Previous month:
August 2006
Next month:
October 2006

Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2006, weekend


Is it politically exploitive or just plain courtesy that causes the president and other politicians to issue statements on and about religious holidays, like this one from George W. Bush about Yom Kippur? Sometimes I think it's both.

* * *

D-0-G and G-O-D

My wife just finished reading columnist John Grogan's book about the dog mentioned in this reflection about animals and God. So I took that as a divine sign that I should share this piece with you this weekend.

* * *


A few days ago, the man who used to be the highest elected official in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), was arrested at a peace demonstration.

Rickuc3_1The arrest of Rick Ufford-Chase (shown here in a photo I took when he visited my church earlier this year) raises several questions for me. And I'd like you to struggle along with me as we think about them. (Click here to read Rick's blog.)

* At what point are people of faith -- in this case Protestant Christians -- called to move from legal protest to civil disobedience?

* Is civil disobedience always an individual judgment call or are there some universal standards we might apply -- say, in the way we have standards for what is a "just war"?

* Should employees of faith-based organizations who engage in civil disobedience first have the permission of their employers?

* Should those employers be expected to bear the legal costs of the case once an arrest happens?

* What obligation do members of a faith community have to support one of their own who decides it's time to engage in civil disobedience?

* What would Jesus do -- and how do we know?

No doubt there are many more questions that Rick's arrest raise, but those are where I'd start. You're free to pile on your answers in the comments section here on in e-mail to me.

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

P.S.: Let me reiterate my thanks to readers here who -- almost without exception in the comments they leave -- engage in civil discourse. More proof that we can disagree without hatred. Your civility is an excellent model.

Sept. 29, 2006


Because it's the Jewish High Holidays, I thought you might be interested in this recent feature story about a Jewish artist. And because it's Ramadan, here's a news story about an initial German summit on Islam and how Germany and Islam are getting along.

* * *


I haven't had a chance to see the controversial documentary movie "Jesus Camp," though last I looked it was still playing in some Kansas City area theaters.

FischerBut what I know about it makes me want to find the time. And it makes me worried about the ways in which religious leaders sometimes manipulate the hearts and minds of children.

"Jesus Camp" tells the story of Pastor Becky Fischer's (she is pictured here) "Kids on Fire" summer camp, where young people are trained to be aggressive and militant Christians deeply committed to one way of viewing the faith.

Because I haven't seen the movie, I'd rather let you check it out and draw your own conclusions, but you can click here for an ABC News story about the movie, shown on

And click here for the Internet Movie Database site on the film, including information about its links to Missouri.

If you've seen the film, tell us what you think. And did you have any experiences as a youth in which you felt religious leaders were trying to be manipulative instead of trying simply to educate you?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will talk about the influence the Bible has on our culture and what an amazing historical day Sept. 30 has been when it comes to the Bible. I also will have a piece in the Star's Faith section about the way the so-called Religious Left is stirring to life.)

Today's religious holiday: Michael and All Angels (Christian)

PS: As a follow-up to yesterday's thoughts about the pope and Islam, here's a wise editorial from a Jewish publication, The Forward.

Sept. 28, 2006


North Korea says the U.S. is not the judge of religion. I'm trying to think of a subject North Korea could say something about that I wouldn't be skeptical of. (Maybe ending English-language sentences with prepositions.)

* * *


Now that a little time has passed since Pope Benedict XVI met with Muslim leaders earlier this week -- and now that more time has passed since the pope's controversial speech in Germany -- I think it's worth thinking aloud (and anew) here about what happened.

Pope_3First, it's intriguing to note what many critics of Islam often fail to note -- and that is that the reaction from Muslims has been varied. In fact, as the BBC reported the other day, a number of Muslims have been critical of Muslims' reponses to the pope's speech.

This is further proof that Islam is not a monolithic faith. It is divided, varied, sometimes fractious -- very much, in that way, like Christianity and even Judaism. Not all Muslims think, speak or act alike.

Second, I want to emphasize a point the pope made when he met with Muslim leaders. And that is that our future depends on harmonious relations among followers of the religions of the world -- especially Christianity's approximately 2 billion followers and Islam's 1-plus billion adherents. Followers of those two religions make up nearly half the population of the globe.

If Muslims and Christians -- whatever their theological differences (and they are serious) -- can figure out how to live together without killing one another or without perpetual hostility, there may be hope for the world. Of course, it will help if, in future speeches, the pope thinks more clearly ahead of time how his words will be understood and if Muslims, in reacting to such speeches, do not degenerate into violence, thus affirming critics of Islam.

A third point to notice is what happened after the pope spoke to Muslim leaders. He spoke to each one personally, shaking hands, looking each in the eye. That is precisely the kind of contact that is required if interfaith dialogue is to go anywhere. But that is the very beginning of such dialogue, not the end.

So even though I thought the pope's initial speech was ill-crafted (despite the good points it made about reason and faith), his follow-up has been good. Unlike some public figures, the pope is big enough to acknowledge his mistakes and to find a way to set them right.

What a good model that is.

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

Sept. 27, 2006


I like Rich Cizik. I've never met him in person, but have spoken with this national evangelical Christian leader several times by phone and always found him thoughtful and courteous. Somehow it doesn't surprise me to find him urging other evangelicals now to care for the environment. The evangelical community is somewhat divided on this issue, with some, such as Cizik, suggesting climate change is a big deal and that all Christians should care it about as stewards of Earth, while others downplay the issue's importance compared with missionary outreach and other mandates. Although I don't consider myself an evangelical Christian in the way the popular culture usually understands that term today (I will accept the descriptive term if I get to define it), I'm with Cizik on this one.

* * *


Last Sunday morning I gave a talk to an adult forum at an Episcopal church in suburban Kansas City. My topic was the long history of anti-Judaism found in the history of Christianity.

Jewchris_6In the talk, I mentioned Martin Luther's vile 1543 tract, "On the Jews and Their Lies," as well as many other examples. I also mentioned the 1965 Roman Catholic doctrine, "Nostra Aetate," or "In Our Time," which finally repudiated the long-promoted idea that Jews are somehow collectively guilty of the death of Jesus.

Someone in the audience asked me whether, like the Catholics, Lutherans had formally rejected former church teaching as embodied in Luther's own work.

My answer was yes, but at the time I was unable to point to the specific documents that would have included that repudiation.

I since have looked up some of that and thought my findings might interest you.

The 4.85-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America maintains a section of its Web site devoted to relations with other religions, including Judaism. Click here to get to that section of the site. It includes guidelines for Jewish-Lutheran relations, information on Jewish-Christian relations and the text of a 1994 document written to Jews in which the ELCA officially repudiates Luther on this topic.

The smaller (and more theologically conservative) Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod denomination offers this statement about Lutherans and Jews. It decries prejudice against anyone, quotes Luther saying nice things about Jews and emphasizes the need for all to be saved by Jesus Christ, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about what the LCMS believes is the fate of Jews.

One point to be taken from all of this is that it's really difficult to speak of Jewish-Christian relations because Christianity is so divided, as is Judaism. It might be possible to speak of, say relations between Reform Judaism and ELCA Lutherans or Conservative Judaism and the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod. But beyond that it gets problematic.

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

Sept. 26, 2006


Sometimes clergy get called upon to act for the greater good in a nontraditional role. A year ago, for instance, a Methodist pastor in Britain was asked to help monitor the decommissioning of the Irish Republican Army. There were many skeptics about whether the IRA would give up its arms. Click here to read this minister's reflections a year later. And thank goodness for clergy willing to step outside their usually boundaries to perform such service.

* * *


The thing about popes is that they fall into a long, long line of people who have held the title before them. (Many of us are thinking about popes because of the controversy involving Benedict XVI and Muslims. Watch for additional comments on that subject this coming Thursday here. But for some exerpts of what the pope said yesterday to Muslim leaders, click here.)

Paul_vi_1Some were brilliant, dedicated, warm and wonderful men of the church. Some were fools. Most fell somewhere in between those extremes.

Today is a good day to think about how papal history affects not only the Roman Catholic Church but the church universal and also the world. Why? Today is the birthday of an important pope, Paul VI (pictured here), all of whose 15 years in office occurred in my own lifetime.

He was born Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini (and I thought my mother's five names were a lot) near Brescia, Italy, in 1897 (the official Vatican biography says he was born in Concesio), making him 21 years younger than my maternal grandfather, who would have turned 130 a few weeks ago. Amazing.

Montini was ordained in 1920, as the world was still reeling from the sobering effects of World War I. It also was the year in which Karl Barth published his earth-shaking commentary on Romans, which particularly affected the Protestant world by calling into question so-called liberal theology, which, through rose-colored glasses, tended to see humanity as getting progressively better. The war utterly disillusioned many people who held that view, as it should have.

Montini became a cardinal in 1958. By whom? By Pope John XXIII, who called Vatican II into being. That's the church's council that did so much to open up the church to modernity, a council the church is still sorting out. But when John XXIII died in 1963 (the year in which I was graduated from high school), the council was not yet finished.

It was the job of Paul VI to help bring the council to a conclusion in 1965.

As a Protestant, my memories of Paul VI probably always will be a bit colored by the fact that he came after John XXIII, whom most Protestants loved. John was warm and understandable and full of verve. Paul VI seemed, by contrast, to be much more reserved and, frankly, a lot less fun.

But each of the popes in my life has been fascinating and has helped to remake the world, even though I, a Presbyterian, have not been directly connected to their reigns. In some ways, I think the office of pope is representative of a church that, for my tastes, is far too hierarchical. But there certainly are some advantages to a centralized authority. At least you have someone to speak for you. And the lack of that someone is a problem for many faiths.

Well, you can do your own reading about Paul VI on this, his 109th birthday anniversary. But it's worth the time of all of us to think about how such religious leaders affect our lives and our faith.

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

Sept. 25, 2006


Religion is almost always in some kind of conflict with the surrounding culture -- as often it should be. An intriguing current example is the effort by NBC to edit some Bible references out of "VeggieTales," the TV series for kids. It's at least comforting that we let these things be worked out case by case and not by some kind of national religious mediator.

* * *


Maybe it should not have surprised me to read strangely critical words about Hinduism in a book by a now-dead English scholar.

HinduismAfter all, the British are the ones who coined the term Hinduism in the early part of the 19th century so they'd have a way to refer to the variety of religious beliefs and practices of many of the people who by then were under the British thumb in India.

Still, what I found in Vincent A. Smith's The Oxford History of India (third edition, edited by Percival Spear, a 1967 reprint -- I read old books) struck me as bizarre and completely out of sync with my own experience of Hindus. You may or may not remember that I lived for two years in India when I was a boy.

In a section dealing with the latter part of the 17th Century, and with a powerful ruler named Sivaji, here is what Smith writes: "Hindus are prone to worship power as such, and Sivaji's brilliant success alone would have sufficed to win popular veneration."

Hindus are prone to worship power?

I grant that Hindus, in terms of their human nature, are no different from the rest of us. They sometimes fall for the same idols all of us do. And in the last 60 years we certainly we have seen examples of Hindu violence as relations with Muslims on the subcontinent have had their ups and downs.

But the idea that Hindus worship power strikes me as outrageous. Hindus, in my experience, are among the most gentle, deferential people I know. They seek inner peace. They are devoted to family and to a sense of oneness about humanity and even the deity, though for them God can take many forms. The worship of power is about the last thing I'd associate with Hindus (as it would be with Buddhists).

My point in raising this is that we should read about religion with much discernment. We need to be aware of the prejudice of the authors. Or, if not prejudice, at least the eyes through which the story is being told (including the writing on this blog).

Smith also seems to have at least mild disdain for Islam in his book, and yet somehow a love for India -- and Indians. I can only conclude that Smith himself must have been another example of your basic fallible human being. Imagine that.

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

Sept. 23-24, 2006, weekend


Pope Benedict XVI is inviting Muslims to a face-to-face conversation about his recent speech that caused so many hard feelings in the Islamic world. How do you view this move? Too much appeasement? A necessary way forward if there is to be interfaith harmony? A possibly helpful but probably useless gesture? My position is No. 2.

* * *

AS 5766 BECOMES 5767

As Jews today enter a new year with Rosh Hashanah, here's an interesting Jewish-perspective rundown on Israel and what happened in the year just ending, 5766. (You may have to go through a free registration to finish the story.)

* * *


We've probably all participated some way -- or contributed to -- charity events. You know, walks, runs, golf tournaments, quilt sales, silent auctions, dinners, dances, on and on.

Golf1Which is what I did the other day. I played in a golf tourney to raise money for the Good Samaritan Program of Presbyterian Manors of Mid-America. The money is used to help financially needy residents of two facilities the synod runs.

It was a good cause and a beautiful day. And I got to spend the day with three friends. (But as you can see from the picture of me swinging, sometimes I didn't hurt the ball at all. Well, maybe that was my practice swing, but I wouldn't swear to it.)

But here's my question: Why does it take these special events to raise money? Why wouldn't it have been more efficient for me just to send in my $150 to the charity and be done with it? Why did I have to be enticed to play golf, eat lunch, eat dinner, get prizes and on and on?

Why, in other words, does it sometimes seem as if we need to be bribed to be generous? Would people not give if they weren't enticed by all the extras?

Have you tried to raise money for purposes your religion tells are worthwhile? And does it take more than a simple explanation of the need and a request for funds?

Look, I've played in this golf tourney before and probably will again. I've raised money through pledges to particpate in a walk for AIDS service organizations. And so forth. But I'm just wondering about why we need all of that to be motivated to do the right giving thing.

What's your thought?

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about religious seasons and their relation to the regular calendar. The column was missing from The Star's Web site but now has been posted.)

Today's religious holidays: Rosh Hashana (Judaism; Sept. 23); Navaratri (Hunduism; begins Sept. 23); Ramadan (Islam; begins Sept. 24).

Golf3 Golf9 Golf6

Sept. 22, 2006


Just in case you want my opinion about the president of Venezuela coming to the United Nations the other day and calling the president of the United States "the devil" (and the next day calling him a "sick man,") I thought it was verbal terrorism. The devil reference was use of a religious concept for political and ideological purposes. (Had enough of that?) It was, of course, grossly undiplomatic but it reflected much more on Hugo Chavez than it did on George W. Bush. As an attack on the office of the president, it must be denounced.

* * *


People, people (as my exasperated 8th grade English teacher Ruth Wilson used to say). We have been entirely too serious for entirely too long -- though no doubt with good reason.

EasterbunniesSo we break from all our ponderousness for a little humor today -- possibly very little, depending on your personal funny bone.

A reminder: I don't make these jokes up. I collect them -- from as well as from you and other sources. If you don't like these, send me some better ones.

1. A Sunday school teacher asked her class: "Does anyone here know what we mean by sins of omission?"

A small girl replied: "Aren't those the sins we should have committed but didn't?"

2. One morning a man came into church on crutches. He stopped in front of the holy water (which, by the way is H2OLY), put some on both legs and then threw away his crutches.

An altar boy witnessed the scene and then ran to find the priest to tell him what he'd witnessed.

"Son, you've just witnessed a miracle," the priest exclaimed. "Tell me where the man is now."

The boy replied: "Over by the holy water, flat on his butt."

3. A woman went to the beach with her children. Her 4-year-old son grabbed her by the hand and led her to where a dead seagull lay in the sand.

"Mommy," he asked, "what happened to him?"

She replied: "He died an went to heaven."

The boy thought for a moment and then asked: "And then God threw him back down?"

4. Late one night in the insane asylum an inmate shouted, "I am Napoleon!"

Another inmate shouted back: "Who told you?"

The man replied: "God."

At which point another inmate shouted, "I did not."

5. "Dear Lord," the preacher began, arms extended and a glorious look on his face, "without you we are but dust. . ."

He would have continued, but at that point an obedient little girl who had been listening carefully, leaned over to her mother and asked in her high-pitched little-girl voice, "Mom, what's butt dust?"

Church was pretty much over at that point.

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

Sept. 21, 2006


The Vatican has opened more of its secret archives to scholars. There still is much to be learned from this material. Let's all hope journalists, scholars and others interested in what's there take their time and report it right.

* * *


As something of a follow-up to yesterday's post about the pope and his remarks about Islam, I want to share with you a pretty good insight into what's called the War on Terror.

WaronterrorI've long been wary of wars on concepts or conditions -- the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, that sort of thing -- because usually the language is designed merely to hype what's being done and not to help people understand (or attack) the root causes of whatever is being warred against.

In the new (October 2006) issue of Theology Today, a quarterly I've taken for a long time, Charles T. Mathewes, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, offers these thoughts about the War on Terror:

"This war is not a traditional, literal war at all. First of all, the enemy is not a rival symmetric power. Al-Aqaida has no traditional force structure that can be defeated on a battlefield. It is more like an elite cadre of venture-capitalists of terror, funding innumerable start-up terror cells, generally for single operations. Fighting al-Qaida is in fact more like fighting an ad agency than like fighting Nazi Germany.

"Furthermore, the goal of this war is not territorial conquest or liberation. Islamic terror movements are not nihilistic fascists, as many suggest; they possess a fantasized ideal and something like a deliberate strategy, even if the real motive is a recoiling disgust at or fear of others. Yet neither are they driven by Chomskian disapproval of U.S. geopolitics; al-Qaida expresses a hatred for 'the West' that is inspired by what the West represents as well as by what it does.

"Finally, the nature of the war's violence is different. Al-Qaida's violence is not meant directly to effect strategic changes but to do so only as interpreted by audiences. And the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq seems also in part intended as a message. The violence, that is, is fundamentally symbolic. None of this denies the literality of the violence. Real people die. But the deaths are instrumental to something else. Both sides aim to use violence as a way of communication to a much broader audience, in the Muslim worlds and in the United States (if not the West as a whole), differing messages. This is a semiotic war -- a war by signs, over signs, and, in a sense, about signs."

I think it's really helpful now and then to unpack familiar phrases to see what's really behind them, especially if those phrases provide some sort of rationale for public policy that affects millions of people. Perhaps you have a different definition of the War on Terror. If so, please share it.

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

Today's religious holidays: Mabon (Wicca/Neo-Pagan, Northern Hemisphere); Ostara (Wicca/Neo-Pagan, Southern Hemisphere).

Sept. 20, 2006


When I was in Chicagoland last week, one of the more amusing stories in the local news was the move by Chicago city officials to ban foie gras because of the animal cruelty said to be required to produce it. Now Jewish leaders have jumped into the fray, putting pressure on Jewish aldermen. Geese and ducks and maybe even people of faith in Chicago better scurry.

* * *


I want to revisit the pope-Muslim controversy for just a bit today, amid signs that the crisis may be easing a bit.

Pope_2It seems to me -- after thinking about the speech in Germany in which the pope quoted some centuries-old criticisms of Islam, the two Vatican clarifications and the one personal apology -- that Benedict XVI (pictured here) might have been better off had he done what most of us Christians also fail to do regularly: Live according to the instructions Paul gave to the Colossians, found in some verses in the third chapter of Colossians.

Paul tells members of the Jesus movement to "clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience."

The crux of the matter for me comes in verse 14: "Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony."

What does it mean to "clothe yourselves with love"?

To me, it means thinking always about the needs of others. It means trying to imagine how my actions and my thoughts will be perceived by others. It means seeking the best for others. That does not always mean I will agree with others or that I will do what others want me to do. We are all, after all, fallible and ultimately incapable of doing the right and perfect and just thing all the time. And, truth be told, sometimes others are wrong.

In this case, I think it should have meant that the pope would have tried to hear his initial speech with the ears of people whose religion was being criticized in the quote he used. He need not have cut out that quote, necessarily, but before he used it he could have said something like, "This is the kind of unnecessarily cruel remark that leads to anger and useless disagreement, the kind of remark we don't need today."

That may be easier to see now in hindsight. And the pope is far from the first person who has said things poorly or without thinking them through carefully. We've all done it. But how much more harmonious the world would be if we who are Christians tried to live in the spirit of Colossians 3:14.

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

P.S.: I was intrigued to read an Arab News story this week in which the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia (whom I met there in 2002) urged the pope to learn about the Prophet Muhammad. But can anyone tell us what the mufti meant when he said, according to this story, that Jesus spoke good words about Muhammad long before the prophet even lived?