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February 2005

Jan. 31, 2005

More than 20 years ago, a small group of men (yes, in this case, just men) from my church began gathering once a week for breakfast and talk and just some sharing about our lives within the context of a faith community. We’ll gather again this week, as we’ve done almost every week since then, and a few of the original guys, including me, are still part of the group.

I’m telling you a little about this group because I want to affirm our experience that spiritual growth is a team game. No matter what faith community we call our own, we learn and grow more consistently together than as lone individuals.

Our group started meeting in the home of one of the members of the group. But because he’s no longer a member, we’ve met for the last mumble-mumble years at another member’s home, with my house as a rarely used alternative.

Together we’ve gone through at least one divorce (mine), the deaths of various family members and close friends (and one of our members), the birth of grandchildren, the marriage of many of our children, promotions, new business start-ups, retirements, small and large church crises, world crises and much more. It’s been a quite amazing ride.

The stereotype is that men can’t talk with each other about anything more serious than sports. Well, we do talk a little about that, but we also share many deeper things with one another. We know we can rely on each other. And we laugh a lot, too.

A year or less after we started meeting, we agreed to read the Bible all the way through, skipping back and forth between the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, and the New Testament. Well, we’re consistent, but we’re slow as all get out. As of this week, we’re just past midway through the Psalms — for the first time. We’ve got lots of books in both testaments still unread as a group. But so what? We’re on no one’s deadline.

I’d be interested to hear about your own small-group experience and whether you’ve been able to stay with one or whether the group became a destructive force somehow. As for me, they’ll have to remove me from our group feet first.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.

Jan. 29-30, 2005 weekend

One of the reasons I started writing the series in The Kansas City Star that I call “Conversations with Clergy” is that it often seems to me we don’t have realistic expectations of our religious leaders.

So I have been doing fairly lengthy interviews with clergy of various religious traditions, trying to give readers a sense of what difficult, challenging work this is.

But there’s another aspect of this that’s not easy to describe. It is clergy who create false and unrealistic expectations about themselves by the words they use. It some ways it’s the old problem of not practicing what they preach, but it’s more complicated than that.

A friend who goes to a different church than I do recently confided in me his disappointment – almost anguish – about what he perceived as the failure of his minister to connect with my friend’s life or the lives of many other people in the congregation. This pastor regularly preaches about the necessity and value of community, he said, but seems unable to be part of his own congregation’s community. My friend has experienced this failure in several different ways.

I served for six years on a committee that oversees Presbyterian seminary students from the Kansas City area. That experience taught me that there are no perfect members of the clergy. Sometimes, in fact (and more often than most people probably realize), people who get on the path toward ordination are wounded in many ways and need much more help than they’ll ever be able to give to others. The church needs to find a way to direct these people to other professions.

But even when ministers are gifted in several ways, inevitably they will lack certain skills and will disappoint members of their congregations.

Wise lay leaders of faith communities will recognize this reality and try to keep expectations realistic. They’ll also be discerning about ways that the clergy can improve and they will offer help to those members of the clergy.

But ministers have a responsibility in this regard, too. It is to recognize that when they hold up certain values – like community or charity – members of their congregations will be looking at the speaker to see how well he or she is living up to the preaching. It helps to acknowledge one’s own failings and to suggest that all of us – the minister included – need help. To assume that people know that is to set oneself up to be held to a difficult, if not impossible, standard.

We must be gentle with one another’s failings but the clergy among us must walk the fine line between seeming to be perfect examples and appearing so imperfect as not to be inspiring or worthy of their leadership position. It’s a terribly difficult task, and people in faith communities should talk about it more openly than they often do.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.

Jan. 28, 2005

Perhaps you’ve noticed that people seem less likely to support political compromise. Rather, they appear to be more interested in insisting that politicians –- particularly ones who hold strong religious beliefs -– stick to their guns on controversial issues.

A new study confirms this. It was done by a nonpartisan research organization named Public Agenda and it shows that fewer Americans in 2004 supported compromise than the number who did four years earlier. You can find the whole study at

The study shows that people who regularly attend worship services are least likely to support political compromise, although nearly three-fourths of Americans still do favor its use when necessary.

Compromise used to be accepted as a necessity to make any progress at all on political issues. But increasingly it seems to be viewed as an evil, or at least a dishonorable action.

I don’t want to argue that compromise is always good or that one should compromise on crucial or core principles. No, each of us must know what we believe and must strive to implement those beliefs. But we also must leave room for the possibility that we’re wrong on some things and that others may have something to teach us. I frankly have had it up to here with people who are utterly convinced they’re right about everything and, beyond that, that they’re doing the Lord’s work – often having been personally deputized by God.

We need not compromise on principles but that doesn’t mean we can’t compromise on ways and means of achieving the goals our principles suggest.

This new study is distressing because it seems to verify anecdotal evidence that people increasingly have no stomach for reasonable dialogue in search of common ground. If this no-compromise trend continues, it spells nothing but trouble for the body politic.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.

Jan. 27, 2005

I talked the other day about ways in which physicians and clergy are learning more about how each approaches health care and spirituality. My story about this ran last Saturday in The Kansas City Star. (To find the piece, see directions at the end of this blog entry.)

Today I want to add a bit more on that subject by telling you about a recent survey that shows most American physicians believe in miracles.

I read about this in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle ( Chanan Tigay of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on a study by HCD Research and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religion and Social Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

The study found that 74 percent of doctors in the United States believe miracles have happened in the past and 73 percent believe they can occur today. The survey included 1,087 physicians -- Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews.

All of this fascinates me, in part because I’m not sure you could get all 1,087 doctors in this study to agree on a definition of “miracle.” And I’m also sure there would be differences of opinion among them about whether this or that particular medical outcome constitutes a miracle.

Still, the study does suggest that physicians and clergy may share more views in common about spirituality than either group previously has recognized. So it may not be terribly difficult for clergy and physicians to understand each other’s role with patients if only we can get the two groups to talk with one another.

What, if anything, do you consider a miracle? And have you ever really seen one?

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.

Jan. 26, 2005

Before I get to my topic today, I want to tell you of a great joy in our family. Jacob Richard, my grandson, was born yesterday afternoon. His mother, my daughter, and his father also are the parents of granddaughter Olivia, now two and a half. Jacob also will be welcomed to the world by grandson Cole, born last September to my stepson and his wife. And this coming May, he is due to meet his cousin, a little girl to be born to my other daughter and her husband.

Someone once said that babies are God's way of insisting that the world continue. I can't speak for God or for the world, but my family continues to grow, and we couldn't be happier or more grateful.

OK, then. Another topic.

Today I want to point you to a great little book published last year — great even though I have a contribution in it.

It’s called Faith in Words: A Celebration of Presbyterian Writers, and is edited by Ann Weems and Louis B. Weeks. (I obviously could not have been an editor of the book because my last name doesn’t start with Wee.) Ann is a wonderful poet and writer whom I had a chance to meet in Denver in 2003 when we signed books together at an event. She's written such classics as Kneeling in Bethlehem and Psalms of Lament. Louis is president of Union Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va.

Now, I know that most of you aren’t Presbyterian, but there’s no law against you reading some of us writers who are adherents of that branch of the Christian faith. The piece I have in the book is a June 2001 Kansas City Star column called “Charity Begins at Home with Lemonade Stands,” and was written from my hometown, Woodstock, Ill. Almost four years after it first appeared, I still sort of like the piece (he said, immodestly). I wish I could say that about everything I’d ever written.

The book, a paperback, is published by a Presbyterian publishing house, Geneva Press, and is listed at $14.95. You can find Geneva Press on the Web at and can order it there. Or order it through your locally owned independent bookstore. (By the way, no matter how many of these books are sold, I receive nothing. So I deny that this is a shameless personal sales pitch.)

Another contributor to the book is the Rev. George R. Pasley, who pastors the Presbyterian Church in Garnett, Kan., where I spoke a year or two ago. George has a couple of good poems in this collection.

There are, by the way, lots of good publishing houses connected with various denominations. One I especially like is Augsburg Fortress (, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But there are many others. Google around to find Web sites of your favorite faith community and see what publishing ventures you can turn up.

I won’t tell you that Faith in Words is the best book ever published in human history, but reading it is a much, much better way to spend your time than watching reruns of “Friends.”

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.

A Blogbeam:

Old books are like old friends. Well, except that with old books you have more control over when you pay attention to the words inside of them.

Jan. 25, 2005

The number of religion-centered Web sites continues to explode. All kinds of religions are represented on all kinds of sites. As time goes along, I hope to point you to an interesting variety because it’s difficult to know which is worth your time and which isn’t.

Let me tell you about one site I’ve found helpful. It’s the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago. Find it at: The Marty Center does research in religion. Its Web site says it “brings scholarly perspectives to bear on religious questions facing the wider public, while encouraging scholars to situate their academic questions within a broader cultural frame of reference.”

Martin Marty, a longtime Lutheran clergyman and scholar, still is active at the center and publishes all kinds of material in many forms. In fact, some people poke a little good-natured fun at Marty by saying he’s never had a thought that he didn’t publish somewhere.

I was privileged to hear Marty speak in Kansas City a few years ago, and to get acquainted with his son, the Rev. Peter Marty, when Peter was pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church of Kansas City. The Marty family has made significant contributions to making Christian theology and its intersection with public life more understandable.

One of the reasons for mentioning the Marty Center is that it offers a free e-mail newsletter called “Sightings.” You can sign up to receive it on the center’s Web site. Just promise me you won’t completely abandon my blog once you also start paying attention to “Sightings.” Marty himself writes a number of the newsletters, but others connected with the Marty Center also contribute.

A recent “Sightings” had to do with the way Bible publishers increasingly are offering Bibles in new formats. It was written by Jeremy Biles, managing editor of “Sightings.”

That subject reminds me that some time I want to share with you a bit about my own Bible collection. My books are not rare or worth much money. That’s not why I collect them. Rather, I try to gather in as many different translations as possible. But I’ll get to that subject eventually.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.

A Blogbeam:

Aunt Ilse from Oelwein says your life is in balance if half the time you say what you believe and the other half you believe what you say.

Jan. 24, 2005

I wrote a story for this past Saturday’s Kansas City Star Faith section about an interesting new effort to get hospital physicians and clergy to talk with one another so they can appreciate more fully what each does for patients. (Instructions for finding the story are at the end of today’s blog.)

The intersection of science and religion in all kinds of ways continues to be a hot topic, especially in the way health care and spirituality relate.

A recent example is a new study reported in the Jan. 10 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. You have to subscribe to the publication to read the full report, but you can find an abstract of the study at

Essentially, it finds that doctors sometimes get frustrated by patients who make health care decisions primarily on the basis of religious belief, especially when the docs think those decisions don’t make good scientific sense.

It’s exactly this kind of misunderstanding and exasperation that the physician-clergy dialogue groups I reported on Saturday are designed to alleviate. It would be good for all of us if these groups existed at hospitals across the nation.

What I invite you to think about today is how much of your own health care approach is rooted in your religious beliefs and whether you’ve ever discussed all of this with your health care providers. Physicians and other health care workers need to be sensitive to how faith affects the health decisions people make, but it’s also up to us as patients to speak with frankness with our doctors about this.

I’d be interested in hearing your own experiences in this area.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name. For the story about doctors and clergy, click on "Faith," not my name.

Jan. 22-23, 2005, weekend

One of the best parts of my job as a journalist is getting to read my mail — no matter how it arrives.

I’m not talking about the inevitable anonymous hate mail, which comes too often. Rather, I mean letters from individuals who are honest and to the point. Once in a while, a note simply sings with humanity.

The other day, for instance, I got a letter from a woman in Texas. She was responding to a recent piece I wrote about suffering in the wake of the Asian tsunami. The piece is at:

The woman said she was 89 years old and had grown up Baptist but was married to a Presbyterian minister for decades. I wish I could spend several hours in conversation with her to try to respond to her many questions. If you were able to do that, how would you answer what she wrote? Here are some of her comments:

“Adam and Eve – why did (God) create them? The only reason I have ever heard is that he was lonely and wanted someone to communicate with. (But) if he wanted them and their progeny to people the earth and have wonderful lives, why did he find it necessary to tempt them?”

She also had trouble understanding why God allowed Jesus to be crucified: “If we knew someone, even with our limited understanding, who would kill his own child, we would consider him a monster, try him and have him executed. Jesus certainly got the worst of that situation.”

Then she added this: “Millions of people have prayed and had their prayers unanswered. Many times they make up an excuse, or their minister does for them.”

And this painful plea: “I would very much like to find something that I could believe in. I was in the hospital recently and one of the chaplains dropped by to see me. I ran by him some of the questions (I’ve asked you). He turned pale and said that he wasn’t supposed to understand what he was saying, just to believe it and convince others. I submit that many ministers do more harm than good.”

In response, I told her that the chaplain she mentioned should be tossed out of the ministry if he can’t deal with hard questions. But how would you answer this woman without getting way too deep into complicated theories of atonement and soteriology?

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.

Jan. 21, 2005

When my wife I and were married a little over eight years ago, I was adopted into her long-time church study group. We gather a couple of times a month to talk about books we’re reading together and to encourage one another in our faith journeys.

The other night the group met at our house and the subject of what we had memorized as children came up. One of our members is an Episcopal priest, and she described how she once was leading a worship service at a nursing home. Most of the people attending were in wheel chairs and many didn’t have much idea what was happening.

But in her homily, our priest friend mentioned the start of the twenty-third Psalm. She got only a few words into “The Lord is my shepherd” when she realized that most of the people attending the service had joined in. She hadn’t meant to quote more than a line or two, but the congregation picked up the Psalm and finished it from memory. It brought tears to her eyes.

That prompted someone to recall that Anglican church envoy Terry Waite, who was held hostage in Lebanon for 1,760 days (until Nov. 18, 1991), got through some of his ordeal by reciting passages of scripture and other words he’d memorized earlier in his life.

(Here’s a link to some BBC material on Waite:

I joked that if I had to rely on what I’d memorized as a child, I’d be hearing a lot of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But it did raise the question for all of us of what important words we have committed to memory and whether youngsters today are being required to memorize as much as we did decades ago.

There are many benefits to memorizing things. I invite you to think about what special words you can recite from memory — especially words that carry spiritual meaning for you — and whether you’ve pushed yourself lately to memorize something of value. It might seem a bit late to make New Year’s resolutions, but memorizing some valuable words in 2005 might be a good one.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.

Jan. 20, 2005

People of faith continue to disagree profoundly about homosexuality. Some people are absolutely convinced that the Bible condemns it. Others – I’m among them – believe that Scripture is essentially silent on the subject and should not be used as a weapon in this debate.

The pain this issue causes is simply enormous, and it’s playing out both within faith communities and in the body politic.

Just last week, for instance, a task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ( issued a long-awaited report recommending how this 5-million-member denomination should approach various questions about homosexuality. In effect, it recommended keeping its policies prohibiting the ordination of sexually active gay and lesbian ministers but said that the church should consider not disciplining churches and bishops who break these rules.

For a Page 1 story about this in The Kansas City Star (, I interviewed clergy on opposites of this issue. The pain was evident and deep everywhere.

About the same time, the Kansas Senate voted to send to the voters a Constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. A dozen or so other states approved similar bans in the November 2004 elections.

After the Kansas vote, I read a note from a lesbian who described the anguish she felt at what her state was doing. I think her voice is worth hearing. Here’s part of what she wrote:

“What about us who will continue to go on with our lives, raise our kids, pay taxes, go to school functions and sit up front in church? We will act married even if, in the eyes of some, we aren’t.

“We will spend extra money that could have gone to our higher education fund for our kids to draft legal documents to protect ourselves and our ‘spouse’ in case of illness or death. We will pray that when the events occur the hospital or mortuary we have to deal with will respect us enough to allow us to sit by the bedside or casket a little longer, past visiting hours.”

I would love to live another 100 years to see where communities of faith are by then on all this. I hope we will have come to a place where all this pain is behind us.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to and click on “FYI” on the left side of the opening page. Then click on “Faith” or on my name.