. The severe storms ripped through Louisiana and Mississippi late Monday. No one died in the latest storms, though 15 people were hurt in Mississippi and buildings were badly damaged there and in Louisiana.

A storm packing heavy snow pounded Eastern Washington on Tuesday, prompting many schools to send students home early before roads became treacherous. Four to 8 inches of snow was expected Tuesday and Wednesday in the Spokane area, which already is having one of its snowiest Novembers ever. Up to 18 inches is likely in the Cascades.

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