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November 2006

Oct. 31, 2006


Speaking of sacred languages, which I will be below, author James Carroll, who wrote Constantine's Sword, says in a Boston Globe column that despite efforts to renew Latin in the Catholic Church, it's dead. And thank heavens, he says. What -- in any language -- do you say?

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Speaking of tricks and treats, a Netherlands-based Christian youth group named Time to Turn has published a Bible (pictured here) with all the controversial parts taken out.

BijbelsBut apparently lots of people haven't gotten the joke.

Satire can be a tough way to make a living. Lots of people have lost their sense of humor and simply don't get it. (It's one reason the great comic strip "Zippy" struggles for acceptance.)

On the other hand, you may know that this new fake Bible is not the first time people have undertaken a revised and smaller version. Thomas Jefferson famously published a Bible that removed any references to the divinity of Christ, in which he did not believe. I have, in my personal collection, something called the Olive Pell Bible, put together by a woman who just wanted her own favorite parts. And, of course, some years ago we saw publication of the Reader's Digest Bible, a condensed version.

I liked the fact that the Bible from the Time to Turn folks was accompanied by this statements from the alleged chairman of a phony Western Bible Foundation: "Jesus was very inspiring for our inner health, but we don't need to take his naive remarks about money seriously. He didn't study economics, obviously."

The true chairman of Time to Turn, Frank Mulder, said the controversy stirred by the fake Bible surprised him: "Many Christians accept the Western lifestyle, including the degradation of creation and the injustice of our trade, and they only take the easy parts of the gospel. But it isn't until we publish this gospel with holes that they get confused."

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

Today's religious holidays: All Hallows Eve (Christian); Reformation Day (Protestant Christian); Samhain (Wicca/Neo Pagan, northern hemisphere); Beltane (Wicca/Neo Pagan, southern hemisphere); Deep Diwali (Jain)

PS: If you really need a Halloween fix having to do with death, click here for an interesting group that is trying to change thinking about how to handle dead bodies and how to take care of the bereaved.

Oct. 30, 2006


In response to my Saturday column this past weekend about the need for Christian harmony, a reader sent me a copy of this interesting piece by a theology professor. His argument is that Protestants need the papacy. What do you think?

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As you might imagine, I get a hundredyskillion e-mails from lots of people, including folks who want me to put their story in the newspaper.

MaryThat's as it should be.

But now and then one of those notes will make me stop and wonder what is real and what is simply a figment our our individual or collection imaginations.

The other day, for instance, media folks all over the country, including me, received an e-mail describing the mysterious appearance in Virginia of a figure called "The Blessed Mother." I immediately thought that this was another example of a sighting of the Virgin Mary. For a long time, as you know, there have been reports of the Virgin Mary appearing to little children, to the sick, to mystics and on and on.

For a few examples of this sort of thing, click here and here. The Vatican, of course, has rules about how to make a judgment about whether such appearances are really miracles, and not everything reported qualifies.

Was I right about this one being Mary? Well, maybe.

The Virginia Web site to which I've linked you, as you will see, says the "eternal Divine Feminine" has been appearing in many traditions, including as the Virgin Mary in Christianity.

For a study group I'm part of, I've recently been reading Karen Armstrong's book, A History of God, and she points out that nearly every religious tradition has a mystic strain to it and that these mystics often experience such visions.

My question is this: Are these appearances real? And what do we mean by real? Are they a way in which God is trying to speak to us? Or are they simply our imaginations run amok?

Who among you has ever seen a mysterious or miraculous image of the Virgin Mary or any other such figure? And what do you make of it?

The closest I've ever come to such a thing is that I once thought I saw the image of Robert Bork on a water tower in a small town, but it turned out to be a bad paint job.

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

Oct. 28-29, 2006, weekend


Pope Benedict XVI spoke out Saturday about the sexual abuse of minors by priests. This subject has slipped out of the limelight in recent months, but it's far from solved, either in the U.S. or in other countries, such as Ireland. Irish bishops are meeting at the Vatican this weekend.

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A new film about Jesus that depicts him as black promises to be provocative. Is it even possible to do a movie about Jesus these days that wouldn't stir up passion? I doubt it.

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If you life in the Kansas City area, you already may be aware that Union Station will host an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls for several months starting in February.

Scroll_2This upcoming treat has created the opportunity for various presentations about the scrolls around town. I've already given one and will give another one in January. And a few days ago I attended such a presentation at Rockhurst University, given by Mark Nanos, a local Jewish scholar whose work has focused primarily on the Apostle Paul.

Part of what I like so much about Mark and his work is that although he's an internationally known scholar, he retains a sense of humor and a sense of perspective about all of this.

For instance, he began by saying how nice it was that we had pretty much filled up Mabee Theater at Rockhurst with people who wanted to hear about "some old dead stuff that we find interesting."

There is a great deal of fascinating background to the scrolls -- how and when they were found, who has had control over them since then, what shape they were in, how they're being pieced together and on and on. One could take up several hours simply lecturing about all of that without ever getting to the content and meaning of the scrolls.

Indeed, Nanos was half an hour into an hour-long lecture when he acknowledged he'd been dealing with all of that preliminary material instead of the content.

At any rate, the primary point Nanos made was that the scrolls are having an important positive affect on Jewish-Christian reltions in our time. He pointed to similarities between these Jewish texts and the sacred writings of what eventually became Christianity. And he noted the common feeling held both by the community responsible for some of the scrolls and the followers of Jesus that the Jerusalem Temple was being mismanaged. He also noted many references in these Jewish texts to the "Holy Spirit," which many Christians believe is a uniquely Christian concept.

One of his points to Christians was made with this question: "You have something beautiful in Christianity. Why can't we have something beautiful in Judaism?"

The problem, he said, comes because of a need for each side to confirm its superiority and the inferiority of the other.

I asked him whether the various biblical texts found among the scrolls had yet produced any changes in the translations of today's Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Old Testament. He said that hasn't happened yet, though he expected that within several decades some changes may work their way into the canonical texts.

For the biblical scholars among you, Mark later e-mailed me with suggestions on several books that would address this question: In a 1991 book called Traditions of the Text, James A. Sanders has an essay called "Stability and Fluidity in Text and Canon"; in a book called The Canon Debate, Emanuel Tov has written a section called "The Status of the Masoretic Text in Modern Text Editions of the Hebrew Bible", and in a book called Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text, Shemaryahu Talmon has a chapter called "The Textual Study of the Bible: A New Outlook." Talmon also has a section called "The Crystalization of the Canon of Hebrew Scriptures in the Light of the Biblical Scrolls from Qumran" in a 2002 volume called The Bible as a Book: The Hebrew Bible and the Judaean Desert Discoveries.

I saw an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Chicago several years ago (you can find an essay about that experience in my book, A Gift of Meaning), and I highly recommend that you see the exhibit in Kansas City if you can. But don't wait to get tickets. Thousands already have been sold.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend asks whether Protestantism is still valid.)

Today's religious holiday: Milvian Bridge Day (Christian, 28th)

Oct. 27, 2006


Is the so-called U2-charist the future of Holy Communion in Christian churches? And if churches decide to use the musical works of our era's most famous folk singer for the other major Christian sacrament, will they call it a Bob-tism?

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The world of freeware contains some good stuff and some, well, useless stuff for our computers.

BiblecomputerBut I've just learned about -- and installed on my desktop as well as my laptop -- a really good new Bible freeware program that I want to alert you to.

It's called Berean BerBible freeware, and it takes about 15 seconds to download and install -- at broadband speed, anyway.

The simplicity of it is what I like. You can quickly search for any word you think is in the Bible (well, the English Standard Version, at any rate) and you get every verse that mentions the word.

Plus, the entire Bible is there and you can click throughit chapter by chapter if you want. No, there's no commentary or dictionary. But you can find those things elsewhere.

This freeware is not the sophisticated study tool that serious scholars use, but for most of us, it's more than adequate.

If you want a little tutorial that will walk you through some of its features, click here. Otherwise, the link I have given you above will get you to a page from which you can download the program.

This freeware developed from a need for Third Word missionaries using old and slow computers to have an easy Bible software program available to them. But once it got created, the developer. Lynn Allen, wanted to share it. And has. So enjoy. Lynn is a Sunday School teacher with his wife.

The software has no direct connection to the Berean Church, but if you want to know who the Bereans are, Click here. And then click on the history link when you get there.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will question why Christianity continues to be so divided.)

Oct. 26, 2006


Has the Vatican betrayed American nuns? The former religion editor of The New York Times thinks so, and he describes his research for a new book in this interview. Speaking of nuns, the other day I saw one dressed in full habit and did a second take because that's such a rare sight nowadays. Nearly all the nuns I know wear simple civilian dress, if that's the right term.

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A year or more ago, I wrote a story for The Kansas City Star describing how individual Christian churches are taking a much larger role than ever in sending missionaries to other countries.

GuatemalaThe previously dominant pattern was for churches to contribute to a national or denominational mission board, which in turned hired and sent out missionaries. Some of that still goes on, but today you're more likely to find short-term mission teams sent by local churches.

But one of the long-term missionaries who works under the auspices of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), spoke at my church this past Sunday and will speak again there this evening. Drop by at 7 p.m., if you like. The church is at 55th and Brookside in Kansas City, Mo.

In his sermon to our congregation on Sunday, Dennis A. Smith, who has spent decades in Guatemala, offered some profoundly realistic views of mission work today. I thought what he said was so insightful that I wanted to share a little of it with you.

The point I'll start with has to do with understanding the difference between helping people get on their feet and keeping them under control: "Dependency always trumps human dignity," Smith said.

Well, I thought that was the point to start with, but Smith, in his sermon, said that what was most important to him is this:

"I’ve learned that mission, done in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, should do no harm. In the course of human history, untold millions have been brutalized and murdered in the name of religion. So 'Do no harm' is a good place to start."

One problem, however, Smith said, is that Americans come to do Christian mission work in a place like Guatemala without realizing how local citizens will perceive them.

"Every day," he said, "10 direct flights arrive in Guatemala City from the United States. Many of those flights bear at least one mission team from US churches. You’ll recognize them by their brightly colored, uniform T-shirts and energetic grins. These are good people that sincerely want to do good. Most of these good folks bring along invisible baggage they don’t even know they have. That invisible baggage is filled with power. It includes a credit card, health insurance, skills that are currently deemed marketable by the global economy, a retirement plan, and a pretty good idea where their next meal is coming from."

Smith also told the story of a pastor in the U.S. who was retiring to come to a Mayan village in Guatemala to work on reconciliation and empowerment with the people there. But before he was to arrive, he was taking three months to learn Spanish.

Smith says he knows that village. Another PCUSA worker spent 10 years there gaining the trust and respect of the local people.

"Their language," Smith said, "is not Spanish. Spanish is the language of commerce, of their oppressor, but not the language of their hearts."

But the incoming pastor hadn't taken time to understand that.

Well, a great deal about missionary work has changed in recent decades -- especially from the terribly oppressive image of mission workers in Africa portrayed in Barbara Kingsolver's moving novel, The Poisonwood Bible.

But clearly more attention must be paid to local sensibilities if missionaries hope to share the gospel, work for the benefit of the people and change lives. Thank goodness there still are people like Dennis Smith on the front lines to teach others such things.

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

Oct. 25, 2006


Speaking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as I will be below, a new poll shows most American Jews favor a Palestinian state but a huge majority believes the Arab world wants to destroy Israel. For a news story about this, click here. For the complete American Jewish Committee's 2006 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, click here.

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Years ago -- it must have been in the 1970s or early '80s -- I attended a conference that had to do with abortion. And I was struck by how difficult it was for people on different sides of that issue to hear each other.

Israeli_palestinianIn fact, I wrote a column about it, as I recall, bemoaning our inability to listen well and to communicate clearly without using loaded words.

I had that same feeling this past weekend. On Friday evening I spoke at a Jewish Synagogue about the move started (but later abandoned, essentially) by my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- the PCUSA, to divest, or sell, stock in companies profiting from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As one might expect, many members of the audience were deeply committed to the existence, safety and future of Israel.

The next day, I attended part of a two-day Kansas City Sabeel Conference, where I heard a lot about what Israel has done wrong and how unjustly the Palestinian people have been treated.

Just to be clear about where I stand: I have always been a supporter of Israel, though at times I am critical of some of its policies and actions. I believe deeply that Israel has a right to exist. At the same time, I think the Palestinian people should have their own homeland where they can be safe, a homeland that will not threaten Israel but, rather, will be a good neighbor. I also believe a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want the same thing.

But, as I say, it's hard for the most ardent supporters of Israel and the most ardent supporters of the Palestinians to hear each other. For one thing, they sometimes operate from completely opposite assumptions or views of what is true.

For instance, there's the question of whether Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is legal. Rick Hellman, editor of the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, argued in a presentation that the occupation is completely legal under United Nations' rules and that if Israel ever got the security it needs to live without regular attacks on its sovereignty, "I think Israel would be shed of the occupation." (By the way, click here for the story Hellman wrote about the Sabeel conference before it was held.)

Across the hall, the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, former moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, showed a video in which several speakers maintained that the occupation was illegal.

"When you occupy a people," said Abu-Akel, "they're going to rebel."

And yet despite these -- and many more -- profound differences, it's possible to hear the language of hope in all of this.

For instance, at a panel discussion, I heard Mubarak Awad, founder and director of Nonviolence International, say this: "We have nothing to fear when we see each other as human beings."

And I heard Jeff Halper, Coordinating Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, say more Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is essential, especially in the U.S., where he proposed a Sabeel conference that would be jointly sponsored by a synagogue.

And I heard Hellman say that "just for Israel's own self interest there ought to be a Palestinian state."

Jews, Christians and Muslims all have a stake in Jerusalem and in the land that around it that all three religions call holy. But everyone has to be able to hear what others perceive to be truth and to find ways to move the process forward without undermining the essential human dignity of people with whom they disagree.

Prophetic voices surely are needed in this matter. But not ones who are convinced they own all the truth and all the righteousness of cause.

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

PS: And speaking of people from lots of places with different opinions, readers to this blog in the last few days have come from England, Egypt, Switzerland and France and from such American cities beyond the Kansas City region as Madison, Wis., Warren, Mich., Washington, D.C., Laurinburg, N.C., Livermore, Calif., Atlanta, Ga., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Woodstock, Ill., my hometown. Welcome to this neighborhood, all.

Oct. 24, 2006


Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, says his visit to China suggests to him that the country's leadership is open to giving religion a bigger role there. I hope he's not imagining that the current government is about to start taking true religious freedom seriously. So far, there's not a lot of evidence of that. But the more folks like Williams -- and political leaders of countries where freedom of religion is cherished -- speak out about this basic human right, the more pressure it puts on regimes like China's.

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Regular readers of this blog know of my interest in interfaith dialogue and understanding.

LevineI think this needs to take place not so we can try to convert one another to our own religious views but so that we can know and be known and so that we can avoid the kind of misunderstandings and prejudice that lead to religious hatred and violence. The world surely doesn't need more of that.

So when I run across words that help explain my own interest in this area, I like to pass them along.

I've been reading and skimming a huge stack of books for an upcoming column (with an extension on this blog) about new faith-related books. One of those books is a wonderful volume called The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine (pictured here), professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

Here are some of Levine's wise words:

"Understanding of and appreciation for our neighbor's tradition is not the same thing as agreement with it. Jews and Christians will disagree. Jews will also disagree with other Jews, and Christians with other Christians. The day that Jews and Christians agree on everything is the day the missiah comes, or comes back.

"The point of interfaith conversation is not to convert the person across the table, but it is also not to abdicate one's own theology for the sake of reaching agreement. Put another way: there is no reason for Jews and Christians to sacrifice their particular beliefs on the altar of interfaith sensitivity.

"The former bishop of Sweden and dean of Harvard Divinity School Krister Stendahl speaks appropriately of 'holy envy,' that is, the appreciation of the beliefs and practices of another."

Yes, precisely. It's why, when I was the preacher at a synagogue this past Friday night, my task was not to convert the Jews there to Christianity. Rather, my task was to help us understand each other more fully so we can be neighbors. And if you must ask, "Who is my neighbor?" I send you back to Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.

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

Today's religious holiday: Eid al Fitr (Islam)

Oct. 23, 2006


Continuing to follow up on Muslims angry about remarks he made some weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI has sent his greetings to Muslims who are ending their Ramadan month of fasting. It will take exactly this kind of continued engagement to create any long-term harmony and understanding.

Also, at an important Sunni-Shia meeting in Mecca over the weekend, religious scholars moved toward reconciliation of these two major -- and often at odds -- sects within Islam by signing an agreement that, among other things, calls for an end to the sectarian killings in Iraq. It's a hopeful sign, though, as always, we'll have to wait to see the results on the ground.

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How well I remember what it took to get Hope Care Center (pictured here) opened 10 years ago.

HccIt all came back to me the other day when I stopped by the 10-year celebration of the wonderful 24-hour skilled care facility for HIV-AIDS patients at 83rd and Main in Kansas City, Mo.

A group of folks who had worked as professionals and/or volunteers at an AIDS wing of a local nursing home -- a wing that eventually dissolved -- was looking to open a long-term care facility to replace what the nursing home no longer offered.

After lots of hunting around and dreaming, the group found a shut-down former Christian Science nursing home for sale. It was, in its prime, a lovely little building on 10 acres of rolling ground and woods. But it needed a bunch of work to get it up to snuff and to bring it up to meeting state nursing home standards.

I spent a lot time with other volunteers in the basement (half of which had a gravel floor) hauling out old bed parts and piles of walkers and wheelchairs, some of which were salvagable. Volunteer work crews from my church but mostly from Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ showed up regularly to drywall, paint and do a billion other tasks. (I even learned how to do a little drywall installation with help from some careful tutors.) My church also provided key seed money to purchase the property and to get it operating, but money also came from lots of other sources.

Hcc1Eventually, Hope Care Center opened its door for its first patients in September 1996. (Yes, Fred Phelps and/or his theological goons picketed the opening, of course.) This 16-bed facility has been providing excellent medical care in a family-style atmosphere ever since, even as the nature of AIDS has changed from a certain death sentence to a more manageable disease.

I haven't been as active at Hope Care Center in recent years as I once was, but the facility is thriving and even considering a major expansion on its site.

Sometimes when people give money to churches, they wonder if it ever does any good. The money my church and others invested in Hope Care Center has helped to provide 10 years of loving care to people in desperate need, the very people I think Jesus would have wanted us to be caring for. Almost all of the patients have no private insurance and so are covered under Medicaid. But it also takes regular contributions from individuals and other donors to keep up the necessary level of care.

So look around the Hope Care Web site today. And don't be shy about making a contribution if you're moved to do it. It will be money well spent.

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

Oct. 21-22, 2006, weekend


A Pakistani cricket official wants religion kept out of the sport. In other words, separate the judges of the wicked from the judges of the wicket?

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Colorado College has been the site of an interesting symposium on religion and public life in recent days, and one of the speakers was former Sen. Gary Hart, who urged everyone to take great care when mixing the two. Hart has made his errors of judgment but they haven't left him bereft of wisdom.

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I'm really not in the blog business (it's no business, in the monetary sense, for me at all, actually, unless you go through this site to buy my book) to promote the online work of others, but now and then I do like to call your attention to some sites I enjoy and find useful.

Keyboard_2One of them is, one of the best spiritual sites around.

Beliefnet recently has made some helpful changes on its site, and I thought you might find it worth your time to wander around on the site a little and see what's happening there.

Some things I like about Beliefnet: It stays current, it's not afraid to tackle lots of topics and it offers a huge range of information about many different religious traditions.

What I like least about Beliefnet: Sometimes it seems too frivolous. Which means I think it tries to hard to be relevant to our vapid pop culture. But I tend to be a little grumpy that way and tend to have precious little use for much of our culture.

At any rate, this weekend I just wanted to invite you to re-experience I'm betting you'll find some useful stuff there. Just don't forget who sent you there.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column is about a great new TV series that starts tomorrow night. It was shot at Christ in the Desert Monastery in northern New Mexico.)

Today's religious holiday: Diwali (21st, Hinduism and Sikhism)

Oct. 20, 2006


The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says God is guiding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Let's see: Pentateuch, Pentagon. Hmm. Is that close enough for government work?

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As a follow-up to my posting here yesterday about local Muslim voices, today I want to share with you a recent letter to Pope Benedict XVI from 38 Muslim leaders around the world. (The link I've given you will give you information about the letter. To read the letter itself, click on the link at the bottom of the page you'll see when you open the above link.)

IslamchristianThis open letter is a wonderful example of how to disagree with someone and yet show great respect in doing it.

I'm surprised it took only a few weeks after the pope's controversial speech in Germany to get these Muslim scholars (a number of them are the top Islamic law experts in their individual countries) to agree on a text. The letter, which praises some things the pope said but mostly takes issue with several matters, is quite detailed. It shows evidence of considerable research -- done as quickly as possible.

As we all know, the pope's speech sparked anger and hostility from many Muslims -- and even led to some instances of violence, the very thing Muslims have been defending themselves against. All of that got lots of coverage in the media.

My guess is that this calm and reasoned letter will get much less press attention than the violence did. Still, I urge you to take a look at it. I'd be interested in hearing what you learn by reading it.

Its tenor is well within the bounds of civil discourse -- the very quality that most readers of this blog who leave comments here have shown most of the time.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be about a wonderful upcoming TV series on monastic life.)

Today's religious holidays: Birth of the B'ab (Baha'i); Laylat el qadr (Islam); Jummatul Wida (Islam); Installation of Scriptures as Guru Granth (Sikh)