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Feb. 16, 2005

It’s been nearly two months since a devastating tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in Asia. Slowly parts of the hardest hit areas are getting help, thanks both to government donations and to money provided by individuals through various service organizations.

Today I want to highlight just one, Church World Service (http://churchworldservice.org/), the relief, development and refugee assistance ministry of 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations in the U.S. So far CWS has provided more than $3.5 million in recovery and relief supplies to tsunami victims.

CWS has a regional director in Kansas City, the Rev. Joyce Holley.

“We were already supporting work in Aceh (the smashed province in Indonesia) before the tsunami hit,” Joyce said in a recent CWS press release, “and we’ll be there for the long haul, helping families and communities to rebuild their lives and their livelihoods.”

The CWS executive director, the Rev. John L. McCullough, recently returned to the U.S. from a visit to Indonesia. Here’s what he said about his trip: "Survivors in Aceh are beginning to pick up their lives, but the needs continue to be almost overwhelming. This territory cannot be left idle or left in the lurch to rebuild.

"Recovery of the dead is still going on – and the international community is very much involved. But the world community must stay focused and present for what will be long-term recovery in these worst-hit tsunami regions.

"In (Aceh's provincial capital) Banda Aceh there is still only one street. Everything else was destroyed. They will be rebuilding on a cemetery in Banda Aceh because all that is left are irretrievable body parts. We cannot leave them with this."

American attention span tends to be terribly short. But that’s no excuse for putting out of our minds the people who continue to suffer – and seek to recover – from the tsunami. If you can help but haven’t done so yet, please do, whether through CWS or another agency. You can make a donation right on the CWS Web site if you want.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to www.kansascity.com 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: http://www.thekansascitystore.com/ProductDetail.cfm?PID=261


Feb. 15, 2005

In many cultures there are coming-of-age ceremonies.

In a Jewish religious context, the ceremony is called bar-mitzvah for boys and bat-mitzvah for girls. In a Christian church context, especially in Protestant churches, the ceremony is called confirmation. In effect, a young teen-ager (I was confirmed at age 14, as I recall) confirms for himself or herself the baptismal vows made on the child’s behalf when he or she was an infant (for those denominations that practice infant baptism).

When I was confirmed, I thought one of the coolest things had nothing to do with belief and theology. Rather, it signified that from that point on I was a full-fledged member of the church and could actually vote at congregational meetings.

Well, times change. And it’s conceivable – maybe even likely – that I was out of step with the idea of confirmation back in 1959. But a recent annual conference of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (http://www.apcenet.org/) indicated that churches are going about confirmation wrong and they are well aware of it.

Nearly everyone attending the conference said, in response to a questionnaire, that churches believe confirmation’s purpose is “becoming a full member of the church.” But when they were asked to choose from a list of possibilities for what confirmation should be, no one chose that. Most, rather, chose the idea that confirmation is “a personal and communal response to God’s grace” or that it was a “sending out of the believer as (an). . .agent of the gospel.”

What I invite you to think about today (and share with me if you wish) is what you think the purpose of coming-of-age ceremonies in any religious tradition is and what it should be. Are they a way of noting simply passage of years or should they be in some sense a bestowal of adult religious responsibility on the young person? I’m also interested in knowing what your own rite of passage ceremony, if you had one, meant to you.

(By the way, the first time I had a chance to vote yes or no on hiring a pastor after I became a voting member of my church, I abstained. No, I wasn’t a wimp. Rather, I was off in college and not an active part of the life of the church and I felt that was a decision best left to others.)

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to www.kansascity.com 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: http://www.thekansascitystore.com/ProductDetail.cfm?PID=261


Feb. 14, 2005

First, of course, let’s give thanks today for our Valentines. If you have one as full of love and grace as mine, you truly are blessed. (And, no, she didn’t make me say that.)

On Ash Wednesday last week, I spent part of my morning attending a lecture sponsored by our Kansas City area rabbinical society. It was a talk about the Apostle Paul by a Jewish scholar I’ve mentioned in my blog before, Mark Nanos (http://mywebpages.comcast.net/nanosmd/), who teaches at a Jesuit school, Rockhurst University (http://www.rockhurst.edu/). I wrote a long piece about his cutting-edge Pauline scholarship last year in The Kansas City Star.

The rabbinical society’s leader, Rabbi Alan Cohen, said that when he realized he’d scheduled this gathering at Visitation Catholic Church (http://www.diocese-kcsj.org/flashLanding.html) on Ash Wednesday, he called the church’s priest, the Rev. Norman Rotert, to see if that was a problem. Not at all, said Rotert. In fact, it might be a good thing.

Rotert, as usual, was right. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole morning, so I don’t know if what I’m about to describe was discussed after I left, but the sight in the room was quite remarkable.

Mixed in at the several tables were Jewish men wearing yarmulkes, and people wearing the sign of the cross on their foreheads from the imposition of ashes at a service earlier that morning. What made it all the more striking to me was that Nanos was, in his lecture, asking whether Paul ever really abandoned Judaism. (No, Nanos said, and offered good reasons.)

“We should make our best effort to listen to Paul on his own terms,” said Nanos.

Indeed, Paul always considered himself Jewish, though, to be sure, after his transformation from Saul to Paul, he saw himself as part of that segment of Judaism that believed the long-awaited Messiah had come and that it was Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually, of course, Judaism and what became Christianity split off decisively, but that hadn’t yet happened in Paul’s time.

I couldn’t help but think that Paul himself would have been glad about this gathering of Jews and Christians and their growing appreciation of the fact that Paul never should have been the source of Christianity’s historic and shameful anti-Judaism. Paul always valued his Jewishness, even after he became a follower of Jesus. I think Nanos is right about that.

To read my weekly column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star and my other work, go to www.kansascity.com 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: http://www.thekansascitystore.com/ProductDetail.cfm?PID=261


Feb. 12-13, 2005 weekend

It’s a sad reality of journalism that the mainstream media historically has done a lousy job covering religion.

So I was happy to learn that my alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism (http://www.journalism.missouri.edu/), is offering a new course called “Journalism, Religion and Public Life” (http://rpp.missouri.edu/journalism/religion-publiclife.html).

The class description says it’s “an interdisciplinary examination of the interplay of citizens, journalists and other professionals as they seek to understand and relate effectively to the growing salience of religion to public life at home and abroad.” It will be taught by Professor Emeritus Edmund B. Lambeth, who has an admirable history of interest in the intersection of journalism and religion.

The media began to stir from its religious lethargy with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, though to be fair, some newspapers have long offered worthy coverage of faith matters, although in modest doses. The truth is, most metropolitan dailies assign no more than one or two people to cover religion. It’s crazy and irresponsible, but people seem not to demand more, as they do, in fact, demand more sports and entertainment coverage.

Because Missouri still is the oldest, best and most respected J-school in the nation, perhaps its leadership in this field will catch on at other schools. Does your alma mater’s school of journalism or communications help future journalists prepare to understand and cover religion?

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


Feb. 11, 2005

One of the perennial concerns of religion is making sure people’s basic needs are met – food, clothing and shelter.

Hunger has been a perplexingly difficult problem to solve. One possible answer – genetically modified food – brings with it its own set of ethical challenges. Will they cause more trouble than they cure? What, in fact, are the ethical concerns that attach to the genetic manipulation of crops?

One of many places on the Web to learn about all of this is: http://scope.educ.washington.edu/gmfood/, where the Scope Research group at the University of California-Berkeley offers various resources.

Genetically modified foods will be the subject of the next forum presented by the Kansas City Religion and Science Dialogue Project (http://kcrsdp.org/), which I help a little with through my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City (www.secondpres.org), which is one of the group’s sponsors and funders.

On April 9, KCRSDP will present several speakers to talk about the science and about the religious and ethical questions raised by genetic modification of crops.

One will be C. Dean Freudenberger, who has been a student of agronomy and ethics for more than 40 years. He holds degrees from California State Polytechnic University, San Louis Obispo, Calif., and Boston University. Most recently he has taught at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, Calif. He is the author of many publications including Global Dust Bowl (1990) and Food for Tomorrow? (1984).

Another speaker will be Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, http://www.landinstitute.org/ in Salina, Kan. He has degrees from Kansas Wesleyan, the University of Kansas and North Carolina State University and founded the Land Institute in 1976 to seek an alternative to annual planting of field crops. Jackson is the author of several books including New Roots for Agriculture and Becoming Native to This Place and is widely recognized as a leader in the international movement for a more sustainable agriculture.

If you want to learn more about this complex subject, watch the KCRSDP Web site and join us April 9.

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


Feb. 10, 2005

Last November, I went to the Chicago area to speak at a Presbyterian church. It was right after the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville, Ky., had received a letter threatening arson against “Presbyterian Churches with people inside.” The letter even called it a “terrorist threat.”

I wasn’t at the large and famous Fourth Presbyterian Church on the north side of downtown Chicago that weekend, but print and broadcast reports about that church described how it was taking extra security measures in response to the threats received in Louisville. The letter seemed to be in response to action taken by the church’s national governing assembly last summer to consider selling off investments in companies that profit from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That action drew angry reaction from many Jews, though Jewish leaders immediately denounced the November letter that threatened churches.

The other day, authorities arrested a 25-year-old Queens, N.Y., man and charged him with sending the threatening letter. The Presbyterian News Service’s story about the arrest is at: http://tinyurl.com/4p7op.

There are a billion things one could say about this craziness. But let me just suggest that this is another teachable moment for our youth. People in all faith groups who oversee programs and groups for youngsters would do well to engage the kids in discussion about this matter as a way of explaining why there are so many better ways to make a legitimate point than by threatening — or carrying out — violence. Certainly every Presbyterian youth group in the country would do well to help youngsters dissect this news story.

Asking them to think about what happened is an opportunity to get them to adopt an ethic of peacemaking, a rare gift these days. And I can't think of a better day than today to suggest this. Today would have been the 35th birthday of my nephew Karleton, whom religion fanatics killed, along with thousands of other people, in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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


Feb. 9, 2005

My wife and I are part of a monthly dinner and study group from our church. Last weekend, the group had a guest — a 90-year-old Presbyterian pastor from Cuba. I won’t name him for several reasons. The dinner gave all of us a chance to put a face on a government policy — in this case, the U.S. government’s long trade embargo against Cuba.

Pope John Paul II has been a consistent critic of the embargo. A recent story about the pope calling for an end to it is at: http://tinyurl.com/5godr. And an earlier story about the pope’s criticism is at: http://tinyurl.com/5r7ew. (The embargo isn’t on everything, however. A story about Cuba signing a recent agreement to import U.S. dairy products is at: http://tinyurl.com/6lj52.)

But let’s return to the Cuban pastor some of us met. Prior to Fidel Castro taking power nearly 50 years ago, Cuban was predominantly Roman Catholic, though there was a substantial Protestant presence. Indeed, Presbyterian churches on the island — for reasons I can’t explain — were part of the U.S. Presbyterian church structure, connected through a regional Presbyterian governing body in New Jersey. It meant that Cuban pastors participated in the same church pension plan available to American Presbyterian pastors.

So the man we met the other night built up a pension over the years. But he is not allowed to receive the money directly from the U.S. because of the embargo. He has arranged for a small part of his pension to be sent to a relative in the U.S., who forwards it to him. But he said he has tens of thousands of dollars sitting in a bank account in a large eastern U.S. city that he’s unable to access because of the embargo.

So think whatever you like about the justifications for the embargo. (It was instituted to put the squeeze on Cuba’s communist regime, which historically has had a dismal record of human rights abuses.) Just know that no government policy is ever neutral in its effects on people.

As an aside, in the case of the embargo against South Africa’s evil apartheid regime some years ago, many opponents of apartheid within that country supported the embargo even though it made life more difficult for them. It was a price they were willing to pay to undo apartheid.

The situation in Cuba is different in many ways, and if you haven’t taken time to study the current U.S. policy to see if it is morally defensible today, perhaps your own faith community should spend a little time doing that.

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


Feb. 8, 2005

I’m going to be quite brief today and ask that you take a look at a piece that ran recently in the Christian Science Monitor.

It’s a publication I consider a wonderful gift to the world from the Church of Christ, Scientist, (http://tinyurl.com/6rqz8) with which I have various theological disagreements but whose members all seem to be wonderful people. Not unlike, I suppose, the Unitarian-Universalists.

At any rate, you’ll find the piece at http://tinyurl.com/4gova. It’s by Thomas J. Raleigh, a retired Army office who has some thoughts about the need for the United States to regain its moral footing.

It’s a hard time right now for the U.S. in many ways, and, as Raleigh notes, right now “America has few friends and precious little sympathy in the world.” See what you think and let me know.

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


Feb. 7, 2005

We all are aware of the many ways in which religion is at the base of various conflicts around the world. The most egregious example in recent years, of course, was the terrorism that struck the United States on Sept.; 11, 2001.

But who is doing what to help adherents of various religions get along better without resorting to hatred and violence? In truth, lots of people have been thinking about this and are looking for answers. But I was especially pleased to read recently about a new interfaith center being established in Denver. Eric Gorski of the Denver Post, an excellent reporter I’ve had a chance to meet several times, wrote that The University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology have announced creation of this center, designed to help various religions build bridges between and among them instead of walls. You can find Eric’s story at http://tinyurl.com/6958p.

Eric was right to note in the story that the center so far has failed to include “conservative voices.” People representing a broad range of religions must be included if this kind of effort is to be effective.

History, as we know, is full of stories of religious warfare. So none of us should be naïve enough to imagine that one interfaith center in Colorado will be a complete answer. But it would be wrong and irresponsible simply to give in to this without fighting back.

So let’s hope the new Denver center begins to plant some good seeds.

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


Feb. 5-6, 2005, weekend

A good friend and fellow columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has just written a lovely column I want to share with you because it says a lot about interfaith understanding and cooperation.

He’s David Lieber, who serves with me as an officer of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (www.columnists.com). David grew up in New York City, worked for a time in Philadelphia but now has made Texas his home. You can find his bio and mine at the Columnists’ Society when you click on the link to the board of directors.

So today just enjoy Dave’s words. If you want to offer him a comment, you can do so at dlieber@star-telegram.com.

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

By Dave Lieber

"I never shall forget that day while memory holds its place."

Those words were uttered by John Allen Freeman in the nineteenth century as he recalled the founding of Lonesome Dove Baptist Church on a Sunday in February 1846 in what is now Southlake (Texas). Freeman served as the first pastor.

I am a student of that church's history because I am a student of North Texas. The founding of that church was significant because it was the first non-Catholic church created in the vast lands between the Trinity River and the Pacific Ocean.

Lonesome Dove Baptist Church signaled the arrival of settlers at this place on the Western frontier. The Dove, as it is called, represented the reach of civilization westward, of a young nation spreading itself from sea to shining sea.

The Dove still meets, making it the oldest continuously operated institution in Tarrant County. Although I am not a member of the church, I am a member of Lonesome Dove Cemetery Association. I attend the annual meeting each year on the first Tuesday in September, pay my annual dues of $1, enjoy the potluck supper with my friends and listen to the reading of the minutes and discussion of old and new business.

I belong because I care. I care about our heritage because this is my adopted homeland. The founding fathers and mothers, the first church leaders, political leaders and educational leaders (Lonesome Dove provided one of the first schools, too) are buried in this cemetery by the old church.

My best guess is that I am the first Jewish member of the Baptist church's cemetery association. I believe in the Old Testament, but my friends at the church believe in the New Testament. We love each other and respect one another's beliefs. That's all that matters to me.

I bring this up because last week I attended the opening of the first synagogue in Northeast Tarrant County, a day that came 159 years after the founding of The Dove.

When the ribbon cutting happened at Congregation Beth Israel at 5:19 p.m. on Jan. 25, 2005, at 6100 Pleasant Run Road in Colleyville, I watched as my contemporaries celebrated the first synagogue in our community. Similar to Pastor Freeman, I, too, am now a founding member of a Northeast Tarrant house of worship.

I believe in my heart that Freeman and his successor, Brother William H. Day, who pastored at The Dove for more than 40 years, would have approved of this long overdue addition to the religious life of our region.

Synagogue President Lewis D. Friedland stood before us and said: "I'd like to welcome everyone to Beth Israel on this most important and historic day.'' In 1997 three families gathered to talk about creating Northeast Tarrant's first synagogue. The next year, more Jewish Texans, myself included, met for formal talks. By 1999, Beth Israel was fully chartered.

For the next few years, we met in temporary locations, including the First United Methodist Church of Colleyville. In 2000, the synagogue purchased its first Torah, the holy scroll that contains Jewish law. That Torah traveled from Europe where it was first used by a synagogue before World War II, and then on to a New York City synagogue before finally arriving in Texasin 2000. That follows the same path that led my family from Europe to New York and on to North Texas.

Watching my new synagogue open its doors last week, I listened to Friedland officiate but I heard the words of the first Baptist minister at The Dove. Seven miles away – and 159 years ago. "I never shall forget that day while memory holds its place."

For the first time, I know what he meant.