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Feb. 28, 2005

Break time, folks. I’ve been serious here far too long.

So I share with you two clean religious jokes here today and one funny list sent to me, a Presbyterian, by a Jewish friend, with whom I’ve been discussing the serious subject of Jewish-Presbyterian relations, which overall aren’t very good right now because of Presbyterian plans to divest from some companies profiting from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His sending it was a reminder that there’s a place for humor even in hard talk.

I don’t know who Jake Novak is, whose name is attached to the Presbyterian list, but if that’s someone’s real name and he really wrote these, he knows a little (but maybe not everything) about us Presbyterians.

I also don’t know who wrote the first two jokes. But so what? Just enjoy.

The Baptist Dog:

A Baptist preacher and his wife decided to get a new dog. Ever mindful of the congregation, they knew the dog must also be a Baptist. They visited kennel after kennel and explained their needs. Finally, they found a kennel whose owner assured them he had just the dog they wanted.

The owner brought the dog to meet the pastor and his wife. “Fetch the Bible,” he commanded. The dog bounded to the bookshelf, scrutinized the books, located the Bible, and brought it to the owner.

“Now find Psalm 23,” he commanded. The dog dropped the Bible to the floor and showing marvelous dexterity with his paws, leafed through and finding the correct passage, pointed to it with his paw.

The pastor and his wife were very impressed and purchased the dog. That evening, a group of church members came to visit. The pastor and his wife began to show off the dog, having him locate several Bible verses.

The visitors were very impressed.

One man asked, “Can he do regular dog tricks, too?”

“I haven't tried yet,” the pastor replied. He pointed his finger at the dog.

“HEEL!” the pastor commanded. The dog immediately jumped on a chair, placed one paw on the pastor's forehead and began to howl.

The pastor looked at his wife in shock and said, "Good Lord! He's Pentecostal!”

The Lucky Nun:

Sitting by the window of her convent, Sister Barbara opened a letter from home one evening. Inside the letter was a $100 bill her parents had sent. Sister Barbara smiled at the gesture. As she read the letter by the window, she noticed a shabbily dressed stranger leaning against the lamp post below.

Quickly, she wrote, “Don't despair. Sister Barbara,” on a piece of paper, wrapped the $100 bill in it, got the man's attention and tossed it out the window to him. The stranger picked it up, and with a puzzled expression and a tip of his hat, went off down the street.

The next day, Sister Barbara was told that a man was at her door, insisting on seeing her. She went down, and found the stranger waiting. Without a word, he handed her a huge wad of $100 bills.

“What's this?” she asked. “That's the $8,000 you have coming, Sister,” he replied. “Don't Despair paid 80-to-1.”

Presbyterian-Jewish relations, Take 10:

Top 10 Ways Jews Can Retaliate Against Presbyterian Divestment in Israel
by Jake Novak

10) Begin counter-boycott of Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise and Wonder Bread
9) Stop supporting all the Presbyterian comedians . . . oh wait, there aren't any!
8) Wear white shoes after Labor Day
7) Stop serving watercress sandwiches at Shabbat Kiddush
6) Replace Muzak in Jewish doctor's offices with Klezmer CDs
5) Secretly replace all references to John Calvin in Presbyterian doctrine with “Calvin Klein”
4) Initiate hostile takeover of L.L. Bean
3) Crash the next party at the country club
2) Water down the booze in junior's sippy cup
1) Let them do their own damn taxes!

See my "About" page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Feb. 26-27, 2005, weekend

I want to wander just slightly from faith matters today to point you to a fascinating article about journalism — but also about religion.

It’s called “Journalism: Power without responsibility” by Kenneth Minogue. Minogue is a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His book Concept of a University has just been republished by Transaction Publishers with a new introduction.

His essay on journalism was published in The New Criterion magazine, of which I had heard but which I had never read. More about the publication in a minute.

Minogue says journalism relentlessly responds to the old Roman question, What’s new? So, in the end, “journalism is the cultivation of concern for things that are for the most part remote from us.” (This sounds like the criticism of journalism I leveled at it in a graduation speech to the 1994 class of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, my alma mater. That was the class that included one of my daughters.)

Minogue says the “basic contrast (of journalism) is with religion, which is concerned with rituals and sermons revolving around beliefs about our eternal situation. Kierkegaard mistrusted journalism because he thought it would feed our love of the ephemeral, and he was no doubt right about this.”

Well, I encourage you to read what Minogue has to say (but warn you that it is 12 and a half pages of single-space type when printed out) and to tell me whether you think he’s on to something. I don’t buy all he says, but it’s well worth the read.

By the way, here, from the New Criterion Web site, is what the publication says, immodestly, about itself:

“The New Criterion, founded in 1982 by the art critic Hilton Kramer and the pianist and music critic Samuel Lipman, is a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life. Written with great verve, clarity, and wit, The New Criterion has emerged as America's foremost voice of critical dissent in the culture wars now raging throughout the Western world. A staunch defender of the values of high culture, The New Criterion is also an articulate scourge of artistic mediocrity and intellectual mendacity wherever they are found: in the universities, the art galleries, the media, the concert halls, the theater, and elsewhere. Published monthly from September through June, The New Criterion brings together a wide range of young and established critics whose common aim is to bring you the most incisive criticism being written today."

See my "About" page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Feb. 25, 2005

One of the persons who helped me most in understanding my own faith was Shirley C. Guthrie Jr. Shirley (a male) taught theology at Columbia Seminary in Georgia and was the author of several books, including Christian Doctrine, which I consider a classic in popularizing theology.

Guthrie died not long ago, and a recent edition of The Presbyterian Outlook devoted considerable space to various recollections of the way he made a difference.

Guthrie’s skill, as I experienced it through his writing, was being able to take complex theological concepts that had been refined in the lofty air of academia and make them understandable to people in the pews. That’s the great strength of his book Christian Doctrine, which still is widely used.

If theology is left only to the professional theologians (we are all theologians, by the way), then it gets to be little more than inside baseball. I invite you to read about Guthrie on the Web site listed above and, as you do, to remember and give thanks for great teachers in your own life who could take complicated subjects and open up their mysteries to you.

See my "About" page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Feb. 24, 2005

At the risk of beating this subject to a bloody pulp, I want to return today to a topic I’ve written about in this space several times in recent weeks — the way the media cover religion.

To reiterate my views: With a few exceptions, most of the press does a lousy job covering religion. Major metropolitan newspapers rarely assign more than one or two people to the beat, if that, and the mainstream broadcast media is even worse. My biased view is that my newspaper, The Kansas City Star, does better than most papers, but our staff, like most, is far too limited to do justice to all that could be written about the way religion intersects the with rest of life.

I raise this again because of the national discussion about all of this occasioned by a recent piece ( by Julia Duin, the chief religion reporter for the Washington Times ( It appeared on the Web pages of the Poynter Institute (, an organization dedicated to the training and improvement of journalists.

Julia charged ­— accurately, in my view — that “many newspapers and radio and TV stations refuse to invest seriously in this beat (religion)…”

One of the people responding to Julia’s piece was Paul M. Weyrich, often called the father of the religious right. Paul today is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation ( A few months ago, I was part of a conference call for journalists in which Paul was one of the speakers, and I found him to be clear, honest and not overbearing. I don’t agree with him on most issues, but he’s no fool.

In a piece posted at, Paul praised Julia and also bemoaned the media’s inadequate coverage of religion. Again, I don’t agree with everything he said, but his words are worth reading.

What I’ll never understand is why readers don’t demand better religion coverage from the media. Some of us are fighting that battle inside, but we need help. If you haven’t griped to your local newspaper or broadcast station about inadequate religion coverage, do it today. But do it with specifics. Tell the editor about some story or event you haven’t seen covered. And, while you’re at it, say a word of praise and thanks about the religion coverage you do like.

See my "About" page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Feb. 23, 2005

Today I want to talk about death. Not necessarily yours or mine, but, rather, the way people of faith talk about death.

To do that, I want to share with you some words I found in a recent issue of the Orthodox Observer (, a newspaper of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, although you could find other interesting words about death in the obituary page of The Kansas City Star any day of the week. In fact, try reading through all the obits some day thinking about the faith of the dead person or of the family that wrote the obit. Pretty eye-opening.

A Page 1 Orthodox Observer story reported the death on Christmas Day 2004 of Metropolitan Anthony, the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox community in San Francisco. He died at age 69 after a brief illness.

Here are the words spoken about Anthony by Archbishop Demetrios of America, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S.:

“Today, at the evening of Christmas day, a very prominent and beloved Hierarch of our Church in America, Metropolitan Anthony of San Francisco, was called by Jesus Christ our Lord to leave this perishable world, and meet Him, and be forever with Him in the company of the saints and the righteous. …

“Deeply saddened by the sudden separation, we are comforted by the certainty that our beloved brother is with God. … We are sure that now the Holy Metropolis of San Francisco has a permanent, strong ambassador to God in the person of her departed Hierarch and we fervently pray for the repose of his soul among the great saints and pastors of the triumphant Church in heaven.”

This is soaring language and reflects the church’s theology. I especially like the phrase, “this perishable world.”

But I wonder whether sometimes our language about death is so full of flowers and hymns that it doesn’t accurately reflect the anguish and pain of the loss.

I won’t mind if people say things about me similar to the words the archbishop said about Anthony. But if that’s all that’s said, it will be disappointing. I hope, in addition to such words, a few people will scream at God for taking me and will break down with each other over how much they will miss me. Those are the kinds of words I’d prefer to have said about me when I go. Otherwise, why go?

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.

Another place to buy my book is from The Kansas City Store. Go to:

Feb. 22, 2005

Arthur and Phoebe Pack were remarkable people. In 1955 they donated a huge tract of land – about the size of the island of Manhattan – to the Presbyterian Church as an education and conference center.

It’s known as Ghost Ranch ( and is located just outside the small northern New Mexico village of Abiquiu, where the wonderful artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted. If I've remembered to put it on the page here today, you'll see a photo of Ghost Ranch I took a few years ago (so you don't have to look at me today). The ranch is about an hour north of Santa Fe. I teach at Ghost Ranch each summer. (When you’re at the ranch’s Web site, open up the catalogue and look for a class I’ll co-teach July 11-17 with my pastor, Dr. Edward Thompson.)

Recently, a retired Presbyterian minister who attends my church ( and knows of my love for Ghost Ranch loaned me a 64-page booklet, “The Ghost Ranch Story,” which I previously hadn’t known about. Arthur Pack wrote it, and it was published in 1960. I’ve known the name Pack ever since I started going to Ghost Ranch 10 years ago, but I didn’t have a sense of the man’s humor, faith and self-reliance until I read his little booklet.

Nor did I know about a part of his life before he met and married Phoebe. It’s a part that must have been exhaustively painful. Here’s the sort of cryptic way he tells it:

“Some months later it seemed that the Brujos (or evil spirits) had now turned against me. One day my wife set off for Santa Fe in her car. She never returned. For me there was no balm in Gilead, only the steely, hard outline of Pedernal – an inscrutable mountain against an unforgiving sky. Neither the children nor I could endure the adobe walls of a house that was no longer a home. I moved my little family over to the Ghost House, there to try to pick up the shattered pieces of life and seek a new beginning.”

Each of us gets wounded in different ways. Even if we don’t know the particulars of the injury, we must be sensitive to the times when something we say or do reopens those wounds in others. On no basis whatsoever, I’ve long assumed that Arthur and Phoebe Pack were married only once, and always to each other. I never knew about the wife who simply left for Santa Fe and never returned.

I need to remember that many of the people I meet every day could tell similarly painful stories about themselves – as could I.

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.

Another place to buy my book is from The Kansas City Store. Go to:

Feb. 21, 2005

(The picture to the right will make sense with tomorrow's blog. Really. But first, here's today's:)

The World Council of Churches ( is a rather remarkable collection of Christian faith communities. It reflects the way the religion has atomized — starting with the Great Divorce of Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) churches in 1054 and especially after the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformation.

The council, which was formed in 1948, announced recently that it now has 347 member churches. The math got a little complicated because the council brought in eight new churches, which should have taken the membership total to 350. But at the same time five member churches merged into two joint memberships, so the total declined to 347.

Imagine that: 347 separate Christian denominations. And get this: The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the council, though it works cooperatively with it.

The new council members, by the way, are: the Evangelical Baptist Church of Angola, the African Church (Nigeria), the Protestant Evangelical Church of Guinea, the Methodist Church of Indonesia ( ) (Indonesia, by the way, has the largest Muslim population of any in the world) and the Baptist Convention of Haiti.

A full list of council members is at

The Gospel of John records Jesus’ famous prayer in which he expresses his desire that his followers “all may be one.”

Despite continuing ecumenical efforts to achieve unity, an outsider could be excused for looking at the world of Christianity and saying, “Jesus, looks to me like things have been moving in the opposite direction.”

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.

Another place to buy my book is from The Kansas City Store. Go to:

Feb. 19-20, 2005, weekend

Last weekend in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star (which surely by now you’ve read and memorized), I did a story about a new book series that describes America’s religious makeup. It divides the country into various regions, most of which make sense.

But Missouri wound up being in what editors called “The Southern Crossroads,” while Kansas was put in the “Midwest.” The series general editor, Mark Silk, told me dividing up those two states was one of the toughest calls he had to make.

Nonetheless, there’s interesting material in all the books in what is called the “Religion by Region Series,” published in cooperation with the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The books can be ordered from the Greenberg Center at or from the publisher, AltaMira Press, at

Today, I want to share with you a little more about Missouri than I was able to in last week’s piece. Maybe later I’ll get around to Kansas. (I’m a University of Missouri graduate and it takes a little effort to write about Kansas. J) Anyway, here’s some of what the “Southern Crossroads” volume says about the Show-Me State:

“The first humans to live in what we now call Missouri were Native Americans, people who generally maintained a cosmology in which invisible spirits ruled the natural world, with a belief system that included fetishes to promote good or control evil, and medicine men or prophets who interpreted or channeled the sacred world for their co-religionists.

“Blacks arrived in Missouri first as slaves, and then, during the period of exodus from the old Confederacy following the Civil War, as free people. Because the state was on the fringes of the slaveocracy, slavery was never as extensive or deeply entrenched as in other areas of the Crossroads.

“As in other Crossroads states, slavery divided denominations in Missouri, and following the Civil War many African-American Christians, who were largely Methodist and Baptist, formed separate congregations with black preachers. At the end of the War, members of the Sixty-second United States colored Infantry, composed primarily of Missourians, moved to establish an educational institution in Missouri, which they named Lincoln Institute.

“They wanted this school to benefit freed African-Americans and to combine study and labor. Funds given by the Sixty-second and the Sixty-fifth Colored Infantries were set aside for this cause, and the school was established in 1866 in Jefferson. Lincoln Institute became a state institution in 1879 and a land-grant institution in 1890.”

Today Lincoln Institute calls itself Lincoln University of Missouri. It’s Jefferson City, and you can learn more about it at In fact, it was reported last week that Lincoln has just hired its first female president, Carolyn Mahoney. Lincoln's history is one more bit of evidence that we are surrounded by structures, institutions and ideas with religious connections and/or roots.

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.

Another place to buy my book is from The Kansas City Store. Go to:

Feb. 18, 2005

A time or two in recent weeks, I’ve written here about the way the media cover religion – not very well, is the short answer, though there are exceptions.

One of the best religion writers around is Mark I. Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel ( He’s written a piece in the new issue of the Columbia Journalism Review about how he learned to understand and cover Christian evangelicals, people he had little experience with as a Jew born in Miami and raised in New Jersey.

It’s well worth a read, and you can find it at:

In the end, his experience is a lesson in getting to know and understand the nuances and complexities of people who might seem to us, from the outside, all alike. Mark says his more complete understanding of evangelicals (a term that hides as much as it reveals) has given his coverage of religion more depth.

It’s a lesson that can apply to almost all aspects of our lives.

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.

Another place to buy my book is from The Kansas City Store. Go to:

Feb. 17, 2005

A lot of the church-state issues in this country eventually make it to the U.S. Supreme Court ( On the court’s home page, click on “Docket” and search on the key names in each case to turn up information about the case.

Today I just wanted to alert you to three cases that court will hear in the next few weeks.

The first two, both to be heard on March 2, are “Thomas Van Orden v. Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, Chairman, State Preservation Board, et al” and “McCreary County, Kentucky, et al v. ACLU of Kentucky, et al.” Both of these cases have to do with when, if ever, it’s constitutionally appropriate to display the Ten Commandments on government property. (Will we never quit fighting about that?)

The third case, “Jon B. Cutter, et al v. Reginald Wilkinson et al,” is to be heard March 21. It’s an “Establishment Clause” case that may determine whether to strike down the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.” The act creates various legislative accommodations to the free exercise of religion and if it’s declared unconstitutional it could have a big impact.

There’s always been an uneasy but necessary tension between religion and government in this country. And because courts often define the boundaries of that relationship, it’s important that we pay attention to the cases that come before the judges.

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.

Another place to buy my book is from The Kansas City Store. Go to: