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July 30-31, 2005, weekend

Whether you call it the spirit of freedom or the spirit of heresy, it is alive in religious circles.

WomanpriestAlmost nothing that faith community leaders do can seems to stop people from testing the limits, breaking through boundaries or rejecting tradition. It can be both encouraging and annoying.

The latest example was the unsanctioned ordination of nine women as Catholic priests and deacons, including a Cape Cod inkeeper, Marie David, pictured here in a Boston Globe photo by Tom Herde. The ceremony took place recently on a boat in the St. Lawrence Seaway near Gananoque, Ontario, a small community I used to visit frequently when I lived in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1960s.

The Vatican, of course, has denounced such ceremonies in the past and even excommunicated people who participated in them. For Pope Benedict XVI, the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood is a closed and settled matter: Not going go happen.

But lots of matters that faith communities have considered settled have become unsettled over the years, and it looks as if there are plenty of people who will continue to push the church hard on this issue.

What I invite you to consider today is what it takes to challenge an established religious organization in this way. Courage? Foolishness? Vision? Misunderstanding? And, whatever your answer, is it a characteristic you possess?

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

July 29, 2005

In 2001, the Presbyterian Church (USA), torn by internal theological strife that focused mostly on issues of homosexuality, created what we Presbyterians often create when we're in trouble -- a committee.

SealThis one had a big and auspicious name -- the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church. Its task was to look at the disagreements within this Mainline Christian denomination and to help us through the woods to a place where we might live together faithfully, despite those issues that separate us.

Just recently, the TTF, as it's become known, issued drafts of three of its four-part report. Part IV (the recommendations) is to be posted on the TTF web site in late August, and the church's national body, the General Assembly, is to receive the report next June.

Many faith communities are in similar turmoil, so even though this report deals exclusively with my own denomination, perhaps others -- and even other religions experiencing internal dissention -- can learn from it, too.

You can read the reports for yourself by clicking on the TTF link I've given you, but I'd like to make just a couple of brief comments before you go do that. One is that this committee has done long and faithful work.The task force was quite representative of the various theological perspectives found in our denomination, and it's been fascinating to watch the reports about the work as it moved along.

But I think it's important to recognize that what such groups inevitably produce is a compromise work that includes portions or wording that no single individual would write. For example, the prologue uses some well-written and even soaring language about the Christian reliance on grace -- the pure, unmerited favor of God that Christians say saves us through faith in Jesus Christ. And it has something useful to say about how we live as authentic Christians in a pluralistic society.

But then, almost out of context, it includes two of the most difficult -- even inflammatory (to non-Christians, especially) -- verses in the New Tesatament, the one from John (14:6) that says no one comes to God except through Jesus Christ and the one from Acts (4:12) that says Jesus is the only name that will save you.

There are responsible and useful ways to unpack those verses so as to make them understandable in their context. But simply to paste them into this report without the kind of detailed exegetical -- and pastoral -- work needed to make their meaning clear for our time and place is an indication that the "conservatives" got this bone thrown to them while the "liberals" or "moderates" got some other bone thrown to them later (perhaps, in fact, words about Baptism on that same page).

I believe in finding common ground, which often means making compromises that don't abandon core principle. But in doing that in a religious context -- especially when it's done by a diverse committee trying to help everyone through a difficult thicket -- committees can be counted on to create potholes and speed bumps that delay and annoy, no matter how hard they try or how well they succeed otherwise.

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

July 28, 2005

The recent bombings in London as well as violence in Egypt and continued suicide bombings in Iraq have stirred up more angst about Islam.

IslamEven such columnists as Tom Friedman of the New York Times has been writing about the need for Islam not just to condemn violence done it is name by fanatics but to find ways to stop young Muslim men from getting seduced by the siren songs of the world's Osama bin Ladens.

I agree with him about that, though it's also true that this is a battle that is internal to Islam and that those of us outside Islam can do only a little to help.

I continue to believe that the idea of a "class of civilizations," as proposed by scholar Samuel Huntington, is too simplistic a notion and doesn't give us the tools needed to analyze what's happening accurately and propose solutions.

That's why I was glad to read recently that Pope Benedict XVI also rejects that construct.

"It's not a class of civilizations," he said in response to reporters questions, "but only a small groups of fanatics. Dialogue among the three monotheistic religions is very important."

I also thought that Saleh A. Mubarek of Tampa, an American Muslim of Syrian descent, said it well in a piece in the Tampa Tribune: "It is in the best interest for the British government as well as the large Muslim community in the United Kingdom to unite against extremism and terrorism." Mubarek also suggested the British should learn from mistakes made by the Bush administration.

As many of us have said since 9/11, we are in for a long battle against religion run amok. But we have to know that the vast majority of Muslims also want to battle terrorism done in the name of their religion. We must find ways to encourage them and to help them where it's appropriate.

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

July 27, 2005

As the U.S. Senate considers whether to give its approval to President Bush's nomination of Judge John Roberts to the Supeme Court, various religious leaders are suggesting that the complicated issues of church-state separation be considered, too.

RobertsbushAmong the more interesting responses in this area is one from Parvez Ahmed, board chairman of the Council on America-Islamic Relations, a civil liberties advocacy group.

Quoting an intriguing early July piece in the New York Times Magazine, Ahmed offers an Islamic perspective on the wall of separation between church and state. (By the way, the link I've given you to the Times piece by Noah Feldman is just the beginning of the piece. You have to pay a modest fee to buy the whole piece. Or go to the library and get the July 3, 2005, edition of the magazine.)

Ahmed correctly notes that "the next Supreme Court nominee may very well redefine the church-state relationship. The new court will determine not just the future of religious discourse in America, but will send a strong signal to the rest of the world. Are we going to continue to provide leadership on this question of separating church and state? Are we willing to recalibrate this principle that has helped religious life flourish in America?"

We have entered a new religious era in this country in which it's quite possible that by the end of this century there will be more non-Christians than Christians in America. The new diversity requires that we find ways to live with one another in harmony to avoid the kind of religious warfare that has set parts of the globe aflame. A single member of the Supreme Court can have an enormous influence for good or ill in this matter.

So the Senate should carefully think about what Judge Roberts will bring to the job.

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

July 26, 2005

So my wife and I were flying to Albuquerque recently.

SouthwestairSitting next to us was a man who appeared to be in his mid- to late-40s. Maybe a little older. Before long, he confided to us that this was his very first airplane flight.

I was a little taken aback, considering that my first flight occurred in 1956 when I was 11 years old and that I've logged a zippity-zillion miles in the air since then. So it took me a few minutes to try to imagine how it must be for him.

He asked some basic questions. His first inquiry, in fact, happened after we took off and got up about 10,000 feet.

"Will we go any higher than this?" he wanted to know.

He also asked about where to get his checked luggage when he arrived and whether he could use a camcorder while in the air (yes). In fact, when a flight attendant told him it was OK to do that, he quickly began filming the passing clouds and earth below.

I tell you all of this because it later struck me that he was experiencing what many visitors to faith communities go through. They often have little clue what is happening and they get not much help from people around them who can't imagine that they don't know the Lord's Prayer in a church or the sequence of prayers in a mosque.

The task of people of faith is to be welcoming, but we can't do that well unless we can imagine ourselves as first-time visitors and anticipate the many questions visitors will have.

There is, of course, one question I've never gotten a good answer to in any faith community I've visited: "What happens if you people lose my luggage?"

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

July 25, 2005

SANTA FE, N.M. – The monsignor at St. Francis Cathedral here begged our pardon before the Sunday noon Mass began, but he wanted to talk about toilets.

Cathedral_1 It was a reminder that even though people sometimes think of religion as focused almost entirely on the next life, on spiritual matters, on matters of delicate and nuanced theology, in fact it often has to do with the most mundane and elemental of matters.

It turns out that the Catholic archdiocese here is building a new school. But because water in this siccative land is such a precious commodity, the diocese needs evidence that it has enough water rights to let the school have sinks and toilets.

One way to get evidence of such rights is to have people let the diocese retrofit their old 5-gallon toilets so they become stingy one-gallon models. Then the owners of those potties can sign over the rights to 4 gallons of water to the diocese. Four gallons here, four gallons there and pretty soon you’ve got enough water rights to build the school.

Monsignor Jerome made this announcement with appropriate humor but with the proper sense of seriousness about the need.

Paul Brand and Philip Yancey once wrote a book about the human body called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, drawing those words from the Psalms. The call to parishioners here to retrofit their toilets perhaps was a reminder of the marvelous way the body takes care of itself.

After the service, a man asked me if I’d consider having the diocese change my potty and donate the water. Santa Fe loves tourists, but he was disappointed to find that he’d have to travel all the way to Kansas City to accomplish the task, and even then it would be to no avail. My water rights don’t transfer to New Mexico.

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

Today's religious holiday: St. James the Great Day (Christian).

July 23-24, 2005, weekend

Fourth of a series

ABIQUIU, N.M – The class has come down the path toward Box Canyon.

Gr05a3The space in which we’ve paused is a burial ground for the ashes of people who have loved Ghost Ranch over its 50 years.

The ranch has built a new adobe and stone wall, to which are attached the names of people interred here.

Using words from a book by my friend, Father W. Paul Jones (A Table in the Desert: Making Space Holy), we have asked people to spend time in this sacred space trying to see things as if they were seeing them for the last time.

That spiritual discipline helps us see things fresh and new.

The reality of life, as places like this remind us, is that we never know when we will see things – or people – for the final time.

In fact, I was reminded of the starkness of that reality when I looked at the names of those buried here. Two of them once were students in previous classes I taught here, Bob Gee and the Rev. Don Caughey.

They are no more. They have seen the ranch for the final time, though now they are part of it.

Today – or for part of today, at least – look on your world as if you are seeing it for the last time. And tell me what you see.

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

Today's religious holiday: Pioneer Day (July 24) (Mormon).

July 22, 2005

Third in a series

ABIQUIU, N.M. – We’ve been talking about experiences of desert and wilderness in the class I’m co-teaching here at Ghost Ranch.

Gr05z_1Wilderness can be healthy for us or it can be destructive. It can be sought or found unplanned. It can heal us or maim us.

Some of that is pretty much up to us.

Here’s a poem I’ve written partly out of our class discussions here. I’ve published some poetry over the years, but I don’t spend enough time at it. So when I get back to writing it, I always feel a little out of practice. I’d be interested in your reactions.

In my blood

I carry with me,

Like stigmata from ancestral wounds,

The injuries visited upon my parents,

My grandparents and their own antecedents.

My almond-shaped eyes,

Which children at boarding school

Thought Asian – perhaps Chinese –

And derided as if somehow that were sinful.

My skittish heart,

Unwilling to risk too much

Or wander too far,

Always afraid of being found foolish.

My blurred vision,

My arthritic joints,

My tendency toward

Complex books and oily skin.

If this flawed bloodline is my desert,

I will walk in it,

Seeking not revenge

But redemption.

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

July 21, 2005

Second in a series

ABIQUIU, N.M. – It was the Catholic priest in our group who said it best.


We had been talking in our class here at Ghost Ranch about Moses and his wilderness experiences. The priest gathered it all in and then said he believed Moses often felt “caught” between God and the people God had appointed him to lead through the desert and toward the Promised Land.

God wanted Moses to do X, Y and Z, while the people often had other goals in mind, and sometimes no goals at all, merely murmurings against Moses.

Perhaps Moses was the first person in history to use the phrase “herding cats.” And who could blame him?

Ministers, the priest said, often feel that same sense of being caught. He said he finds himself having to speak for the institutional church – represented by the Vatican – while simultaneously wanting to speak on behalf of the desires of his congregation members who sometimes are at odds with the church.

At times, he priest said, he sides with the people over the institutional church. And that makes the job even harder.

Parents, too, someone in our class noted, often feel caught between being the people of authority and letting children have their own way. Sometimes the children are right, just as sometimes the people in the pew are right – or at least righter than the people in Rome.

Our task is to know when we are caught and what we can do about it with integrity.

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

Today's religious holiday: Asalha Puja Day (Buddhist).

July 20, 2005

First in a series

ABIQUIU, N.M. – Everyone needs a place of retreat, a place where the heart slows and it’s possible to take the soul’s temperature.

Grflowers_2This is mine. For the eleventh straight summer I’ve come here to Ghost Ranch, a  national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico’s red rock hills, the stark and lovely land that George O’Keeffe painted with such passion and insight.

This summer I’m teaching a class with my pastor, Edward Thompson. We’re calling it “Finding New Life in the Wilderness,” and our hope is to help people see that just as there really is life in what looks like a barren landscape, so there can be life in those periods of spiritual wilderness that we all experience.

As it happens, this year I’m staying in the very same room in which I stayed the first summer I came here. I arrived here then just a few weeks after my divorce, and this room was a place where I could catch my breath, find my sea legs again and learn that there is life after the wilderness of marital distress through which I had traveled as a reluctant pilgrim.

Now I’m in this room with the woman who has been my wife for more than 8 years, and though I remember the space with fondness for what it meant to me then, I also look forward to a week of slower pace and time to spend with someone I love now.

So I am proof that it’s possible to find new life in the wilderness. And this very room is evidence not only of where I once was in the wilderness but also the lovely new place to which I’ve come.

Tell me your story of how you survived wilderness – or maybe how you hope to survive the wilderness in which you now find yourself.

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