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April 2005

March 19-20, 2005, weekend

What's your image of the countries in which most Muslims in the world live?

Do you picture an oppressive Middle Eastern nation run by a royal Arab family? Well, there certainly are such countries, but a new study by the U.S. Commission on International Religion Freedom says that image is not a realistic picture of the Islamic world.


The study found that more than half of the world's Muslim population (somewhere in the 1-billion-plus range) lives in countries that are not Islamic republics nor are they countries that have declared Islam to be the state religion.

Beyond that, the study says, some countries in which Islam is the state religion provide constitutional guarantees of religious freedom "that compare favorably with international legal standards."

By the way, did you know that the most populous Islamic country in the world is not even in the Middle East? It's Indonesia.

When I speak to predominantly Christian groups I often ask if anyone knows how many Muslims there are in the world compared with the number of Christians. The answer almost always puts Muslims way ahead of Christians. Not so. There are about 2 billion Christians in the world, almost twice the number of Muslims.

My point in raising all this today is that I think that if we're going to talk about these subjects -- and, since 9-11, lots of people are talking and talking -- it helps to have a few basic facts right. Otherwise the conclusions we draw will be unreliable. And we've got enough misinformation in the world.

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

March 18, 2005

OK. Today I get to brag on myself just a little.

Each year journalists enter (or get entered in) all kinds of writing contests, from the Pulitzers to the East Podunk Press Club's Annual Picks. Which is to say that some awards mean more than others.

One I will receive on April 9 in Nashville falls into the I'm-proud-of-this-one category. It's a "Wilbur Award" for column writing from the Religion Communicators Council.

The Council conducts an annual awards program to honor the best religion journalism in America being done by the secular media. I started writing a column in the Faith section of The Kansas City Star just over a year ago, and this award is for some of the columns I've done since then.

So you can take 30 seconds to be impressed and then ask what our editors always ask: Fine, but what have you written lately that's any good?

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

March 17, 2005

Clovermsc265_1 A year ago, I wrote a piece for The Kansas City Star about Saint Patrick, trying to separate myth and legend from reality.

One of my best sources for that piece was a native of Ireland, Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. Today I'd simply like to point you to Bishop Boland's own writing about St. Patrick on the diocesan Web site.

Saint Patrick is worth remembering for lots more than giving folks an excuse to drink green beer. But, of course, like all saints, he was a fallible human being. As are we all, Irish or not. (I'm half Swedish and half German, except today, when I'm also half Irish.)

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

March 16, 2005

Well, today my blog is aimed at Christians. And for them I have a pretty simple question. When you think of "March Madness" this year, which of these images do you think of:



Scripture tells us that God turns human wisdom into foolishness. I sometimes like to substitute the word madness for foolishness, especially when Easter falls in March. In almost every religion, God is seen as surprising in some way. For Christians, there is nothing more surprising than Easter.

I love basketball. And, even at age 60, I still play it in a church gym on Sunday nights whenever I can. But as a Christian, I love Easter more, because of what it says about the surprising God.

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

March 15, 2005

Just a bit of religious time-lapse photography today.

The Baha'i National Center in Wilmette, Ill., near Chicago, is a beautiful structure.


After I visited it some years ago, I discovered that the center has a camera focused on it all the time and that you can look at the building any time you want to. Not only is the building worth seeing -- even if only via the Web -- but I find it's a quick way to see what the weather is doing near where one of my sister's lives.

Here is what the American Baha'i Web site says about the religion:

"The Baha'i faith has been an active part of religious and social life in America since the late 1800s. We are a recognized advocate for spiritual solutions based on the Teachings of Baha'u'llah on issues such as the elimination of all forms of prejudice with an emphasis on race unity, the equality of women and men, the spiritual education of children, the importance of family cohesion and the establishment of world peace. Bahá'u'lláh is God’s Messenger for this day, a day in which all humanity is spiritually mature and can visualize the reality of uniting to build the Kingdom of God on Earth."

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

March 14, 2005

One of my favorite Christian writers is the Rev. Eugene Peterson, who perhaps is best known for his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. He teaches now at Regent College in Vancouver. (If you haven't read The Message, get it. Peterson's ability to shine fresh light on familiar words is sometimes stunning.)

In the March issue of Christianity Today, managing editor Mark Galli has done an insightful interview with Peterson called "Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons." It's a must read, no matter your faith because Peterson explains as well or better than anyone else what it means to take faith seriously.

Naturally, Peterson, who has spent most of his professional life in parish ministry, speakers from a Christian perspective -- more particularly, from a Presbyterian viewpoint. But as those of us who have read him for years know, he simply oozes wisdom. It's often counter-cultural wisdom, which makes it all the more valuable, given the often-vacuous values of our culture.

A few samples from Galli's interview of Peterson:

* "It's very dangerous to use the language of the culture to interpret the gospel. Our vocabulary has to be chastened and tested by revelation, by the Scriptures. We've got a pretty good vocabulary and syntax, and we'd better start paying attention to it because the way we grab words here and there to appeal to unbelievers is not very good."

* "I don't want to suggest that those of us who are following Jesus don't have any fun. that there's no joy, no exuberance, no ecstasy. They're just not what the consumer thinks they are. When we advertise the gospel in terms of the world's values, we lie to people. We lie to them, because this is a new life. It involves following Jesus. It involves the cross. It involves death, an acceptable sacrifice. We give up our lives."

* "I think relevance is a crock. I don't think people care a whole lot about what kind of music you have or how you shape the service. They want a place where God is taken seriously, where they're taken seriously, where there is no manipulation of their emotions or their consumer needs."

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

March 12-13, 2005, weekend

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Last Sunday my wife and I were here in North Carolina visiting one of my sisters and her husband. So on Sunday morning we went to their Unitarian-Universalist church.

It was a good reminder to try periodically to experience worship in other traditions. It opens up our heads and hearts, giving us a sense of the many ways that people of good will express their own understandings of spiritual truths.

Do I have theological differences with the UUs? Of course, but so what? I don’t need to agree with all faith communities to be able to appreciate various aspects of their worship and life together.

At the service we attended, there was what I would call the UU equivalent of a baptism, a service called a “child dedication.”

The parents of little Ella Rose dedicated themselves to helping her to become whole and to learn about what must be done to achieve peace and justice in the world. The little girl’s grandparents were there, and her grandfather read a quite-moving original poem dedicated to Ella.

It was hard not to think that if everyone were as gentle and open and sincere as Ella Rose’s parents and grandparents, the world would be a calmer, more hospitable place.

I’d be interested in your own experiences of visiting other faith groups. What have you learned from them? What did you wish you could teach them? What surprised you? What frustrated you?

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

March 11, 2005

Stories-behind-the-story often intrigue me. I guess it’s part of the reason I’m a journalist.

The current issue of the excellent magazine Christian History & Biography contains such an account. It’s about how many Protestant churches ended up serving grape juice in small cups at Holy Communion instead of using a common cup full of wine.

The magazine reports that there was worry in the nineteenth century about drinking alcohol in church, as the anti-booze movement gained steam. So theologians started looking at passages in the Bible that seemed to speak well of wine and decided that some of the Greek and Hebrew words used for wine “actually referred to grape juice.”

“Motivated by these arguments,” the magazine said, “Protestant churchgoers and clergy sought a way to make unfermented grape juice. An American Methodist dentist, Thomas Bramwell Welch, and his son Charles were the first to succeed in this on a larger scale.”

Yep, that was the start of Welch’s grape juice.

Then, get this: “Methodist pastor R.W. Ryan, who owned an individual-cup-making company, led an argument for individual cups in the religious press.” No conflict of interest there, eh?

Well, nowadays, more Protestants are returning to the common cup and the single loaf of bread from which participants in the sacrament tear off a piece. So the pendulum swings back and forth, not always for purely theological reasons.

If you know of stories behind religious stories – such as why Jews stomp on glasses at weddings or why Catholic priests wear collars – I’d love to hear them.

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

March 10, 2005

A new World Future Society report on “53 Trends Now Shaping the Future” lists only one that is specifically religious. No. 9 on the list is “Militant Islam is spreading and gaining power.”

I think there are lots of other religious trends that could have been included – from the growth of “fundamentalism” in various religions to the loss of dominance in Christianity by followers of the faith in North America and Europe.

But let’s focus for a bit on what the authors of the WFS study, Marvin J. Cetron and Owen Davies, say about the rise of extremist Islam:

• The problems in Muslim lands “often have spilled over into the rest of the world. They will do so again.”

• “Virtually all (Muslim lands) have large populations of young men, often unemployed, who are frequently attracted to violent extremist movements.”

• “The United States massively fortified the Muslim extremist infrastructure by supplying it with money, arms and, above all, training during its proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.”

• “American support for Israel has also made the United States a target for Muslim extremists.”

Other points in the WFS report:

• “Saudi Arabia is likely to be taken over by a fundamentalist regime on the death of King Fahd.”

• “The overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. . .may make future fundamentalist revolutions more likely, rather than less so.”

• “The United States ultimately may face homegrown Muslim extremist movements.”

Militant Islam clearly is a problem not only for Islam but for the world. Islam itself will have to be the primary source of the solution, though others can work toward creating conditions unfavorable to the rise of extremism.

But in saying all this, we must be careful not to criticize all Muslims, nor should we declare that the problem is somehow inherent in the ancient and honorable Islamic faith. Those answers are too facile and hide more than they reveal.

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

March 9, 2005

In mid-January, I wrote a long Page 1 story for The Kansas City Star describing new recommendations on how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should handle various issues about gays and lesbians.

Now a group of 17 theologians is urging the church to reject those recommendations. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. It was clear at the time the recommendations were released that they didn’t please everyone. Indeed, they seemed to be a somewhat awkward reach for a position that at least would allow the church to keep talking about the issues.

But – like a lot of religious bodies – the 5-million-member ELCA is profoundly, and maybe hopelessly, divided. The ELCA task force that produced the report recommended that the church:

• Concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements.

• Continue to respect the pastoral guidance of a 1993 statement of the ELCA Conference of Bishops opposing the blessing of homosexual relationships but remaining open to pastors wanting to provide pastoral care for gay and lesbian Lutherans.

• Continue under current standards that expect unmarried ministers to abstain from sexual relations – defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. But respecting the conscience of those who find these standards in conflict with the mission of the church, the ELCA may choose to refrain from disciplining gay and lesbian ministers in committed relationships and from disciplining those who call or approve partnered gay or lesbian people for ministry.

But the 17 theologians – while not taking a direct stand on the central issue of homosexuality – said, “Based on our careful review of the report and its recommendations, we maintain that that third and primary recommendation of the task force, contrary to its stated intention, threatens to destabilize the unity and constitution, as well as the historical, biblical and confessional teachings and practice of this church.

“Further, this final proposal places the first two, although in principle containing some assertions that are indeed admirable and commendable, into an interpretative context that makes them objectionable as well.”

This struggle no doubt will continue for a long time in the ELCA and other bodies, including my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), until the church universal does the right thing and allows gays and lesbians to be full members of the church. I respect the position of sincere people who read scripture on this matter differently than I do, but the reality is that they are causing enormous pain to people who love God as much as they do and who want to use their spiritual gifts for the benefit of all.

By the way, the three Presbyterian advocacy groups seeking the changes I support on behalf of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons are More Light Presbyterians, That All May Freely Serve and the Shower of Stoles.


(Photo by Susan Robertson)

The stoles collected by the latter organization will be displayed in Kansas City the weekend of April 2-3 at events featuring the Heartland Men’s Chorus.

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