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March 31, 2005

There is, perhaps, nothing more toxic than evil ideas that find their roots in religious -- or anti-religious -- soil.

I'm currently reading Leni Yahil's book, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, which describes, among other horrifying things, how early Hitler's anti-Semitic views were clear and in public. It's a reminder to all of us to pay attention to -- and expose in public -- hateful ideas being disseminated from whatever source. We ignore destructive ideas at our own peril.

Starofdavid Swastika

Here are a few words from a letter Hitler wrote in 1919, well over a decade before he rose to power in Germany -- words that led the swastika symbol to become a flag of malevolence, while the Star of David has stood for a strong and courageous people:

"Everything that makes the people strive for greater things, be it religion, socialism or democracy, merely serves the Jew as a means to the satisfaction of his greed and thirst for power. . .

"Racial antisemitism. . .must lead to a systematic and legal struggle against, and eradication of, what privileges the Jews enjoy over other foreigners living among us. It final objective, however, just be the total removal of all Jews from our midst."

The result, as we all know, was the Holocaust. We're all capable of evil. Which is why we must not be silent about ideas that lead to death.

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

March 30, 2005

As a newspaper columnist, I certainly get some interesting mail. Some of it is close to brilliant. Some of it qualifies as hate mail. Some of it opens my eyes in unexpected ways.

The mail I'll tell you about today falls into the latter category. It came from Edward Seibold, a prisoner at the Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala.


"I'm a convicted murderer," Seibold wrote, "former death row inmate, been 'in' under the sleep deprivation regimen about 37 1/2 years, since 1967."

Seibold, who reads my work occasionally as it's syndicated in Alabama papers, wrote me a three-page typed essay to explain why he wants "the Democratic Party to position itself to the right of the 'neo-cons' and pro-business interest on the Christian issues. . . I suspect that you yourself -- and you're good! -- do not fully grasp the immensity of this administration's corruption and ineptitude."


Well, look, not every person in prison is an unthinking dolt. Not by a long shot. Some have fascinating minds and have things to say that can challenge us.

So here are a few paragraphs of Seibold's ideas:

". . .the (2004) election turned into a plebiscite on traditional moral values. When politicians beholden to moneyed interests can ride to victory by flogging moral values, we all lose. The moneyed interests gain a pipeline to the United States Treasury, and we are badly governed. . .

"It was such a frustrating choice: Christian moral values or responsible government, one or the other, but not both. We chose moral values. The electorate wants to see a rebirth of Christian values in this country. When voter concern about moral values overrides voter knowledge about sound government, it stands to reason that we first must resolve the moral issues before we can begin the work to build a public consensus to establish good government, efficient government that wisely stewards the public wealth. . .

"It is critical to the Democratic Party's very survival that it embrace the Christian position on moral issues. Bush won Alabama 2-1, Utah 3-1. In Oklahoma and Nebraska, Kerry didn't win a single county! Attending prayer breakfasts won't be enough. Attending church in Plains with Jimmy and Rosalyn won't be enough. Attending black churches once every four years won't be enough. The Democrats need to fish or cut bait."

Well, as I say, Seibold has not been sitting around in prison with his mind in neutral. We may disagree with him, but the debate about the place of moral values in politics clearly reaches into the nation's prisons, too.

If you want to write to Seibold, send me a note and I'll give you his address.

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

March 29, 2005

In this past Saturday's Kansas City Star, I wrote a piece about conscience.


Theologians, criminologists, academics and others are pondering how it's formed and what it is, in light of a recent rash of horrific killings in the U.S.

It's never possible in such a story to include all the thoughts from people who responded to my questions about conscience. But some of the comments are too good simply to stash away in a file, never to be seen again.

So I'm going to offer you here a few more thoughts on this subject in the hope that it will stimulate you to think about what conscience is, where it comes from and whether it can be squashed to the point that it no longer operates.

* From the Rev. Jim Kenney, once an associate pastor in my church who now works in the Quaker community in the Kansas City area: "Our remarkably individualistic society in the U.S. glamorizes and socially rewards an astounding array of aberrant and rebellious behavior. It may well be the heritage of our having been a frontier society for the past several centuries."

* From the Rev. Gordon Jewett, another former associate pastor in my church who now is a retired clergyman in Cincinnati: ". . .more and more people are growing up with untrained consciences. They haven't degenerated. They've never had a chance to grow up into a mature, godly conscience. What has degenerated, I think, is the culture, which militates against character (conscience) formation in multiple areas."

* From the Rev. Roger Gustafson, a Lutheran pastor in Olathe, Kan.: "This is a broken world, and we're broken people living in it. Some of us are more radically broken than others, and the people around us suffer for it."

* From the Rev. Paul Nelson, pastor of the church in which I grew up, First Presbyterian of Woodstock, Ill.: "We Americans judge the individual, while the source of psychosis and neurosis is often a generation or more back."

* From the Rev. Donna Simon, a Lutheran pastor in Kansas City, North: "The idea of a conscience which drives decision-making is certainly part of our history. It figures prominently in Martin Luther's best known speech. He was called before the Diet of Worms, accused of heresy and asked to recant several of his writings. After considering their request, he said the following:

" 'Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason. . .I am bound by the Scriputres I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.'

"I like Luther's image of the conscience as 'captive to the Word of God.' I think of the conscience as that voice within us which works in concert with God's Word, discerning the path of truth and justice which God would have us follow in any situation."

* The Rev. Duke Robinson of Walnut Creek, Calif., retired Presbyterian clergy: "If not informed and enlightened, the conscience also can be contrary and perverse. Historians report that some German children after listening to Hitler's anti-Semitic diatribes suffered from guilty consciences, simply because they didn't hate and hurt their Jewish playmates."

How did your own conscience form, and how to you keep it in fighting shape?

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

March 28, 2005

Just a quick word today about what people of faith should be -- and sometimes actually are -- doing.

Last week I received a note from "a group of ladies" at First United Methodist Church of Huntsville, Ala. The church web site shows this lovely picture.

Firstumc_1  The women in the church had read a column of mine in the Huntsville Times. It was about how life emerges from death, and at the end of it I mentioned my late nephew, Karleton, who was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, as a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

This is what the note, signed by Marjorie Cone and others, said: "We meet once a week at our church...for fellowship, concerns, sharing tears and laughter, ending with exercise and lunch. It is our desire to reach out to you and your family in this small way. It is so little, yet as you read these names you will know people do care."

Thanks, Marjorie and Penny and Frankie and Evelyn. Thanks, Sally and Jean and Paula and Sally. Thanks, Karen and Marie and Kay and Ruth. Thanks, Annette and Barbara, Doris, Movolene and Rachel. Thanks, Katie and Wilma and Carolyn and Gene and Elizabeth and Margaret Anne.

This is what a family of faith does for others in the family.

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

March 26-27, 2005, weekend

Here's a picture (from my own back yard) of how I think of Easter sometimes: An insistently alive red bird in the midst of the winter of our discontent.

Birdhouse Happy Easter. And come back here Monday.

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

March 25, 2005

In the mid-1990s, one of my daughters spent part of a year in Ghana on a fellowship. It helped her understand a culture that was dramatically different from the one she grew up in.

There's much I cherish about that Midwestern culture, but, having lived in India for two years as a boy, I also sometimes miss the less-laid-back approach to such things as spirituality.

I was drifting around on the Web the other day, thinking about Good Friday, when I ran across this story about how some people in Ghana will be commemorating today. I'd love to be there for that event. It promises to be full of life.

From the Christians among you, I'd be interested to hear about your most moving Good Friday experience.

Calvary_1 My own strongest Good Friday memories from childhood have to do with attending a multi-church service in which seven preachers would offer comments on the "seven last words of Christ." I'm not sure I ever made it through all seven, but somehow it struck me that these adults take all of this very seriously, and maybe I should, too.

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

March 24, 2005

I'm not sure why, but so many people of faith seem to be in such a hurry to get to major religious holidays that they miss the journey to them.

Take, for instance, today on the calendar for Western Christians. It's Maundy Thursday.

Lastsupp_1 I bet that if I walked into almost any Protestant church (and maybe even most of the Catholic churches) I would not be able to find more than 15 percent of the members who know what "Maundy" even means.

Well, it comes from a Latin word for mandate, or command, and refers to John 13:34, in which Jesus commands his disciples to love one another.

Christian History & Biography has done a good piece about Maundy Thursday in its newsletter that I commend (not command) to you today.

If you are Christian and aiming at Easter, don't miss Lent. Muslims on their way to Eid shouldn't miss Ramadan. Jews should not rush from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. All people of faith should savor each of the days leading up to our major holidays because they say something important about what's coming -- something that will add richness and depth to the holiday we're so anxious to reach.

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

March 23, 2005

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Last weekend I attended the Illinois Mennonite Relief Sale here for a story about quilting that I’m working on for The Kansas City Star. The sale, like similar relief sales around the country, raises money for the Mennonite Central Committee, an international charitable organization.

At an early Saturday breakfast, I sat next to a woman wearing a prayer cap, or small head covering. It was brown lace and was pinned into her graying hair. (The photo below shows a prayer cap of a different kind.)


She and her husband are members of an Apostolic Christian Church congregation in central Illinois. The A.C. denomination is theologically related to the Mennonites and Amish. All are Anabaptist churches.

I asked her how prevalent wearing such prayer caps is in her church, and she said it’s very common outside of worship services and that in worship every single woman wears head coverings.

A Mennonite woman sitting with us (and wearing no head covering) said that her mother used to wear long hair and a head covering but that practice now is practically gone – and the change happened within just one generation.

All this got me to wondering about the religious messages we might be giving to others by the clothes or accessories we wear.

As a Presbyterian, the only time I’m ever conscience of my clothes setting me apart from the general culture is if I stop by a store after church while I’m still wearing a jacket and tie. It’s pretty clear then that I’ve just come from church, especially if I forget to remove my name tag that also carries the name of my church.

But what of Jewish men who wear yarmulkes, nuns who still wear habits (fewer and fewer do), Amish women who wear bonnets and plain dresses, Islamic women who wear the hijab, or head scarf, and Sikh men who wear turbans?

Do we make snap judgments about such people and their faith on the basis of their clothing? Or, in some way, does clothing that bears religious symbols invite us to draw such conclusions?

I’d be interested in your own experiences either wearing or observing others who wear garments that carry faith messages.

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

March 22, 2005

I love humor. If you know that I wrote a humor column for several decades, you already know that. But even now that I'm writing more serious things, I like to laugh. I think laughter is a divine gift.


So every now and then I'll interrupt this blog to bring you some semi-religious jokes. Or, anyway, jokes that find their roots in religion. They come from various sources, including, one of the best spiritual resources on the Web.

So here you go:

1. A heavy snowstorm closed the schools in one town. When the children returned to school a few days later, one grade school teacher asked her students whether they had used the time away from school constructively.

"I sure did, teacher," one little girl replied. "I just prayed for more snow."

2. An elderly woman walked into the local country church. The friendly usher
greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps. "Where
would you like to sit?" he asked politely.

"The front row please." She answered.

"You really don't want to do that," the usher said. "The pastor is
really boring."

"Do you happen to know who I am?" the woman inquired.

"No." he said.

"I'm the pastor's mother," she replied indignantly.

"Do you know who I am?" he asked.

"No." she said.

"Good," he answered.

3. A kindergarten teacher gave her class a "show and tell" assignment.
Each student was instructed to bring in an object to share with the class
that represented their religion.

The first student got up in front of the class and said, "My name is
Benjamin and I am Jewish and this is a Star of David."

The second student got up in front of the class and said, "My name is
Mary. I'm a Catholic and this is a Rosary."

The third student got in up front of the class and said, "My name is
Tommy. I am Lutheran and this is a casserole."

4. A priest, a minister and a guru sat discussing the best positions for
prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby. "Kneeling is
definitely the best way to pray," the priest said.

"No," said the minister. "I get the best results standing with my hands
outstretched to Heaven."

"You're both wrong," the guru said. "The most effective prayer position
is lying down on the floor." The repairman could contain himself no

"Hey, fellas," he interrupted. "The best prayin' I ever did was when I
was hangin' upside down from a telephone pole."

5. One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her son and tell him it
was time to get ready for church, to which he replied, "I'm not going."

"Why not?" she asked.

I'll give you two good reasons." He said. "One, they don't like me, and
two, I don't like them."

His mother replied, "I'll give YOU two good reasons why you SHOULD go
to church. One, you're 54 years old, and two, you're the pastor!"

6. A well-worn one dollar bill and a similarly distressed twenty dollar bill
arrived at a Federal Reserve Bank to be retired. As they moved along
the conveyor belt to be burned, they struck up a conversation.

The twenty dollar bill reminisced about its travels all over the country.
"I've had a pretty good life," the twenty proclaimed.

"Why I've been to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the finest restaurants in New York, performances on Broadway, and even a cruise to the Caribbean."

"Wow!" said the one dollar bill. "You've really had an exciting life!"

"So tell me," says the twenty," "where have you been throughout your

The one dollar bill replies, "Oh, I've been to the Methodist Church,
the Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church..."

The twenty dollar bill interrupts, "What's a church?"

7. The young couple invited their elderly pastor for Sunday dinner. While
they were in the kitchen preparing the meal, the minister asked their
son what they were having.

"Goat," the little boy replied.

"Goat?" replied the startled man of the cloth, "Are you sure about

"Yep," said the youngster. "I heard Dad say to Mom, 'Today is just
as good as any to have the old goat for dinner.'"

OK. Share your best religious jokes with me and eventually I may pass them along here.

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

March 21, 2005

One recent Sunday, Dr. Nancy R. Howell of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City spoke to an adult class at my church about the questions people of faith should be pondering as they think about genetically modified foods.


I could see minds lighting up as she winsomely led them through the many potential benefits (more nutritious food; enough food for the world, less environmental damage from pesticides) and the potential disadvantages (concentrated corporate ownership of the crop gene pool; long-term food safety concerns; turning agriculture in developing nations into a Western model that ultimately might make food more expensive and might undermine important cultural traditions).

If you want to learn more about this important intersection of science and religion, you’re invited to attend an event on April 9 at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo.

It’s called “Food for Thought and Thought for Food,” and is sponsored by the Kansas City Religion and Science Dialogue Project, which I help with through my church. For reservations and more details (including a modest fee for lunch), call Marsha Kirsch at the church, 816-363-1300.

We’ve lined up three excellent speakers, who will begin about 9 a.m.

The event should end by 3 p.m.

The speakers 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 in Salina, Kan. He has degrees from Kansas Wesleyan, the University of Kansas and North Carolina State University. He 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.

Also speaking will be Forrest G. Chumley, chief operating officer of Kansas State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station. Chumley, a professor of plant pathology, will offer industry and academic views about genetically modified foods. He has degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of California-Berkeley.

It should be a fascinating day that will enlighten and challenge everyone.

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