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May 31, 2005

Only faith communities offer worship.

WorshipSecular institutions can give you fellowship, charitable work and many other things normally associated with churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses or worship. But worship is unique.

It's also sometimes done badly -- or at least without much imagination. Newly announced grants from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship are designed to change that in some Christian churches.

Because I'm a Presbyterian, I was pleased to see that the list of recipients contained nine Presbyterian congregations, including one in the Kansas City area, Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kansas. Grandview Park, a lively and diverse congregation, is to use its grant to "develop a deeper understanding of the theology and practice of worship, educate and train worship leaders from the church's diverse membership and explore ways in which art can enhance the multicultural worship experience in an urban setting."

Profound worship experiences are too rare, if you ask me, especially in mainline Protestant churches. There is much we can learn from other traditions. So I'm glad to see someone putting some resources into improving things.

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

Today's religious holiday: Feast of the Visitation (Catholic).

May 30, 2005

On this Memorial Day, I want to point you to a fascinating story by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, called "The Man Who Disappeared."

MccandIt tells the story of a great former New York Times writer, McCandlish Phillips and the somewhat odd story of his attraction to a conservative variety of Christianity.

In late 1973, after 21 years at The Times, Phillips left to pursue his religious callings. Read Auletta's story and see if you can catch some parallels of your own faith journey. Whether you do or don't, I think the story will fascinate you.

Happy Memorial Day.

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

May 28-29, 2005, weekend

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a page 1 piece for The Kansas City Star about the fight over President Bush's judicial nominees.

SupctAs I often do when I write new-analyses, I cast my reportorial net out to see what kind of comments I can turn up from scholars and other experts.

One of the people I asked to provide some insight on the judicial nominees stories was Robert A. Destro, professor of law and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

Unfortunately, he was busy and didn't get back to me until after the piece had run. Too bad. He had some intriguing things to say, and they would have been a good addition to my story.

Here, in fact, are a few of the things he said:

". . .the federal courts have (at least since 1936) become the primary engine for groups identified as 'progressive' or 'liberal' to get their views enacted into policy without the need to confront the democratic process. . .

"What most people miss, however, is that many of the problems the progressives of the 1930s were seeking to fix (including racial segregation) were caused by the judiciary's unwillingness to enforce the law 'as written.' Had the Supreme Court enforced the law, rather than creating exceptions based on its reading of contemporary public opinion, we would not have had profoundly reactionary decisions like Lochner v. New York, Plessy v. Ferguson, Bradwell v. Illinois, or Brown v. Board of Education (II) (giving segregationists a free pass for nearly 20 years of 'all deliberate speed').

"In sum, I think most of the discussion of the filibuster misses the main point: the role of the courts in our political system. FDR went to his grave believing that the federal courts were out of control, and virtually all constitutional scholars believe the at it brought the 'Court packing' plan on itself. The late Justice Robert Jackson described the plan as an 'exemplary and disciplinary' political attack, but today's scholars are commentators seem to forget that it was not about the New Deal. It was about the power of judges to shape the law to conform to elite opinon, rather than stated will of the legislature.

"That's an important debate. Too bad it's not being waged in those terms."

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

Today's religious holiday: Ascension of Baha'u'llah (Baha'i), May 29.

May 27, 2005

I preached in a small church in a small Oklahoma town last Sunday, and it brought back lots of memories of small-town, small-church life.

Firstumc_2The church I attend now in Kansas CIty has nearly 1,000 members, compared with barely 300 in the church of my boyhood in Woodstock, Ill.

I like being in a larger church for many reasons, but life in a smaller congregation has lots to recommend it.

The sense of family is -- or at least can be -- both intense and wonderful in a small faith community. People greet each other by first name and ask about details of each other's lives in a way that demonstrates their closeness.

And in small congregations, nobody stands out as better or more famous than anyone else.

Some years ago, Kit Bond, former Missouri governor and now U.S. Senator, attended my Kansas City church. He tried to blend in, but it was hard for him not to attract attention. People would whisper about his presence and sneak glances back to where he sat.

But on Sunday, Oklahoma's elder statesman, Henry Bellmon, a former governor and former U.S. senator, attended church where I preached and attracted only the regular greeting -- "Hi, Henry." He was simply one of them.

Faith communities of all sizes have advantages and disadvantages. The important thing is whether they are places where people gather as community in worship, grow in their faith and then go out to serve.

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

May 26, 2005

Time for another humor break.

Mileslaugh_4Laughter, after all, is a divine gift, which reminds me of Frederick Buechner's book, The Son of Laughter. Great read about Jacob of the Bible. Almost everything Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) writes is great.

Anyway, here are some faith-based jokes, mostly collected from Enjoy.

1. After a long illness, a woman died and arrived at the Gates of Heaven.

While she was waiting for Saint Peter to greet her, she peeked through the gates. She saw a beautiful banquet table. Sitting all around were her parents and all the other people she had loved and who had died before her.

They saw her and began calling greetings to her. “Hello!” “How are you? We've been waiting for you!” “Good to see you!”

When Saint Peter came by, the woman said to him, “This is such a wonderful place! How do I get in?”

“You have to spell a word,” Saint Peter told her.

“Which word?” the woman asked. “Love.”

The woman correctly spelled love, and Saint Peter welcomed her into heaven.

About six months later, Saint Peter came to the woman and asked her to watch the Gates of Heaven for him that day.

While the woman was guarding the Gates of Heaven, her husband arrived.

“I'm surprised to see you,” the woman said. “How have you been?”

“Oh, I've been doing pretty well since you died,” her husband told her. “I married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were ill. And then I won the lottery. I sold the little house you and I lived in and bought a big mansion. And my wife and I traveled all around the world. We were on vacation and I went water skiing today. I fell, the ski hit my head, and here I am. How do I get in?”

“You have to spell a word,” the woman told him.

“Which word?” her husband asked.


2. Two Hindu swamis were in conversation.

One said to the other, “How did you like my latest book, 'The Art of Levitation'?”

His companion replied, “It kept me up all night.”

3. There were two evil brothers. They were rich and used their money to keep their ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church and looked to be perfect Christians.

Then, their pastor retired and a new one was hired. Not only could he see right through the brothers' deception, but he also spoke well and true, and the church started to swell in numbers.

A fundraising campaign was started to build a new assembly.

All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building.

“I have only one condition,” he said. “At his funeral, you must say my brother was a saint.”

The pastor gave his word and deposited the check.

The next day at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” he said. “He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on in this vein for a small time, he concluded with, “But, compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

4. A Hindu devotee asked God, represented by the multi-armed Lord Narayana, this question. “My dear Lord,” he said. “I understand that you have innumerable inconceivable potencies. But out of all of them the energy of light seems to be the most amazing. Light pervades the spiritual world, it illuminates the material universes, and life is impossible without it.” He continued, “I would like to know how you make it work.”

“Oh, that's easy,” was the reply. “Many hands make light work.”

5. A man suffered a serious heart attack and had bypass surgery. He awakened to find himself in the care of nuns at a Catholic hospital.

As he was recovering, a nun asked how he was going to pay the bill. He replied, in a raspy voice, “No health insurance.”

The nun asked if he had money in the bank. He replied, “No money in the bank.”

The nun asked, “Do you have a relative who could help you?”

He said, “Just a spinster sister, who is a nun.”

The nun, slightly perturbed, said, “Nuns are not spinsters! Nuns are married to God.”

The patient replied, “Then send the bill to my brother-in-law.”

6. The minister was preoccupied with thoughts of how he was going to ask the congregation to come up with more money than they were expecting for repairs to the church building.

Therefore, he was annoyed to find that the regular organist was sick and a substitute had been brought in at the last minute. The substitute wanted to know what to play.

“Here's a copy of the service,” he said impatiently. “But, you'll have to
think of something to play after I make the announcement about the

During the service, the minister paused and said, “Brothers and Sisters, we are in great difficulty; the roof repairs cost twice as much as we expected and we need $4,000 more. Any of you who can pledge $100 or more, please stand up.”

At that moment, the substitute organist played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

And that is how the substitute became the regular organist!

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

Today's religious holiday: Corpus Christi (Catholic).

May 25, 2005

Here's an intriguing deal: Right in the heart of Manhattan -- not Kansas, but New York City -- there's a new Museum of Biblical Art.

BibartThe New York Times report on this institution says that over the next few years, it will become independent of the American Bible Society, which still has the only Web site for the museum I can find. Though a Google search on the museum's name turns up an institution in Dallas.

At any rate, the Manhattan museum is at 61st and Broadway on the Upper West Side and is dedicated not to doing Christian or Jewish ministry but, rather, to being, as The Times reported earlier this month, "the nation's first scholarly museum devoted to art and the Bible."

I love New York but don't get there enough. Next time in, however, I plan to make this place a stop. Put it on your list, too, and tell me about it if you get there.

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

May 24, 2005

One of the national stories about religion that didn't get much play recently was about a new study showing an increase in anti-Muslim hate crime.

HatecrimeMy newspaper, The Kansas City Star, gave it just a couple of paragraphs on Page 2, but it was, nonetheless, a study worth paying attention to.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations released the study, which showed that anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States increased from 93 in 2003 to 141 in 2004, a jump of more than 50 percent. The report described a total of 1,522 incidents of anti-Muslim violence, discrimination and harrassment last year. That's a 49 percent hike over the previous year.

No doubt people of good faith and good will can argue about what constitutes a hate crime and whether all of the incidents are being reported. But it seems to me that our goal should be that not a single person living in the United States should be the target of hate, discrimination or harrassment because of his or her religion. Religious freedom, after all, is one of our most cherished values.

The incidents detailed in this report are reason enough for serious interfaith dialogue to be happening across the country, as the religious landscape of America continues to change significantly.

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

Today's religious holiday: Buddha Day, Visakha Puja (Buddhist).

May 23, 2005

The sometimes-profound differences between and among Protestant denominations are bridged only slowly. But, with persistence and good will, they can be bridged -- at least a little.

The latest example is an interim agreement for sharing the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the United Methodist Church.

Umccross_1 Elcadotorg_1

The United Methodist Council of Bishops approved the agreement May 5. The 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly must approve it later this summer.

It would allow ELCA and UMC churces to share worship, especially Communion, to study together and do mission work together. It's just an interim step toward full communion, in which both denominations would recognize the authenticity of each other's ministries and agree that their ministries are reconciled.

The hope is for that to happen in 2008.

There are some good reasons for denominational differences, including style of worship. So I am not against denominationalism, except where the differences unnecessarily split the church and where the differences result in useless hostility among denominations.

But all Christian churches should be working toward mutually beneficial relationships and even toward being under the same structural umbrella. Jesus prayed that all his followers would "be one." The divisions fly in the face of his prayer. The kinds of agreements are useful steps toward the unity he wanted.

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

Today's religious holiday: Declaration of the Bab (Baha'i).

May 21-22, 2005, weekend

Before I get to today's topic, I wanted you to know of a great joy in my family -- the birth of another grandchild.

My younger daughter Kate and her husband Steve brought forth Lucy on Thursday evening. Lucy now joins Olivia, Jacob and Cole as the four grandchildren of Marcia and me. And, as you can see from this picture, she's a beauty. Thank goodness she doesn't look much like me.

OK, now on to what I had planned to write about today.

LucymeAs many of you know, one of my on-going concerns is interfaith dialogue. A specific concern under that umbrella is the strained relationship Presbyterians and Jews have been experiencing lately.

Jewchris1Today I want to point you to a helpful new document that tries to approach Jewish-Protestant relations in a realistic way.

The link I've given you will take you to a University of Chicago site with a description of the work that led to this document. From there, you'll be able to link to a pdf version of the document itself. Or this last link will take you directly to the document, without the background.

The document, called "What We've Learned from Each Other," is the result of more than three years of conversations between Jewish and Protestant leaders who met at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Once you've had a chance to read and digest it, I'd be happy to hear what you learn from it.

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

May 20, 2005

From time to time over the years, I have listened to or watched religious broadcast programming.

CbnI confess I am not much attracted to most of it, but I think it's a good way to keep current on the thinking of Christians who would describe themselves as theologically conservative (a label that fits me in only a limited way).

Among the radio offerings I've heard are various newscasts. I have noticed that they seem to begin with a pretty straightforward account of the top stories of the day. Then, in what broadcaster Paul Harvey might call "Page 2," they move into stories with more direct ties to faith.

A publication I've read regularly for years, The Columbia Journalism Review, has devoted its May-June issue's cover story to bringing journalists up to speed on what it calls "the rise of faith-based news."

NrbIt's quite a thorough look at such broadcast companies as CBN and such organizations as the National Religious Broadcasters, and is well worth a read. Reporter Mariah Blake, for instance, says that "Conservative evangelicals control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation's more than 2,000 religious radio stations."

This collection of news outlets was, for instance, instrumental in keeping the recent Terry Schiavo case in front of conservative Christians, many of whom very much wanted her husband not to be able to withdraw her feeding tube.

People's worldviews are shaped by many forces, but among them are the news outlets to which they pay attention. The CJR piece helps explain how religious programming contributes to that process.

I'd be interested in knowing how many of you listen or watch faith-based news programming.

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