This is a time for creative religious adaptation

Religion has an often-deserved reputation for being extraordinarily slow to change and for sticking with ancient traditions long after anyone remembers what they might have meant when first instituted.

Change-aheadAs I say, this reputation is often deserved -- but not always.

In fact, in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, religion is adjusting quickly to new circumstances, offering online virtual worship services, funerals, baptisms, bar-mitvahs and more. Yes, there still are religious leaders who want the old ways to continue, like Cardinal Raymond Burke, who thinks churches should remain open if grocery stores get to be open.

But necessity has become the mother of Zoom church committee meetings and Facebook Live worship services. And it's happened in a flash.

Despite religion's reputation for resisting change, this piece from The Conversation (a great site) insists that the ability to change foundational behaviors and practices in religion has deep historical roots.

The author, Samuel L. Boyd, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, asserts that "religious rituals have always evolved in the face of changing circumstances. A particularly important example of this change occurred when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, twice. Following the destruction, the way that Jewish communities worshiped God changed forever."

Boyd goes on to describe some of those changes, a primary one being that once the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 C.E., sacrifices there no longer were possible. In some ways, that was the start of what today we think of as rabbinic Judaism.

Boyd notes that this was when "prayer in the Jewish tradition came to be seen as a form of sacrifice," given that animal sacrifice no longer had a sacred venue.

"In fact," he writes, "the prayer in Judaism known as the 'Amidah' was conceived as a substitute for sacrifice very shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple." And he concludes this: "The ability for modern religious communities to adapt and innovate rituals in light of circumstances, then, has deep and very productive roots."

As people have noted for a long time, the alleged seven last words of the church are "But we've always done it this way."

In this time of pandemic, faith communities have an opportunity to throw out that thought and to innovate. That can hurt, but without such pain there may be no future for the communities who refuse to change.

In the meantime, let's begin to imagine what the end of this will look like. Here's a column that can help with that task.

(And if you're reading this before 9:45 a.m. Sunday, you can join worship at my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City, on the church's Facebook page here.)

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CAN WE LEARN ANYTHING FROM THIS?

And sticking to the topic today, here's a good piece about what trials like the one we're in now can teach us. The problem, of course, is that -- like some students in every school -- some of us aren't paying attention and, thus, don't learn what we could. It's time to be what our Buddhist friends call mindful.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about funerals in the time of COVID-19 -- is set to post about 6 a.m. Sunday. When it does, you can find it here.


We can see more clearly now what to fix

Sometimes it takes a crisis to reveal reality. In that sense, this COVID-19 pandemic has helped to show Americans a number of things about our political, social, economic and health-care systems that need immediate attention.

Liz_theoharis (1)The Rev. Liz Theoharis (pictured here), director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, and co-chair of the "Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival," has identified those systems  in this column written for the journal Sojourners (written before Congress agreed on a fix-it plan).

"Over the last few weeks," she writes, "we have seen our government refuse to take measures that could have limited the spread of the coronavirus and increased the availability of testing. We have seen a $1.5 trillion infusion straight into Wall Street and its investors from the federal reserve, and a bipartisan bill that excludes 80 percent of the workforce from paid sick leave.

"Now, we see school districts across the country scrambling to feed hundreds of thousands of children whose families are too poor to put food on the table. We see homeless families being told to shelter in place when they cannot practice the social distancing we’re all called to do. We see elderly people who are forced to travel for hours and wait in cramped lines to keep their 'check-in' appointments with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We see a health care system on the brink after decades of budget cuts, privatization, and a focus of profits over patients and public health. We see, in stark reality, the truth that 140 million people in America are either already poor or one health care crisis or missed paycheck away from poverty, nearly half of the U.S. population."

The intriguing thing to me is that Theoharis is an optimist. She winds up telling readers that "Our society can indeed abolish systemic racism, end poverty, turn militarism and our war economy into a peace economy, and protect the earth. If we follow the prophet’s call to transform distorted narratives that demean and degrade, we can bring about a revolution of moral values that proclaims all life sacred. So, let us make it so."

Clearly she hasn't given up. Nor should she.

We've all seen lots of evidence in recent days that we Americans are adaptable people who, in the end, care about one another. Oh, sure, there have been examples of scammers and hoarders and people who ignore the rules. What we know about the human condition should alert us that such people will always be around.

But much more evident have been the people -- sometimes, though not always, motivated by religious faith -- who have checked on their neighbors, have offered to help in any way possible, have donated money and time to help the most vulnerable, have done the simple thing of ordering curb-pickup meals from restaurants to keep them from going under. And in Italy people are singing from their windows to stay connected to their neighbors.

I hope you've been in the latter group. One reason this terrible period is so challenging is that human beings are built for relationship. Cutting off lots of those relationship opportunities -- houses of worship, clubs, theaters, music venues, on and on -- has been no fun at all because we are not created for isolation. But if we do what we can to get through this now the sooner we can get back to something like normal -- but, I hope, a new normal when we begin to fix a lot of the problems Theoharis points out.

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HEY WORSHIPERS, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?

As houses of worship move to online services, many fear a severe drop in contributions, as this RNS story reports. If you are in a position to do so, now would be an excellent time to be generous to your congregation -- especially as the stock market (and your retirement funds or portfolio or savings account) begin to normalize.

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P.S.: We're all seeing lots of tips for how to survive in this stay-at-home period. Here's one I'd like to add: Take your family arguments outside into your yard. Let your neighbors hear your arguments and give them the right to decide who's right. I think this would improve the mental health of everyone in the neighborhood. You're welcome.


Another embarrassment for the Museum of the Bible

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From the time the privately owned Museum of the Bible opened in late 2017 in Washington, D.C., it's been plagued by several troubling and embarrassing developments.

The first problem was that there was considerable skepticism among religion scholars that the museum would stick to scholarly standards. Their worry was that museum founders would use the institution as a Christian evangelism tool. Some of that criticism still can be heard today, though much of it has died down.

Beyond that, as this National Geographic story notes, "In 2017, U.S. officials forced Hobby Lobby to return 5,500 illegally imported clay tablets to Iraq and pay a $3-million fine. In 2019, museum officials announced that 11 papyrus fragments in its collection had been sold to Hobby Lobby by Oxford professor Dirk Obbink, who is accused of stealing the fragments from a papyrus collection he oversaw."

Museum officials apologized for those matters and hoped to do better.

But now that same Geographic story reports that "all 16 of the museum’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments are modern forgeries that duped outside collectors, the museum’s founder, and some of the world’s leading biblical scholars."

To the credit of the leaders of the museum, they hired experts to review those fragments and agreed to let them work on their own and also agreed to reveal the findings publicly no matter what.

“The Museum of the Bible is trying to be as transparent as possible,” says CEO Harry Hargrave. “We’re victims—we’re victims of misrepresentation, we’re victims of fraud,” the Geographic story reports.

What I find particularly troubling about all of this is the public's seeming adoration of religious relics. As Mark Twain once noted as he toured the Holy Land in the late 1800s, he had seen enough pieces of the True Cross and the nails that affixed Jesus to the cross to build a good-size structure of some kind.

As any reputable art museum can tell you, there's seems to be a perpetually brisk market for art that has religious themes. Which leads to forgeries and frauds.

We can, of course, just insist that people behave themselves and not try to cheat others by manufacturing fake fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And we should. But we are fools if we don't recognize what the Apostle Paul says, which is that all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God, meaning that some people are simply thieves and knaves. The right approach, given that reality, is the one that Ronald Reagan once suggested he would follow in his negotiations with the former Soviet Union: "Trust but verify."

And when you get caught holding fake goods, do what the Museum of the Bible has done -- announce the findings and try to figure out how you got duped.

By the way, did you know that the huge doors through which people pass to enter the Museum of the Bible were crafted here in Kansas City? I wrote about that in this Flatland column. (My photo above shows part of those doors as they were under construction.)

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LIGHTING A CANDLE IN THE NIGHT

In this dark coronavirus time, some people are trying to brighten things up by turning their still-up Christmas lights back on at night. Near me, on some blocks everyone comes outside about 6 p.m. and shouts hello to social-distanced neighbors. I send silly texts to my grandchildren (well, the ones old enough to have cell phones). What about you? Any good ideas for helping all of us through this crisis? If you're reading this through Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, you might share some thoughts about this there.

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P.S.: Earlier this year I wrote about this year's upcoming Give Seven Days events in Greater Kansas City. Because of the coronavirus, all of that has gone virtual, though it's not canceled. For details from founder Mindy Corporan, see this pdf file that you can share with others: Download SevenDays 3-18-20 COVID19 update

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ANOTHER P.S.: The expectation has been that when the General Conference of the United Methodist Church meets in May in Minneapolis, the denomination will split apart over LGBTQ+ issues. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, that meeting has been postponed. Stay tuned.


What does religion tell us about pandemics?

In this coronavirus pandemic, let's think a little about the relationship between religion and sickness.

Coronavirus-cross (1)They have a long history together. There's even a 2016 book called Religion and Illness.

Among the connections between the two: Religion helps people make sense of illness, sometimes in unhelpful ways. For instance, in some religious traditions, illness can be thought of as punishment, purification or mystery. This despite the primarily lesson of the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible that suffering is not a sign that someone sinned.

Beyond that, religion can provide ways to cope with illness -- prayer, support from others in the form of contact and meals and rituals having to do with healing.

And, of course, religion can provide hope to those who are ill and may be facing death, which, despite what a lot of Americans seem to think, is not ultimately optional.

The relationship between religion and illness is why, of course, hospitals and hospices hire chaplains. It's among the reasons congregations keep prayer lists.

But there's something else to be said about all of this: Sickness -- and the very presence in the world of germs and viruses -- inevitably raises questions about God. Did God create illness or germs or viruses or cancer as punishment? If you think that, what does it say about such a god?

All of this leads us to the ancient -- and, so far, inadequately answered -- question of theodicy, which asks why there is suffering and evil in the world if God is all-powerful and all-loving. I've written previously that there is no adequate, fully satisfying answer to this question and, because of that, it's sort of the open wound of religion.

But even if we don't know any great answers to the theodicy question, we do know this: People of faith are obliged to love and care for one another, to say nothing of loving and caring for themselves.

If we can get that part right, maybe that's the most important thing we need to know about this subject.

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RELIGIOUS LESSONS TO HELP NOW

As we all hide out from Covid-19, there are things we can learn from religion -- in this case Islam and Christianity -- to help us. Here's the RNS story about what Islamic ritual washing can teach us and here's a column about what Christianity teaches us about how to respond in love. No doubt it would be possible to go to all the great world religions and find useful lessons for now. Share 'em if you have 'em.


A few coronavirus questions for you

Just a quick thought or two today as we feel our way through this coronavirus pandemic.

  • CoronavirusWhenever this crisis starts to seem like it's going away, what will you regret not having done at its start? Maybe not checking on elderly friends and neighbors? Maybe not adjusting your diet and sleep habits to make sure you're as healthy as you can be? Maybe not giving yourself quiet time and space so you don't get sucked into a destructive vortex of one piece of breaking news after another? And what will make you most proud of how you reacted?
  • What resources from your religious tradition, if any, are giving you comfort and wisdom as you face what's ahead? What if you were to share those with others -- and ask others to share such things with you?
  • As you have reacted to this crisis, what have you discovered you have feared? And what have you found about your reaction that hasn't made you proud of yourself? For instance, did this turn you into a hoarder?

That's all. Carry on. Well, wait. Wash your hands, first. Thoroughly.


What would be the politics of Christ?

Sometimes I hear Christians say that they don't want to hear politics from the preacher in the pulpit. It makes me wonder why they don't want to hear the gospel.

AymerAfter all, much of what Jesus said and did was a response to the political realities facing the people of Israel 2,000 years ago when they were under the brutal thumb of the Roman Empire. And one of the responses of the followers of Jesus was specifically political. It was to adopt the three-word confession "Jesus is Lord." Which meant that Caesar wasn't Lord.

Two visiting scholars talked about all of that last weekend at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan. I was able to hear only the Friday evening speaker, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, (pictured here) a professor of New Testament studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas. So I missed what the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Helsel, assistant professor of homiletics at Austin, had to add to the subject on Saturday.

But the event was a reminder of the way religion and politics inevitably have things to say to one another. And it was a reminder to try to understand the original context in which sacred scripture was written. If we miss that we miss a lot.

Much of the time the words of Jesus were a critique of the unjust, compassionless Roman rule under which the people of Israel chafed. As Aymer noted (quoting New Testament scholar Warren Carter, who used to teach at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City), only about two percent of the population in the Holy Land at the time could have been considered reasonably well off and part of the elite. The other 98 percent often had no idea where their next meal was coming from and had to work extraordinarily hard just to survive.

So when Jesus urged concern for the poor, sick and needy, his words were a criticism of the economic and social systems in place under Roman rule. That's politics. When he healed people it was a critique of the health care system. That's politics.

And in the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, Aymer said, Satan's offer to give Jesus control of all the kingdoms of the world was, in effect, a claim that Satan actually controlled those kingdoms and that they were his to give. If that's not a political statement, it's hard to imagine what might be.

Aymer noted that the religious elite of Jerusalem at the time were elite not because they were religious but because they were collaborating with the Roman thugs in charge.

Much the same could -- and should -- be said of the people today who identify as Christian evangelicals and who have become elite insiders in support of the Trump administration. In fact, as I've said before several times here and elsewhere, those religious elites have, in effect, abandoned their religious and moral beliefs so that they can be part of Trump's elite. It's sad and it produces revulsion not just of evangelical Christianity but of religion generally.

None of this is to say that today's sermons should be partisan and naked campaign speeches for this or that candidate, of cause. Rather, it is to say that it's hard to imagine an effective sermon that isn't in some way political. And if it isn't, why preach it?

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A UNITED METHODISTS' SPLIT DEVELOPMENT

The documents needed for the official now-inevitable schism of the United Methodist Church are moving through channels in advance of the denomination's May General Conference gathering in Minneapolis. This split, rooted in how scripture is read pertaining to LGBTQ+ issues, is one more result of some people reading the Bible literally as opposed to reading it seriously. Sigh.

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P.S.: A few days ago here on the blog I mentioned that Rolls-Royce was offering owners of its car a chance for a private Mass with Pope Francis for about $155,000. Just FYI, in case you were tempted, that offer has been canceled. (If you were tempted, shame on you. But would you let me ride in your Rolls?)

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ANOTHER P.S.: If you are part of a congregation that will be gathering this weekend, here's a link from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for congregational leaders to help them know what, if anything, to do about the coronavirus issue.


How should religious people respond to the virus?

The worldwide coronavirus crisis has raised lots of important questions for people of faith, not the least of which are about the value of gathering for worship and about the mandate to care for one another.

Coronavirus-religA lot has changed quickly around the world in this regard, as this BBC story notes: "As concern over the spread of coronavirus grows, people around the world are changing the way they do things. Some have cut back on travel plans and are avoiding crowded spaces. Others have dropped greetings like handshakes and hugs for elbow bumps and foot shakes.

"Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues are also changing rituals in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. So how easy is it to maintain the sense of spiritual connection when the way you worship has to change?"

For other stories about how various religious traditions are responding the spread of the new coronavirus, click here (Episcopal) and here (Jewish) and here (Catholics in Italy).

The issue should cause people to re-examine why they gather for worship and what they do there. In other words, this is one of those rare opportunities to go back to basics and question what often never gets questioned.

In some ways, people are built for worship. Which is to say, they are built for relationship, not just with other people but with the divine, however they understand that divine. But does that -- or should that -- always mean coming together with other people on a weekly basis in a confined space? (Discuss among yourselves.)

Beyond that, what obligation do religious people have to become part of the solution to treating people victimized by COVID-19 and to comforting them and their families?

We all have heard stories of devout missionaries and others who leaped into help people with various illnesses and became infected with those illnesses themselves. Is that what's called for here? Do we sacrifice ourselves to save others?

Well, we have some pretty persuasive religious models for that, but will individual and risky actions mean anything in the long run compared with working toward systemic answers through organizations and governments that can and should have a broader view?

In other words, are we better off contributing to such broader efforts financially or in other ways or should we volunteer to be present in vulnerable nursing homes? (Again, discuss among yourselves.)

I'm not offering clear-cut answers here because I'm not sure there are any. But if you take your faith seriously, these are the kinds of discussions you should be having.

And not just within your nuclear family but with your family of faith, too.

(By the way, it also would be a good idea to remember the first thing angels in angel school learn to say: "Fear not." Let's not panic, folks. Let our medical response to a virus be based on science. Let our religious response to a virus be based on the morals our faiths have taught us.)

(The image here today came from this CNN site.)

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'GET OUT THERE,' SAYS THE POPE

Pope Francis, in one of the epicenters of coronavirus, tells priests they should get out and minister to the people -- including people struck by the virus. It's what priests -- and all clergy -- do. They respond to people in need. If they're not doing it in appropriate ways they probably should give up their ordination.


How do people of faith sometimes get duped?

Dalton-Ga

In many ways, religion is about the supernatural. About miracles. About unseen powers. That is both a strength and a weakness.

It can lead to a sustainable faith that can get people through challenging times and can guide them toward a moral life.

But it also can lead to fraud, to delusion, to kleptocracy.

This Slate story seems to be about both kinds of results. It describes what might well be an example of someone pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible people who imagined they were experiencing some kind of miracle. At the same time, it appears that though people may have been misled, they weren't injured either physically or financially.

The story describes how one day in the small town of Dalton, Ga., a man's Bible began to ooze a translucent oil that seemed to have curative powers.

Soon after Jerry Pierce found a spot of oil on a page in his Bible, "more oil appeared almost every time Jerry picked up the Bible, a leather-bound copy of the New King James translation. The oil moved to the back of the book, saturated the endpapers — a heart-shaped splotch appeared over a map of Israel—and then started at the beginning, in Genesis 1. Eventually Jerry had to put the book in a Ziploc bag, and then in a large plastic bin he bought at Tractor Supply."

Well, it may not surprise you that when people learned about this, they began to collect around that Bible and its oil like fruit flies to a ripe banana.

As the Slate story reports, "weekly prayer group started meeting in a larger room at the gift shop, then moved to a small performance space, and finally landed at a renovated movie theater downtown. Within three years, hundreds of people were gathering each week. . .to pray, socialize, and be healed."

And there were tales of healing, too.

Was Jerry Pierce making a financial killing off of all this? Apparently not. As the story notes, Jerry "never asked for money in exchange for the oil. Anyone who came to Dalton for the prayer service received a free vial."

But the reporter who wrote the story found some evidence that Jerry was just buying oil from a farm supply store, raising questions about whether the allegedly oozing Bible was really the source of the oil.

Well, you can read the rest of the story. What I think is worth noting, however, is that religion in some ways requires adherents to balance between the inexplicable and the obvious. Can a Bible really ooze healing oil? Is love really all we need? Does God play favorites? Is honesty really the best policy in all cases? Did someone's cancer disappear because of prayer? And on and on.

Some people, of course, simply walk away from religion because it seems to require some kind of suspension of disbelief at some point. Others find that such suspensions help them understand their purpose in life.

Through it all, of course, it's pretty clear that you can be deceived and get into other kinds of trouble if you don't ask questions and if you don't believe your lying eyes. Faith need not be irrational. And yet there comes a point at which people of faith simply have to decide to trust or leave. I am a person of faith, but in this Georgia case -- assuming I didn't have a journalistic reason to stick around -- I'd probably have left at the first word of a Bible that oozed healing oil. What about you?

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MASS FOR HIGH-ROLLERS?

I don't yet know whether to put this in the "duped" possibility category, but RNS reports that if you own a Rolls-Royce and are willing to pony up $155,000, you can participate in a private Mass led by Pope Francis. Uh, maybe. Turns out the Vatican says it's unaware of this deal. If I were to list everything that's wrong with this offer, this blog post might be infinite in length.


What will the unsealed Vatican archives tell us?

Eventually the truth about almost any subject or happening will be revealed.

Pius-XIISeventy-five years after the end of World War II, it appears that we finally may learn, in some detail, the truth about what Pope Pius XII did or did not do to help the Jewish people, who were being murdered in mass by Hitler's Nazi German government.

As this Guardian story reports, "New light will be shed on one of the most controversial periods of Vatican history on Monday (two days ago) when the archives on Pope Pius XII (pictured here) – accused by critics of being a Nazi sympathizer – are unsealed.

"A year after Pope Francis announced the move, saying 'the church isn’t afraid of history,' the documents from Pius XII’s papacy, which began in 1939 on the brink of the second world war and ended in 1958, will be opened, initially to a small number of scholars."

There has been much speculation -- some of it reasonable, some of it wild -- about what Pius XII did at the time. He's been praised for helping Jews and denounced as "Hitler's pope."

Pulitzer-Prize-winning Author David Kertzer, whose fascinating book, The Pope and Mussolini, about Pius XI, not XII, I read recently, is quoted in the Guardian piece on what historians currently know about Pius XII and whether he did anything to save Jews:

“On the big question, it’s clear: Pius XII never publicly criticized the Nazis for the mass murder they were committing of the Jews of Europe – and he knew from the very beginning that mass murder was taking place. Various clerics and others were pressing him to speak out, and he declined to do so.

“Although there is a lot of testimony showing that the church did protect Jews in Rome, when more than 1,000 were rounded up on 16 October 1943 and held for two days adjacent to the Vatican [before deportation to the death camps], Pius decided not to publicly protest or even privately send a plea to Hitler not to send them to their deaths in Auschwitz. Hopefully, what we’ll find from these archives is why he did what he did, and what discussions were going on behind the walls of the Vatican.”

Kertzer has written this enlightening piece for The Atlantic about what he expects will be found in the newly released Vatican archives. It's well worth a read. As Kertzer writes:

"The issues the newly opened archives will shed light on are not only of historical interest. The traumas of the Second World War and of the Holocaust remain very much alive. Holocaust denial might be dismissed as the delirium of a crackpot fringe, but denial of responsibility for the war and for the Holocaust remains widespread in Europe and in the Christian churches."

It's going to take some time -- maybe years -- for scholars to dig through these newly opened archives and make sense of them. But at some point we should have a much clearer picture of what Pius XII and, by extension, the Catholic Church did in response the the Holocaust. The church and the wider world need to know so that unwarranted speculation is avoided and lessons for the future can be learned in order to avoid similar mistakes, errors of judgment and moral collapse in the future. And this whole matter of a Christian response to the Holocaust is not just about the Catholic Church but, rather, the church universal, various branches of which failed to act at the time and have had to issue statements of regret and apology.

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DOES LENT NEED TO BE REMODELED?

In traditional Christianity, this season of Lent has been a time of introspection, repentance, even brooding. But now there's a move afoot to use the time in ways that focus less on darkness and more on light, as this Religion News Service story reports. That could work, though the necessary caution is this: If you rush to get to the light of Easter it will mean much less because you missed what the darkness of Good Friday has to teach followers of Jesus.


Is the U.S. about to see a religious awakening?

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A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal carried this opinion column with this headline: "Thank God, American Churches Are Dying."

The headline, as many headlines are online these days, was simply click bait. The author, Ericka Andersen, a writer from Indianapolis, was not really thanking God for each church that dies. Rather, she was pointing out what many Wall Street Journal readers might not know, though it's been pretty common knowledge to the rest of the country: Alternative forms of worship are growing in the U.S.

In fact, there's one such successful alternative worshiping community right in my own congregation, The Open Table, which we have helped to birth and nurture, though we also offer more traditional weekly worship and programming.

Still, I'm glad the Journal is taking note of this not-very-new news.

"Those with denominational affinity," Andersen wrote, "will be sad to see a certain kind of church fall away. But the success of new models shows significant groups of people looking for ways to live faithfully, albeit in a less structured way. Could this really signify a religious awakening?" Well, maybe, maybe not.

She adds this as a reason for optimism: "Every recent generation has experienced significant post-high-school drops in church attendance, but most wayward youths return after marrying and having children. Given that the average age for marriage has increased seven years since the 1940s, it’s too soon to dismiss millennials as godless."

Again, maybe, maybe not. I'm guessing mostly not. At least not until later in life when some of those millennials discover that they not getting elsewhere -- community, moral strengthening, a sense of awe and wonder -- what faith communities can and do provide when they're healthy. Those benefits are hard to live without, and my guess is that eventually some millennials will turn to congregations to find them.

Religion in the U.S., the author asserts, "is far from dead. With a vibrant, new church landscape on the scene, there will be no shortage of options to choose from as millions of Americans again find their footing in faith."

I'd like to be around 50 or 75 years from now to see if she's right, but the actuarial tables suggest I won't be. What I do know is that there often is such resistance to change within traditional faith communities that they die slow but hard deaths. New worshiping communities will have to offer what those dying communities fail to. The unanswered question is whether they can be vibrant and flexible while also incorporating some of the traditional elements of worship and community that are required if the new gatherings are to be more than, say, spiritual book clubs.

(The photo here today shows the sanctuary of the Methodist church in central Illinois that my father attended as a boy -- and that his brother, who will turn 98 years of age next month, still attends.)

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THE SHOCK OF JEAN VANIER'S SECRET LIFE

Like many people around the world, I've long admired Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, who died last year. His idea that we so-called "normal" people could and should learn from people with intellectual disabilities was wise and life-giving. And he seemed to live that out. But as this Religion News Service column notes, "The recent revelations that from 1970 to 2005 Vanier had manipulated and sexually abused at least six women in the context of 'spiritual accompaniment' are as shocking as they are devastating." Are there no heroes? Are we all sinners? Well, yes we are. That's exactly what Christianity (and some other faith traditions) teach us. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans (3:10), “There is no one righteous, not even one." We forget that at our peril. We want to trust. We want to believe people are good. But we wind up naively injuring people if we don't put in place systems of oversight and accountability for everyone, even supposed saints. As the author of the RNS piece says, "We are fallen, broken, depraved creatures in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. We must let that disturbing reality sink in. Profound sin lurks even within the best of us. Sometimes, as in this case, even horrible sin lurks within the best of us." True. Sigh. 

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P.S.: The annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner, sponsored by the Dialogue Institute and the UMKC office of Diversity and Inclusion has been scheduled for Monday, April 20. The key note speaker will be the Rev. Jon Paul, author of Fetullah Gulen: A Life of Hizmet. Clicking on the first link here will take you to a site to get tickets.