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December 2005

Nov. 30, 2005


Sweden's highest court has cleared a pastor of inciting hatred in an anti-gay sermon he delivered in 2003. The issue, in effect, was free speech versus hate speech.

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November hath 30 days, and the 30th day, it turns out, is a day of faith-based jokes for readers of this blog. The usual caveat: These aren't original with me. Many of them come from

Jcb1005bEnjoy -- the way my little friend here enjoys life.

1. Three children were talking about their religions.

"I'm a Catholic," said one, "And our symbol is the cross."

"I'm Jewish," said the second, "And our symbol is the Star of David."

The third child said, "I'm a Unitarian Universalist and our symbol is a candle in a cocktail glass!"

2. An old preacher was dying. He sent a message for his IRS agent and his lawyer, both church members, to come to his home. When they arrived, they were ushered up to his bedroom. As they entered the room, the preacher held out his hands and motioned for them to sit on each side of the bed.

The preacher grasped their hands, sighed contentedly, smiled and stared at the ceiling. For a time, no one said anything. Both the IRS agent and the attorney were touched and flattered that the old preacher would ask them to be with him during his final moment. They were also puzzled because the preacher had never given any indication that he particularly liked either one of them.

Finally, the lawyer asked, "Preacher, why did you ask the two of us to come?"

The old preacher mustered up some strength, then said weakly, "Jesus died between two thieves, and that's how I want to go, too."

3. After hearing the story of Jonah at Sunday school, a little girl repeated the story at school on Monday.

Her teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because, even though it is a very large mammal, its throat is very small.

The little girl said, "But how can that be? Jonah was swallowed by a whale." Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human. "It is physically impossible!" she said.

Undaunted, the little girl said, "Well, when I get to heaven I will ask Jonah."

To this, the teacher said, "What if Jonah went to hell?"

“Then,” the girl said, “you can ask him.”

4. Jack was in front of me coming out of church one day, and the preacher was standing at the door as he always is to shake hands.

The preacher grabbed Jack by the hand and pulled him aside. The pastor said to him, "You need to join the Army of the Lord!" Jack replied, "I'm already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor."

Pastor questioned, "How come I almost never see you except at Christmas and Easter?"

Jack whispered back, "I'm in the secret service."

5. A man placed some flowers on the grave of his dearly departed mother and started back toward his car when his attention was diverted to another man kneeling at a grave. The man seemed to be praying with profound intensity and kept repeating, "Why did you have to die? Why did you have to die? Why did you have to die? Why did you have to die?"

The first man approached him and said, "Sir, I don't wish to interfere with your private grief, but this demonstration of pain is more than I've ever seen before. For whom do you mourn so deeply? A child? A parent?"

The mourner took a moment to collect himself, then replied... "My wife's first husband."

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

Nov. 29, 2005


The Vatican has issued new restrictions on gays in the priesthood. If you want to read the whole 8-page pdf document, click here.


Federal prosecutors want to know the religious affiliation of potential jurors in a terrorism trial. Do you think that's a legitimate question?

* * *

The nomination of Samuel Alito (pictured here) to be the next member of the U.S. Supreme Court has produced tons of commentary from various interests groups.

AlitoMany of them seem to couch their position -- whether pro or con -- in nicely nuanced constitutional terms, suggesting that Alito meets all the necessary qualifications to be on the court or that his approach to interpreting the law is so radical that it should preclude him from joining the bench. Well, that's one way to approach the question.

But there's something refreshing about an interest group that will look at such a nominee and simply say we think he'll rule the way we would, so put him on the court, or we think he'll be out of sync with our thinking, so let's reject him. That's a direct, self-interested approach.

And it's exactly the approach taken recently by the Union for Reform Judaism at its national gathering in Houston recently -- a conference I was able to visit for a bit one day. (See my Nov. 25 blog entry and watch for my Dec. 3 Kansas City Star column.)

The delegates to the 68th Union for Reform Judaism General Assembly adopted a resolution opposing Alito's nomination, Why? ". . .on issues of core value to our Movement his assertively conservative approach to the law will shift the narrowly divided Supreme Court and restrict constitutional and statutory protections regarding privacy, reproductive choice, women's rights, civil rights and the separation of church and state."

In other words, "He disagrees with us on lots of things, whether he's technically qualified or not."

I find this kind of honesty refreshing, but rare. You find it more often in people who support some particular nominee, though even then they tend to place their support in the context of the nominee's qualifications as opposed to the real reason -- that the nominee agrees with them on the issues.

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

Nov. 28, 2005


Alabama license plates might sport the phrase "God Bless America."

* * *

You, like me, may have been aware that Thomas Jefferson once produced his own version of the Bible in which he cut out those parts he didn't believe. That included the virgin birth of Jesus, any of Jesus' miracles and anything that hinted at his divinity.

Jefferson_bible160I've never read The Jefferson Bible, which is the title under which Beacon Press now publishes it (though origianlly Jefferson called it The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. But I've always been intrigued by the chutzpah of anyone who would simply produce his own holy writ by taking the Bible and cutting it down with scissors.

So I was intrigued to read the cover story in the current December issue of Harper's magazine, "Jesus Without the Miracles," by Erik Reece. (You won't be able to read the piece online. You have to get a printed version.)

I want to share with you just a small piece of what Reece wrote. He said that if you boiled down Jesus' teachings, here's the list you'd have:

* Be just; justice comes from virtue, which comes from the heart.

* Treat people the way we want them to treat us.

* Always work for peaceful resolutions, even to the point of returning violence with compassion.

* Consider valuable the things that have no material value.

* Do not judge others.

* Do not bear grudges.

* Be modest and unpretentious.

* Give out of true generosity, not because we expect to be repaid.

Tell me if you think Reece got it right. What did he leave out? Or what did he include that you'd cut away, borrowing Jefferson's scissors? Or what would you edit? But, please, be modest and unpretentious about it.

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


Nov. 26-27, 2005, weekend

Pope Benedict XVI says some interesting things about science and religion in a remarks at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome.
* * *
How much do you care that the motto "In God We Trust" is printed on our money?
GodmoneyAs you may have read, Michael Newdow, an atheist who has been fighting to make sure the Pledge of Allegiance, with its phrase "under God," isn't recited in public schools, has filed a federal lawsuit claiming the motto is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
I suppose these battles are inevitable in a country that cherishes religious freedom enough to guarantee it in its founding documents. But I'm not sure whether it's worth the public anguish that certainly will result if Newdow ultimately wins either case.
If I were to be a consistent purist about church-state matters, I would agree with Newdow that both "under God" and "In God We Trust" are constitutionally in appropriate. But it's not all so clear cut to me. For one thing, I think we have too much social anger and division right now. For another, the "God" mentioned in both instances is so nebulous a concept -- referring to some sort of civil religion deity, not to the God of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, say -- that its ability to coerce anyone seems pretty limited.
At any rate, I'm interested in your arguments for or against Newdow's position. You might influence my own thinking.
See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Nov. 25, 2005

HOUSTON -- I was here for a couple of days last week doing some interviews for a possible book project. So I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Houston Holocaust Museum.

Houston3_1If you get a chance to see it, don't miss it. It has figured out a good balance between commemorating the indescribable losses in the Shoah and encouraging people to think about ways they can make a difference for good today.

The suffering in the Holocaust was so enormous as to overwhelm attempts to infuse it with meaning. But there are lessons to be learned in hindsight from the experience. One is that most of the citizens of European countries overtaken by the Nazis were simply bystanders. A small percentage of them were perpetrators and a small percentage were people who actively did what they could to hide Jews or help them survive in other ways.

The goal, obviously, is to move people's minds and hearts from being bystanders to being agents for good. The education work this museum does is aimed at that very goal, Susan Llames-Myers, the executive director, told me.

The museum here is 10 years old, and it is largely the work of William J. Morgan, head of the Morgan Group, Inc., a huge real estate developer. Bill Morgan, one of seven children born to a poor farming family in Poland, was the only Jewish person from his village (100 Jewish families, 500 other families) to survive the Holocaust. He's pictured here with a museum sign that talks about his family of origin.

The other photo here is of an intriguing 1997 work of art at the museum called "Crossroads," by Art Spiegelman. I had never seen the Swastika used in art work to depict a road, though probably that's simply my inexperience with such work.

At any rate, visit the Houston Holocaust Museum. Or, until you get there, at least visit the Web site to which I've linked you.

Houston4_1 Billmorgan1_1

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

Nov. 24, 2005

For heaven's sake. What are you doing here today?


It's Thanksgiving. Spend time with your family, your friends. Not with the computer.

I officially absolve you of any guilt for not reading me today. Partly because all I want to say today is thanks. So, "Thanks."

But come back tomorrow or you'll be on my list.

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

Nov. 23, 2005

Even though the Catholic Church has done a fair amount to respond to the horrific sexual abuse scandal caused by some priests and bishops, the matter continues -- as it should -- to occupy the hearts and minds of church leaders.

BishopskylstadIndeed, it is hard for a major church leader to give any kind of speech without mentioning it. That certainly was the case at the recent national gathering of bishops in Washington, D.C.

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, William S. Skylstad of Spokane (pictured here), devoted part of his presidential address to this subject. Here's part of what he said:

"The priesthood in this country has suffered through a very difficult time. A handful of our brother priests have caused all priests to have to endure an avalanche of negative public attention. Perhaps never so much as during the scandals of the past four years has so much attention been focused on the priesthood, not for all of its wonder, commitment, dedication and perseverance, but for the darkness and sin which overwhelmed some. It has been a personally painful time for the vast majority of priests who did nothing to deserve that pain. However, that is not the only story of the past four years. My own experience as a bishop, the experiences of other bishops who have shared them with me, and even the results of research give every indication that the Catholic people appreciate their priests. I saw one recent statistic that more than 9 in 10 Catholics agree that parish priests do a good job."

He said a lot more about the need to support priests. But when you read such a speech from the perspective of a victim of an abusive priest and the bishop who protected him, it's easy to feel that more attention is being paid to the priests than to those who were abused and still are struggling to heal themselves and obtain justice.

That may be an unfair reading of Bishop Skylstad's remarks -- and I want to affirm that, however slow the Catholic hierarchy has been in responding, it is, in fact, responding in many positive ways. But it's a perfectly understandable reading. And until bishops consistently look at reality through the eyes of the people harmed by abusive priests, they will seem not to understand the wounded.

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

Nov. 22, 2005


An interesting article in The Week magazine raises the question of whether the Catholic Church in America will ever solve its priest shortage problem. It quotes the Rev. Mark Massa of Fordham University this way: "The priesthood is in free fall. The demographics are scary."


Speaking of priests, John L. Allen Jr., Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, writes that a Brazilian magazine is reporting that two priests there who were convicted recently of sexual abuse kept lurid diaries about all of that.

* * *

One reason I love to read about the history of religious movements is that sometimes you just have to laugh.

StbonesAs regular readers of the blog know, I'm auditing a Christian history class at a Kansas City area seminary. One of the books that's required reading is Christianity: A Global History, by David Chidester.

In a section in which he describes the development of theories and doctrines having to do with the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, Chidester tells the story of one Bishop Hugh of Lincoln (who lived from 1140 to 1200). It was Hugh's position, Chidester writes, that the consecreated Host, or wafer served in Communion, "held the entire divinity of Jesus Christ."

Then Chidester tells this strange Hugh story:

"Hugh's attitude toward relics was dramtically demonstrated on a visit to the monastery of Fecamp in northern France, which had preserved an arm of Mary Magdalene. Wanting to take a piece of the arm, but finding it difficult to cut with a knife, Hugh chewed off some of the bone with his teeth.

"When the monks of Fecamp angrily objected, Hugh explained, 'If a little while ago I handled the most sacred body of the Lord of all the saints with my fingers, in spite of my unworthiness, and when I partook of it, touched it with my lips and teeth, why should I not venture to treat in the same way the bones of saints?' Accustomed to eating the body of God, therefore, Hugh of Lincoln saw no problem in chewing on the bones of saints."

Perhaps, like me, you've lost your appetite for now.

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

Nov. 21, 2005


President Bush didn't make much progress pushing the Chinese on religious rights. But if you ask me, he's at least raising the right issue.

^ ^ ^

In any faith community there are watershed moments.


We had one in my church a week ago Sunday when my youngest grandchild, Lucy (held here by her parents, my daughter and her husband, next to my wife and me), was baptized. At not quite six months of age, of course, she will have no permanent memory of the event.

But we will. And we will tell her about it as she grows and begins to make faith choices for herself.

One of the things I love about baptisms at my church is that our pastor, Edward Thompson, says these moving words to the children as he holds them before baptizing them: "It was for you, Lucy, that Jesus Christ came down into the world. For you he struggled and suffered. For you he endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary. For you he cried, 'It is finished.' For you he conquered death. All this for you, little one, and you know nothing of these things as yet. Hence is confirmed the apostle's words, 'We love God because he first loved us.' "

Whether it's a marriage or a bar mitzvah, a funeral or a confirmation, these watershed moments bind together communities of faith and give them a history they can share with those who come after them.

Don't miss those moments in your own faith community. They help shape who you are and who your congregation is.

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

Nov. 19-20, 2005, weekend


A Wiccan says the new Harry Potter movie has nothing to do with religion.

* * *

In my Kansas City Star column this weekend, I have highlighted some new books with religious themes. But because the religious book publishing industry cranks out so many titles these days, it's impossible to list all the interesting ones in one column.

Books_2So I'm going to use my blog this weekend as an extension of my column and list other books I didn't have space for in the newspaper.

* Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology, by Beveryly J. Lanzetta. An excerpt: "When women turn inward to their most authentic center, they cannot avoid the pain, despair and anguish of exploitation and domination."

* Frequently Avoided Questions: An Uncensorted Dialogue on Faith, by Chuck Smith Jr. and Matt Whitlock. An excerpt: ". . .the church has been pushed to the margin of society. What are we to make of this new geographical location? We are to make the most of it, knowing that everyone else on the margin is exactly the kind of person who has been invited to enter God's kingdom."

* Opus Dei: An Object Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, by John Allen. The author, the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, does his usual good job of detail and balance.

* Behond the House of the False Lama: Travels with Monks, Nomads and Outlaws, by George Crane. An engaging book about searching for life's meaning.

* The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris. An excerpt: "Without death, the influence of faith-based religion would be unthinkable. Clearly, the fact of death is intolerable to us, and faith is little more than the shadow cast by our hope for a better life beyond the grave."

* Everything You Always Wanted to Know about God (But Were Afraid to Ask), by Eric Metaxas. An excerpt: "Let's get one fact out of the way right off the bat. The very idea that someone would write a book with (this title). . .is patently insane."

* One Song: A New Illuminated Rumi, by Michael Green. A new look at this famous Persian mystic poet.

* From Every People and Nation: The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective, edited by David Rhoads. Some help here in understanding the difficult book of Revelation in the New Testament.

* Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and LIfe of Jesus, by Stephen J. Patterson. A professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis offers an updated look at what is central to the Christian religion.

* The Jezebel Letters: Religion and Politics in Ninth-Century Israel, by Eleanor Ferris Beach. An intriguing combination of scholarly research and fiction. And, by the way, that's the Ninth Century BCE.

* Living in God's Love, the New York Crusade, by Billy Graham. This is a collection of sermons the Graham gave at his 2005 evangelistic event in the Big Apple.

* A Love Supreme: A History of the Johannine Tradition, by Allen Dwight Callahan. A professor of New Testament at a seminary in Brazil offers insight into the community that produced the New Tesatment epistles of John and the Gospel of John.

* Nephilim: The First Human Clones, by Matthew Omaye Ajiake. Thoughts on the ethical and moral issues raised by cloning.

* Christ Present in Faith: Luther's View of Justification, by Tuomo Mannermaa. New thoughts about how to interpret the great reformer's thinking.

* Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, by Rob Bell. A kicky approach to thinking about the core of the religion.

* When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, by O.M. Bakke. A church history professor helps us understand how the ancient world thought about children.

* Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting, by Holly W. Whitcomb. Some help here with spiritual disciplines.

* Through the Fire: Spiritual Restoration for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse, by Rick Meyer. A useful resource in a time of family dysfunction and abuse scandals in the church.

* Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana, by Demetria Martinez. An excerpt: "Throughout the ages human beings have opened up the Bible and seen reasons to keep slaves, deny that Native peoples and blacks have souls, burn Jews at the stake, stone women, kill innocent civilians to advance national interests, deny women access to birth control -- the list goes on. Yet through it all, God has raised up individuals who have rescued the Word from those whose strange interpretations advance cruelty and injustice."

* Celebrating the Rest of Your LIfe: A Baby Boomer's Guide to Spirituality, by David Yount. Some thinking about how to make the most of retirement now.

* Step Up: A Vital Process for Spiritual Renewal, by Richard C. Meyer. Some fresh thinking about using and moving beyond 12-step programs.

* Worth Remembering: Irish-American Family Stories of Seven Generations, by James J. Cuddy. An Irish-Catholic writes about an immigrant family's survival.

* Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble, by Mitri Raheb. A moving account of the 2002 seige at the Church of the Nativity.

* How the Republicans Stole Christmas: The Republican Party's Declared Monopoly on Religion and What Democrats Can Do to Take it Back, by Bill Press. An opinionated look at the role of religion in politics today.

* The Voice of Our Congregation: Seeking and Celebrating God's Song for Us, by Terry W. York and C. David Bolin. Challenging thoughts on how to find your congregation's voice. York teaches music at Baylor and Bolin is a Baptist pastor in Waco.

* In LIfe and Death: The Shaping of Faith, by LeRoy H. Aden. Help from a Lutheran professor of pastoral theology in the major crises of our lives.

* What God Wants for Your LIfe, by Frederick W. Schmidt. A Episcopal priest's thoughts about finding God's will.

* Leading Lessons: Insights on Leadership from Women of the Bible, by Jeanne Porter. What we can learn from biblical women about how to lead.

* Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality, by Bradley P. Holt. A religion professor looks at the history of spiritual formation in various Christian traditions.

* LIfe Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good, by Bruce Weinstein. This Knight Ridder syndicated ethics columnist shares thoughts about why keeping foundational principles in mind leads to a happier life.

* The Complete Idiot's Guide(s) to: The Gnostic Gospels, by J. Michael Matkin; Understanding Mormonism, by Drew Williams, and Jewish History and Culture, by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. Useful primers on three subjects, despite the annoying name of this book series.

* Ordinary Joy: Finding Fresh Promise in Routine Moments, by Joe Campeau. An excerpt: "It is the shocking surprise of God's love that God chooses to need us. . . . Think of it. The Creator chooses to need the created."

* The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality of Racial Reconciliation, by Tony Campolo and Michael Battle. A white and a black professor help us confront racism.

* Learning from the Tanya, Volume II, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. This offers help in understanding a book of moral teaching important in the study of Kabbalah, a Jewish mysticism.

* Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire, by Mark Lewis Taylor. A seminary professor worries about the relation between conservative Christians and the government.

* Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson, by Dale Buss. An admiring look at a man who has risen to the top tier of evangelical leaders in the U.S.

* The Gospel According to Paul: The Creative Genius Who Brought Jesus to the World, by Robin Griffith-Jones. An Anglican writer gives us yet another look at this foundational New Testament figure.

* From Science to God, by Peter Russell. A physicist and computer scientist writes about his journey to understand spiritual realities.

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

Today's religious holiday: Christ the King (Christian) (Nov. 20).