Did the Lord speak thus about tattoos?

If you read the Bible in a literalistic way -- which is to say in a way that relieves you of understanding the original context and what the Hebrew and Greek (and Aramaic) words might have meant -- you could conclude that the Bible forbids tattoos.

TattooAfter all, Leviticus 19:28, in the Common English Bible translation, says this: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put marks on yourselves; I am the Lord."

Indeed, quite a few people over the years have interpreted that verse to mean that 22-year-olds in 2020 are forbidden from getting a tattoo of the Kansas City Chiefs' logo on their arm.

But, as this article concludes, ". . .the Bible does not say anything clear and direct about tattoos."

As a matter of fact, there's a growing trend for people of faith to get tattoos, and researchers at Baylor University and Texas Tech University have been studying the phenomenon.

The Baylor press release to which I've just linked you reports this:

The study, published in the journal Visual Studies, analyzed 752 photos of tattoos taken at a Christian university in the United States and found that nearly 20% of those were overtly religious in content.

“The embrace of tattoos in the United States reflects a generational shift toward greater individualism and self-expression,” said lead author Kevin D. Dougherty, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Baylor University. “Americans born since the 1970s have increasingly embraced tattoos as an acceptable means to communicate identity and belonging, whereas previous generations of Americans largely did not. Today, men and women in the United States are equally likely to have tattoos.”

One of the interesting results that researchers found is that quite often the tattoos on religious people are not meant to be seen by others -- they are not, in other words, signs designed to spread a religious message. Rather, they are placed so that the only person likely to see them is the person on whom they are inked. Thus, they serve as a reminder of sorts to the faithful to be faithful.

The researchers analyzed 752 photos of tattoos and found that "overt religious content appeared in 145 photos (19% of total sample)" and that "more men in the photos (23%) had religious tattoos than women (17%)."

I have friends and family members with tattoos, though so far I haven't joined that party and don't expect to. But I find it intriguing that more and more people seem to be using tattoos as a reminder of religious values, no matter what the writer of Leviticus thought about them. If you're reading this via Facebook and have a faith-based tattoo on you, would you share a photo of it?

(The photo here today is from the Baylor press release and was taken by the lead researcher, Kevin D. Dougherty.)

*  *  *

WHEN TWO FAITH TRADITIONS CROSS

We are living in a time when interfaith activity seems to be growing and when people seem more willing to cross religious lines. As this article from the Jewish newspaper The Forward notes, this is resulting in new words to describe various religious combinations. Among them: Jewish&, Just Jewish, JewBu (Jewish-Buddhist), JewMu (Jewish-Muslim), Jew-theran (Jewish Lutheran), CathJew (Catholic-Jewish), Jewnitarian or Jewniversalists (Jewish Unitarians), Intercultural, Mixed heritage, Intermarried. For some reason the list doesn't include what my wife sometimes calls herself, an Episcoterian, a combination that also could be rendered Presbypalian. Are you some other kind of mix?

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a magnificent Judaica collection at a Kansas City area synagogue -- is scheduled to post Sunday morning. When it does you can find it here.


How two views of 'the gospel' clash

Barna_PastorsConcerns

For more than 50 years, maybe 60, a major story in American Christianity has been the slow decline of the place of religion in the life of the country. The Mainline Protestant churches (Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, American Baptists, Episcopalians) have been hit particularly hard.

Lots of reasons have been offered for this and for the contemporaneous rise of the "nones," meaning the religiously unaffiliated. And, indeed, there really is no single answer to the question of what has happened.

As the decline has been occurring, some polling organizations, such as the Barna Group, have periodically checked in with pastors to see what they think has been going on. Not much from those results has ever been released publicly, but now Barna has published what it found in its latest survey of pastors, and it makes for interesting, if sometimes puzzling, reading.

This Religion News Service story about the release says this: "According to the report, three-quarters (72%) of Protestant pastors identify the impact of 'watered down gospel teachings' on Christianity in the U.S. as a major concern. That's especially true for pastors in non-mainline denominations (78%). Mainline pastors (59%) are less concerned.

"About two-thirds (66%) of pastors say a major concern for Christianity is 'culture’s shift to a secular age,' followed by 63% who identified 'poor discipleship models' as a major concern and 58% who named 'addressing complex social issues with biblical integrity,' the survey says."

There's a lot piled into those two paragraphs. But let's focus on just one point, the alleged watering down of gospel teachings.

My guess is that non-Mainline pastors mean something quite different from what Mainline pastors mean by that -- and by "the gospel" itself. Which is to say that those pastors who would identify as conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist might say that the problem is that churches aren't demanding that members publicly identify Jesus as their "personal lord and savior" and that members aren't,  in turn, confronting others to get them to accept Christ in that narrow way.

By contrast, my guess is that Mainline pastors would not put their emphasis on personal salvation but, rather, on what Jesus meant by the "gospel," or good news. And what Jesus meant by the gospel is what he announced right at the start of his ministry: The kingdom, or reign, of God is at hand. And followers of Jesus can live in that kingdom today by demonstrating what the kingdom will look like when it comes in full flower, which is to say, by showing mercy, love, compassion and justice.

In other words, one group of pastors tends to emphasize the importance of personal salvation while the other group tends to emphasize the covenant community and its responsibilities to the world. The gospel, thus, means different things to different group and, thus, so does the "watering down" of the gospel.

Who's right?

The church is at its healthiest when it maintains a creative tension between those two approaches. When personal salvation is the only emphasis, the church's responsibilities to the broader world gets ignored. When personal salvation gets ignored, the church sometimes doesn't seem much different from the Rotary Club or the Red Cross.

How will this divide ever be reconciled? I don't know, but it can never be reconciled if these different ideas of what the gospel means aren't at least recognized and acknowledged.

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REWRITING HOLY LAND HISTORY?

Archaeological finds near Jerusalem suggest there was a monumental temple outside the holy city in the late 10th and early ninth centuries B.C.E. If so, it could change our understanding of Holy Land history. It's all a reminder that in many ways we only think we understand history. What we don't know and what humanity has forgotten or buried no doubt is much greater than what we do know. Which should lead to a little humility, though it seldom seems to.

* * *

P.S.: The annual AIDSWalk-KC will happen April 25. I hope you'll join me in walking and/or making a donation to support the great work of the AIDS Service Foundation. You can donate on my page by clicking here.


When the truth doesn't matter any more

This is -- or, anyway, before Monday holidays, used to be -- Abraham Lincoln's birthday. He was born Feb. 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Ky. His later-adopted state of Illinois is where I was born, and we Illinois natives like to claim Lincoln as our own. But Abe was a Kentuckian to start out.

LiesLincoln wasn't the president who famously (if apocryphally) said, "I cannot tell a lie." That was George Washington, whose Feb. 22, 1732, birth the nation also will note on Presidents' Day, this coming Monday. But both Lincoln and Washington developed reputations for a devotion to truth and honesty. Those habits of the heart are virtues taught by the great religions of the world, though, of course, one can be honest for non-religious reasons.

But people of faith have an interest in promoting honesty for many reasons, including the reality that it's a sign that one has a moral center and can be trusted -- which is what we should want in political leaders. A famous passage about truth in Christianity is found in verses 31 and 32 of the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says this to some of his followers: "You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

It's the last sentence of that passage that often gets taken out of context and is applied to truth in general (in a way that works, actually, despite the missing context). But in the original, it is another signal that for followers of Jesus truth is not a dogma or doctrine but a person, Christ himself.

In any case, from Washington and Lincoln we have moved through various periods of political leaders who seem attracted to the use of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies, one of whom was impeached (though acquitted) for a lie under oath, Bill Clinton.

But it's hard to imagine a president more addicted to falsehoods that Donald J. Trump. The fact-checking staff at The Washington Post so far has compiled a list of more than 16,000 such statements since he was inaugurated. And various fact checkers were kept busy by the recent State of the Union speech. You can read their assessments here and here.

Well, all politicians lie, right?

Let's not engage in so useless an observation. What we're dealing with here is a political culture of untruth in one of the most religious nations on the planet. What has happened to us? For help with that question, let's turn to Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes, authors of a new book, Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office.

"Trump's lies," they write, "are not like those of the traditional presidency. The difference is not just a matter of volume, though the volume is radically different. The lies are also of a different sort.

"They are, for one thing, closely linked to Trump's radical use of presidential speech. . .(T)hey transform what would otherwise be just an endless fireside chat into a persistent presidential disinformation campaign, amplified through Twitter and by the conservative media eco-system. The nature of the president's speech makes it impossible for the press and the public to effectively filter for his dishonesty. . . Trump's specific innovation -- his personal improvement to the devil's invention, if you will -- is brazen pervasiveness in the application of lies to the office of the American presidency. Trump does not just tell lies. He wields a water cannon of lies."

A president who isn't credible creates enormous real and potential problems, especially if there is some kind of international crisis when his or her words would require an assumption of credibility so we could determine how to react.

But over the long haul, what is Trump doing to the office of president by not being credible? Hennessey and Wittes say the first result of his mendacity "is simply the decline in prestige and credibility of the office. . .That means allies cannot rely on America's word."

The problem is that Trump doesn't seem to be paying much of a price for his untruthfulness, as all but one Republican senator demonstrated when they voted to acquit him of the charges in the articles of impeachment. Beyond that, if Trump can get away with lying, shouldn't the rest of us be able to? The value of truth itself becomes a casualty.

And if, as scripture says, the truth will make us free, what do lies do? They put us in bondage. In the end, that's what's at stake here. That's why we need whistleblowers. That's why we need a genuinely free and fair press. That's why we need religious leaders who condemn public lies instead of looking for ways to defend them.

The price we'd pay by accepting wall-to-wall lying as reasonable behavior on the part of a president -- or anyone with power -- would be enormous and would leave us morally bankrupt as a nation. If this continues, that's where we're headed.

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NEED A PREACHER? HERE ARE SEVEN FROM ONE FAMILY

I pass along this story from Michigan just because I like it. Six sisters were ordained to be pastors on the very same day in the very same ceremony. The six have one brother who already is ordained. I grew up with three sisters and no brothers. I think it made me a better human being than I would have been otherwise. My guess is these sisters' brother feels the same way.

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P.S.: Recently here on the blog I listed upcoming events for this year's "Give Seven Days" commemoration. Since then organizers have flipped dates for two of the events. The annual walk now will be on Sunday, April 26, while the Iftar gathering will be the next day.

  • ONWARD Day - Kindness Walk @ The National World War I Museum and Memorial, Sunday, April 26, 6 p.m.
  • GO Day - Go to a Ramadan Iftar; engage in interfaith dialogue @ The Islamic Center of Johnson County, Monday, April 27, 6:30 p.m.

This year's Give Seven Days events scheduled

The responses to the April 2014 murders of three people at Jewish institutions in the Kansas City area continue. And thank goodness for that because those responses stand not only against the barbaric neo-Nazi thinking that led to the murders but, maybe as importantly, they stand for worthwhile values of love, faith and kindness.

Mindy-2The Faith Always Wins Foundation organizers of the annual Give Seven Days events in Kansas City recently announced what's on the schedule for this year's commemoration, and I hope you'll give the list a careful read now and commit to being part of a community that is trying to say no to hate.

But first, by way of background about these annual events, here is a Flatland column I did a year-plus about about Mindy Corporon (pictured at left), whose father and son were murdered that day. And here is my recent Flatland column about Jim LaManno (pictured at right), whose wife was murdered that same day by the same neo-Nazi.

LaManno-3Those columns will help you understand why these events happen at all and, I hope, give you some reasons to want to participate in them, scheduled this year for April 21 through April 27.

Here's what the organizers have announced is on tap for this year:

  • Kindness Student Art Show @ KC Public Library Plaza Branch- Student Art Show
    • Opening Reception Tuesday, February 18 (evening)
  • First Fridays ‘The Art of Kindness’ Show @ Buttonwood Art Space
    • Monday, Feb. 3-Thursday April 23; First Fridays event, March 6 - 6-9 p.m.
  • LOVE Day- Love in the Community & Awards Ceremony @ St. James United Methodist Church
    • Tuesday, April 21- 6:30 p.m.
  • DISCOVER Day – Discover Diversity Dinner @ Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City
    • Wednesday, April 22 - 6:30 p.m.
  • OTHERS Day – Guest Speaker Wesley Hamilton of Disabled but Not Really Foundation: "Survival to Revival: Living Your Best Life After the Unthinkable Happens” @ United  Methodist Church of the Resurrection, Thursday, April 23 - 6:30 p.m.
  • CONNECT Day- Connect with your own kindness act or one of our 14 charities today. Friday, April 24
  •  YOU Day- Taking Care of YOU; Mind, Body & Soul @ at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission Saturday, April 25 (all day)
  • ONWARD Day - Kindness Walk @ The National World War I Museum and Memorial, Sunday, April 26- 6 p.m.
  •  GO Day - Go to a Ramadan Iftar; engage in interfaith dialogue @ The Islamic Center of Johnson County, Monday, April 27 - 6:30 p.m.

Please do some calendar marking now. I hope to see some of you at one or more of this year's events.

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FAITH GUIDED THE LONE GOP IMPEACHMENT DISSENTER

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the only senator in history to vote to convict an impeached president of the senator's own party, based his decision Wednesday, he said, largely on the moral code taught to him by his faith. In the Atlantic piece to which I've just linked you, author McKay Coppins writes this: "Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, described to me the power of taking an oath before God: 'It’s something which I take very seriously.' Throughout the trial, he said, he was guided by his father’s favorite verse of Mormon scripture: Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good. 'I have gone through a process of very thorough analysis and searching, and I have prayed through this process,' he told me. 'But I don’t pretend that God told me what to do.'” Romney was wise to add the latter disclaimer. In the end, it's hard in such circumstances to be absolutely certain of the divine will. Beware of people who tell you they know that will in all cases. Romney also was willing to speak of his faith directly when he addressed the Senate after the acquittal vote on Wednesday, saying, "I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am." Wouldn't you like to hear from senators on both sides of the aisle what is at the heart of who they are?


The sad upcoming 'United' Methodist schism

The long-misnamed United Methodist Church, barring divine intervention, will experience schism when its governing body, the General Conference, meets in Minneapolis from May 5 through May 15.

Umc-logoI say it's been misnamed because from the time it was founded in April 1968 until today, it has been internally divided in several ways, including over LGBTQ+ issues that now are causing it to fall apart. The allegedly "united" new denomination was formed then with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church.

It was a laudable effort, a good try. But it has failed. And the failure was both predictable and sad. The division that will happen in May -- perhaps based on some amended version of this proposal put forth by a widely representative group of people who disagree with each other -- will be an admission that at least this group of well-intentioned Christians cannot seem to live out a peaceful coexistence that might have been a model for others.

In that, of course, the Methodists are not alone. One example is my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has experienced de facto schism after we changed our LGBTQ+ rules in 2011 to allow for the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians and to allow our pastors to conduct same-sex weddings. Many Presbyterian churches that disagreed with that long-overdue decision have split from the PCUSA and have joined other denominations that would describe themselves as more theologically conservative.

So to say the Methodists have failed here is not to suggest their failure is unique. Still, when you put "United" in your name, it seems to me that it obligates you to work hard to live up to the label. Dividing in such a case is simply a bad model for the kind of unity (not uniformity) that is desperately needed in religious life today to show that people of different persuasions can live together in harmony and maybe even learn from one another.

One thing that may cause some delegates to the General Conference to rethink the split plan proposed recently is that it requires the newly separated LGBTQ+-friendly denomination that remains to pay millions of dollars to part of the current church as that part leaves to continue its theological bigotry. No analogy is perfect, but it makes me wonder whether, after the Civil War, churches that worked against slavery would have been willing to pay money to pro-slavery churches that wanted to continue to hold to that despicable view. I'd hope not.

The publication First Things, which tends to be traditionalist in tone, recently published this opinion piece that concluded this: "It is a tragic necessity that represents the 1968 union’s failure to achieve an enduring unity. Born from the initial fires of the ecumenical movement, the UMC symbolizes how modernist approaches to ecumenism lack the depth necessary to nourish and sustain consensus."

Just as the term "traditionalist" sometimes means anti-LGBTQ+, so the term "modernist" is dismissive of a biblical interpretation that winds up supportive of full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. Such labels, as labels usually do, hide more than they reveal. But I think the problem hasn't been that approaches to ecumenism lack depth but, rather, that the so-called traditionalists have lacked a commitment to letting the Bible be a living document that must be read in light of when and why it was written as it's applied to today's circumstances.

To give you a fuller view of the proposal to split the church, here is a Religion News Service piece quoting members of the group who came up with the plan. For a deeper dive into the history of the coming schism, here is a piece from The Conversation. And here is a column by CNN religion Editor Dan Burke about why he thinks the schism of the United Methodist Church is good for no one. For one thing, he writes, "Now, online and in real life, we seem to only want to associate with like-minded people, clustering into our dissent-free echo chambers. Churches can force us out of those bubbles, helping us connect across all kinds of social, political and racial barriers. There's value in worshiping next to someone different from you."

True. But religious and political silos seem to be the order of the day (as the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate has proved again). The fact that one of the biggest Protestant denominations in the country can't seem to avoid dividing into those silos is terrible testimony that must further break the sacred heart of Jesus who, in John 17, is reported to have prayed that all of his followers "may be one."

So, in the end, the United Methodist Church will split apart. It will be a sign of the reality that we live in a fallen world, a world in which even people of good will sometimes cannot live together. It was expecting too much of the Methodists to fix all this. Unity, after all, can itself become an idol that gets valued higher than treating all people with dignity, equality and respect. That misplaced priority in favor of idolatry should be unacceptable. And because it is unacceptable, this schism seems inevitable.

* * *

WHO'S THAT PRAYER GUY?

As you've been watching the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, have you been wondering about the background of the U.S. Senate chaplain who has opened each session with prayer? This Associated Press story will tell you about the Rev. Barry Black. He has, I think, handled his job in this case fairly and well.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an artist who produces magnificent iconography -- is online here.


An evangelical calls out evangelicals who taught him

From the time the results of the 2016 presidential election showed that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump -- despite the reality that his life is an almost-complete rejection of the values they say they hold dear -- lots of people, including me, have been trying to figure out why.

DeitrichMany possible answers: They wanted Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe vs. Wade; they wanted to "drain the swamp"; they wanted their gun rights protected; they thought the world was leaving them behind, including their memories of times when, allegedly America was "great;" they thought the economic forces were crushing them; they thought Hillary Clinton was demonic. And on and on.

Still, in the end, they chose a man who was not one of them and never would be. They chose someone who had affairs, paid off porn stars, ran businesses on the value of revenge; encouraged white nationalists, wanted no part of the immigrants and strangers who, the Bible says, are to be loved and protected.

Here and there we've heard some voices finally calling these evangelicals to task for the abandonment of their faith. One example was this recent editorial in the evangelical journal Christianity Today.

But perhaps a more powerful voice can be heard from a musician, Daniel Deitrich (pictured here), who has written "A Hymn for the 81%," described in this Religion News Service article, which includes an audio clip of him singing it.

Whew. It is a powerful example of what religion calls a prophetic voice, which is to say a voice that calls out what's gone wrong and urges attention to the right path.

I hope you'll give it a listen, remembering that he's not telling people they should have voted for Clinton and not offering a damning critique of Trump's various political policies. Rather, Deitrich is asking the people who raised him as a Christian why they no longer seem to believe what they taught him.

* * *

HOW TO APPEAL TO EVANGELICALS

Along the same lines today, here's an AP story about whether and how Democrats running for president now can appeal for the votes of those who identify as Christian evangelicals. I suppose anything below 81 percent for Trump in this year's election (assuming some bolt of lightning doesn't result in a conviction in the impeachment trial) will be considered a victory.


The black church's prophetic voice

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a good time to think about the prophetic role of what has come to be called the black church.

MLK-LBJKing clearly used his prophetic voice to call his nation -- my nation, our nation -- to account for the ways in which it had subjugated black people from the time of slavery on. And by prophetic voice, I don't mean a voice that somehow predicts the future. Rather, a prophetic voice is one that calls people or, at times, a whole country to do the right thing, to fix a great wrong, to take a moral stance on something.

In the Civil Rights Movement, King and the collective black church were primary agents in seeking to liberate people -- black and white and other colors -- from the continuing burdens and injustices caused by the white supremacist thinking on which this nation was founded, thinking that was in King's time and is in our time still alive and kicking.

And the black church, though its voice sometimes has seemed inconsistently insistent at times, has never quit being an advocate for justice and equality. Indeed, it's a proud history, though the church is naturally skittish -- and should be -- about pride.

A recent example of the black church speaking out for the cause of morality in our nation was this open letter written by black church leaders around the country thanking the publication Christianity Today for publishing a piece by (the magazine's then Editor-in-Chief) Mark Galli, entitled “Trump Should Be Removed from Office."

The magazine was started by Billy Graham and has been identified with American Christian evangelicals for its whole life. But when some 80-plus percent of white evangelicals set aside their moral values about piety and purity to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, they jeopardized their reputation and, indeed, they called into question all of religion for being hypocritical, willing to abandon theology and morality for political gain.

The black church letter now has called that out. The letter, it said, "serves as a statement in full support of CT, but this letter goes one step further to also serve as a rebuke to those pastors and leaders who are so outraged by CT’s response to the impeachment of President Trump.

"These pastors and leaders are complicit in their silence as this administration has separated children from their families, characterized African nations as 's-hole countries' and operated in tandem with the Republican Party to fight to deny people access to affordable healthcare. All the while, hate crimes have risen to an all-time high."

The people who signed this letter are far from the only people of faith who have been protesting what they believe the Trump administration has been doing that's immoral and unjustified. But it's important and reassuring to find leaders of the black church assuming their historic role as a prophetic voice that seeks to return Americans and their government to the values outlined in our founding documents, even if those values often have been ignored or cruelly flouted.

King, in many ways, has been the model for the people who signed the letter to Christianity Today. Let's give thanks that he still serves in that way.

(The photo above shows MLK speaking truth to power, LBJ.)

* * *

FIXING SEXUAL ABUSE AMONG MUSLIM LEADERS

It would be silly to imagine that sex scandals such as we've seen in the Catholic Church and in several other faith traditions would be limited to just a few religions. So it should be no surprise to find appalling sexual exploitation committed by various male Muslim leaders. The good news is that Muslim women are speaking out against it and finally being heard. In the Religion News Service story to which I've just linked you, Ingrid Mattson is identified as the founder of the Hurma Project, which sponsored a conference on this subject. I've met Mattson and heard her speak. Really smart woman. With her at the helm, you can be sure this subject will be dealt with thoroughly, fairly and widely.


Does this blog have a future?

In my Dec. 31, 2019, post, I said I was stopping this blog because I had other writing projects I wanted to do but not the time to work on them. All true.

Bill-1-3-20I also indicated that from time to time I might feel compelled by some development in the world of religion and ethics to jump back to the blog and weigh in. Also true.

But I think that left the impression that you could say farewell to this blog and never return. I hope you don't do that. I hope you will check in here from time to time. If you are friends with me on Facebook, I will always alert you to new blog posts through that means, as well as through Twitter (@BillTammeus) and LinkedIn.

To be clear, I will not be writing here daily, as I have done for the last 15 years. But that doesn't mean I'm burying the blog and presiding over its funeral. It'll still kick a little now and then.

Thanks for being a reader. And when future writing projects are ready to announce, you'll read about them here.

(The photo here shows me hard at work, sort of, in my home office.)

Cheers, Bill


Thanks, blog readers, but now I'm on to other things

As the archives of this blog will attest, I started it in December 2004 when I was still a full-time columnist at The Kansas City Star.

47-Star-CubicleI've loved the daily rhythm of doing it -- as, earlier, I loved the rhythm of writing a daily editorial page column, "Starbeams," for The Star for some 27 years before I shifted to a weekly column in the Faith section.

But -- barring some major developments that I may feel compelled to comment on in the next year -- this, the 4,704th post, will be the last daily entry for "Bill's Faith Matters Blog."

The reality is not that I'm burned out doing this. I love doing it. And I've been grateful that The Star has kept access to it available on its website even though I've been retired from full-time employment there for 13-plus years.

Home-office-19Rather, the reality is that I have some writing projects I want to get to before my number is up, and I simply don't have time for that work if I'm still doing this daily blog. If those projects come to fruition, I'll do my best to let you know about them. You can follow me by friending me on Facebook and/or connecting with me on Twitter (@BillTammeus) to stay in the loop.

If this is your first time reading my blog, well, all I can say is that what you missed still is in the archives, to which I've linked you in the first paragraph above. My hope is that it won't take you 15 years to read it all even if it took me that long to write it all.

If you've been a regular reader for a long time, you have my thanks and gratitude. I hope I've occasionally enlightened you or, at minimum, complicated your thinking. I'm sorry if I angered you now and then, but perhaps you needed that. As, now and then, do I.

I've tried to be a voice of calm reason when it comes to matters of religion and ethics. I've tried to explain why religious literacy in our increasingly pluralistic society is so damn important. I've tried to point out not just where religion goes astray, as it often does, but also the immeasurable goodness of which it's capable. I've tried to remind readers that science can answer some questions but not the question of purpose, which is reserved for religion and philosophy, and that religion should not be relied on for answers that only science can provide. I've sought to introduce you to helpful books (a few of which I've authored or co-authored) to ponder all of this and more. And I hope I've opened your mind to the possibility of awe and wonder as the primary impulses behind religion.

Being an elder in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has provided me a theological lens through which I tend to see the world but I have tried not to argue that the Reformed Tradition of Christianity in which we Presbyterians locate ourselves is the only or even the best way of being religious.

Although I'm stopping the blog, I will continue to write columns for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine (you can find links to past Flatland columns here), and for The Presbyterian Outlook as well as book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter. And I'll still consider and accept some speaking engagements. But, as I say, this blog is about to fall silent except on rare, if any, occasions.

At the beginning of my newspaper career, we were required to put an end-mark on our copy to indicate to editors that no more of this story or that column could be expected. That end-mark is what today we'd call a hashtag -- #30. So, in memory of my past professional work in journalism, which started in the 1960s, let me say this about this blog:

#30

(The top left photo here today shows the last cubicle I worked in at The Star at the time of my 2006 retirement. It's where I worked when I started this blog. I was gone from that picture, as I'm now gone from this blog. The photo on the right shows my home office, where I've been writing the blog as well as other columns and books in recent years.)

P.S.: For quite a few years I have not allowed comments on this blog because when I did allow them readers turned the comments section into a theist-atheist pitched battle of nastiness. I decided I did not want to be responsible for creating one more platform for uncivil discourse in our culture. But readers could always e-mail me directly, as you still can, too. I'm at wtammeus@gmail.com. And I'm sure you'll have worthwhile things to say, given that, starting tomorrow, we'll all have 2020 vision.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: A final book recommendation, especially for white evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016: Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump, by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch.


What makes religion so darn difficult?

I am going to back up a couple of days in the news because I want to say something about the Christmas message Pope Francis delivered this year.

Uncon-loveIn it, he said this: “Christmas reminds us that God continues to love us all, even the worst of us. God does not love you because you think and act the right way. He loves you, plain and simple. You may have made a complete mess of things, but the Lord continues to love you.”

That's the Christian message, but it doesn't stop there. And because it doesn't stop there it makes the Christian religion a profoundly difficult faith to follow.

Followers of Jesus are obliged to love others in the way that God loves us -- unconditionally.

Christianity, rooted in Jewish concepts, requires each of its adherents to love people who sometimes aren’t even very likable. As a Christian, I am obliged to see Christ in every person I meet, knowing that each person bears the imago dei, or the image of God. And I mean every single person, whether that person is saintly and generous or a serial killer or even a fan of the professional sports team I dislike the most. None of that matters. All that matters is that he or she is human, a child of God and that we must treat all people lovingly because of that truth.

We are not required just to like them. Nor are we required just to tolerate them. Those standards are far too low for the standards that Jesus uses to tell us that the most important commandment is to love God with all your strength, heart and mind and the second most important is to love our neighbor as ourselves -- commandments that issue from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible.

None of this obliterates the idea of grace, which is God's pure, unmerited favor for humankind. For it's out of the idea of grace that Jesus tells followers that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

In responding to the pope's comments in this way, I am not arguing that other faith traditions teach something radically different or completely opposite. All healthy religions ask their followers to be instruments of grace and peace. But that's what makes religion so difficult if we take it seriously.

I fail in some way at taking it seriously every day. But I know that I can be forgiven and try again. And again. And again. As can we all.

And speaking of new beginnings, I hope you'll come back here tomorrow. I have some news related to that subject that I hope you won't miss.

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2019 IN PHOTOS OF RELIGION

For something a little different, take a look at these fabulous photos from Religion News Service of varying religious practices and events around the world in 2019. Quite stunning.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Jean Zeldin retiring from the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education -- now is online here.