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Sept. 19, 2005

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Yesterday afternoon part of my family gathered at a church and dedicated a tree here to my daughters' maternal grandparents. (As you can see, young trees, like young people, need support on all sides.)

Roch44Their grandfather had died several years ago, and their grandmother this summer. But because each of my daughters has an infant in arms, they couldn't spring away from Kansas City for their grandmother's funeral on short notice. So we all decided to come up here now and dedicate something in memory of Richard C. and Jean A. Bloom.

When I prepared some thoughts I was asked to share for the occasion, I did some reading in the Bible and about the many ways trees figure into Scripture. I was quite taken with the prominent role trees play in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

I thought you might be interested in the remarks I offered yesterday because they speak about what I found in the Bible. Here's what I said:

It’s astonishing how many times the Bible talks of trees.

Just in the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, more than 35 different kinds of trees are named, not even counting the Tree of Life, which shows up in Genesis, or the magnificent cedars of Lebanon, which Solomon used in constructing the temple in Jerusalem.

Noah used gopher wood to build the ark, for instance. That was real wood. But there are also many kinds of metaphorical references to trees in the Bible.

We learn in Isaiah chapter 11, for instance, that a shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse. Stump here means, of course, the family of Jesse. And Christians have understood that shoot to be Jesus because Jesse was the father of David and Jesus was of David’s line.

In between Genesis and Revelation, where we find, in chapter 22, the tree of life that bears a different kind of fruit every month, we find many other references to trees, including the story of little Zacchaeus climbing a tree to get a better look at Jesus.

But, of course, for Christians, our most indelible image of trees is the one on which our savior hung, the cross.

But for our purposes today, as we dedicate this tree, I’d like us to remember a tree image from Psalm 96. That psalm begins this way: “Sing to the Lord a new song,” which is what Jeannie is doing now, in harmony with Dick. Later in the psalm, the singing grows more widespread and joyful. Listen:

“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them, Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy.”

May this tree join that happy chorus and may its song always remind us of how much Jean and Dick loved trees – and the birds that called those trees home – and of how much all of us loved Dick and Jean.

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

Today's religious holiday: Lailat al Bara'ah (Islam).


Sept. 17-18, 2005, weekend

I have mentioned here in the past that my wife and I are part of a study group rooted in her former Episcopal church.

NewellAt the moment, this group is reading Shusaku Endo's A Life of Jesus, which offers a fascinating Japanese view of Christ.

Normally, we close our gathering by doing the compline service together. Compline is a brief day-ending service of prayer and liturgy that is centuries old.

But the other night, when our study group met at our house, my wife decided that instead of using the compline service found in the Book of Common Prayer, we would use a brief evening prayer service found in a book by J. Philip Newell, Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter. (The image here includes Amazon's "search inside" logo, which you may ignore.) Phil and his wife Ali, both members of the clergy from Scotland, were chaplains the week in July that I taught a class at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico.

At any rate, I particularly liked the closing prayer Phil had written for that evening, so I share it with you here:

* * *

It is in sleeping that my body is refreshed.

It is in letting go that my soul is revived.

It is in dying that I am born anew.

Bless to me my sleeping, O God,

bless to me my letting go,

bless to me my dying,

that tonight I may enter your stillness,

that tomorrow I may awake renewed,

that in the end I may be fully alive to you.

Tonight, tomorrow and always, O God,

may I be truly alive to 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: Feast of MIthra (Zoroastrian) (Sept. 17).


Sept. 16, 2005

I hope you'll take a little time in the near future and thank your faith community's leaders, especially the people who serve as clergy.

DisciplesI took a day off last week to lead a pastoral retreat for Kansas City area clergy from the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. It was a good day and we had lots of good discussion, but I came away from the experience with renewed respect for the job these people are asked to do.

Yes, I know that some members of the clergy shouldn't be in their jobs, that the profession seems to attract wounded healers, that some are incompetent or lack the necessary skills to do their work well. But my experience is that most religious leaders are sincere people who really are dedicated to doing good ministry and that they are often prodigiously overworked and underpaid.

They also feel a sense of frustration about many things, including the realities of ministry that their seminaries failed to prepare them for. (I invite you to view my Faith section "Conversations with Clergy" series in tomorrow's Kansas City Star for a particularly remarkable example of that.)

At any rate, if your minister, rabbi, imam, lama or other type of religious leader has been helpful to you, don't forget to say that to him, her or them. And soon. They need the encouragement.

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


Sept. 15, 2005

Good news for those of us who love Ghost Ranch, a national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico, where I teach each summer.

GrbookThere's a new book out about the ranch from the University of Arizona Press. It's called simply Ghost Ranch by Lesley Poling-Kempes, who previously wrote a book about Abiquiu, the village just south of the ranch, where the artist Georgia O'Keeffe lived and painted.

Poling-Kempes tells the fascinating story of this fabulous high desert land, from the time when it was a hideout for outlaws through its ownership by Arthur and Phoebe Pack (they gave the 21,000-acre ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955) to today's use of the ranch as an educational and retreat center.

Those of us familiar with the ranch will be especially engaged by the historical photos included in the book.

Most Christian denominations maintain various retreat centers. The Presbyterian Church has three. In addition to Ghost Ranch, there's Montreat and Stony Point. If you make use of retreat centers in your denomination, I'd be interested in hearing about them.

In the meantime, the Ghost Ranch book, though officially it won't be published until a week from today, already can be ordered from Amazon.com by using the link on the name of the book above.

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


Sept. 14, 2005

Even in the midst of trauma and turmoil -- maybe especially then -- we need a little humor to keep us going. So let's take a break today with a little faith-based laughter. Regular readers know that many of these come from Beliefnet.com, but others from elsewhere. None is original with me, though they have to make me at least crack a smile before I foist them off on you.

Doglass1. A farmer purchases an old, run-down, abandoned farm with plans to turn it into a thriving enterprise.

The fields are grown over with weeds, the farmhouse is falling apart, and the fences are collapsing all around. During his first day of work, the town preacher stops by to bless the man's work, saying, "May you and God work together to make this the farm of your dreams!"

A few months later, the preacher stops by again to call on the farmer. Lo and behold, it's like a completely different place -- the farm house is completely rebuilt and in excellent condition, there are plenty of cattle and other livestock happily munching on feed in well-fenced pens, and the fields are filled with crops planted in neat rows.

"Amazing!" the preacher says. "Look what God and you have accomplished together!"

"Yes, Reverend," says the farmer, "but remember what the farm was like when God was working it alone!"

2. A minister dies and is waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him is a guy who's dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans.

Saint Peter addresses this guy, "Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?"

The guy replies, "I'm Joe Cohen, taxi-driver, of New York City."

Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says to the taxi-driver, "Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

The taxi-driver goes into Heaven with his robe and staff, and it's the minister's turn.

He stands erect and booms out, "I am Joseph Snow, pastor of Saint Mary's for the last forty-three years."

Saint Peter consults his list. He says to the minister, "Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

"Just a minute," says the minister. "That man was a taxi-driver and he gets a silken robe and golden staff. How can this be?"

"Up here, we work by results," says Saint Peter. "While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed."

3. A famous professor of surgery died and went to heaven. At the pearly gates he was asked by the gatekeeper, "Have you ever committed a sin you truly regret?"

"Yes," the professor answered. "When I was a young candidate at the Hospital of Saint Lucas, we played soccer against a team from the Community Hospital, and I scored a goal, which was off-side. But the referee did not see it, and the goal won us the match. I regret that now."

"Well," said the gatekeeper. "That is a very minor sin. You may enter."

"Thank you very much, Saint Peter," the professor answered. "You're welcome, but I am not Saint Peter," said the gatekeeper. "He is having his lunch break. I am Saint Lucas."

4. Gladys was the preacher's wife and accompanied her husband each Sunday to church. One particular Sunday when the sermon seemed to go on forever, many in the congregation fell asleep. After the service, to be sociable, she walked up to a very sleepy looking gentleman.

In an attempt to revive him from his stupor, she extended her hand in greeting, and said, "Hello, I'm Gladys Dunn."

To which the gentleman replied, "You're not the only one!"

5. An Irishman by the name of Paul McLean moves into a tiny hamlet in County Kerry, walks into the pub and promptly orders three beers.

The bartender raises his eyebrows, but serves the man three beers, which he drinks quietly at a table, alone. An hour later, the man has finished the three beers and orders three more.

This happens yet again. The next evening the man again orders and drinks three beers at a time, several times. Soon the entire town is whispering about the Man Who Orders Three Beers.

Finally, a week later, the bartender broaches the subject on behalf of the town. "I don't mean to pry, but folks around here are wondering why you always order three beers."

"'Tis odd, isn't it?" the man replies. "You see, I have two brothers, and one went to America, and the other to Australia. We promised each other that we would always order an extra two beers whenever we drank as a way of keeping up the family bond."

The bartender and the whole town was pleased with this answer, and soon the Man Who Orders Three Beers became a local celebrity and source of pride to the hamlet, even to the extent that out-of-towners would come to watch him drink.

Then, one day, the man comes in and orders only two beers. The bartender pours them with a heavy heart. This continues for the rest of the evening -- he orders only two beers. Word flies around town. Prayers are offered for the soul of one of the brothers.

The next day, the bartender says to the man, "Folks around here, me first of all, want to offer condolences to you for the death of your brother. You know -- the two beers and all..."

The man ponders this for a moment, then replies, "You'll be happy to hear that my two brothers are alive and well. It's just that I, meself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent."

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

Today's religous holidays: Elevation of the Life Giving Cross (Orthodox Christian); Holy Cross Day (Christian).


Sept. 13, 2005

I have opposed the death penalty for as long as I can remember.

DeathpenI suppose that in the beginning my opposition was simplistically based on the Ten Commandments prohibition of killing, but I realized later that the issue is considerably more complicated than that. Using one verse of the Bible to justify a complete social and political position is irresponsible exegesis, among other things.

At any rate, when I was on the editorial board of The Kansas City Star for nearly 27 years, I was assigned for a good chunk of that time to write our anti-death penalty editorials, and over the years I gathered up various arguments. At the moment, the one that seems strongest to me is that our criminal justice system sometimes convicts innocent people and sometimes executes them. Of, if they aren't exactly innocent, some of them are wrongly convicted.

So it has heartened me to watch the U.S. Supreme Court begin to shift away from its almost total support of capital punishment to a much more carefully drawn position. And it heartens me even more when important media outlets, such as The Atlantic notice this and write stories about it.

In the October issue of The Atlantic, you will find a piece called "The Executioner's Swan Song," which details this shift in the court. (It appears the piece itself is not available on the magazine's Web site, but it may be eventually.) It raises, of course, the question of whether this movement will continue if and when Judge John G. Roberts becomes chief justice. And that's something all of us will want to watch, no matter which side of this issue we're on.

People of faith can and often do disagree about the death penalty. But I think there are compelling religious reasons to oppose capital punishment, so however the court justifies its shift of opinions in this area, I'm glad to see it moving in what I consider the right direction.

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


Sept. 12, 2005

The church was filling up and the wedding party was almost ready.

Wedding_1The stringed instruments played "Arioso" for the lighting of the candles. Then a piano player and singer did "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" as the grandparents were seated. Then it was time for most of the wedding party to process to "Canon in D Major."

Finally, the little flower girl and the ring bearer were at the back of the sanctuary ready to come down the aisle. The flower girl's mother slipped into the center of the aisle up front to give her skittish little girl a welcome target at which to aim.

When the child saw her mother, she got up a head of steam and rush down the aisle, tossing but a few petals in her wake.

And I thought, that's a moment that I'll never see again.

But, in fact, I'll never see any moment again. That's what struck me as I sat in the pew next to my wife and one of our kids and her husband. Each moment is unique. Each is separate. Each is utterly unrepeatable, whether it's at a wedding or at work or at home. So each is sacred. each set aside, and that's a good definition of holy.

So maybe I should pay more attention to each moment. Maybe we all should.

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


Sept. 10-11, 2005

It's now been four years since terrorists, driven by religion at its very worst, attacked the United States, killing about 3,000 people, including my own nephew, Karleton Fyfe. (The picture here shows me playing with Karleton's son Jackson.)

WdtandjacksonWhat an astonishing period in our lives, whether we knew anyone who died that day or not.

Instead of offering you lots of thoughts here today, I'd like to observe at least a little silence in memory of Karleton and all those other precious lives lost that malevolent day. I commend to you not only my Kansas City Star column today about how Saudi Arabia is both the same and different today from four years ago but also a personal essay about what it means to live an examined life -- which is what all of us promised to live after 9/11. (If our Star system works right, both of those pieces should be available at the links I've given you.)

Perhaps this weekend you'd be kind enough to remember the families of 9/11 victims (as well as families of all the lost military personnel who were sent into the so-called war on terrorism) in your thoughts and prayers. There still are wounds to heal, still lives to get back on track. And still gaping holes in our hearts. Thanks.

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

Today's religious holiday: New Year (Coptic Christian, Sept. 11)


Sept. 9, 2005

I have mixed feelings about polls.

PollcartoonI think many of them are designed to prove some point that the outfit paying for the poll wants to make. But good polls well done are helpful.

One of the more intriguing religion-related polls lately was done for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It concluded that both major political parties have trouble with the way they approach religion. Many Americans think liberals who aren't religious hold too much sway among Democrats while an almost identical percental (about 40 percent) think religious conservatives have too strong a hold on Republicans.

You can follow the link I've given you to look at the details of the poll. And I'd be interested in hearing how you view the results.

My own reading is that political parties exploit religion by trying to appeal to what they think people of faith want to hear. Politicians who wrap themselves in the flag are distressing enough. But when they also wrap themselves in the Bible (or any religious icon), they do a disservice to the whole nation.

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


Sept. 8, 2005

WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST

A brief word about the funeral yesterday of the late chief justice. It was held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, which has some interesting history that you can read about on its Web site. President John F. Kennedy's funeral was held there in 1963, and Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there in 1979. A book, A Landmark Restored, that offers a history of the church is available on the site.

* * *

As I've mentioned a time or two in recent weeks, I'm auditing a Christian history class at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, an American Baptist denomination school in Kansas City, Kan.

Jewchris1_1I was struck the other evening by our class discussion of the many ways in which Christianity is linked historically to Judaism, even though the two religions formally separated by the time a century or so had passed after the ministry of Jesus. Christians (I am one) often simply acknowledge that Jesus was a Jew but then don't think much more about how Christianity was inevitably shaped by Judaism.

Similarly, Islam has ties to both Judaism and Christianity, and no doubt other religions have connections to previously established religions. A good knowledge of all this might well make us appreciate other faiths more.

As our teacher, Prof. Robert Johnson, pointed out, some Christian concepts would be meaningless without their Jewish roots -- even such common phrases as "kingdom of God" and "the lamb of God."

Other connections: The Eucharist has ties to Jewish sacrificial practices. The Jewish diaspora in the time of and right after Jesus helped to build Christianity under the guidance of the Apostle Paul. The two religions share many basic theological concepts and literature. The form and content of synagogue worship helped to shape Christian worship. Synagogue life in many ways served as a model for church life. And on and on until, finally, Christians came to think of themselves as the New Israel.

An appreciation of our roots is essential not only to grasp our own religion but also the faiths to which we are related. It's another good reason to study religious history.

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

Today's religious holidays: Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Christian); Feat of Nativity of the Theotokos (Orthodox Christian).