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Feb. 28, 2006


Henry M. Morris, a founder of the modern "scientific creationism" movement and one of the authors (with John Whitcomb) of The Genesis Flood, which appeared in 1961, has died, Baptist Press reports. If you want a good, balanced history about Morris and many others in this movement, I recommend a book by Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. The book appears to be out of print, but that's what libraries and used book stores are for. Numbers teaches at the University of Wisconsin.

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The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a good and useful agency, has expressed renewed concern about religious freedom in Iran. I wish the administration paid more attention to this commission. (And I wished the same thing when Bill Clinton was president.)

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Do you think you're up to speed on religious history -- especially the Christian variety that covers some of the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation?

Pop_quiz_1Well, we'll see. It's pop quiz time again. The questions here today are taken from a quiz given to members of the Christian history class I'm auditing at a local seminary.

No cheating, children. Just give it your best shot.

1. Among the most important contributions of Erasmus to reform was:

A. A critical edition of the Greek New Testament

B. The 67 Conclusions.

C. A German translation of the Bible.

D. The Loci Communes.

2. Martin Luther's sudden illumination regarding the true biblical meaning of justification is call his:

A. Wartburg experience

B. Tower experience

C. Lightening experience

D. Ninety-five Theses.

3. What was the title of Ulrich Zwingli's major Reformation work written to lay the foundation for the first Zurich Debate in January 1523?

A. Psychopannychia.

B. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

C. Enchiridion.

D. The 67 Conclusions.

4. Luther and Zwingli parted ways over the meaning of the Lord's Supper at what noted conference?

A. Second Diet of Speyer.

B. Marburg Colloquy.

C. Diet of Augsburg.

D. First Zurcih Disputation.

5. What Swiss "industry" did Zwingli attack in his work, "The Labyrinth," where he calls for a new Theseus to come forth? (You fill in the blank _________.)

OK, how did you do? Here are the:

ANSWERS: 1 -- A; 2 -- B; 3 -- D; 4 -- B; 5 -- the mercenary trade.

By the way, for a description of the Marburg Colloquy, click here.

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A P.S. TODAY: For regular updates on the status of kidnapped freelance journalist Jill Carroll, click here. It's a site maintained by the Christian Science Monitor, for which she was working when she was captured.

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

Today's religious holiday: Shrove Tuesday (Christian).

Feb. 27, 2006


The pope again has condemned religiously inspired violence. He can't do this often enough.

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Saudi Arabia, Islam's epicenter, has discovered that by easing censorship rules, writers are flourishing. Are there some lessons in this for Islam itself, especially in light of the recent cartoon furor?

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For several years I've been attending the annual Mayors' (plural, with an apostrophe after the s) Prayer Breakfast in Kansas City.

At its best, the breakfast is a way to remind movers and shakers in town that we share some common values that should get worked out in good ethical and moral decisions that have community-wide implications.

I think it's always a little troublesome to do something that seems to put the stamp of elected officials on a religious practice, but at the very least, these breakfasts have been harmless and at their best they have offered up some worthwhile and even stirring talks by good community leaders.

Barnes2004Last year, however, the speaker, to many (including me), seemed to cross the line from appropriate comments about how and why to do good works in the community to political ideology. There was a flap about the speech, given by local civic and business leader Bill Dunn Sr. In fact, Mayor Kay Barnes of Kansas City, Mo., (pictured here) was so incensed by what she perceived as a hard-right political speech that she swore she wouldn't come back unless the rules were changed.

Last week, Kay was missing from the breakfast, having failed to convince the breakfast committee to change its rules in a way that would guarantee that a speech like BIll Dunn's in 2005 could not be repeated.

I admired her resolve but I think it's a bad model when people of faith (Kay and the committee qualify) are unable to resolve their differences in constructive and creative ways. It doesn't give us much hope for fixing even more difficult situations when such seemingly minor disputes can't be solved.

Anyway, this year the speaker was Kansas City native Gen. Richard B. Meyers, (pictured here) former chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He gave an engaging, though not remarkable, talk that seemed not to offend anyone.


Not surprisingly, Meyers, who served more than 40 years in the Air Force, had good things to say about the military. He said the rules his mother taught him and that he learned as a boy attending Countryside Christian Church in Merriam, Kan., a Kansas City suburb, were in sync with what he found in the military. The military culture, he said, was based on integrity, selfless service, no discrimination, high standards and commitment to serving something greater than us.

"I like that culture," he said.

He noted that what he learned as a boy from his family and from church is encapsulated in the Golden Rule, a version of which can be found in all major religions.

Well, more than 1,000 people attended the breakfast, and we all seemed to get along. But, for me, hanging over the hotel ballroom that morning was a shadow of unresolved debate. Maybe the only way Kay Barnes' objections to last year's event will get ironed out is if everyone prays about it, for starters. But then it's time for some adult supervision to get everyone on the same page.

Otherwise it looks as if the very people who advocate religious values of harmony don't believe what they preach.

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

Feb. 25, 26, 2006, weekend


The Washington Post has done an interesting review in Sunday's paper of Michael Lerner's new book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. What's your view? Is there a religious right? If so, who is it? And does our country need to be taken back from these folks, whatever taken back means?

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When did you last hear a 102-year-old preacher? There was one in Texas recently. How would  believers describe such a person? As long-in-the-truth?

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Our sister Knight Ridder paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, has done an interesting piece about the way Christianity is changing around the globe. To read it, click here.

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When we don't know -- or understand -- history, we can lock ourselves into positions that make no historical sense or can no longer be justified.

LutherIf we happen to be right -- but ignorant of history -- we probably can attribute it to the old adage that even a stopped watch is right twice a day.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was reading the second volume of Mark Ellingsen's book, Reclaiming Our Roots: An Inclusive Introduction to Church History. It's one of the text books we're using in the Christian history class I'm auditing at a Kansas City area seminary.

Ellingsen, in a chapter on Martin Luther (pictured here) and the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, wants readers to think about whether Protestantism still makes sense today and even ask this hard question: Was the Reformation "a tragic mistake?"

I grew up Protestant and am Protestant today. But I am drawn to ecumenical, as well as interfaith, dialogue because I believe all traditions have something to teach. But what would it mean to end Protestantism? Would it mean simply becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox? And what of the Great Divorce of 1054 that separated the Western and Eastern churches? Is that still a useful division today?

The Reformation that Martin Luther inadvertently kicked off (he meant only to change some of the practices of the Catholic Church) was not about the role of the pope. Nor was it about such matters as the doctrine of transubstantiation as an explanation for what happens in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Rather, it was about such things as the selling of indulgences that were supposed to shorten the time one had to spend after death in purgatory before being granted admittance to heaven. Luther's argument was a theological one -- that selling indulgences indicated there was something humans could do to merit heaven. No, he said. Salvation is by grace alone.

That's the position today of both Catholics and Protestants, as indicated by a joint statement on salvation that Catholics and Lutherans (not Missouri Synod Lutherans, but others) signed in 1997. Some argue that the document still shows different thinking between Catholics and Protestants, but you really have to get deeply into nuances of theology to detect such differences.

So a question for Christians today is: Do our divisions still make sense? I think it might be a useful question for Muslims, too, who are divided between Sunni and Shia Islam, primarily over who should have been the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. And it's a good question for Jews, too, who are divided among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches.

Why maintain a house divided? Maybe there are reasons, but, if so, it might be enlightening to hear them articulated anew in this time and place to see if they still sound persuasive. If we decide our divisions should be healed, then, of course, comes the next hard step: In concrete and practical terms, how?

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AND a P.S.: The World Council of Churches, at its gathering in Brazil, has set four areas of focus for its work.

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To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, the Star's Faith section this weekend is pretty much devoted to death. It includes a long interview I did with a retired pastor just before his death this past week. Then my column is about the importance of funerals. And, keeping with the theme, the section also includes a piece I've done about end-of-life issues for hospitalized Catholics.)

Today's religious holidays (all Feb. 26): Meat Fare Sunday (Orthodox Christian); Transfiguration Sunday (Christian); Maha Shivaratri (Hindu).

Feb. 24, 2006


The pope this week named a new bishop for China, but already China is giving him instructions on how to behave. Are you shocked? I'm not.

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There's been an interesting development in an anti-Semitism case in France. Can anyone explain the rise in recent years in Europe of this terrible phenomenon of ethnic hatred?

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Earlier this month, I devoted one of my Kansas City Star columns to Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, called "Deus Caritas Est," or "God is Love."

Popeb1On the whole, I was quite taken with what he had to say. It was careful, nuanced, balanced and insightful on a subject that our sex-permeated culture seems not to understand very well.

I had some trouble with the first page or so of the encyclical because of its needless phrasing that smacked of supersessionism (the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism as the religion of God's chosen people).

But it was a good document, and just the right choice of subject for a pope who, while working under Pope John Paul II, was called "God's rottweiler" because he was so fierce in his defense of traditional Catholic positions.

Well, it turns out I am not alone in my assessment of the pope's work. Martin E. Marty, the Lutheran clergyman and author at the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago, devoted one of his recent "Sightings" newsletter to a review of how the pope's message had been received.

Marty noted that the National Catholic Reporter, generally considered a liberal voice in American Catholicism, had published a piece by John Allen, the paper's Rome correspondent, noting that the encyclical had found favor in lots of places.

A number of people who have been critics of the pope (at least while he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) had nice things to say about the encyclical.

I have trouble imagining the pope will be able to continue to please everyone. But it was the right way to start the encyclical-writing process.

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A P.S. TODAY: If you're interested in joining me and a local rabbi for a weeklong Jewish-Christian conversation in August at Ghost Ranch in beautiful northern New Mexico, click here for a course description.

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To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, don't miss tomorrow's Star Faith section. It's essentially devoted to the subject of death and I think you'll find it a worthwhile read.)

Feb. 23, 2006


Pope Benedict XVI has named some interesting new cardinals. What does a cardinal do? Click here to find out. (And I'm not talking about the ones who play for St. Louis and beat my Chicago Cubs way too often.)

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A major theological divide separating Christianity from Judaism, Islam and any other monotheistic religion is the doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinity1Christianity is an insistently monotheistic religion, but it teaches that the one God has chosen to reveal himself as three persons -- God the creator, God the son and God the Holy Spirit.

It is, to be sure, a complex and endlessly debatable doctrine that not only has confused those outside the faith but that also has tied up Christians in discussion for centuries. And yet it remains one of the foundational theological pillars of the faith. As a Christian, I would say it is vital to any clear understanding of who we are. Christianity, in fact, would dissolve into something else entirely if the doctrine were abandoned.

My own Presbyterian denomination has spent more than five years studying and composing a new report on the Trinity. The report (give it a read, it's only, uh, 40 pages long) says it isn't proposing a new doctrine of the Trinity but, rather, trying to help Presbyterians reclaim the doctrine "in theology, worship and life."

The report says it's time to take up this issue again precisely because it isn't a "great controversy."

"Despite the remarkable renewal of Trinitarian theology in recent decades," the report says, "this doctrine is widely neglected or poorly understood in many of our congregations."

As much as I think it will be helpful for members of my own denomination to pay attention to this study, I also think not only other Christians but people of other faiths also will benefit by reading it. The Trinity, after all, marks a major point of difference between Christianity and Judaism as well as Christianity and Islam, the two other major Abrahamic faiths.

I think it would be helpful for adherents of those religions to grasp more fully why we Christians are Trinitarian monotheists and why we think that is not a contradictory position.

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

Feb. 22, 2006


The U.S. Supreme Court's first religious freedom ruling under new Chief Justice John G. Roberts turns out to be a victory for religion. Good start.

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Did you see that the Vatican's controversial retired banker died this week? If not, click here.

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Break time, folks. We've been far too serious here for too long. It's time to break out some more religious humor.

Bigmouth_1Regular readers here know that when I do this, I usually blame many of the jokes on and not on me. Same deal this time, though I do have other sources -- including you. So send in your best ones.

In the meantime, just enjoy today's collection:

1. A gracious lady was mailing an old family Bible to her brother in another part of the country.

“Is there anything breakable in here?” asked the postal clerk.

“Only the Ten Commandments,” she replied.

2. Two men, sentenced to die on the same day, were led down to the room where the electric chair was. The priest had given them last rites, the formal speech had been given by the warden, and a final prayer had been said among the participants.

The warden, turning to the first man, solemnly asked, "Son, do you have a last request?"

The man replied, "Yes, sir, I do. I love dance music. Could you please play the Macarena for me one last time?"

"Certainly," replied the warden. He turned to the other man and asked, "Well, what about you, son? What is your final request?"

"Please," said the condemned man, "Kill me first."

3. There was a religious woman who had to do a lot of traveling for her business. Flying made her very nervous, so she always took her Bible along with her.

One time, she was sitting next to a man. When he saw her pull out her Bible, he gave a little chuckle and smirk and went back to what he was doing. After awhile, he turned to her and asked, "You don't really believe all that stuff in there do you?"

The woman replied, "Of course I do. It is the Bible."

He said, "Well, what about that guy that was swallowed by that whale?"

She replied, "Oh, Jonah. Yes, I believe that, it is in the Bible."

He asked, "Well, how do you suppose he survived all that time inside the whale?" The woman said, "Well, I don't really know. I guess when I get to heaven, I will ask him."

"What if he isn't in heaven?" the man asked sarcastically.

"Then you can ask him," replied the woman.

4. A Baptist preacher was seated next to a ranch cowboy on a flight to Texas. After the plane took off, the cowboy asked for a whiskey and soda, which was brought and placed before him.

The flight attendant then asked the Baptist preacher if he would like a drink. Appalled, the preacher replied, "I'd rather be tied up and taken advantage of by women of ill-repute than let liquor touch my lips."

The cowboy then handed his drink back to the attendant and said, "Me too. I didn't know we had a choice."

5. A man is struck by a bus on a busy street in New York City. He lies dying on the sidewalk as a crowd of spectators gathers around.

"A priest! Somebody get me a priest!" the man gasps.

A policeman checks the crowd but finds no priest, no minister, no man of God of any kind.

"A PRIEST, PLEASE!" the dying man says again. Then out of the crowd steps a little old Jewish man of at least 80 years of age.

"Mr. Policeman," says the man, "I'm not a priest. I'm not even a Catholic. But for 50 years now I'm living behind St. Mary's Catholic Church on Third Avenue, and every night I'm listening to the Catholic litany. Maybe I can be of some comfort to this man."

The policeman agrees and brings the octogenarian over to the dying man. He kneels down, leans over the injured and says in a solemn voice: "B - 4. I - 19. N - 38. G - 54. O - 72."

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

Feb. 21, 2006


The conviction on Monday in Austria of discredited historian David Irving as a Holocaust denier is causing some to question whether laws against deniers still are useful, the BBC reports.

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How much have you heard about a chaplain to Olympic athletes in Turin? Not much? Then click here.

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Baptist Press reports on what looks like an interesting new book about the religious faith of America's presidents. And I'm passing it on to you only one day after Presidents' Day.

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Well, OK, I admit it. This new pope so far is surprising me -- in a pleasant way.

Popeb_1Not only was Benedict XVI's first encyclical remarkably good, but now he's saying the right things about the furor in the Muslim world over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

"Religions and their symbols must be respected," he said, "but intolerance and violence can never be justified. . ."

The pope on Monday, in his first public remarks about the cartoon controversy, said something I've been saying in columns and on my blog for a long time. (Do you suppose he's reading me? Ha.) Here's how Benedict put it: ". . .the only path that leads to peace and brotherhood is that of respect for other people's convictions and religious practices. . ."

You can bet the pope is not suggesting that people convert to Islam. He'd love to make the world all Catholic. But he seems to be reflecting something hard-won over the centuries -- an understanding that the world is full of many religious traditions, and no matter how much each one may think it has the only truth, there must at least be tolerance for there to be peace. Tolerance is a very low standard, but it's the place to start.

Probably the pope waited too long to comment on this matter. Voices of reason are needed as soon as violence and chaos breaks out. But at least he's saying the right things now.

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Some court cases certainly seem to give God a bad name. For the latest example, click here.

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

Feb. 20, 2006


Muslims in China are staying out of the cartoon controversy. Maybe there's something to be learned from them.

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I love maps.

IsraelmapWell, I don't love unfolding and refolding them much, but I love to look at them, study them, think about the territory they represent, all the while remembering an important lesson I learned in a General Semantics class in college -- a map is not the territory.

A friend recently returned from a journey to Israel and brought back for me a photo book called Holyland Journey. Stuck inside was a longish satellite map of Israel. If you click on this link, you can buy the same map, though selling maps is not by purpose or my business.

The map stretches from Lebanon and Mt Hermon in the north through Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Bethany all the way to Eilat in the south. Those of you familiar with biblical geography will have to figure out whether that covers the famous "Dan to Beer-sheba" description, which you can find in Judges 20:1, II Samuel 3:10 and other places.

Dan, by the way, was the Canaanite city of Laish near one of the sources of the Jordan River in the north. Beer-sheba was a major oasis city in the Negeb.

Anyway, I've enjoyed the chance to stare at the Holy Land from above, so to speak, and to marvel at how this promised land has turned into a cauldron of bitter relations between and among people of various traditions.

I've also enjoyed learning (or being reminded of) things in the book. Such as this: Tel Aviv was founded in 1909. So was my late father. Tel Aviv now has outlived my father by 14 years.

And this: Perhaps you remember in reading about the Christian Crusades of the late Middle Ages that Saladin (or Salahadin, as it's sometimes spelled) recaptured Jerusalem for the Muslims in 1187. But think about how brief the Saladin dynasty was. It was overthrown by the Mamelukes in 1250, the book says.

And this: The famous Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was built in 705-14, but twice was destroyed by earthquakes. It was last rebuilt about 1040, which I think is the year the IRS started dreaming up our complicated tax system, but I may be wrong.

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

Feb. 18-19, 2006, weekend


A prominent Catholic in Australia says the pope's recent encyclical on love means sex is good. (Well, without it neither the pope nor the Australian making the comments would be here.)

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The Los Angeles Times reports that DNA evidence is undermining deeply held Mormon beliefs as well as the credibility of the story told in the Book of Mormon. But church leaders are holding firm. Ah, yes. Another conflict between science and religion. Any guesses how this will come out>

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The Jewish newspaper, the Forward, reports there are deep worries about the Jewish community in Iran. As well there should be. And for all Iranians, given the current madness of the country's leadership.

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One of the frustrations of newspaper journalism is that writers almost never have enough space to pass along to readers all the good stuff we've collected in our reporting.

DisabledA good example of that was my piece last Saturday about the ways faith communities are trying to serve people with developmental disabilities.

Among the things I had to leave out of the piece were some good quotes from Dr. Helen R. Betenbaugh, an Episcopal priest (she's recently left a church in Florida) who uses a wheelchair and who writes about disabilities in penetrating ways.

One of the things she told me was that lots of people still believe disabilities somehow are punishments from God: "However sophisticated we are. . .the fact is that the underlying subconscious belief is that God does it to you. I can't tell you the number of ways that expresses itself. People with disabilities are repeatedly asked what we did to bring it on."

After hearing such questions for years, she concluded this: "You find a lot of not just pseudo-theology but also garbage theology around disabilities."

Dr. Betenbaugh has written a prayer poem called "Disability: A Lament," that speaks to all of this. It is written with a finely tuned sense of irony and anger. I hesitate to tell you not to take it literally because I'm not even sure what taking this literally might mean. But understand that the poem is, in fact, a cry out of the depths of faith, not despair. It is a poem of hope that takes God seriously and demands that God be God.

It begins this way:

Creating God:

You made the sky,

clouds of purest white,

with rays of fuschia and orange and magenta at sunset,

and faces dear with the smiles of loved ones.

Today thousands were born without sight;

thousands more lost theirs because of injury or disease.

And it was evening and morning of another day.

Did you call this Good?

For the complete poem, click here.

Here's what she told me about writing it: "Writing that lament, I was the closest in God's presence I've ever been in my life -- and the most terrified."

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If you're a subscriber to The Atlantic, don't miss the current issue's piece about Bishop T.D. Jakes. The link I'm giving you here won't give you the whole piece. You have to get the print version. But it's a good read about one of the most powerful African-American religious figures of our era.

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To read my latest Kansas CIty Star work, click here. (My column this weekend is about the cartoon controversy in Islam. Speaking of which, click here for a Washington Post anatomy of that whole cartoon matter. And this weekend, the head of an organization of Islamic nations said he's trying to set up an emergency meeting to deal with the cartoon crisis.)

Feb. 17, 2006


A Pakastani cleric has offered a big reward for anyone who kills a cartoonist who draws the Prophet Muhammad. Just what Islam doesn't need -- more bad leadership.

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A Catholic bishop in France thinks the pope's recent encyclical on love (subject of my column this past Saturday) is a good reason to reopen debate in the church on artificial birth control. Wonder if Benedict XVI wants to reword anything.

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Just in case you imagine that going to seminary or a religious school removes you from temptation, click here to read about religion students arrested in a sex-solicitation sting.

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Last Saturday I was privileged to be the keynote speaker at a conference on theology and mission sponsored by the Community of Christ, the denomination that used to be known as the Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints. (The photo here is from the garden at the Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Mo., the denomination's international headquarters.)

CofcAfter my remarks about why theology matters in shaping ministry, we had a chance to have some discussion through questions asked by members of the audience.

What struck me from what was said there -- and later in conversations when I was signing copies of my book for people -- is how common many concerns are among faith communties.

* People are worried that adherents aren't able to articulate their own faith clearly.

* They worry that they aren't offering useful ministry to people in need, people with broken lives (all of us are that way to some extent).

* They wonder what it will take to educate and retain their youth.

* They wonder how much clergy should be doing counseling and when they should be referring people with psychological or other problems to professionals.

And on and on.

There are, of course, problems and concerns peculiar to individual congregations and denominations and religions. But all of us seem to worry about many of the same things. It's really quite extraordinary.

Which is another good reason for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. We may actually learn from others how to solve common problems. What works in the Community of Christ or in Orthodox Judaism or in Shia Islam may actually be helpful to people in Catholicism or Hinduism. But we'll never know that if we aren't talking to each other in honest and open ways.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, my column tomorrow will try to offer a little historical perspective on the furor over cartoons of Muhammad. This isn't the first time people of faith have fought over art.)