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June 30, 2005

Summer officially arrived more than a week ago, but so far -- except for a little humor aimed at Episcopalians -- I haven't done a summer joke blog.

Mileslaugh_5Well, for heaven's sake, let's fix that today. Here are some I hope you enjoy. They come from various sources, but many pass through on their way to me and you.

1. Three Jewish sons left home, went out on their own and prospered. Getting back together, they discussed the gifts that they were able to give to their elderly mother.

The first said, "I built a big house for our mother."

The second said, "I sent her a Mercedes with a driver."

The third said, "I've got you both beat. You know how Mom enjoys reading the Torah and you know she can't see very well? I sent her a large brown parrot that can recite the entire Torah. It took twenty rabbis 12 years to teach him. I had to pledge to contribute $1 million a year for twenty years but it was worth it. Mom just has to name the chapter and verse and the parrot will recite it."Soon thereafter, Mom sent out her letters of thanks. She wrote to the first son, "
Milton, the house you built is so huge. I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house."

She wrote to the second son, "Marvin, I am too old to travel. I stay home all the time, so I never use the Mercedes and the driver is SO rude."

She wrote to the third son, "Dearest Melvin, you were the only son to have the good sense to know what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious."

2. An elderly pastor was searching his closet for his collar before church one Sunday morning. In the back of the closet, he found a small box containing three eggs and 100 $1 bills.

He called his wife into the closet to ask her about the box and its contents. Embarrassed, she admitted having hidden the box there for their entire 30 years of marriage. Disappointed and hurt, the pastor asked her, "Why?"The wife replied that she hadn't wanted to hurt his feelings. He asked her how the box could have hurt his feelings. She said that every time during their marriage that he had delivered a poor sermon, she had placed an egg in the box.

The pastor felt that three poor sermons in 30 years was certainly nothing to feel bad about, so he asked her what the $100 was for.

She replied, "Each time I got a dozen eggs, I sold them to the neighbors for $1."

3. A little boy forgot his lines in a Sunday School presentation.

His mother, sitting in the front row to prompt him, gestured and formed the words silently with her lips, but it didn't help. Her son's memory was blank.

Finally she leaned forward and whispered the cue, "I am the light of the world."

The child beamed and with great feeling and a loud, clear voice said, "My mother is the light of the world."

4. A priest, a Pentecostal preacher and a rabbi all served as chaplains to the students of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. They would get together two or three times a week for coffee and to talk shop.

One day, someone made the comment that preaching to people isn't really that hard. A real challenge would be to preach to a bear. One thing led to another, and they decided to do a seven-day experiment. They would all go out into the woods, find a bear and preach to it.

Seven days later, they're all together to discuss the experience. Father O'Flannery, who has his arm in a sling, is on crutches, and has various bandages, goes first.

"Wellll," he says, in a fine Irish brouge, "Ey wint oot into th' wooods to fynd me a bearr. Oond when Ey fund him Ey began to rread to him from the Baltimorre Catechism. Welll, thet bearr wanted naught to do wi' me und begun to slap me aboot. So I quick grrabbed me holy water and, THE SAINTS BE PRAISED, he became as gentle as a lamb. The bishop is cooming oot next wik to give him fierst communion und confierrmation."

Reverend Billy
Bob spoke next. He was in a wheelchair, with an arm and both legs in casts, and an IV drip. In his best fire and brimstone oratory he proclaimed, "WELL, brothers, you KNOW that we don't sprinkle...WE DUNK! I went out and I FOUND me a bear. And then I began to read to him from God's HOOOOLY WORD! But that bear wanted nothing to do with me. I SAY NO! He wanted NOTHING to do with me. So I took HOOOLD of him and we began to rassle. We rassled down one hill, UP another and DOWN another until we come to a crick. So I quick DUNK him and BAPTIZE his hairy soul. An' jus like you sez, he wuz gentle as a lamb. We spent the rest of the week in fellowship, feasting on God's HOOOOLY word."

They both look down at the rabbi, who was lying in a hospital bed. He was in a body cast and traction with IV's and monitors running in and out of him.

The rabbi looks up and says, "Oy! You don't know what tough is until you try to circumcise one of those creatures."

5. A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau takes an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall. Every day when she looks out, she sees an old Jewish man praying vigorously. So, the journalist goes down and introduces herself to the old man.

She asks, "You come every day to the wall. How long have you done that, and what are you praying for?" The old man replies, "I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning I pray for world peace and then for the brotherhood of man. I go home, have a cup of tea, and I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth."

The journalist is amazed. "How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?" she asks.

The old man looks at her sadly. "Like I'm talking to a wall."

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

June 29, 2005

The range of religious thought available in the world is simply breathtaking.


It stretches from well-established major religions to individuals who believe they have been given special and divine insight and create their own faith.

Years ago, I used to hear regularly from a fellow in northern Missouri who insisted he was a prophet. Nowadays, I hear occasionally from a fellow in the South who believes he is the Jewish messiah.

Given the oddness of some of the stories in my own Christian faith tradition (virgin birth, resurrection, on and on), I am reluctant to describe the stories of others as, well, nuts.

I thought you might enjoy exploring or tasting religious thought today that is, well, quite out of the mainstream. The woman who writes to me about this (whose name I know but who goes only by her e-mail address on her Web site) insists that long ago Earth was colonized by people from somewhere else, people she refers to as HTAs, or High Tech Ancestors.

I am not suggesting that I agree with her about all this or that you should. But I am offering a link to her work as an intriguing example of the kind of religious thought that is, I suspect, much more common than most of us suppose.

Scholars have taken to calling out-of-the-mainstream religions "new religious movements," and lots of folks are getting PhDs these days studying and writing about them.

So take a look, and if you have any insights about or reactions to what you see there, let me know.

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

Today's religious holidays: Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul (Christian); St. Peter Day (Catholicism).

June 28, 2005

When I met my bride nearly 10 years ago, she was an active Episcopalian. And for a time we were a two-church family, Episcopal and Presbyterian.

Epishield_1That's hard to sustain, however, so eventually she joined the Presbyterian church to which I belong. But we still have lots of Episcopal friends and there are aspects of the Anglican tradition she misses and that I very much appreciate.

Which is why I really enjoyed a recent e-mail from an Episcopal friend, who passed along one of those Internet messages about how you know if you're an Episcopalian. I don't know who writes this stuff, but sometimes it's pretty much on the money. Here's what our friend sent:

You'll know you're an Episcopalian:

..if the women at your service guild are already asking, "Is it too early for wine?" at a 10:30 a.m. meeting, and the answer is, "Of course not."

..if when you watch Star Wars and they say "May the force be with you", you automatically reply "And also with you".

..if you recognize your neighbor, or rector, in the local liquor store AND go over to greet him/her.

..if you think the height of haute cuisine is a little, triangular cucumber sandwich on white bread, crusts excised, stuck together with a toothpick.

..if you know the meaning of "garth", "litchgate" and "undercroft" ...AND....can locate two out of the three.

..if you have totally memorized Rite I, Rite II and the first three episodes of The Vicar of Dibley.

..if you know the difference between a surplice and a cotta...and the appropriate use of each.

..if hearing people pray in the language of "justwanna" makes you just wanna scream.

..if you might be an Episcopalian if words like: "vouchsafe", "oblation", "supplications", "succor", "bewail", "wherefore", "dost" and "very" (in its archaic sense) are familiar to you even if you don't have a clue what they mean.

..if your choir director suggests discussing something over a beer after choir rehearsal.

..if you catch yourself genuflecting or bowing as you enter a row of seats in a theatre.

..if the word "Sewanee" puts a lump in your throat.

..if you hear the word Hooker, you don't think of a lady of the evening.

..if, when visiting a Catholic Church, you are the only Ah-men amongst a sea of Ai-mens

..if your covered dish for the potluck dinner is escargot in puff shells.

..if you can identify Charles Villiers Stanford and John Mason Neale.

..if you know "Smokey Mary's" is a church, not a bar.

..if you know that a sursum corda is not a surgical procedure.

..if you don't think Agnus Dei is a woman.

..if your picnic basket has sterling knives and forks (entree, fish, salad and cake.

..if you know that the nave is not a playing card.

..if your friend said "I'm truly sorry..." and you replied, "and you humbly repent?"

..if while watching the movie "The Madness of King George" you're able to recite with the King, when he undergoes "surgery," the Collect for Purity

..if you know that the Senior Warden and the Junior Warden are not positions in the local prison.

..if you think the most serious breach of propriety one can commit is failure to chill the salad forks.

..if when asked, "Sister, have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?" you respond "But isn't that a bit selfish?"

And finally....if you reach a point when you're not sure about anything theologically but you still feel completely at home at the altar rail and somehow know you're meeting God there, even though you can't begin to understand how.

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

June 27, 2005

A national coalition of Jewish and Christian groups called Faith & Values Media has launched a new Web site at which a wide range of video and print materials is available -- some free, more to members who register and pay a free.

Jewishchr_1It's called and is worth a look, even for those who choose not to pay money to join.

I recommend you click on the "FaithStreams Help/FAQs" and investigate what's offered to see if you or your faith community might benefit by using or purchasing material on the site.

Faith & Values Media is made up of 200,000 congregations with 120 million members. This is the kind of Jewish-Christian common-ground Web site that can help bridge the often painful gap between the two related religions.

I am always reluctant to promote or recommend sites that are commercial in nature or that require a fee. But there's enough good free stuff on this site to make it worth a look even if you never send anyone a dime.

It's the sort of site you can poke around in for a long time and find free useful information, commentary and other material.

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

June 25-26, 2005, weekend

As regular readers of this blog know, now and then I share mail I receive from readers. Today's entry -- an entry without a single link to distract you -- is sort of like that, only I think of it more as turning the space over to a guest writer, whom I won't identify, except to say he doesn't live in the Kansas City area or even the Midwest.

GospelsingBut he really knows how to turn a phrase, and I enjoy his notes a great deal, even if I don't always agree with him and even if I sometimes wish he'd be a little more cautious about his conclusions.

You will find brief mention in his note of something I wanted to explain just a bit before you read it. The writer had a son who died.

The writer was responding to my June 17 blog entry about the pastor of a Baptist church in North Carolina who hung out a sign that said "The Koran Should Be Flushed," and his later apology for doing something so crass. Here's his frank note:

Dear Bill,
It has been my experience that most people think any Baptist Church south of Washington is a Southern Baptist Church. Such, of course, is not the case. Baptist factions, like sands though the hourglass of time, are without number.
Anyway my ex-wife was a Baptist. I told her before our marriage that I would never, ever step inside a Baptist Church of any description nor would I allow any child of mine to be reared as a Baptist. Superficially she agreed. This was one of the things that she thought she was going to change about me. It was the only thing she could not get me to budge about. We could be liturgical Christians or sit at home on Sunday morning and become agnostics but I would not have any part in turning another Baptist loose upon the world. She liked the Catholic Church because, on paper at least, they were almost as strict as the Independent Baptists whom she held in such high regard but MY son was going to be a snooty, preppy Episcopalian. And so he lived and so he died and when he left this earth he went off with a funeral his mother's family talks about to this day. We Episcopalians may not be able to get our theology straight but we do baptisms, weddings and funerals better than anyone. Our humility is good too.
Anyway while living in Asheville for a year (which was the longest fifteen years of my life) I discovered among other things that I did not like living in a place where the wind blew all the time, especially in January and February. I also discovered that after my father-in-law developed prostate cancer he became a very religious person, at least until he discovered God didn't bargain. He began going to church every Sunday and attending every revival service at every independent Baptist Church around. He even started going to Gospel Singings, figuring, I suppose, that what he missed in quality he could make up for in quantity.
We went with him one night to a gospel singing, shoehorned ourselves into a pew and listened to the group do their thing. Now I am about as fond of gospel singers who travel to independent Baptist Churches and take up collections for their pay as any cradle Episcopalian you've ever met.  After three verses or so of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" I'm comparing it to the way Bill Monroe or Mother Maybell did it and Bill Monroe and Mother Maybell are winning in a walk. In other words, I'm a snob.
Well, I'm willing to suffer for the family up to a point but after 90 minutes or so I decided I'd had enough of hot bodies, flannel shirts and polyester suit coats from J.C. Penney's, not to mention the slightly flat and nasal versions of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and various other gospel songs, most of which were much, much worse than "The Circle." I got up, slid out, and went to my baby blue Lincoln Continental (yes, I actually had one and have never completely forgiven Billy Joel), and put in a tape that began with Pacabel's Canon and Fugue in D minor.  As I was sitting there looking at the stars and wondering how in the world I married into that family the Singing began to break up.
Here came my wife and my in-laws. My wife got in the front seat. My in-laws got in the back.  My mother-in-law said, "That music will start you thinking about things you have on your conscience."
I said, "Hmm."
She said, "People who have things on their conscience can't sit around and listen to music like that without it bothering them."
I said, "Hmm."
She said, "When their conscience gets to bothering them they have to confess."
I said, "Did anyone confess?"
She said, "No. Sometimes they just get up and leave.
I said, "Did anyone leave."
She said, "Just you."

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

Today's religious holiday: All Saints (Orthodox Christianity), June 26.

June 24, 2005

Again today I want to share with you a question I received from a reader and my response to it. I'd be grateful to hear your thoughts about whether I said the right thing.

Pio_1This came from a woman who sent along a Catholic pamplet about Saint Pio of Pietrelcina of Italy (pictured here), who lived from 1887 until 1968. He was ordained a priest in 1910. Pio was canonized a saint in 2002.

In 1918, he was said to have received the "Stigmata," which is to say that he reported that he regularly suffered the same wounds in his hands, feet and side as the crucified Christ.

The woman who wrote to me asked me such questions as: "Why did he receive these particular wounds if Christ didn't actually die on the cross? Is this true? Did it really happen. If so, why hadn't anyone told me or my children? . . . If you can decide this is true and it really happened, then everyone who reads your column needs to know that god does exist and is still performing miracles."

Well, this is how I responded:

Dear (blank):

Thanks for your note and the flier about St. Pio. Some 30 or more years ago, an editor sent me to a store-front church on Independence Avenue to meet with a woman whose pastor said had been given the Stigmata. He was featuring her at evening revival services, he said, and people were coming to faith as a result.

When I was in her presence, there was no evidence of the Stigmata, and the young woman professed to be mystified about why it came to her from time to time. I left the experience unsure of what, if anything, it meant.

I tell you that story to say that I am equally uncertain of the veracity or meaning of any of the many accounts of Stigmata recorded historically. Is it a real phenomenon that is, somehow, an instructive gift of God? I am unable to say yes or no. Is it a psychological event somehow brought on by a disturbed human spirit? Again, I don't know.

In the end, however, I think that Christian faith is not - and should not be - dependent on such things. As the Bible says, we walk by faith and not by sight. What matters, finally, is not whether St. Pio really lost a cup of blood a day but that Pio, like the rest of us, could bring nothing to Christ's work of salvation except the sin from which he (and we) need to be redeemed.

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

Today's religious holiday: Nativity of John the Baptist (Christian).

June 23, 2005

Last Sunday afternoon, we sat on white folding chairs lined up like church pews on a small finger of land that stuck out into a lake.

WeddingUp front, a guitarist-vocalist woman and a keyboard man filled the warm, humid afternoon air with rhythmic praise music as we all waited for the wedding to begin.

Promptly at 4, the wedding party processed to the front as the bride drove up sitting on top of the back seat of a convertible, as if she were in a parade. Down the aisle she came with her parents. And, just after a brief introduction by one of the pastors, down the breeze came the rain.

The other pastor began the vows. The rain thickened. Those of us with umbrellas raised them. Within a few minutes, the deluge. They raced through the vows and, drenched, hustled out to a waiting van.

And I'm thinking this: Thank God for imperfection, for unexpected twists and turns, for things that go somewhat wrong.

The bride and groom will remember the way people tried to cover them with umbrellas and other things. They will recall how they got to the core of the ceremony standing in the midst of nature's fury. They will never, ever forget the details of their wedding day. And neither will others, who loaned spare umbrellas to people, who offered people rides and tried to shelter one another from the storm.

What do you suppose the people at the wedding at Cana, described in the Gospel of John, remembered about that wedding feast? The great cheese? The pastries? The music? Of course not. They remembered that the host messed up and ran out of wine. And that Jesus miraculously fixed it.

Without an opportunity to help, help never happens. If we fail to ask for help when we need it, we deny people opportunities for service.

The world is imperfect. And it's in those very imperfections that we find opportunities for memories, for ministry.

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

June 22, 2005

The AIDS crisis in Africa by now is well known almost everywhere, but it continues to kill and it continues to create massive social and economic dysfunction on the continent.

Aids_africa_globeVarious religious leaders finally have awoken to the crisis and have begun responding in different ways. One of the most recent pronouncements came from Pope Benedict XVI, who met with several African bishops at the Vatican and was reported to have urged them to continue to teach abstinence.

He called that the "traditional teaching of the church" and said it "has proven to be the only fail-safe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."

My personal choice also would be abstinence. And the pope is right that it's the only fail-safe way. But I think this may well be a case of the best driving out the good. That is, by insisting on abstinence to the point that we don't teach people other ways to protect themselves, such as condom use, we ignore the sad reality that people will be engaging in sexual behavior no matter how right and righteous the church is. Obviously, official Catholic teaching disagrees with me.

The goal, it seems to me, is to protect life. That doesn't mean giving up on the position that abstinence is the most effective -- and most moral -- of choices available in the AIDS crisis (whether in Africa or anywhere else). But it does mean being pastoral, which is to say, meeting people where they are. And being pastoral requires offering them help to get from their current destructive behavior to behavior that honors God and respects humanity.

Speaking of AIDS, New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote an eminently wise piece about AIDS in Africa. My paper used it June 15. The link I've given you is to the original June 12 piece in The Times. To see it, you may be required to register (it's free) with The Times. His point is that the "AIDS crisis is about evil" and that it will take more than a medical or technical response to stop it.

Also speaking of AIDS, my colleague Alan Bavley reported the good local news that AIDS infection rates in the Kansas City area are bucking the national trend and declining. Again, the link I've given you may require free registration. And because Alan's piece appeared June 14 on our front page, downloading all of it may require a fee. Sorry, but I don't set those rules. Which is why those of you in Kansas City should be taking the paper on your doorstep as well as reading the Web.

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

June 21, 2005

Another gem about Christian heritage turns up in the current (Spring) issue of Christian History & Biography magazine.

Petra01It's a short item about a traveling exhibition called "Petra: Lost City of Stone," now (until Aug. 15) on display at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Petra, in present-day Jordan, was built several centuries before Christ and, as the magazine notes, has been a tourist attraction since it was rediscovered in 1812. In fact, it gained fame for the role of its treasury in the 1989 film, "Indiana Jones."

The college's Petra Web site, to which I've linked you above, is worth poking around in.

Anyway, the magazine says the traveling exhibit contains about 200 artifacts from the ancient city, including "a pieced-together marble pulpit from the Byzantine-era 'Blue Chapel,' which demonstrates that Christians thrived at the site even after an earthquake struck it in 363 (just a few years before the Cubs last won a World Series).

Calvin College is a handsome Christian school I once visited to cover an appearance by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (about whom no more later). Bill Fyfe, the late father-in-law of one of my sisters, was the architect for much of the campus. Small world.

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

Today's religious holiday: Litha (Wicca/Neo-Pagan).

June 20, 2005

A year or two ago, I saw a fascinating and fun play called: "Bat Boy: The Musical," written by Brian Flemming.

JesusnoIf Flemming's new Jesus-never-lived movie is anything like that play, it will be kicky, entertaining and utterly devoid of historical significance or much eternal meaning.

Is this a great country or what?

Flemming is the director of "The God Who Wasn't There," which opened Friday in a limited number of cities, not including Kansas City. The film asserts that Jesus of Nazareth was really Jesus of Nowhere, which is to say a fictional character, whom 2 billion of the world's people (including me) now follow as savior and lord.

Can 2 billion people be wrong? Flemming thinks so.

A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times has called it "an irreverent, Michael Moore-like documentary." Which, if nothing else, should give us pause.

The publicity about the movie brags that Fox News once called Flemming "a young Oliver Stone." Now, that should really give us pause.

Well, report your reaction to me if you see this film. I wonder if it will be any better than that old book from some decades back, The Passover Plot, which pretty much dismissed Jesus, too.

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