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May 31, 2006


In June of 1981, researchers identified the disease that today we know as AIDS -- acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Most of the people who had the disease in those early days in the U.S. were gay males. And most of the voices coming from faith communities were speaking words of condemnation to homosexuals. Today people of faith of many religions are in the forefront of the battle against AIDS. My own church, for instance, has had an AIDS Ministry since 1989. Other congregations also are working on AIDS as part of their normal approaches to ministry, both here and abroad. A few of examples: The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; black churches; Christian churches in Zimbabwe. If your own faith community isn't active in AIDS ministry, a good question would be, "Why not?"

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When I hear people say, "The Lord told me. . ." or "God spoke to me. . ." I am intrigued but uncomfortable. I want to know how one can know that what they're hearing (or sensing) is really the voice of God.

BronsonI was affirmed in my discomfort recently by a book one of my sisters gave me -- Why Do I Love These People? by Po Bronson. The book is a collection of revelatory stories about the lives of ordinary people. Well, I don't know, actually, what it means to be an ordinary person. I'm not sure there are any such people, just as I'm positive there are no normal families.

But in a story about a woman named Rosa Gonzalez and her autistic son Vince, I ran across an insight well worth passing along.

Vince had lots of troubles as a youngster but has managed to get control of his life, partly thanks to the hard work and persistence of his mother. When the story was written, Vince was in college studying Jewish mysticism, though he's not Jewish and not, in fact, affiliated with any religion at all.

"I am to religions," he explained, "as an auto mechanic is to cars."

"Vince now makes his prayers to an Unknown God," Bronson writes, drawing on a story from the 17th chapter of the book of Acts in the New Testament. ". . .Vince draws a parallel between the way an autistic child experiences his teachers and the way we experience God. The autistic child spends most of his life in a haze of distraction. Now and then a teacher or parent gets through, and for a brief moment this child feels gloriously in touch with a higher power who seems to know everything."

That, says Vince, is how we experience God.

"The gods speak a language to which we are all autistic," Bronson quotes Vince as saying. Bingo.

It strikes me as a wonderfully humble way to acknowledge how things really are. Is that how, if at all, God speaks to you?

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

Today's religious holiday: Ascension of Christ (Orthodox Christian).

May 30, 2006


The U.S. Senate is to consider the controversial Federal Marriage Amendment next week. So far, most of the words about this anti-gay legislation have come from people who would identify themselves as religious conservatives. Now other religious voices are speaking out against the amendment. To read about those voices, click here. To read about efforts of proponents to pass the amendment, which would prohibit same-sex marriage, click here. For the official text (and related material) of the proposed constitutional amendment, click here.

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Whatever you think of Bill Moyers (pictured here) -- brilliant and gentle man, pollitical hack, insightful questioner, liberal wimp -- LBJ's former press secretary always seems to be up to something interesting.

MoyersStarting June 23, he's coming back to PBS with a seven-part series of hour-long interviews with people about religion and public life. It's called "Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason."

I thought that the series Moyers did a few years ago, "Genesis: A Living Conversation", was well worth the time to watch, even if a few of the participants didn't add a great deal. My hope is that the new series, featuring such people as Salman Rushdie and Richard Rodriguez, will be up to that pretty high standard.

The reality is that we need more -- not fewer -- options to hear thoughtful people talk about the way religious belief affects our lives, both private and public. As I've noted before, it's hard to read any news story in the paper these days that doesn't have some thread of religion running through it. The problem is we tend to get boxed into our tiny spheres of belief and are unable to be both deep in our own religious traditions and yet open to learn from others at the same time.

That combinations of depth and openness is the mandate, it seems to me, in a time when religion run amok has caused so much harm in the world. Maybe the new Moyers series can be part of the solution.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (Just a reminder: If you generally check in here early in the day, you might want to come back later in the day to read any comments left since you left. Some days there's some really good back-and-forth. Other days y'all seem to hold your tongues.)

May 29, 2006


Pope Benedict XVI, visiting Auschwitz, said the right words at the end of his four-day visit to Poland: "In such a place, no words are possible, just stupified silence which makes one ask God: Why?" The only thing he might have added is this: "It also makes one ask humanity: Why?" For who built the gas chambers? Who rounded up Jews and brought them there? Who murdered them? Did God do that?

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Did you know that Congress and the president want us to pray today?

Flagcross_2It's true. You can read about that request by clicking here. There you will see President George W. Bush's Memorial Day proclamation, which mentions that Congress asked him to declare a day of prayer for peace. And not just peace, but "permanent peace."

Is such a thing possible? (History suggests not. History suggests that war is the norm and peace a deviation from the norm, but we still can hope and work for peace.) And could we achieve a permanent peace by government-suggested prayer?

I don't mean to seem like a curmudgeon on a day when I truly do feel grateful to many people over the years who have defended our nation, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. But I'm having trouble imagining why our government is making religious pronouncements.

At least the proclamation didn't designate to whom we should be praying. We are not, for instance, directed to offer prayers to the triune God described by Christianity or, say, to Allah, as described by Islam. So we apparently have some freedom even to use words of address that agnostics supposedly use: "To Whom It May Concern. . ."

All right. Enough. May your Memorial Day be one of deep meaning for you. And if you offer prayers today, do it for a better reason than just that the government wants you to pray.

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

P.S.: I did a blog entry last June after my wife and I saw the East Hill Singers, presented by Arts in Prison, Inc. The group, led by founder and conductor Elvera Voth, will perform again at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 4, at Village Presbyterian Church, 6641 Mission, Prairie Village, Kan., and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 11, at Atonement Lutheran Church, 9948 Metcalf, Overland Park, Kan. Admission is free but an offering is taken. The core of the singers come from two state prisons -- the Lansing and Osawatomie Correctional Facilities. And, boy, do they sing, as they are joined by volunteer singers from other churches and communities. If you're in the Kansas City area, try to hear the East Hills Singers.

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Today's religious holiday: Ascension of Baha'u'llah (Baha'i).

May 27-28, 2006, weekend


Is the movie (and book) "The Da Vinci Code" the best recruiting tool Opus Dei has ever had? Reports suggest exactly that. (Watch for conspiracy theorists to suggest Opus Dei paid Dan Brown to write the book. Uh, or not.)

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While the pope is in Europe now, he may be happy to learn that the fight over whether to include God in the European Union's Constitution isn't over. Germany's chancellor says she'd like God mentioned in the Constitution. By the way, a good way to follow the pope's trip to Poland through the eyes of probably the best reporter and commentator on Vatican matters, John L. Allen, Jr., Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, is by clicking here.

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It's always risky when a blogger recommends other bloggers. The fear is that readers will spend so much time at the other sites that they'll never come back.

KeyboardBut I'm not scared. I know you'll be back to tell me to quit sending you to bum sites or to thank me for lighting up your life with good sites. Right?

At a seminar I attended recently in the Washington area, I met Neela Banerjee, religion reporter for The New York Times. Since then she's been helpful to the 30-plus religion writers who attended the seminar by passing along useful Web sites and such.

The other day Neela mentioned four of what she considers watchdog websites, meaning they tend to keep track of journalism coverage of religion.

I thought you might enjoy poking around on the sites this weekend, so here are four. By Neela's description, the first one,, tends to lean to the right. The others tend to lean to the left. But you can make that -- or a different -- call yourself.


2. (an offshoot of



So tell me what you learn from them that you wouldn't have found out otherwise. By the way some of those as well as other blogs can be found on's Blog Heaven.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column in Saturday's Faith section is about fear that casts out love. And don't miss the colorful photo essay in that section on sacred structures in our newly redesigned section.)

May 26, 2006


The current visit to Poland by Pope Benedict XVI will include a stop at the infamous Auschwitz death camp. One of the best ways to understand what is at stake in such a visit -- especially by a pope born in Germany and essentially drafted into the Hitler Youth -- is to read a monumental book by James Carroll, Constantine's Sword. In the early part of the book, pay special attention to his description of the late Pope John Paul II's visit to Auschwitz. I believe Benedict must continue the excellent work that John Paul did to improve relations between Christians and Jews, and this trip is a good chance for him to do just that.

Speaking of those Christian-Jewish relations, I'll be co-teaching a weeklong seminar on that subject in August with a rabbi. I invite you to take a look at the course description and to come join us at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. We'll have a chance that week to learn each other's story and even to have some fun. 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.

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One of the reasons I started writing the series I call "Conversations with Clergy" in The Kansas City Star was to help readers understand that ordained folks are very much like the rest of us, warts and all. And one of the things that happens sometimes to these fully mortal folks is they get stressed out by their difficult work.


Big surprise, huh? Well, no. The surprise is that many of them don't take better care of themselves or don't know how to.

In response to this -- and in some ways it can be called a national clergy crisis -- a new center has been established to help vulnerable clergy cope with the pressures of their job. It's called the Davidson Clergy Center Endowment, and its goal is to raise and distribute funds to help pay for the spiritual, physical and mental wellness of clergy.

People who have created this new ecumenical Christian endowment say that even when clergy know they need retreats and other ways of coping with pressure, they often can't afford to take advantage of the programs in existence.

The idea is to help clergy with mental and physical health services, spiritual direction, career advice and other resources and programs that will give them a better chance of doing good ministry because they themselves are not wounded healers.

In my experience, clergy suffer burnout when their congregations are demanding without understanding what it takes to do this work. Sometimes, of course, clergy bring it on themselves by being workaholics or simply untrained and, thus, bad administrators who get overwhelmed because they are essentially disorganized or distrustful of others and thus unwilling to delegate work. Ego plays a part of this at times.

But whatever the cause, wise congregations will keep an eye on all of that and know that such resources as the Davidson center are available.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (By the way, my column tomorrow will be about fear that casts out love. Also, don't miss our Faith section beautiful photo essay of sacred structures as we take advantage of our slick new presses and show off some great color photography by Rich Sugg of our Star photo staff.)

P.S.: After his conviction yesterday in the Enron case, Ken Lay spoke of God's will. Just curious: How do you react when you hear convicted criminals using profoundly religious language? I confess that my first instinct is to think about a cartoon I once saw in which a boxer stands over an opponent he's beaten to a bloody pulp and says: "First, I want to thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ for this victory."

May 25, 2006


When I was a boy in India, I watched college students try -- but fail -- to save a drowning man in a river. One reason they failed was that when they asked a man with a boat to help, he started haggling about price and thus wasted time. Now a similar thing has happened on Mount Everest, and there's an international debate about the ethics of it. Mount Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary is outraged that some climbers apparently passed by a dying climber near the summit without helping. For a great faith-based description about why each life is precious, see Glenn Tinder's book, The Political Meaning of Christianity.

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* * *

All right, all right, class. I know we're overdue for a humor break.


So how about today? Remember: These jokes aren't original with me. Some of them come from Others come from you -- when you're kind enough to pass them along to me.

* * *

1. God: "Whew, I just created a 24-hour period of alternating light and darkness on earth."
Angel: "Oh yeah? What are you going to do now?"
God: "I think I'll call it a day."
* * *

2. A man goes to a Unitarian Universalist service for the first time, and later is asked what he thought of it.

"Darndest church I ever went to," he replies, "the only time I heard the name of Jesus Christ was when the janitor fell down the stairs."

* * *

3. A poor man walking in the forest feels close enough to God to ask, "God, what is a million years to you?"
God replies, "My son, a million years to you is like a second to me."
The man asks, "God, what is a million dollars to you?" God replies, "My son, a million dollars to you is less than a penny to me. It means almost nothing to me."
The man asks, "So God, can I have a million dollars?"
And God replies, "In a second."

* * *

4. It was Palm Sunday, and the family's 6-year old son had to stay home from church because of strep throat. When the rest of the family returned home carrying palm branches, the little boy asked what they were for. His mother explained, "People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by."
"Wouldn't you know it," the boy fumed. "The one Sunday I don't go to church, and Jesus shows up!"

* * *

5. A lifelong unchurched man suddenly develops a vague religious urge and decides to join a church--any church. So he sets out to find one.

His first stop is a Roman Catholic church where he asks what he has to do to join. The priest mentions diligent study and the affirmation of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, then--just to see how much the man knows--asks him where Jesus was born. "
Pittsburgh," he answers. "Get out!" cries the shocked priest.

Next stop is a Southern Baptist church where the seeker is told he would have to learn Bible verses, swear belief in the Nicene and Apostles' creeds, swear off booze, and be baptized ("By immersion, not just some sissy sprinklin'"). The Baptist preacher then, to see how much this man knows, asks him where Jesus was born. "Philadelphia?" he asks tentatively (once bitten, twice shy). "Get out, you heathen!" yells the preacher.

Our perplexed protagonist finally walks into a Unitarian church where he is told all he has to do is sign a membership card. "You mean I don't have to renounce anything, swear to anything, or be dunked in anything?" "That's right. We have no special tests for membership, no dogma. We support total individual freedom of belief." "Then I'll join! But tell me--where was Jesus born?" "Why,
Bethlehem, of course." The man's face lights up. "I knew it was some place in Pennsylvania!"

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

Today's religious holiday: Ascension of Christ (Christian).

May 24, 2006


As China tries to figure out what, if any, religious freedoms its people will enjoy (I'm thinking now of the recent flap between the Vatican and Beijing over state-approved bishops), it would be interesting to see a new exhibit of Bibles and other artifacts from China. The display will be at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City from June 5-12. I can't go. One of you go and report to us, please. For a bit of a preview, click here.

* * *


I keep telling readers to go to funerals. I find them amazing experiences -- no matter the religious tradition of the person who has died.

NotesThe other day I attended a funeral in my own church of one of our members, a wonderful elderly man who had struggled with Parkinson's disease in recent years.

He loved music -- especially opera. And for this service, there was music I hadn't heard before -- parts of a work called "Requiem" by Gabriel Faure. (The last letter of his name should have an accent over it, but I can't seem to get the Typepad system to give that to me.)

At any rate, four singers and our church organist performed the works, and they were wonderful. So when I got home, I dug around on the Internet to find out what I could about Faure, a French composer born in 1845. Today I'm going to pass along to you some of what I found because sacred music is such an important part of what happens in faith communities and I thought maybe Faure would interest you.

So for a good rundown on Faure and the Requiem, click here. You have to be a little careful about what you find on Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopedia, but for the Wikipedia entry on this subject, click here. For some program notes on the Requiem, click here. And if you want an English translation of the Latin used in the work, click here.

If this happens to be one of your favorite works and you have a favorite recording of it, let me know. I'd like to own one.

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

May 23, 2006


Clearly we Americans haven't finished negotiating the location of the line between protecting religion from the state and protecting children from something a lot of people think won't hurt them. A new Texas example shows where the battle continues to be fought. How much do we need to protect children from religious ideas that might offend them? This much?

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One evening last week I was transported back to my high school days -- and, for some reason, to an odd but important spiritual moment.

InstrumentsI attended a concert of a local high school band that was trying to raise money for new uniforms -- the very Kansas City high school, Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, from which my two daughters were graduated some years ago.

At any rate, the uniforms reminded me of the uniforms our high school band wore when I played the oboe. And I drifted back in my memory to those long-gone days in Woodstock, Ill. As I was pondering being a high schooler again, I remembered reading Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, and I recalled, especially, the bad idea it gave me that through me for a spiritual loop for a time.

There's a character in the book named Cronshaw who gives to Philip, the main character, a Persian rug.

Here's part of Chapter 106: "Thinking of Cronshaw, Philip remembered the Persian run which he had given him, telling him that it offered an answer to his question upon the meaning of life; and suddenly the answer occurred to him: he chuckled: now that he had it, it was like one of the puzzles which you worry over till you are shown the solution and then cannot imagine how it could ever have escaped you. The answer was obvious. Life had no meaning. . .

"There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence. Philip exulted. . .

"'Oh life,' he cried in his heart, 'oh life, where is thy sting?'"

It was the sort of simplistic and sophomoric (I think, actually, that I was a sophomore when I read the Maugham book) conclusion likely to appeal to a searching teen-ager, and it took me several years to untether myself from it.

Perhaps my experience is not so uncommon. It's why young people need solid spiritual leaders they trust (I didn't), leaders to whom they can put hard, doubting questions. As I've said before, the road the faith inevitably leads through the valley of doubt. If you get stuck in false certitude before ever getting to faith, you wind up in a very different place. A good guide can help young people avoid that.

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

Today's religious holiday: Declaration of the Bab (Baha'i).

May 22, 2006


The judge in the recent "Intelligent Design" case in Pennsylvania was the Dickinson College graduation speaker this past weekend and had some thoughts about religion and the Founding Fathers. Do they match up with your thoughts about this? At first glance, his description of religion seems to me like a pretty narrow view.

* * *


Yes, of course congregations in any religious tradition require what I like to think of as the hardware of faith, which might be a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, along with all of the other material things that help to define the group.

StjamesBut, in the end, congregations are not the hardware but the software, which is to say the people. And the time to remember that is when congregations celebrate special dates, such as anniversaries of their founding.

St. James Catholic Church of Kansas City (the picture here shows the interior before 1965), a central city congregation at 3909 Harrison St., is observing the 100th anniversary of its founding this year. And part of the celebration has been publication of a small book: St. James Catholic Church: Centennial Stories, 1906-2006. The lovely thing about this -- from which all of us can learn -- is not just the gorgeous watercolor painting of the church by parishioner Bob Ferron but the fact that it is simply packed with memories by people associated with the church.

The book almost literally sings of the church's humanity.

Some brief statements are quite simple: "When I first came to St. James," said Becky Nelson, a current parishioner, "I was looking for a personal relationship with God, but what I didn't expect was this huge communal relationship with God."

Some are very brief but quite specific: "I remember Ione Sheffield dancing at Culture of Peace, cane in hand," said Dave Cozad.

And there's even a little in-house humor: "(Msgr. John W.) Keyes kekpt us all out of jail," Paul Lillig writes of the founding pastor, who served until 1950.

Well, the thing to remember is that in any faith community, it's the people who are crucial -- even more than the buildings or the clergy or the time of worship. And the new St. James book has captured that.

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

May 20-21, 2006, weekend


The Vatican's call for people to boycott "The Da Vinci Code" movie has failed in Italy. In fact, the film set box office records there. Wonder how many of those who attended were descended from the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. (Uh, that's a joke, folks.)

* * *


Time Magazine's online edition reports that Pope Benedict XVI has severely disciplined the founder of the powerful conservative organization Legionaries of Christ because of sexual abuse allegations. At least one observer calls this a stunning move and a triumph of right over loyalty. For a more complete account by John L. Allen, Jr., Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, click here. For the Vatican's confirmation of this action, click here. It will be fascinating to see the ramifications of this.

* * *


Several years ago, as I was preparing to teach a writing class at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico, I discovered a wonderful French Reformed Christian writer named Jacques Ellul (pictured here), who lived from 1912 to 1994.

EllulI especially found his book Hope in Time of Abandonment poignant and helpful for the class I was about to teach, called "From Pain to Hope Through Writing." (By the way, I'll lead a long weekend version of that class in October at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania. Come join me there.)

At any rate, recently someone sent along to me an extended excerpt from another Ellul book, Living Faith, in which he seeks to differentiate between the idea of "belief" and the idea of "faith." I'm not sure I buy all of his notions, but he certainly got me to think about what my ideas are.

You can read the entire six-page excerpt at the link I've given you in the previous paragraph here, but while you do, ponder these quotes from Ellul:

* "Belief provides answers to people's questions while faith never does."

* "Faith presupposes doubt while belief excludes it."

* "The opposite of doubt isn't faith, but belief."

* "Belief is reassuring. People who live in the world of belief feel safe. On the contrary, faith is forever placing us on the razor's edge."

Well, roll around in that for a bit and give me your reaction.

By the way, Ellul is sometimes described as a "Christian anarchist," based on his 1991 book Anarchy and Christianity, which I have not read. The first person who reads it and reports on it to me wins, uh, my thanks.

Speaking of Ghost Ranch, I'll be co-teaching a seminar on Jewish-Christian relations there in August with a rabbi. I invite you to take a look at the course description and to come join us. We'll have a chance that week to learn each other's story and even to have some fun. 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.