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February 2006

Jan. 31, 2006


Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has died. In some ways, she was a model of how to be the spouse of an activist minister.

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Captive freelance journalist Jill Carroll is seen on a new video. For the regular update site about her at the Christian Science Monitor, click here.

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Here's an opinion that says President Bush isn't "playing the God card" as much as he used to. Is that how you read things?

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I'm going to be quite brief today because I want you to have time to read as much as you can of a transcript of a fascinating conference on science and religion held last month.

EvolutionAs regular readers of this blog know, I've had a long-term interest in the dialogue that science and religion should be having. This conference that produced the transcript to which I'm linking you today was held in Florida and sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

A University of Georgia historian and lawyer, Edward J. Larson, spoke about the evolution of the evolution debates. Later, prominent journalists questioned him.

So just give yourself a bit of time over the next day or two to give a read to this. I think you'll find it enlightening and helpful. And the more we can do to produce useful discussion about and between science and religion, the better.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Hijra (New Year), Islam.

Jan. 30, 2006


Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is working to convince voters that his Mormon religion would not and should not be any obstacle to him running for president in 2008. What's your view?

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Only because it's Monday. That's why I've decided today to lighten things up with another collection of alleged religious humor.

Natalie_1If you don't like this collection (many of which come from, send me better jokes, especially ones that deal with religions besides Christianity. As for the jokes here today, see if you can manage more than the smirky grin I got from my young friend here.

1. Pat was driving down the street and was in a sweat because he had an important meeting and could not find a parking space.

Looking up to heaven he said, "Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking place I'll give up drinking and go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life."

Just then, miraculously, a parking place opened up for him.

Pat looked up again and said, "Never mind. I found one."

2. Two Hindu swamis were talking.

One said, "How did you like my latest book, The Art of Levitation?"

His friend replied, "It kept me up all night."

3. A drunken man staggered into a Catholic church and sat down in a confession box, but said nothing.

The bewildered priest coughed to attract his attention, but still the man said nothing. The priest then knocked on the wall three times in a final attempt to get the man to speak.

Finally the drunk replied, "No use knockin' mate, there's no paper in this one either."

4. A Hindu adherent asked God, represented by the mutl-armed Lord Naravana, this: "My dear lord, I understand you have many 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. I would like to know how you make it work."

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

5. O'Toole worked in the lumber yard for 20 years and all that time he'd been stealing the wood and selling it. At last his conscience began to bother him and he went to confession to repent.

"Father," he said, "it's 15 years since my last confession and I've been stealing wood from the lumber yard all those years."

"I understand, my son," said the priest. "Can you make a Novena?"

O'Toole replied, "Father, if you have the plans, I've got the lumber."

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 28-29, 2006 weekend


Pope Benedict XVI wants marriage annulments speeded up. I'd be interested in hearing from Catholics who got annulments about the church's process. Is it fair? Right? Necessary? All (or none) of the above?

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The Vatican is reported to be thinking about asking Muslims to join in the Jewish-Catholic conversations it has been part of. In principle, this is a good idea. But the details matter.

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As regular readers of this blog may recall, I'm auditing a Christian history class as Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan. In fact, the second semester of this two-semester course started this past Tuesday.

DesotoOne of the books we are using is Christianity: A Global History by David Chidester. Every once in awhile I run across information in the book that makes me feel deeply ignorant. I had that experience the other evening while reading about the Spanish conquest of Latin America, especially Mexico.

Starting with Columbus, the Spanish explorers came to preach Christianity and convert anyone they could. That much I knew. What I didn't know in detail was what Chidester describes this way:

"While the indigenous people were subjected to military conquest, dispossession of land, forced labor and large-scale reduction in population through imported European diseases, a demographic disaster that reduced the native population of Mexico, for example, from 25 million to 1 million within a century, they were also drawn into the systematic project of Christianization."

From 25 million down to 1 million? Could that be right?

Indeed, I located that very figure on a Minnesota State University Web site describing the Spanish conquest. Here's part of what you'll find there: "Relegated to practical slave labor within sugar cane plantations and mining caves, the native population of Peru declined from 1.3 million in 1570, to 600,000 in 1620. In Meso-America (Tammeus note: essentially from today's central Mexico to Costa Rica) the circumstances were no different. The population of Indians went from 25.3 million in 1519, to a scant 1 million in 1605."

Today one frequently hears criticism of Islam for the aggressive techniques it used to expand in its early days, and some of those criticisms are valid. But such strategies as forced (or essentially so) conversions were not unique to Islam. I'm not suggesting that the loss of 24 million residents of Mexico in the 16th century can be attributed entirely to Christianity. But the processes of colonization, conversion and conquest all played a role. No one's hands are very clean.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Today's religious holiday: Chinese New Year (Jan. 29, Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist)

(PS: Looking for a good religious holiday calendar? For the one on, click here.)

Jan. 27, 2006


Actor Anthony Hopkins has written a screenplay in which he suggests that God is time. Does that mean that if the devil is in the details, God is in the minute details?

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A year-plus ago, I wrote a piece for the Faith section of The Kansas City Star describing the work that Warren Carter (pictured here) and other theologians and scholars are doing on the subject of empire.

Carter_1Last Sunday, Warren spoke at my church about all of this (and will again this coming Sunday), and it reminded me again of how relevant the subject is to the lives of Americans today.

Warren, a professor of New Testament at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, is a noted expert on the book of Matthew. He has taken that interest and sought to understand how people at the time of Jesus lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire, which was at its peak of power and geography in those days.

But then he has challenged American Christians to understand what all that can mean for us today.

"We follow one who was not welcomed by empire," he said last Sunday. "The question is what it means to be a follower of someone crucified by an empire while we live in the center of the most powerful empire ever."

One of this conclusions: "Living in times of empire is very difficult."

When Jesus began his ministry, Warren said, he challenged the empire that kept the peace but also kept 97 percent of the people poor and uneducated. What Jesus said, in effect, by declaring that the kingdom of God was at hand was that life "doesn't have to be this way," and to leaders of an empire, that is the most scary thing anyone can tell oppressed people.

If you missed the piece I wrote about Warren Carter and other scholars focusing on questions about empire, e-mail me at and I'll send you a copy.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, my column tomorrow will celebrate one of my heroes, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr hanged by the Nazis. The 100th anniversary of his birth will be Feb. 4.)

Jan. 26, 2006


It's no surprise, but German Catholics liked Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical. Still, reporters have to ask.

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In the newspaper business, sometimes things arrive too late to make it into the paper. That's what happened with what I'm going to share with you today.

HyattFor my column last Saturday, I wrote about the crucial work that clergy do in times of disaster. One of the people I tried to reach was the Rev. James Flanagan, a Catholic priest who was living in Kansas City in 1981 when the skywalks of the Hyatt Hotel collapsed, killing more than 100 people (the hotel lobby is pictured here). He has since become the founder of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, and spends much time in Rome.

So by the time I made contact with him and he replied to my e-mail asking him about his experiences in that disaster and the role of the clergy generally, it was too late to make it into the column. But I liked his reply so much that I wanted to share it with you. Here is most of it:

I will give you a run down on what happened within myself before the Hyatt disaster.

A few days before, within me there came an overwhelming realization of death. I asked God if I were to die and He said, "No." And, I asked him if anyone in Our Lady's Society for whom we were responsible for were to die, and He said, "No." I asked Him what he was teaching me, but He did not give me an answer.

Very shortly, about a day after, I received a call that there was a disaster at the Hyatt Regency since the walkways had fallen down upon the people, so I went immediately. I began immediately the work of caring for the people in both the sacramental way of anointing each and everybody who was taken from the ruins and also communicating with those who were trapped in the ruins. I asked God to give me something that would help me to care for His family and He indicated, "Whether they live or whether they die, they belong to me." In the strength of those words I was able to remain faithful to God until the afternoon of the next day.

There were many wonderful incidents of God's providence and care as well as the suffering and death of His Paschal Mystery in the lives of His people. I'm sure that God's people received His inspirations and His blessings during this whole disaster. And, you calling it a "theology of presence," is the truth that God does come to His people in these times, and as well brings His priests to serve as a witness to God's presence. The work of the priest in times of terrible disasters is always to witness in every way possible the fullness of the love that God has for His sons and daughters, and it brings great consolation and compassion to those who suffer. We come to a deep trust and confidence in God that He is fulfilling His divine plan for each and all of those who are suffering and dying at this time. I find that this is always present in wondrous manifestations of God.

I remember a mother and her daughter that were under the tons of cement and steel and we opened an opening for her to come out, but she wouldn't come out. She said, "Take my daughter out first, take her out first," and she actually wanted to care for her daughter. She didn't care about herself. We had to literally take her out because we could not get to the daughter until she was freed. Then the daughter was fine and was taken out.

It is wonderful at times such as this to see the beautiful gifts of Jesus that He gives to His people. The first gift is the gift of general absolution from all sin, which priests give in Jesus gift in the sacrament of penance to care for their spiritual needs.

Then there is the gift of the anointing of the sick that the priest gives because we do not know when the soul leaves the body so we give this gift conditionally if the person is still alive.

Then we give the gift of apostolic blessing that takes away any kind of effects of sin of anyone, and this enables them to go directly to God in heaven. And, then we ask Our Lady, herself to present them to God so that in God's willingness to grant all the requests of Our Lady, His judgment of them is always favorable.

I also found that in the lifting of the various ruins that we had to be very careful, and the Holy Spirit inspired us and at one point, I said to the men, "Here there is a whole area that has not been uncovered so we uncovered it, and there were about 14 people in there that we uncovered and many of their lives were saved, but some were seriously injured. Unfortunately many times, there are those who try to use these disasters for their own purposes and we pray for them asking God's forgiveness and pardon. We are also aware of many who were spared who offered great gratitude to God for being able to continue their lives, marriages and be with their families.

I hope this helps you to see how close God is to His people, especially in times of great need. And, I want to express my own gratitude for you asking these very real questions of God at work among His people, and may God bless your own work to bring this good news to His people.

In the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,

Rev. Fr. James H. Flanagan, S.O.L.T. Founder

p.s. We continue to pray for those who were injured and to pray for the families of those who God took to Himself.

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To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 25, 2006


Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical has been issued today. It's called "Deus Caritas Est," or "God Is Love." There are, of course, many kinds of love about which theologians speak (using Greek words) -- agape, eros, storge and philia, among them. It will be worth noting, once we have a chance to give it a careful reading, how the pope draws distinctions among them. It usually takes the church and its observers some time to digest such writings. So watch over the next weeks and months what people start to say about how this encyclical reflects this man and his papacy. For some encyclical excerpts, click here. For the entire document from the Vatican Web site, click here.

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Do you know what an items column is? It's one in which the columnist doesn't have a single theme but, rather, heaves several matters at readers.

Today's blog entry will be a sort of items column.


MusicThis year's Institute on Theology and the Arts, sponsored by "Imago Dei: Friends of Christianity and the Arts" and St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, will be held Feb. 24 and 25 at the seminary. Imago Dei is a vibrant regional group that tries to encourage more use of music, drama and other arts in worship and other ministries.

If you're a member of a Christian congregation in the Kansas City area, I'm betting you'll learn a lot at this gathering.

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I'm always astonished when I think about the variety of languages. One language about which, until recently, I've known almost nothing, is Gullah, a creole language that slaves from Africa created partly from their original languages and partly from English. The Gullah culture still is alive today in, for instance, parts of South Carolina.

AbslogoAnyway, the American Bible Society has just completed a long project to translate the New Testament into Gullah. It's called, in Gullah, De Nyew Testament. I wouldn't be expecting this new volume to rise to the top sellers on, but the Bible Society says that's not the point. The point is to provide scripture in languages of people who don't have it available.

I liked a quote in the announcement about the Gullah Bible to which I've linked you above. It comes from a Gullah member of the translation team: "That's the first time I heard God talk the way I talk."

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If you live in the greater Kansas City area, you might be interested in what looks like an excellent upcoming lecture series at the Edwards Campus of the University of Kansas.

It is called "Abraham's Children: Exploring the Shared Heritage of Judaism, Christianity and Islam," and is sponsored by the Edwards campus and the Hall Center for the Humanities.

If you're a regular reader of my blog or my column, you know that I am a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue -- not as a way of converting others to our particular religion but at least partly as a way of understanding what makes adherents of other religions tick so we can try to avoid the bloodshed from religious violence all too common nowadays (and throughout history).

As you also may know, I'm co-teaching a seminar on Jewish-Christian relations in August at Ghost Ranch, a national Presbyterian conference center in New Mexico. My co-teacher will be Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of the New Reform Temple of Kansas City. Sign up and join us. In fact, the registration form finally is one like. To get a copy, click here.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 24, 2006.


My friend Stu Bykofsky, a great columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News, had a recent interview with, uh, God. You'd do well not to miss it.

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In the past here in blogland, I have urged you to attend funerals whenever you have the chance. They are -- or at least can be -- marvelous examples of how faith communities work, how they surround families with love and support at terrible times, how they speak words of comfort and hope in the face of death and darkness and mystery.

EssieI went to another such funeral the other day that was a perfect example of what I never would have wanted to miss, even though the woman we celebrated -- a friend from my office named Essie -- is someone whose funeral I never expected to attend, at least not yet. She was two years younger than I am.

Her funeral was at her church, a predominantly black Baptist congregation in Kansas City, where she was active in many ways. Black Baptist churches don't do funerals the way mostly white Presbyterian churches (mine) do. Rather, the congregation responds to the music, the scripture, the preaching, the remembrances as though each person is being engaged in a one-on-one conversation, in which it would be impolite not to react aloud.

There was an organic sense of community there that day. The church, which understands itself to be the body of Christ, had come together both to mourn Essie's death and to celebrate Essie's life. So there were tears and there was laughter, moaning and loud praise. The place was rockin'.

As a white man, I've been to enough funerals at black churches to know what to expect, even if I still feel a little like an interloper. But Essie and I used to talk in the cafeteria. We used to wait together at the bus stop. We'd chat walking down the halls. She wasn't a close friend, but we liked each other and sometimes spoke of our faith together. So I felt right being present and I felt welcomed.

Besides, as I keep telling you, funerals are perhaps the best place to learn about life.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 23, 2006


The Jewish Chronicle of Kansas City has done a nice piece about the class a rabbi and I will be co-teaching in August at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.

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Faith communities do not run on autopilot. It takes a serious commitment of time from members to make them work.

SessionI know because over the years I have devoted such time to various positions of leadership in my church. And as I write this, my wife is off attending her very first meeting of the Session (or board of elders) of our church. She's been elected, ordained and installed for a three-year term.

Every faith community does it a little differently, though it's hard to think of one that doesn't rely on lay leadership in some way. In our church, we have a 15-member Session and a larger Board of Deacons, which oversees the mission and outreach work of our church, connecting us to many agencies we support in various ways, including money.

I've served two three-year terms on our Session, one three-year term on Deacons and have recently completed more than 16 years as the coordinator of our church's AIDS Ministry.

Sometimes the folks who simply show up for worship services or who send their kids to Sunday school or other events don't fully grasp the requirement for dedicated lay leaders to help make decisions and carry them out. I've often thought it would be educational if none of the lay leaders -- that is all the unpaid volunteers and church officers -- simply didn't do anything for a week. Others would quickly see the life of the community slow to a crawl.

So today, here's a tip of the hat to all of you who pitch in to make your congregation work right, even when sometimes it doesn't seem to despite your best efforts.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Jan. 21-22, 2006, weekend


An Italian court case hinging on whether Jesus ever existed has taken an interesting turn.

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In my blog entries for Oct. 17 and Oct. 22, 2005, (they're still in the archives for you) I shared some photos I had taken here and there (many from Vermont) as a way of saying that I think we can get a sense of God's love for beauty and art when we simply look around outside.

Today I want to share some photos for the same purpose, but these were all taken last weekend on a trip to the Lake of the Ozarks, where my bride and I spend a little time each January with friends celebrating birthdays.

Yes, spring is gorgeous in many ways. And I love the flowers of summer and the foliage of autumn. But winter offers its own special beauty -- even when there is no snow on the ground, as there was not last weekend.

So this weekend, just take a few minutes to enjoy what I did last weekend.

Lake8Lake13 Lake27 Lake30 Lake25 To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. My Saturday column this weekend is about the crucial role clergy play in times of disaster.

Jan. 20, 2006


The mayor of New Orleans says he's sorry for blaming God. (So far God hasn't commented.)

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Here's how the Christian Science Monitor suggested people respond to the news that one of its freelance reporters is being held captive in Iraq.

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GRAVOIS MILLS, Mo. -- The moon -- a full, fat, shiny melon -- rose so bright through the barren trees that the shape of its blotches was visible without binoculars.

We stood in silence on the deck of the lake house we were calling home here last weekend. Stood and stared at this glowing ball of lunar rock, hung in the winter sky like an ornament.

But then we did get out the binoculars and looked again. And like a trillion people before us, we were struck dumb by the sight.

No wonder people have worshipped the sun. No wonder they have attributed divinity to the stars and the moon and have called the earth itself divine.

It's hard to look at the miracle of the world, to immerse yourself in the particularities of the cosmos, without coming to imagine some larger purpose, some source of energy and matter that is beyond what we can comprehend. At least it's hard for me.

Make it a point to stand outside on a clear winter's night and watch the moon and the stars. You may have to go to a rural area like we did at the Lake of the Ozarks to avoid urban light pollution. But it's worth the trip. Here are a couple of photos I took that evening.

Lake44 Lake18To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.