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March 31, 2006

THE JILL CARROLL AFTERMATH

Time Magazine has some interesting thoughts about the ways in which Sunni Muslims in Iraq will exploit the safe release of freelance journalist Jill Carroll. Do you agree?

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CAN YOU GET YOUR RELIGION BY PODCAST?

More congregations are turning to podcasts to get their messages out, it's reported. If you are a participant in this, tell me how you like it.

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A DATE LIVING IN INFAMY

What immediately comes to mind when you think of the year 1492? I bet 105 percent of you thought of Christopher Columbus because 1492 was the year he landed in the New World, as we all remember from that little ditty we sang as children, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two."

MapspainBut ask well-educated Jews or Spanish Christians that same question and surely some of them would say that 1492 was the year that Jews were exiled from Spain. Indeed, it was on this date, March 31, 1492, (some date it on March 30) that Spain's Catholic rulers issued an edict saying that all Jews must convert to Christianity or be expelled from the land. It's more proof that issues of conversion (see the recent Afghanistan story) aren't new.

Historians say most Jews elected to leave Spain rather than renounce their faith. One result was a major hit to the Spanish economy as skilled workers and brainpower departed. Imagine that. Prejudice has economic costs.

Many of Spain's Jews came to America, north Africa and the Netherlands, and integrated quite well into the cultures and the economies. Among the Jews who stayed in Spain, many continued to practice their religion in secret, though many true converts nonetheless were ill-treated by the Spanish Inquisition and its relentless search for heretics.

Ten years later, in 1502, the Moors, or Spanish Muslims, were ordered to convert to Christianity, thus finally ending a long period of relative harmony among Christians, Jews and Muslims in one land.

More than 500 years later, we still haven't figured out how to live together in harmony. Sigh.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, my column tomorrow will be about what it takes to be a good teacher of religion.)


March 30, 2006

THIS JUST IN:

Some good news from Iraq. Freelance journalist Jill Carroll has been freed. To follow developments in this story from the Web site of the paper for which she was writing, the Christian Science Monitor, click here.

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COLLEGE STUDENTS DEBATE FAITH

Sometimes it's fun to look in on religious discussions happening on college campuses. For instance, here's a letter to the editor in the Purdue University campus paper that makes arguments about the nature of religion. Do you agree with the writer?

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AN IMPORTANT CHANGE OF MIND ON SEXUALITY ISSUES

There's some fascinating and welcome news for those of us who have been in favor of ordaining otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA), as well as other denominations.

JackrogersA widely respected evangelical voice in the Presbyterian denomination (which is my branch of Christianity) has written a new book saying he's changed his mind and that it's time to adjust the rules to allow such ordinations to take place.

He's the Rev. Jack Rogers, emeritus professor of theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary and a former moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, the denomination's highest governing body. His new book, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church, has just been published by Westminster John Knox Press.

I haven't yet read a copy, but I've read several accounts of the book, and it should help those of us who take the Bible seriously as authoritative sacred writing but who believe the Bible says nothing that would forbid ordaining gays and lesbians to the gospel ministry. This fight has divided Presbyterians for decades as well as several other branches of the faith -- to say nothing of Judaism. The fact that Rogers now sees things differently may be a turning point in the struggle to allow such ordinations to take place legally. (Legally in the eyes of the church, I mean, not the state, which has no say over this.)

Here's part of what Rogers says: "The best methods of interpretation, from the Reformation on down through today, call upon us to interpret the Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ's life and ministry. Using this method, we see clearly that Jesus and the Bible. properly understood, do not condemn people who are homosexual."

The Rogers book is likely also to play a more prominent role than it otherwise might have because it has been issued when the denomination is considering a new report from the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity in the Church, which has been at work for several years to suggest ways for this divided denomination to live in peace with itself. The report is to be presented at the next General Assembly in June in Birmingham, Ala.

Naturally, I don't expect the Rogers book to end the debate. There is far too much passion on all sides for everyone to say, simply, "You know, Jack is right." But his voice is one that all but the most rigid idealogues in this matter will at least listen to.

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

Today's religious holidays: Hindi New Year (Hindu); Ramayana begins (Hindu, to April 6).


March 29, 2006

THIS JUST IN:

Abdul Rahman, the Christian convert from Afghanistan, has been given asylum in Italy. Trust me, we haven't heard the last of this painful story.

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FAITH DIVIDES THE GOP

Bloomberg News has done an interesting story about how the religious values Republicans have been emphasizing to get elected are starting to divide the party. Of course, all along many people have suspected that GOP didn't stand for God's Own Party.

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TRAINING CLERGY FOR MULTI-FAITH WORK

Sometimes it takes theological seminaries a little while to catch up with the realities of the world.

Interfaith_4For instance, in the United States, the religious landscape began changing dramatically starting with immigration reform in 1965. We are a considerably more religiously diverse today than we were 40 years ago.

But seminaries, which train Christian and Jewish religious leaders, generally have made only halting attempts to train people to minister in a multi-faith context.

Now, however, New York Theological Seminary and Auburn Theological Seminary are joining to begin a new program that will award professional degrees to people they will train to serve social and spiritual needs across various religious boundaries. It will begin this fall.

The program will accept ministers and rabbis with degrees from accredited seminaries as well as leaders and teachers from other religious traditions who have completed at least 72 graduate credits in professional religious studies. Among other things, students will participate in a legal symposium on church-state issues under the guidance of the Fordham School of Law.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a proponent of thoughtful interfaith dialogue because I believe that ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to violence and violence leads to chaos.

The new multi-faith program appears to be exactly the kind of effort necessary to help religious leaders understand other traditions well enough to be able to work with them constructively without demonizing them. The next task will be to move this kind of knowledge from seminaries to lay leaders in various traditions.

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


March 28, 2006

SOME PAPAL INTERFAITH DIPLOMACY

A cardinal tells Reuters that Pope Benedict XVI will use some of his November trip to Turkey to improve relations between Islam and the West. No telling what shape those relationships will be in come November, but at the moment they could use a lot of improving.

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WANTED: ASYLUM

Is it any surprise -- given the vile and threatening things that some radical Islamic leaders in Afghanistan have said -- that the Christian convert whose case raised concern around the world now is seeking asylum outside Afghanistan? I hope a journalist who understands all this gets a chance to do a long interview with him soon.

AND THIS JUST IN:

Abdul Rahman, now released, says he was ready to die for his Christian faith. Someone tell the bin Laden crowd that that's what constitutes martyrdom, not suicide bombing.

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NOW (WELL, SOON) SHOWING: BIBLICAL ARTIFACTS

I wish I were free simply to wander the country and attend the various events, speeches and museum shows in which I'm interested.

ScrollFor sure I'd try to be in Cleveland at the end of this week for the April 1 opening of a big exhibition at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage there.

The museum will present some of the most important biblical artifacts ever found. Included in the show, called "Cradle of Christianity: Treasures from the Holy Land," will be Jewish and Christian artifacts from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The exhibition runs through Oct. 22.

Among items on display will be the Temple Scroll (part of it is pictured here; it's one of the most important of the Dead Sea Scrolls), the burial ossuary of Caiaphas the high priest and a commemorative inscription bearing the name of Pontius Pilate.

Several years ago I saw an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Field Museum in Chicago. Amazing stuff. I guess I need to apply for a grant simply to take a year off and go see all these things in exhibitions around the world. Surely someone would pay me for that, don't you think?

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


March 27, 2006

THE CONVERT IN AFGHANISTAN

Historically, some of the best international news coverage has come from the Christian Science Monitor. Here's its take on the now-dropped case of the man in Afghanistan who was hauled before a court and threatened with execution for converting to Christianity.

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STEM-CELL DISPUTE IS EVERYWHERE

Missouri, where I live, is not the only state struggling with the question of whether to put legal restrictions on early, or embryonic, stem cell research. This piece from the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., describes the battle there and mentions a group I wrote about last year in a piece about how people of faith take different approaches on this issue. The group is called People of Faith for Stem Cell Research.

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WHEN ISRAEL VOTES

One way to get up to speed on Israel's election tomorrow is by checking out the Israel Project's Web site.

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A PAPER ON ANTI-JUDAISM

The Christian history class I've been auditing at a local seminary is moving toward modern times. Last week, for instance, we talked some about developments in Catholicism in the 18th century.

Antisemitism_2And last week I received back from our professor the fourth paper I've turned in for the class. Now it's available to you. All you have to do is send an e-mail to tammeus@kcstar.com and ask for a copy to be e-mailed back to you.

As regular readers of this blog know, I've made the previous three papers available for the asking, too. Each one tries to take account of what's happening in Christianity generally in the period covered but each one also focuses on the long, embarrassing strain of anti-Judaism found in Christianity almost since the beginning, which has led to the racial and political sin of anti-Semitism.

The current paper, for instance, contains a list of anti-Jewish developments from the early 13th century until the time that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg in the early 16th century.

The list begins with Pope Innocent III writing to the archbishops of Paris and Sense in 1205 that "the Jews, by their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they crucified the Lord."

And the list continues until 1516, when the governor of Venice decided that Jews would be permitted to live only in one area of the city, an area called the "Ghetto Novo."

I thought my professor made a good suggestion, which was to see if I could find Jewish sources that would describe more directly from that perspective how Jews were reacting to all of this evil. One book he suggested was Culture of the Jews, by David Biale, particularly using its bibliography to point me to other sources.

So if you want a copy of this paper, let me know. As you also may know if you're a regular reader of my blog, my plan is to use these papers to help me prepare for weeklong seminar a rabbi and I will teach in August on Jewish-Christian relations. I invite you to take a look at the course description and to come join us at beautiful Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. If you're Christian, bring a Jewish friend. If you're Jewish, bring a Christian friend. If you're an adherent of another religion, come and join the conversation.

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


March 25-26, 2006 weekend

PRINCE CHARLES, THEOLOGIAN?

On his visit to Saudi Arabia, Prince Charles talks to Muslims about God. Now, that would have been worth hearing in person. And just for the sake of comparison, here's the same story from Arab News, an English language daily in Saudi Arabia.

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VATICAN MUSEUMS

There's  now a downloadable audio tour of Vatican museums available online. I haven't had time to do this, so tell me how it is.

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AN AGING PASTORATE

Many branches of Christianity -- especially so-called mainline churches such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans -- have experienced a decline in numbers as well as difficulty filling the role of pastor.

MethodistcrossI did a story last year about how this is especially true in small, rural churches, which sometimes have to share a pastor with one or even several other congregations.

A new report from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership has identified a related problem -- the United Methodist Church has seen a dramatic drop in the number and percentage of elders (essentially pastors) under the age of 35 in the last 20 years.

(The Methodists use the term "elder" in a different way that we Presbyterians do. As I said above, for Methodists it essentially means a minister, though that denomination also has a more restricted office it calls local pastors. In the Presbyterian church, elders are elected congregational leaders who make up the local church "Session," or congregational governing board.)

My guess is that what the new study found is true for many mainline Christian denominations and probably for Jewish congregations as well.

You can read the Lewis Center report for yourself, but the headline, in brief, is that In the last 20 years, the proportion of elders age 55 and above has increased from 27 percent to 41 percent while the number of elders under age 35 has declined from 3,219 to 850, meaning a percentage drop from 15.05 to 4.69.

There are, of course, a million theories about mainline church declines: They don't believe anything. They're too liberal. They challenge political parties too much. They've lost the ability to speak to young people. They offer complicated and ambiguous answers to people who want their religion simple and in tiny bites. And on and on and on.

As a member of a mainline church I see why some of those charges are leveled, but I also see that most of them are grossly unfair.

Still, mainliners like the Methodists better be figuring this out or in another 20 years they may have almost no pastors under age 35. And what would that say about such a church?

The current star of evangelical Christianity, the Rev. Rick Warren, has written an interesting piece about why churches grow, suggesting that when churches rotate pastors every few years, they hurt their chances for growth. That's quite often what the Methodists do. Any Methodist out there want to argue with Warren?

(By the way, the director of the Lewis Center is Lovett H. Weems Jr., former president of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.)

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column, by the way, is about what happens when people can't accommodate themselves to America's changing religious landscape.)

Today's religious holidays: Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (25th, Christian); Khordad Sal (birth of Prophet Zaranthushtra, 26th, Zorastrian).


March 24, 2006

ANOTHER FAITH IMMIGRATES

Reuters reports that the "Spiritist" religion is spreading from Brazil to America. Any of you familiar with it?

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FAITH-BASED DISCOVERY

No doubt you heard about the young woman cleaning out debris from a ruined house in New Orleans who found $30,000 in $100 bills the other day. Did you know she was on a Baptist mission trip? For the Baptist Press story, click here.

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AND FAITH-BASED RETREATS

Almost every major religious community in this country offers retreat and/or conference centers that offer various classes, time for reflection and simply a chance to refresh one's soul.

JimbIn my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are three such centers, Ghost Ranch, Montreat and Stony Point. (The picture here shows Ghost Ranch program director Jim Baird describing the ranch to a group in Kansas City last weekend.)

There are, of course, many local retreat and conference centers as well, but these three are operations of the denomination itself, though very little money to support the operations of the centers comes from the church any more. The centers have to be largely self supporting.

Whatever your faith connection, I urge you to see what retreat and conference centers are connected to your denomination or religion. They can be wonderful places of nurture.

And as I have done here before, I invite you again to take a look at the weeklong seminar a rabbi from Kansas City and I will teach in August at Ghost Ranch on Jewish-Christian relations. It should be a wonderful, fun and informative week.

The ranch is located in northern New Mexico, in the red rock hills that Georgia O'Keeffe made famous in her paintings. If you're Christian, bring a Jewish friend. If you're Jewish, bring a Christian friend. If you're an adherent of another religion, come and join the conversation.

And if that doesn't work for you, find a retreat or conference center and see what offerings might suit you for some time this summer.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, my column for tomorrow will talk about the fear of religious diversity that some people have.)


March 23, 2006

THIS JUST IN:

Good news. The three members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams held hostage in Iraq have been freed.

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MORE ON THE AFGHANISTAN STORY

The trial and threatened execution of a convert to Christianity from Islam in Afghanistan has raised the ire of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as others who see it as another indication of what happens when the Bush administration gets distracted from finishing its task there. This advisory commission has written a cogent letter to President Bush asking that the American government "press the Karzai government to allow for free manifestation of religious belief. . ." (And Bush is reported to be doing just that.) The letter correctly noted that in the past it has raised deep concerns about the "absence of a guarantee of the right to religious freedom in Afghanistan's constitution." Indeed, when I was still on The Kansas City Star's editorial page, I wrote an editorial in 2003 about that constitution and took note of the commission's concerns. That editorial is available on the commission's Web site. To read it, click here. The commission also has done a comparative study of the constitutions of 44 predominantly Islamic nations. To read it, click here. Also: The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement yesterday calling on Afghanistan to release the man being held, saying, "Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. . ."

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AND ANOTHER VIEW OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

FRONTENAC, Kan. -- Last Saturday, the Faith section of The Kansas City Star, I had a story about a married Catholic priest, the Rev. Robert McElwee, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Frotenac, about 100 miles south of Kansas City. (The photo here shows him in his office, where he keeps his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.)

Frbob2_1Even though we devoted a lot of space to the questions and answers, there were a few things I was forced to leave out. But McElwee is such an engaging character that I thought you might be interested in a few more quotes I wasn't able to squeeze into the paper.

So here's more of our conversation:

Is there anything you’ve always wanted to say from the pulpit that you haven’t for some reason?

Oh, my God, yes, but I’m not about to tell you. Well, for good or for ill, most of the things I’ve wanted to say from the pulpit I’ve said — and gotten away with it.

There’s a freedom there, isn’t there?

Well, there is. I’ll soon graduate from the Harley-Davidson school and be a trained motorcycle technician. My kids are grown, kind of, sort of. And I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. I don’t mind hard work. I can get my hands dirty. It does give me a freedom. I try not to misuse it.

I’ve said this to people before, but I don’t think they understand the depth of it — how grateful I am to be Catholic. I’ve never been able to convey that to people as intensely as I’ve wanted because I’ve never been able to get them to cry. If I could say it in the way I wanted to it would hit them so intensely they would cry about it.

It is an incredible gift and it’s one I’m deeply aware I’m not worthy of. So I can imagine not being a priest but I could never imagine not being Catholic. Not being Catholic is not an option. Once you know it’s OK to die, you do have a lot of freedom.

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


March 22, 2006

DEATH TO CHRISTIAN CONVERTS?

We carried a short item in our paper the other day about a man in Afghanistan who is facing a possible death sentence for converting from Islam to Christianity. But here's a longer, more definitive look at this from the Chicago Tribune. (By the way, if the top of the Tribune page says it can't display what you want, just scroll down. It's there.) It's hard to imagine how Afghanistan -- or any predominantly Islamic country -- is going to be part of the community of nations without some reasonable rules about religious freedom. Executing converts is stunningly unreasonable.

AND THIS JUST IN: Some reports say officials are raising questions about the convert's mental stability. Are these concerns real or simply a way of suggesting that Muslim converts to Christianity simply must be crazy almost by definition? What do you think?

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BAN CREATIONISM?

The archbishop of Canterbury says teaching creationism in schools should be forbidden. Is this good education or do you consider it censorship of religious ideas?

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THESE ARE THE JOKES, FOLKS

OK, you talked me into some more faith-based jokes. You demand these things, but not enough of you contribute, so I have to rely on Beliefnet.com and similar sources because I don't have time to dream all these up myself. So, come on. Contribute.

Mileslaugh_101. A priest, a minister and a guru sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby. "Kneeling is definitely the best way to pray," the priest said.

"No," said the minister. "I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven."

"You're both wrong," the guru said. "The most effective prayer position is lying down on the floor."

The repairman could contain himself no longer. "Hey, fellas," he interrupted, "The best prayin' I ever did was when I was hangin' upside down from a telephone pole."

2. A little boy opened the large old family Bible, and he looked with fascination at the ancient pages as he turned them one by one.

He was still in Genesis when something fell out of the Bible. He picked it up and looked at it closely. It was a very large old tree leaf that had been pressed between the pages of the Bible long ago. "Momma, look what I found!" the boy called out.

"What do you have there?" his mother asked.

With astonishment in his voice, the young boy answered, "I think it's Adam's underwear!"

3. A Briton, a Frenchman and a Russian are viewing a painting of Adam and Eve frolicking in the Garden of Eden.

"Look at their reserve, their calm," muses the Brit. "They must be British."

"Nonsense," the Frenchman disagrees. "They're naked, and so beautiful. Clearly, they are French."

"No clothes, no shelter," the Russian points out, "they have only an apple to eat, and they're being told this is paradise. They are Russian."

4. A man suffered a serious heart attack and had bypass surgery. He awakened to find himself in the care of nuns at a Catholic hospital.

As he was recovering, a nun asked how he was going to pay the bill. He replied, in a raspy voice, "No health insurance."

The nun asked if he had money in the bank. He replied, "No money in the bank."

The nun asked, "Do you have a relative who could help you?"

He said, "Just a spinster sister, who is a nun."

The nun, slightly perturbed, said, "Nuns are not spinsters! Nuns are married to God."

The patient replied, "Then send the bill to my brother-in-law."

5. A priest is driving down to New York to see a show, and he's stopped in Connecticut for speeding. The state trooper smells alcohol on his breath, sees an empty wine bottle on the floor, and asks, "Sir, have you been drinking?"

The minister replies, "Just water."

The trooper asks, "Then, why do I smell wine?"

The minister looks down at the bottle and exclaims, "Good Lord, He's done it again!"

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

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P.S.:

Pat Robertson is not the only religious leader saying outrageous things. How about this report about a rabbi?


March 21, 2006

MONITORING IRAN

The Institute on Religion and Public Policy has created an Iran Project to monitor the radical clerics and other political leaders who are making that great nation sound so scary these days.

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RELIGIOUS COLLEGES EVERYWHERE

I took a day off last week. Yes, it was the 93rd anniversary of my late mother's birth, but that's not why. In fact, I'm pretty sure Mom would have wanted me to work and not spend a chunk of my day watching college basketball. Mom, too, had a bad case of the Protestant Work Ethic.

Ultimate_basketball300But watch basketball I did, at the annual NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) Division 1 Men's Basketball National Championship tournament in Kansas City (the championship game will be tonight, as Texas Wesleyan takes on Oklahoma City University).

I love -- and, when I can, still play -- basketball. Especially college basketball. And these were some good hoops. But what intrigued me as I looked over the 32 teams entered in the tourney was how many of them have faith connections. Many, if not most, were started by some church or church-affiliated group. And many still retain a connection to a faith community.

You can check me on that by clicking here and looking over the Web sites of all the NAIA Division 1 teams. But many times just their names give away their connection -- Southwest Assemblies of God University, Southern Wesleyan University, Wayland Baptist University, Texas Wesleyan University and on and on.

In fact, the country is dotted by dozens and dozens of these small, faith-connected colleges and universities -- and often they are excellent schools. Not always, but often. Some of them seem more like factories for social conservatives, but that's another issue.

No doubt aware of the importance of religious commitments to many of these schools and aware of the deserved reputation many of the larger (often public) universities and colleges have for corrupt and overblown athletic programs, the NAIA has created a really fine program called Champions of Character. It's a way of teaching and emphasizing such important values as respect, integrity, responsibility, servant leadership and sportsmanship. It's one way the NAIA small-college programs differntiate themselves from the big-market sports programs that the NCAA tries to keep a watch over.

Next time you have a chance, go see some of these small-college teams play -- no matter the sport. And if you're in Kansas City, next March do I what did the other day -- take some time off and drink in some quality basketball in a setting that says winning is important but sports aren't the most important thing in life.

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

Today's religious holidays: Norooz, or Nowruz (Zoroastrian); Naw-Ruz (Baha'i); Ostara (Wicca/Neo-Pagan, northern hemisphere); Mabon (Wicca/Neo-Pagan, southern hemisphere). Also, if you want another interesting take on the Zoroastrian Nowruz holiday, click here.

AND A P.S. TODAY:

Some years ago I saw a cartoon of a boxer who, having beaten his opponent to a bloody pulp, said to the TV cameras, "I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jeus Christ for letting me beat the living daylights out of this man." Now there are reports of Christian wrestling as a way of spreading the gospel. What do you think?