A short break from the blog for a wedding

DORSET, Vt. -- I'm here to officiate at the wedding of my wife's nephew and his fiancé on Saturday. The weather is New England fall gorgeous as it has been on nearly this whole trip.

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My wife and I also are taking time to visit family and friends and just breathe a little, as family and just breathe a little, as my grandson Jacob recommends in his song called "Take a Breath 1." (The link takes you to a story about Jake, but the story contains a link to the song.)

If you're looking for news about religion while I'm gone, let me recommend Religion News Service. I also suggest that you look under the "Check this out" section on the right side of this opening page (if you're looking at it on a laptop or desktop computer). Lots of good stuff there. And maybe you've never read some of it.

I expect to return to this space on the blog with a new entry the weekend of Oct. 8-9. See you then. Well, unless I see you in New England.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday, it's here. It's about Indigenous life in what is now the U.S. and what we need to know about it.


What's religion have to do with marrying and having kids?

If someone commits to a particular religion, presumably that person will pay some attention to that tradition's teachings as he or she makes important life decisions.

Avg_kids_relig+2For instance, what does the religion teach about the value of marriage and family? Should the faith influence whether to have children?

Well, it turns out that religious affiliation, if any, does tend to influence whether to marry and whether to have children and how many to have, as this Religion News Service story reports. It says: "In 1972, about 14% of the American population reported that they had never wed. Evangelicals were just a bit lower at 9%. However, those without a religious affiliation reported a much higher likelihood of never being married. In 1972, 36% of them had never walked down the aisle."

So that's the first clue.

Next, there's this: "Among the so-called 'nones' — those unaffiliated with any religious organization — the share of people who have never married, at 42% in 2021, has increased, but the rise has been far more modest. Still, that’s about 12 percentage points above the national average."

But look what's happened in the having-children question:

"In the early 1970s," the story says, "evangelical households had a little more than 2.5 children on average. That was just slightly higher than the average American, who was having 2.3 children. Nones were much, much lower than that. In 1972, the average none had 1.4 children.

"There’s unmistakable evidence of declining fertility rates in the data as well. The average respondent reported having 1.8 children in 2021, a dip of .5 over the last five decades. Evangelicals were also reporting declining birthrates between 1972 and 2000, but those numbers have slightly rebounded from there. The average evangelical has about 2.1 children now, slightly above the national average."

I'm not sure quite what causes people of faith, particularly those who identify as evangelical, to want to have more children than others, but perhaps it's being part of a community in which they feel their children can receive communal attention and care -- something less likely among people who are outside a faith community unless they intentionally create that community in other ways.

My first wife and I elected to have only two children -- in effect, replacements for us -- partly because of the concern in the 1970s about an exploding world population but also partly because we knew that journalists (she was one, too) don't generally get to be wealthy enough to be able to afford a boatload of kids, who are expensive to rear. At the time we had our children we were only loosely attached to any faith community despite having grown up in such settings. So it's hard to say that any particular religious ideas helped us make our two-child decision, except for concern for the health of the planet and its population.

In the end, I think it would be helpful if faith communities talked more openly about such matters and how to make decisions about marriage and pregnancy in ways that can guide adherents more clearly.

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DORSET, Vt. -- Speaking of marrying and having kids and such, today I'm on my way to Dorset for a family wedding next Saturday and to visit family in my wife's home Green Mountain state. So there will be no usual second item here today.

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P.S.: If you're reading this after 6 a.m. CDT on Sunday, you should be able to find my latest Flatland column posted here.


What does religious history teach us about monarchies?

Even America's Founding Fathers, as they are called, weren't big fans of direct democracy. In fact, Benjamin Franklin used to refer to "a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government." So once those early American leaders got out from under being ruled by the British monarch, they came up with what can fairly be called a pretty limited democratic republic.

MonarchyWhich is to say that white male landowners got to vote for people (again, white males) to represent them at various levels of government. Eventually, white people who didn't actually own land got the right to vote as did (white) women and, eventually, Black citizens (and other people of color), though the act that finally made that a widespread reality didn't get signed into law until 1965.

The recent death of Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom -- and her breathtaking funeral -- got me thinking about monarchies and whether they are compatible with the world's great religious traditions. The queen's quite evangelical funeral was certainly compatible in that way, but I think the broader answer is, well, sort of, maybe, but in the end not so much.

After all, as the Hebrew Bible describes it in I Samuel 8 (I'm quoting the Common English Bible translation here), the people of Israel were ruled by a system of judges (sons of Samuel), but the people told Samuel, in his old age, that they wanted a king "like all the other nations have."

Unsure of what to do, Samuel prayed for an answer. Here's what happened: "The Lord answered Samuel, 'Comply with the people's request -- everything they ask of you -- because they haven't rejected you. No, they've rejected me as king over them."

So the people of Israel got a human king, Saul.

Centuries later, when Christianity finally split off from Judaism, Christians regularly talked about the "Kingdom of God" and they began to call the risen Jesus "Christ the king." So monarchy is tied into Jewish and Christian history, too.

But monarchs come and monarchs go. Indeed, it was on this date in 1792 that France abolished its monarchy.

As the History.com site to which I've just linked you explains, "Louis ascended to the French throne in 1774 and from the start was unsuited to deal with the severe financial problems that he inherited from his predecessors. In 1789, food shortages and economic crises led to the outbreak of the French Revolution. King Louis and his queen, Mary-Antoinette, were imprisoned in August 1792, and in September the monarchy was abolished."

(Side note: Did Mary-Antoinette [or, as she's usually known, Marie-Antoinette] really say "Let them eat cake" when she was told that French peasants had run out of bread? Well, sort of but not exactly.)

(Second side note: I once was in a meeting of journalists in which the British ambassador to the U.S. was describing some of the early negotiation sessions to try to end the War in Vietnam, sessions attended by a top-ranking Chinese official and by the American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Someone asked Kissinger to explain how the American Revolution might have influenced the French Revolution. Kissinger carried on and on and on again. Then added more. When he was done [unless he's still talking], the Chinese official was asked the same question. His response was: "It's too soon to tell.")

At any rate, the U.K. still has a sort of for-display-only model of a monarchy -- a constitutional monarchy, it's called -- and it's now headed by Elizabeth's son, King Charles III, who finally has a job. One of the monarch's jobs in the U.K. is to be "Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England." That, of course, meant Christianity when the title was dreamed up. And it still means that in the form of the state-established Church of England (and the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian). But the monarch has had to recognize now the wide variety of faith traditions followed by citizens there, so the term seems to mean less than it once did and Elizabeth, who certainly seemed to be -- and no doubt was -- a deeply committed Christian, did a good job accommodating people to that change.

(Third and final side note: Back several decades ago, when the City of Kansas City was in the market for a new city manager, I wrote a sort of wise-acre column for The Kansas City Star, my employer, in which I proposed a candidate -- one who was popular, well-known and in need of a government management job so he could get more training in that field. In other words, I suggested we hire Prince Charles. I still sort of wish we had done exactly that. But as King Charles III, I wish him well, thought my expectations aren't high.)

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The new Ken Burns PBS documentary about the American response to the Holocaust is both disheartening and revealingly true, as this New Yorker article makes clear. We Americans sometimes tell stories that make us look good, innocent and humanitarian. At times we are exactly all that. But other times we fail miserably, and the failure of our leaders to respond to what they -- and many of the American people -- knew was happening to Europe's Jews at the hands of the Nazis was profound. The question to ask now, however, is about our national present and future response to the current resurgence of antisemitism in both the U.S. and the rest of the world. There are many resources available for use in crafting a response to this ancient hatred. One of the best is the programming available (much of it free) from the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. I hope you'll check out the offerings there as well as the programming done by the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee in the Kansas City area. The failure in World War II to respond effectively to the Nazi plan to destroy European Jewry was not America's alone, for sure. But it's a failure from which we need to learn. So if you haven't watched the Burns documentary, please do. That's where to start.

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P.S.: There's a three-part series of sessions about human rights abuses in Turkey that starts this evening at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Kansas City. I hope some of you can make one or all of them. The link gives you details and a way to register for these free events.


Must some of our laws remain morally reprehensible?

To think about an upcoming case to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, I want to take us back to the end of slavery and the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery.

LgbtqWe know from reading history that many people, especially in the South, justified slavery based on their reading of the Bible and that many of them didn't change their minds about this even after No. 13 was ratified.

Nonetheless, they were obliged to give up ownership of slaves. They, of course, were free to say whatever they wanted to say about slavery and about whether some passages of the Bible seemed to approve of slavery. They had freedom of speech. But they weren't allowed to own slaves anymore.

Free-speech.pngNow, to the present. The U.S. Supreme Court is about to take up a case in which a graphic artist in Kentucky argues that her Christian principles would be violated if she were required to create wedding websites for same-sex couples.

I'm having trouble figuring out how this is different from someone in the 1860s who might argue that getting rid of his slaves violates his religious principles. If all Americans are to be equal under the law and if, as has happened, the Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in the U.S., then why would the Kentucky artist be allowed to refuse to serve a gay couple in regard to their wedding? Wouldn't that be like a waitress in a restaurant refusing to serve a couple (she's Black, he's white) based on her religious belief that the races should be segregated? (Religious reasons, after all, often were offered to defend segregation under Jim Crow laws.)

Pretty much that would be the case, I think, though there's one additional wrinkle here. And that is the matter of free speech, which the author of The Conversation article to which I've linked you takes up. Do free speech rights trump other kinds of rights at times?

Well, look. I'm no lawyer, no judge, no legal scholar. I just know that it would be morally repugnant for a restaurant to refuse to serve a Black-white couple dinner and it also would be morally repugnant for a business to refuse to serve the needs of an LGBTQ+ couple. But whether our laws always can be made morally acceptable apparently is a question we have yet to decide.

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GLOBAL CHURCH STRUGGLES FOR INTERNAL PEACE

If you think a local congregation can be hard to hold together in peace and without controversy, you're right. And if that's the case, imagine trying to hold a global faith tradition together. That's what the Catholic Church faces in stark ways, as this article from The Conversation makes clear. It was written by a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. As the church seeks to reconcile different cultures and histories under an agreed-upon theology, the potential and already existing areas of conflict include: "poverty, adapting to local culture, sexuality and gender, church governance and the continuing sexual abuse crisis," the article says. The background to all this is described this way: "In 2021, Pope Francis called for the “Synod on Synodality,” a worldwide discussion of issues that impact the church, which will culminate with a bishops’ meeting in Rome. A final report is scheduled for October 2023." Religions that span the globe can do glorious work but it all comes with more than one cross to bear.

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P.S.: Here is an interesting story in the Salt Lake Tribune about the writer's spring trip to Israel and how the relations among the three Abrahamic faiths there compare to religion in heavily Mormon Utah.


Religious reasons to be against state-sponsored gambling

The recent decision by Kansas to legalize betting on sports once again raises the question of what various faith traditions teach about gambling. (The photo here today of Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas placing the first legal sports bet was shot by Rich Sugg of The Kansas City Star. I'm sorry she's promoting this foolish idea.)

Laura-betMostly religions are against gambling. And for lots of good reasons.

I'm against it, too. And for many of those same reasons. In fact, when Missouri created its state lottery system years ago, I bought two tickets to show my young daughters why state-sponsored gambling is simply another way to throw away your money. I, uh, gambled that they wouldn't find a winner when they rubbed off the covering on the numbers found on the tickets.

I won that bet. And I think they learned the lesson I was trying to teach them.

But let's look at what the world's great religions think and teach about gambling. The article to which I've just linked you is from gamblingsites.org and does a pretty fair (though sort of pro-gambling) job of outlining the teachings about gambling from various religions. Perhaps the most strident opposition comes from Islam. As the article notes, "Islam features two types of deeds, including the haram (sinful) and halal (lawful). Gambling is seen as haram and requires severe punishment under Islamic law."

Why would faith traditions be against gambling? Here are some reasons from that article and some others I've looked at recently:

  • Gambling can become addictive and, if it does, it can destroy wealth and the people who once owned that wealth.
  • For someone to win at gambling, someone else has to lose. That's not a good way of caring for your neighbor. Besides, gambling fosters greed, often labeled a sin by religions because, well, it's idolatry.
  • Gambling is a refutation of the Golden Rule. As this Christian site from England says, "gambling depends on doing to others what we would not have them do to us. At that point, no gambler desires the best for his fellow man. Instead, he is indifferent to his fellow gamblers or wants them to lose so that he can win."
  • That same British site says that gambling "denies the biblical work ethic which links honest labor with reward. . . Gambling holds out the dream that it is possible to get something for nothing. It can encourage laziness rather than work."
  • And the same site makes this good point: "There is evidence that gambling disproportionately affects the poor who face particular temptations because of their strained financial circumstances (Proverbs 30:8,9). It is very wrong to exploit this vulnerability." The "house," as they say, never loses.
  • The article also argues, correctly, that "gambling does not cease to be wrong because a proportion of the take is devoted to so-called good causes." If we want good education for our children, we should find equitable ways of paying for it rather than sucking money out of the pockets of people who gamble even though they may not be able to afford to gamble.
  • This Gospel Network site adds this objection: "The truth about gambling is that it goes against the Bible’s standards of righteous behavior — “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house…nor anything that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).
  • Similarly, this Bibleinfo site offers this: "Commandment number ten found in Exodus 20:17 talks about coveting, which is the root of many of our problems. What is one of the reasons that people gamble and play the lottery? They covet money, which they hope to make in a quick and easy way."

These and other issues make state-sponsored gambling deeply problematic. State policies and laws, of course, should not be determined simply by voters' religious views on this or that subject. But when the major world religions raise serious questions about the morality of gambling, the followers of those religions would do well not to engage in it, even if it's legal. There is, after all, a serious difference between being legal and being moral. If we didn't learn that from slavery and other legal abominations, what did we learn?

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THE DIMINISHMENT OF AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY CONTINUES

As America's religious landscape continues to change, Protestant Christians already have fallen to the point that they now make up less than half of the U.S. population. A new study projects that by 2070, Christians as a whole will make up less than half the population of this nation. There are several possible responses from Christians: Work harder to invite more people into the faith; sit around and do nothing; moan the loss and try to bring back the past ("Make America Christian Again"?); welcome the diversity and seek to live in peace with all. I'd choose the first and last of those.


Do non-religious Americans have a political future?

Perhaps you, too, remember predictions a decade-plus ago that our nation's population was rejecting religion so quickly that soon atheists would make up a big portion of Americans.

AtheismWell, as this piece from Religion & Politics reports, that hasn't exactly happened.

Oh, the number of adult Americans identifying as religiously unaffiliated (called the "nones") certainly has climbed. In fact, those folks now make up almost 30 percent of the population. But far from all of them would identify as atheists. Rather, they say they're searching, between-faiths, "spiritual but not religious" and in similar categories of inexactness.

The article asks this: "What happened to America’s promised atheist political revolution?"

And its first answer comes from Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University professor who researches secularism and politics: “They were delusional.”

Well, that seems needlessly dismissive, given the rather remarkable growth of the nones. But it's also true that the United States continues to be one of the most religious nations on Earth. That, of course, is the 40,000-foot view. When you start to dig into the details, things get really complicated really quickly. There are, after all, dozens of Protestant denominations that call themselves some kind of Methodist. And one of the biggest ones, the United Methodist Church, is in the midst of a major schism.

Today, says the article to which I've linked you, "the under-resourced non-religious voting bloc seems no closer to competing with the so-called Religious Right."

True, but it's also true that the Religious Right (a term that hides more than it reveals) is itself in turmoil after the Trump presidency, which drew that group in with idolatrous promises of being close to power and of appointing Supreme Court judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade (mission accomplished).

One of the problems for the non-religious, the Religion & Politics piece argues, is that "the atheist movement’s legal apparatus and energy, which are often focused on local school districts and Christian cross displays, lack the ability to take on well-funded, well-connected right-wing think tanks, let alone a Supreme Court stacked with conservatives."

An obvious reason for the problem of the "nones" being not very well focused on national issues is that they're not well organized. Why? Clearly, they aren't joiners. It's hard to mobilize people who don't want to be mobilized. (You may be thinking about herding cats here, but I'm going to avoid that old cliché. D'oh.)

For a long time in American history, almost no one running for public office wanted to be identified as non-religious. At least that has changed a little. Maybe that's progress toward inclusivity.

In any case, even though the "nones" haven't done much politically yet, that may change. The article says this: "Organizations have emerged nationally to help guide, fund and support secular candidates. In 2020, the Center for Freethought Equality’s political and PAC director Ron Millar. . .co-founded the Association of Secular Elected Officials as a network for local secular elected officials around the U.S."

So maybe non-religious people in the U.S., after all, have a prayer politically.

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DEFAMING RELIGION ONCE AGAIN

Here's another reason some people walk away from institutional religion. It turns out, this RNS story reports, that "A group of New York clergy took more than a million dollars from a real estate developer who sought to turn distressed Black churches into lucrative properties, according to settlements with that state’s attorney general." Some of them are giving the money back, but the damage already has been done. Apparently even some clergy members don't practice what they preach. Friends, that's called hypocrisy. And it can be deadly.

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P.S.: This National Catholic Reporter story tells about one of the religious accomplishments of Queen Elizabeth, who died a few days ago.

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Cover-lle-hi-resANOTHER P.S.: Yes, this weekend marks the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S., in which some 3,000 people died, including my nephew Karleton D. B. Fyfe. My book about how that trauma affected our family and about how some people get sucked into extremism (and what we can do about it) came out last year. If you haven't had a chance to read it yet, here is its Amazon page. It's called Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. It was recently nominated for the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award.


Christianity's history, like that of all faiths, is a wildly mixed bag

Voltaire, who may have started the practice of celebrities being known by just one name (well, unless it was God who did that), once wrote this: "The history of the great events of this world is hardly more than the history of crimes."

CH-images-coverTruth be told, Voltaire was a pen name for François-Marie d’Arouet (1694–1778), but he was on to something in his remark about history -- something, but not everything.

History, in fact, is more than simply the story of great crimes, wars, disasters, storms, catastrophes, accidents and heartaches. If you don't also include the inspiring instances of generosity, love, kindness, beauty and shared progress, you get a pretty dark picture of humanity. It's a picture that, in many ways, humanity deserves. But it's not the full picture.

I have been thinking about all this since I recently received my latest issue of Christian History Magazine, which this time offers a cover story called "Christian History in Images." Inside the magazine there is a foldout listing various important events in Christian history that are, at least in passing, mentioned in this edition.

It's a pretty sobering list, and it made me think immediately of the story in Genesis that indicates that one of the sons of the First Couple, Adam and Eve, murdered his brother. Nice start. No wonder then that eventually we get the story of how God threw in the towel and flooded the Earth, destroying all humanity except Noah and his family.

At any rate, the third listing in the magazine's list of historical events happened in the year 65: "Peter is executed." That would be the guy the Catholic Church today calls its first pope, St. Peter. After that, we get two people martyred in 203, persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire starting in 250, persecution of the church by Diocletian in 299 and the launching of persecution of the Christians in Persia in 340.

And we're still more than 700 years from Pope Urban II launching the First Crusade, designed to recover the Holy Land from Islamic rule but that also involved lots of Christians persecuting others. In fact, the Crusades (there were several) led to blood and death and pain and horror all along the way. Many Christians may not know this story but Muslims and Jews, many of whose ancestors were slaughtered, still remember. (If you haven't done so, I recommend reading Steven Runciman's classic three-volume history of the Crusades. Read it and weep.)

There is much more disturbing in Christian history, including the way it preached a deadly anti-Judaism for centuries.

But there is good stuff in this Christian History list, too. In 405, for instance, Jerome finishes translating the Bible into a Latin version known as the Vulgate, thus making scripture much more widely available. In 540, a monk named Benedict writes his monastic rule, which to this day guides men and women, including my Benedictine-oblate wife, in how to live peacefully in community. In the 1200s, Thomas Aquinas writes works that will influence the church for centuries. In the 1300s, the amazing Julian of Norwich shares her divine visions with others.

In 1517 the Protestant Reformation begins, which can be counted among the good stuff by Protestants and among the disasters by Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

And on and on. You could look it all up.

The point is that in this imperfect world (remember that in the book of Genesis, when God completed the initial creation on the sixth day, God declared it "good" and even "very good," but not "perfect"), Christianity in particular (but religion in general) has added unimaginable beauty and luster to the world but also crime and disaster. We're foolish if we don't acknowledge both realities and then pledge to work to make sure that what follows is much, much more good than it is catastrophic, no matter which religion, if any, we follow.

(P.S.: Speaking of Christian history, did you know that the racist Ku Klux Klan organization considered -- and considers -- itself Christian in origin and spirit? Did you also know that there's a plaque honoring the KKK still today affixed to the entrance of the United States Military Academy's science center at West Point? This NBC story has the appalling details.)

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A GOOD WAY TO RESPOND TO SEXUAL ABUSE SCANDALS

It's reassuring to find Southern Baptists directly tackling the issue of sexual abuse within their churches and ecclesiastical structures. In fact, wouldn't it be a good idea if all faith communities that have struggled with this worked together to find common solutions and approaches? By now, for instance, the Catholic Church has gained experience in working on a sex abuse scandal in ways that might benefit the Baptists. Similarly, schools -- both public and private -- that have had to respond to instances or patterns of sexual abuse involving students could and should learn from each other. At any rate, the Baptists would do well to continue being open to media coverage as they seek generative responses to a long history of sexual abuse that was ignored.


This is still a good question: How can we keep from singing?

Hymns sung in church teach theology, as I wrote almost 10 years ago in this blog post.

I-Sing-SaviorAnd sometimes the theology contained in hymns can be misleading or in some way troublesome, as I wrote in this Presbyterian Outlook column early in 2020.

So it's important for pastors, choir directors and others who choose hymnals and the hymns printed in them to take care so that the theology espoused by the hymn isn't wildly out of sync with the theology espoused from the pulpit.

One of the important sources of new Christian hymns these days is a Presbyterian pastor who, with her husband, helps lead a small church in upstate New York. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette seems to turn out lovely new hymns about every half hour, though I know that can't be right. And she makes those hymns available, sometimes for little or nothing, on her Carolynshymns website.

She has just published a new collection of her hymns in a book called I Sing to My Savior: New Hymns from the Stories in the Gospel of Luke.

"Hymns," she writes, "are prayers that are sung, often in the community of a congregation, but also during personal times of prayer, Bible reading and reflection. Many hymns are directly based on specific scripture readings, and quite a few of mine are based on the stories found in Luke's gospel.

"At the same time, these hymns include the joys and sorrows of the world we live in. They are prayers to God -- to the One who continues to love, nudge, call, guide, challenge, strengthen and forgive us in our world today."

Carolyn's hymns, which she began writing in 1998, are set to familiar hymn tunes. But, of course, they have new words that in some ways give new life to those old tunes.

Carolyn-GilletteWhat this new book offers besides the hymns themselves is the scripture passage on which each is based and a short personal reflection on what the words or tune mean to Carolyn (pictured here).

The book's title comes from the name of one of her hymns that's based on Luke 1:46-55 and is sung to the tune of "Let All Things Now Living." Here are the first four lines:

I sing to my Savior,  for God has shown favor/on one who is lowly, of humble degree./Now each generation, with great celebration,/will speak of God's mercy to people like me.

I sent Carolyn an email with a few questions about writing hymns. Here are some of her responses:

Can you tell me about a time when someone told you that one of your hymns made a major difference in her/his life? Or helped him/her understand a point of theology in a new way?

One time, a woman came up to me at a hymn workshop I was doing and said that she had sung my hymn, “Abraham Journeyed to a New Country,” at a conference the year before, and it had changed her mind about immigration,   

In singing the hymn, she had become much more aware of the many stories of immigrants in the Bible — people like Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Jesus and his parents, who traveled across borders for a variety of reasons.  In looking at biblical stories of immigration, she came to understand the real and compelling stories of immigrants today — people who are also deeply loved by God.

I wrote several hymns during the pandemic that reached thousands and, in one case, tens of thousands of people on Facebook and on my hymn newsletter email list.  Many people wrote to me saying how my words had helped them through that period of great isolation, providing comfort in a very difficult time.

Have you ever, after hearing one of your hymns sung in a church, realized that it needed revision and called it back out of circulation?

I try to think through each hymn pretty carefully before I send it out.  Often, when I am writing a hymn, especially one that is about a justice concern, I consult with others who have specific experiences or perspectives that I need to hear.  I try to listen to “the voices of peoples long silenced”. . .before I write a hymn. I also share my hymn drafts with a couple of family members, including my husband Bruce (also a pastor), and we get into some good theological and biblical discussions about my hymns before I send them out.

Do you have a favorite or model hymn writer? If so, do you find yourself copying his or her style or merely at times adapting that style into something that's uniquely yours?

I have enjoyed singing the hymns of Ruth Duck and Jane Parker Huber, who both wrote new hymn texts to old, familiar hymn tunes that are in the public domain. Early on, in 1998, I attended a hymn writers’ workshop that was sponsored by the Presbyterian Writers Guild. It was led by pastor and hymn writer John Dallas, and it was very helpful to me to be part of that small group of writers for an intense week of writing together.  

I love writing hymns and sharing them with churches.  I have been writing hymns since 1998; I have written over 400 new hymn texts to old, familiar hymn tunes. 

Next time you sing a hymn, check to see who wrote it and when. Maybe you'll find it's one that Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote just a month or two ago.

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THE PANDEMIC ALREADY HAS CHANGED MINISTRY

It's going to take a long time to figure out how the Covid pandemic has affected religious life in the U.S. (and elsewhere), but when it comes to being a pastor, a researcher says we've already entered a "new era of ministry." And, believe it or not, some of this new world involves good stuff.


A Catholic visitation renews an old friendship, offers sabbath

2016-08-05 14.03.23

Pittsburg, Mo. -- I ended my service as a board member of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center here five years ago and hadn't had a chance to be back until recently.

JW-PJ-1So it was good to return to a place where your heart rate can slow down a bit, you can breathe deeply, take time just to be and let the beautiful woods near the shore of Lake Pomme de Terre refresh your spirits.

All that was a side benefit to a recent overnight trip I made with two friends. The purpose was to let one of those friends renew his friendship with someone he hadn't seen in decades.

Fr. Jerry Waris, (left in this photo) a Catholic priest, and Fr. W. Paul Jones, a Catholic priest and Trappist monk who serves as the resident director of the retreat center, served at the same Kansas City church several decades back but they hadn't been together in person for a long time.

Paul is in his early 90s, though you'd never guess that by watching him move about nimbly or by listening as his bright mind produces engaging conversation and many books, the last one of which I reviewed here. Jerry is about 10 years younger than Paul but his beautiful mind runs along like a middle-aged thinker. So the conversation that another friend and I got to hear and be part of was inevitably stimulating.

What I especially appreciated was that they didn't spend all their time together reviewing old times. Oh, those memories are important to them and helped to shape their ministries. But much of their conversation had to do with life today -- church life, political life, social life and more.

Being in the late fall or winter of life was no reason for Jerry and Paul to be disengaged from current events. In fact, it's Paul's habit to listen to a national radio news show each morning and take notes about what's happening so that he can offer prayer about all of that at a late afternoon Mass he leads every day. And although Jerry is formally retired, he assists at various Catholic churches in the Kansas City area and even travels outside this area to do weddings, funerals and baptisms.

Yes, there is a shortage of Catholic priests in the U.S., so both Paul and Jerry could retire completely and do nothing but read books or play golf if they wanted to. Instead, they are models for what a stimulating and productive life can look like in the eighth and ninth decades.

There's a good reason that, in one of the creation stories (there are two) found in Genesis, God rested on the seventh day. It's a model for us. We need a sabbath, a time to renew our spirits, our minds, our souls.

That's why places like the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center exist. And the good thing for people in the Kansas City area is that it takes only about two and a half hours to drive there.

So my journey with Jerry and our mutual friend Dan to see Paul was an important reminder to me about the need for retreat. That's one reason I'm looking forward to a longer retreat in late September and early October when Marcia and I head to New England for a wedding and for some unplug time.

(The photo below I shot from the center's main building looking toward Lake Pomme de Terre.)

JW-PJ-5

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SOMETIMES THEOLOGY OFFERS NO SIMPLE ANSWERS

I've been intrigued to follow the various arguments -- some of them based on religious principles -- for and against President Joe Biden's decision to forgive some student college debt. In fact, one of the adult Christian education lessons for this Sunday from The Wired Word (I serve on the team that writes these lessons) deals with this subject. So does this article, which asks whether Biden's decision accurately reflects Christian theology about forgiveness and debt. The author's answer, with which I agree, is: "I think there’s a Christian argument for Biden’s policy, but there’s also an argument against, and that argument against is also grounded in biblical conceptions of justice. In other words, the issue is complicated." Indeed, it helps to recognize that very few issues can be reduced to simple questions with simple answers -- especially when sacred texts are involved.

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P.S.: An exhibit and presentation on human rights abuses by the leadership in Turkey are scheduled for three evenings in September in the Kansas City area. You can find out more and register here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted Sunday, it's available here. It describes the way a K.C. pastor and her wife are processing ideas about suffering and evil after experiencing, with their son, the deadly Amtrak derailment a couple of months ago in northern Missouri.


An optimistic rabbi worries about the resurgence of antisemitism

Early in the long and noteworthy career of Rabbi A. James Rudin, he served for two years as the assistant rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Kansas City. (It's now located in Overland Park.)

People-in-roomKnowing that and having heard him speak a few times, I asked the Kansas City Public Library to get a copy of Rudin's new book, The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Pastors, Popes and Presidents. (One of the things I love about our library here is that its staff is so open to suggestions for books to add to the collection. And Rudin's book now is available through the KCPL.)

Rudin served on the American Jewish Committee’s professional staff for more than three decades and was especially known as the AJC’s interreligious affairs director. So, yes, there is much in his book about his long and dedicated work in interfaith matters. And those who know him know he is, at heart, an optimist about humanity and about the future of the way the world's great religious traditions relate to each other.

That optimism is reflected in this book, for sure, but there's also a frank discussion of the reality that antisemitism, with several sources, is resurgent in the U.S. and around the world.

And it's important to hear Rudin's take on that.

He begins that discussion by noting the encouraging ways many branches of Christianity reacted to the Holocaust after World War II. Especially notable in his view was the Second Vatican Council's adoption of a statement about Christianity and Judaism called Nostra Aetate, which Rudin (pictured below) says "set in motion a revolution of the human spirit and sparked a serious and systematic effort by the Catholic church as well as other Christian bodies throughout the world to improve their past bitter and negative relationships with Jews and Judaism."

Today, however, "disturbing events have unexpectedly challenged my previous hopeful assumptions," Rudin writes. "Virulent lethal antisemitic acts, once small in number since the end of the Holocaust in 1945, have reemerged, especially in Europe and the United States. It is an epidemic with the potential to become a pandemic of hate."

Rudin mentions violent and even murderous antisemitic acts in such places as Pittsburgh; Monsey, N.Y.; Poway, Calif.; Jersey City, N.J.; Sarasota, Fla., Colleyville, Texas, and suburban Kansas City, to say nothing of various sites in Europe.

Rudin"In the United States," Rudin writes, "especially since the end of World War II, American Jews believed they were living in a new 'Golden Age' of security and freedom from the ugly scourge of antisemitism. . .For many Jews in the United States, there is now a growing sense of anxiety that antisemitism, emerging from both the political left and right, has moved from the shadows of society and the fringes of social media into the American political, social, cultural and religious mainstream."

What might be an answer to a re-emergence of this ancient hatred? Rudin's answer:

"I have long asserted we no longer require many additional Christian statements (against antisemitism). Fortunately, we have them in abundance, and they are easily available on the Internet." Instead, he writes, society must "move from what I term the wholesale emphasis on Christian-Jewish relations to the retail arena, a purposeful shift from a constant stream of high-level religious gatherings, denominational assemblies and meetings, and instead press forward with a continuing series of local, parish congregational-centered programs that include an exploration of current Christian liturgy, rituals, teaching, preaching, education, music, hymnology and all other features of church life that relate to Jews and Judaism. . .How Christian-Jewish relations play out on Main Street America is now more decisive and important than ever."

So my question for you is this: If you're part of a Christian congregation, what is your church doing to respond to the problem that Rudin so clearly identifies?

(P.S.: Some of you may remember this post from my blog published on May 11 of this year: "A story of the six million -- but now minus one." It told the story of how the family of a Holocaust survivor whose story was told in the book They Were Just People by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and me had just discovered that one of the brothers of that survivor also survived, though the family didn't know that until now. The daughter of the man about whom Jacques and I wrote has just published this more detailed account of that family discovery story in The Detroit Jewish News. It's quite a story. I hope you'll give it a read.)

(ANOTHER P.S.: Speaking of resurgent antisemitism, that phenomenon was part of our discussion Thursday night at a meeting of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education's board, on which I serve. MCHE does a terrific job of teaching people about the history of extremism. The recent exhibit about Auschwitz, which it sponsored at and with Union Station in Kansas City is a great example. If you're not a member of MCHE supporting the necessary work the organization does, you can become one at this link -- and you have lots of choices about the level of support you want to give.)

(I'm going for a P.S. record today: You don't have to leave home to learn more about the Holocaust. As this Jewish News Syndicate article reports, "The Illinois Holocaust Museum has launched a new virtual exhibition about the history of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union told through the testimonies of Chicago-area Holocaust survivors and their families." The link for the exhibit is here.)

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LEARNING TO DO RIGHT BY DOING WRONG

Soon after it opened a few years ago, the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., gained a deserved reputation for acquiring artifacts that had been stolen or otherwise illegally acquired by others. It's had to return a number of things to the original owners or countries of origin. But its leaders seem to have learned to do the right thing now, and as this New York Times piece reports, the museum has "returned a handwritten gospel that is more than a thousand years old to the Greek Orthodox Church. . ." Some of this trouble for the museum came about because it clearly didn't have enough antiquities experts available to help it determine what it could legitimately acquire and what it should stay away from. Lesson learned, everyone hopes. By the way, the Museum of the Bible has a Kansas City connection in that its gorgeous front doors were crafted here, as I reported in this 2017 Flatland column.