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Nov. 18-19, 2006, weekend

RELIGION REBOUNDS IN MERRY OLD ENGLAND

In Britain, where church attendance has dropped dramatically in the last 50 years, religion is making a comeback on college campuses, it's reported. And as far as we can tell, this is not just because young people are praying that Prince Charles never becomes king.

* * *

HOW TO INSULT RELIGION

Did you know that in India it's possible to be charged with insulting religion? Just ask actress Angelina Jolie's bodyguards, who reports say were run in on exactly that. My idea of a way to insult religion is to be a member of one and then not practice it.

* * *

A WAY TO START LEARNING ABOUT OTHER FAITHS

Can a luncheon attended by 700 people at a fancy hotel solve the problem of religious misunderstanding and mistrust that engulfs the world?

Tfaith4Of course not. But it may well be the place to start.

This past week, I attended the Second Annual Table of Faiths Celebration, sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Intefaith Council. Around the edges of the ballroom, various faith groups had set up information booths where people could learn about traditions other than their own. (In the photo on the right, for instance, the Rev. Robert Meneilly, pastor emeritus of Village Presbyterian Church, is in front of a display about Buddhism, talking with Janice Ellis, a local nonprofit leader who is running for the office of mayor of Kansas City, Mo.)

Tfaith1And the luncheon organizers gave awards to people who help improve our area by helping others understand and appreciate people different from themselves. This year the awards went to Donald J. Hall, chairman of the board of Hallmark Cards, and his wife Adele, an amazing busy community volunteer, as well as to Ed Chasteen, founder of HateBusters, a group that tries to teach others about the benefits of diversity.

Before the luncheon, representatives of 15 different faith traditions offered brief blessings or prayers. Adele Hall said she wished we could just take that diversity and the respect shown for it in the banquet hall out into the hurting world.

As I say, these feel-good affairs can't solve the deeply rooted problems of religious intolerance and ignorance that can lead to hatred and even violence. But as columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote about a firefighter who climbed a ladder and made eye contact with someone he was trying to save from a burning building -- someone who nonetheless died in the fire -- everything changes when you look someone in the eye.

That is the case with interfaith dialogue, too. The hall was full of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and people of many other faiths, all looking each other in the eye. I myself, a Presbyterian, happened to be assigned to a table filled mostly by Lutherans, including Gerald Mansholt, the Lutheran bishop of the Central States Synod. Now, Lutherans and Presbyterians have a lot more in common than, say, Sikhs and Catholics. But the point was to spend time getting to know people outside our own faith communities -- not to tell them they're wrong about what they believe but to start to understand the faith commitments of others.

What must happen next, of course, is for individuals who had this experience to reach out to form friendships and even study groups with people of different faiths so that we aren't wallowing around in ignorance, which, as I say, often leads to fear. And fear leads to nothing but trouble. It is, of course, important that individuals be able to articulate their own faith commitments clearly, and my experience is that many faith communities do a poor job of helping people do that.

But intefaith conversation can be rewarding and enlightening -- even if it happens in a room with 700 other people and not one-on-one.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about religious leaders using fear tactics and why that's wrong and destructive.)


Nov. 17, 2006

IS JEDI A RELIGION?

Two people who call themselves Jedi knights say Jedi is a religion the United Nations should recognize. Now, now. Let's avoid the temptation to say, "May the farce be with you."

* * *

HOW OTHERS' SPACRED SPACE FEELS

As regular readers of this blog may know, for people in my church, I've been leading occasional tours of sacred structures in the Kansas City area.

Stour35The idea is to see how others use their sacred space, to become more familiar with the wide variety of religious communities that help to weave the tapestry of faith in our area and to learn more about other faith traditions as a way of better understanding our own.

Last Sunday we visited three Christian churches in suburban Johnson County, Kansas -- St. Dionysios Greek Orthodox Church, Saint Andrew Christian Church (a Disciples of Christ congregation) and the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, a 14,000-member megachurch.

Stour37I trust you will know that the photos here showing the icons in the nave, or sanctuary, are from the Orthodox church.

The photos here showing the Central American-flavored cross and the fascinating architecture of the high sanctuary are from Saint Andrew.

The cross and the sign about purpose are from the Church of the Resurrection, a congregation that started 16 years ago with four people -- the Rev. Adam Hamilton, his wife and two children. (Adam, by the way, is quoted in this past week's cover story in Newsweek about the politics of Jesus.)

I hope you will become more aware of the sacred structures all over our community -- or wherever you live. And visit them. People are anxious to show off their places of worship and to describe what goes on there and why it makes a difference.

So next time you are tempted just to drive by a synagogue, church, mosque or temple you've always wanted to visit, just stop.

Stour319 Stour317_1 Stour313Stour314To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

PS: The Vatican has reaffirmed its position on priestly celibacy. No surprise.


Nov. 16, 2006

A VATICAN CHANGE ON MARRIED PRIESTS?

The Vatican is holding a meeting today to talk about the requirement for celibacy in the priesthood. There have been married priests in the past -- and are some today in Eastern Rite Catholicism. But this pope and his immediate predecessor have been firm against a change. It's interesting that there's even open talk about it now.

* * *

ANOTHER BERLIN WALL TOPPLES

Over the years, Germany has adopted some harsh rules for how certain religions there will be handled. For instance, it has viewed Scientology as a business, not a religion, which has limited Scientology's ability to function there. Similarly, it has blocked the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unifiication Church, from entering Germany. But Moon recently won a court ruling there that will allow him to enter Germany. What's your view of the German approach to all this?

* * *

FIFTY YEARS OF PRIESTLY SERVICE

In 1956, I was 11 years old and living in India. My father was part of a University of Illinois agriculture team there helping with the "Green Revolution."

Gh2But back in this country, a man I know, Bill Lusk, and six other men were being ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in Kansas City.

This past Saturday, I was privileged to be present at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City (pictured here) when Lusk and his fellow priests -- at least the five survivors who could be there -- were present for a service of thanksgiving for the 50th anniversary of their ordination.

The sanctuary was almost full of friends and family of the celebrants as the Rt. Rev. Barry R. Howe, Episcopal bishop of West Missouri, led the worship service.

The five priests there at the service (Lusk, David Barclay, William Beachy, Thomas Keithy Jr. and Elton Smith Jr.) have, collectively, served the church for 250 years. And most of those years have been spent in the Kansas City area. They represent what, in business circles, is called institutional memory.

These men and I share something in common that is becoming increasingly rare -- we've all spent our adult careers in the same field. I've been a professional journalist for about 40 years, while they served in the gospel ministry. Experts today say most college graduates today will hold not just six or eight jobs before they retire but almost that many separate careers. I'm already seeing that in my children's generation.

There is something remarkable to be said for dedication and consistency, especially to ministry, which can lead to emotional and spiritual burnout.

The preacher for the day, the Rev. Edward R. Simms, spoke about the staggering size of the universe, and tried to help us understand what the term "billion" means by noting that a billion seconds ago, it was 1959, and these priests were just finding their sea legs.

Simms also said something Episcopalians often seem to grasp better than some other Christians: "Our task is not to understand God but to honor him." Jesus, after all, he said, did not ask his disciples to understand him but to "follow him."

That kind of attitude leaves room for mystery and for a humble recognition that we can never fully understand everything about God -- even after 50 years of trying.

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

P.S.: The Jewish newspaper, The Forward, recently listed the 50 people it thinks who "are making a difference in the way, for better or worse, American Jews view the world and themselves." Whom would you put on such a list?

P.P.S.S.: Newsweek's Jon Meacham and the Washington Post's Sally Quinn are moderating a new online discussion of religion in which internationally famous folks will participate by responding the questions the two pose. To read it, click here. And tell me whether you think it's a worthy effort.


Nov. 15, 2006

IS THE CLASH RELIGIOUS OR POLITICAL?

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the conflict between Islam and the West is not primarily religious but political. I think he's right and that Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theory is too simplistic, but my question is whether it's possible to separate religion and politics very cleanly in this case. I'm not sure how. Annan was responding to a report by his "Alliance of Civivilizations" initiative. For the full Alliance of Civilizations report as a pdf file, click here.

* * *

WHAT ORDINARY GERMANS DID IN THE HOLOCAUST

Have you ever wondered how you might have acted in response to the Nazis and the Holocaust had you been an ordinary German citizen in the 1930s and '40s?

SwastikaI certainly have -- partly because I'm half German. My paternal great-grandparents Tammeus came to the United States from Germany in the 1860s. There still are some Tammeus relatives in Germany, though we've had almost no contact with them.

But as a half-German Christian, it's hard for me not to wonder what I would have done had I been an ordinary German living under Nazi rule at the time of the Shoah.

I got a hint about some of that the other night at an event sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, a community commemoration of Kristallnacht. That was the Nov. 9, 1938, "Night of Broken Glass," the Nazis first attack of large-scale violence against Jews in Germany.

One of the speakers was Andrew S. Bergerson of the Department of History at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He's the author of Ordinary Germans in Extraordinary Times, and he recounted for us an interview he did long after the war with an ordinary German who wound up serving in the German Army.

This man, he said, insisted that he got by through an act of parody -- he acted "as if" he were a Nazi to survive, even though he often was sarcastic in private about Nazi goals and actions.

Bergerson said the result was that the man -- who in some ways stood for many ordinary Germans -- refused to think about the implications or consequences of his "as if" Nazi actions. Instead, he adopted what Bergerson called a kind of "internal numbness" that allowed people like him to participate in crimes against humanity.

This parody -- or acting "as if" one were a Nazi -- played a crucial role in the Holocaust, he said, because it allowed the participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust.

It's a damning view of a common human failure to stand for what is right at any cost when people around you are going along with evil. In large and small ways, I think we all are guilty of this. And it gives me precious little hope that I myself might have had the moral courage to do anything very brave in the midst of Nazism. Perhaps only by studying this phenomenon and preparing ourselves with resolve now will we be able to act in morally courageous ways when we face evil.

Tell me how you think you might have acted as an ordinary German in the Nazi era, when all around you Jews were suffering and dying.

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

Today's religious holiday: Beginning of Nativity fast (until Dec. 24; Orthodox Christian)


Nov. 14, 2006

GOD SLIPS IN THE POLLS

The percentage of Americans who believe in God is dropping a little bit, a new survey finds. And people's idea about who that God is shows quite a variation, too. Wonder what God would look like if the deity were to be a composite of everyone's ideas. Yikes.

* * *

CAN'T WE ALL JUST LOVE AND FORGIVE?

One of the foundational teachings of many religions is the need to forgive and the need to be forgiven.

LovelogoThe question is whether a "Campaign for Love and Forgiveness" launched last week by a nonprofit institute can have any serious results in this area or is simply a naive waste of time and money.

The campaign says it hopes to get people to think about how love and forgiveness can change people and communities. And who could be against that? Not me. I wish this effort well.

At the same time, I would love to read a clear-eyed report in a year or two about what, if any, difference this made.

Were previous enemies reconciled? Did murderers and the families of their victims come to some kind of terms with each other?

Did people in psychiatric or psychological counseling discover they could live without additional medical or emotional treatment because they learned to forgive someone?

Did the program prevent some divorces or bring some dysfunctional families back into harmony?

Perhaps I'm asking too much of such efforts. Perhaps these things are like praying for world peace. That never happens, but that doesn't mean such prayer is useless. For one thing, it helps us focus on what we might be doing that contributes to the unrest.

Well, take a look at the campaign's Web site today if you have a chance and see if you think it would be worth getting involved. If so, tell me why.

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

P.S.: An Anglican bishop indicates Muslim women in Britain would do well not to wear their hajibs, or headscarves. Wonder what Muslim women there think Anglican clergy should or shouldn't wear.


Nov. 13, 2006

DOES RELIGION PROMOTE HATRED OF HOMOSEXUALS?

Speaking of things United Kingdomish, which I will be below, singer Elton John was just quoted as saying religion turns people into gay haters. And a religious gay advocacy group says Sir Elton is wrong but not entirely. What's your view?

* * *

A PLACE FOR GOD IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE

A new British theological think tank is making an argument in favor of a place for religion in public life.

TheosIt's good to know that this thorny issue is not one for Americans alone. Perhaps we can learn something from the Brits on this.

The new report by the group Theos is called "Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Square." It argues against limiting religion just to the private sphere of life. Click here for a second account on the release of this report. And click here for a third account.

The effort here seems to be to stand against rampant secularism. The secular movement -- especially in Europe -- seems to many people to have marginalized religion in unhealthy ways.

The Theos report, which runs to 76 pages in the pdf format, says it's a "rubble-clearing exercise, an attempt to clear away some of the objections to letting God into the public square. . ."

Here's a conclusion with which I completely agreed: ". . .a society that scorns intrinsic religiousness and trivializes the pursuit of meaning discards thousands of years of insight and can only suffer for it."

There is, of course, a difference between seeking a rightful place for religion in the public square and trying to make the tenets of just one religion public policy. At times it has seemed to me that some people who identify themselves as conservative Christians have wanted to impose their values on the rest of society.

There is nothing wrong with standing for those values and advocating they be represented in the public debate, but people of other faiths should have the same right. We have seen (for instance, under the Taliban in Afghanistan) what happens when insisting on faith-based public policy gets pushed to extremes.

Tell me what you like or don't like in the new British report.

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


Nov. 11-12, 2006, weekend

A PAPAL SAINT IN THE MAKING

John Paul is moving toward sainthood. No, not Pope John Paul II, though he is, too, but John Paul I, who reigned only a month. How do you view the Catholic process of designating saints?

* * *

A LONG JOURNEY TO WHERE?

Ted Haggard, the national evangelical leader in trouble for a gay sex and drug scandal, is about to undergo what some call "spiritual restoration," it's reported. Do you think the process as it's described can lead to Haggard's spiritual, mental, emotional and theological wholeness?

* * *

BLESSINGS FROM A STRANGER

The other evening I attended a meeting to help plan a mid-December Christmas party for children from families with HIV and AIDS.

Xmas_treeThe Good Samaritan Project, a primary AIDS service provider in the Kansas City area, puts this party on every year, and in recent years it's been held at my church.

As we were kicking around ideas for craft activities children could do at the party, I suggested getting a small artificial tree that kids could decorate with hand-made ornaments and that, at the end of the party, we could give the tree away to one of the families in some kind of drawing.

Others thought the idea worth doing, so a couple of days later I stopped by a big store that carries such stuff and put a boxed-up tree in my shopping cart.

As I was moving through some other aisles to get a few other things I needed, a woman stopped me and said, "Oh, you've got a Christmas tree. How big is it?"

"Well, it's just four feet high," I said, "but it's not for me. It's for some kids who will be coming to a party for families with AIDS."

Her eyes lit up, and then she said something I'm still pondering, something maybe you've familiar with and could help me grasp: "Oh, you won't miss your blessing. You won't miss your blessing."

That's a phrase I haven't heard in quite that way before. And at first I thought it meant I was buying the tree so that I could receive some kind of divine approbation. Then I thought, no, maybe she means that hanging around kids is a guaranteed way to be blessed. But, to tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure what she meant.

Maybe she meant that you and I all would get a chance to think about God's blessings. If so, I already haven't missed my blessing.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about why people of faith help others in need.)

Today's religious holiday: Birth of Baha'u'llah (Baha'i, 12th)


Nov. 10, 2006

ANKARA'S AWAY (AT LEAST A LITTLE)

Turkey, in many ways an emerging model for what a secular democracy in a predominantly Muslim land can look like, wants to join the European Union. But first it must guarantee religious freedom to all its citizens. A step it took yesterday moves it in that direction, but some experts think it won't fully satisfy the EU. This is one more example of developments falling under the meta-narrative of our times -- how to negotiate between history, or tradition, and modernity. And modernity requires -- or should -- adherence to such foundational human rights as religious freedom.

* * *

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE SERIOUSNESS

Yes, yes, I know. We've all come through a long, hard election season and now the winners and losers are carrying on. I know what you need -- a humor break.

FunfaceSo we'll try for that today. A few faith-based jokes, none of them original with me, some of them from Beliefnet.com. Enjoy.

1. An elderly woman died last month. Having never married, she requested no male pallbearers. In her handwritten instructions, she wrote, "They wouldn't take me out when I was alive, so I don't want them to take me out when I'm dead."





2. A man appeared before St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

St. Peter asked, "Have you ever done anything of particular merit?"

"Well, I can think of one thing," the man offered. "Once, on my trip to the Black Hills out in South Dakota, I came upon a gang of bikers, who were threatening a young woman. I directed them to leave her alone, but they wouldn't listen.

So, I approached the largest and most heavily tattooed biker and smacked him on the head, kicked his bike over, ripped out his nose ring, and threw it on the ground. I yelled, "Now, back off!! Or you'll answer to me!"

St. Peter was impressed, "When did this happen?"

“Just a couple minutes ago.”



3. A little boy was attending his first wedding. After the service, his cousin asked him, "How many women can a man marry?"

"Sixteen," the boy responded.

His cousin was amazed that he knew the answer so quickly. "How do you know that?"

"Easy," the little boy said.

"All you have to do is add it up, like the Preacher said: 4 better, 4 worse, 4 richer, 4 poorer."

4. An elderly woman had just returned to her home from an evening of church services when she was startled by an intruder. She caught the man in the act of robbing her home of its valuables and yelled, "Stop! Acts 2:38!" (Repent and be baptized, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.)
The burglar stopped in his tracks. The woman calmly called the police and explained what she had done.

As the officer cuffed the man to take him in, he asked the burglar, "Why did you just stand there? All the old lady did was yell a scripture to you."

"Scripture?" replied the burglar. "She said she had an ax and two 38's!"

5. A little child in church for the first time watched as the ushers passed the offering plate. When they neared the pew in which he was sitting, the youngster piped up so everyone could hear: "Don't pay for me, Daddy. I'm under 5."



To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My
column tomorrow will be about why people of faith
spend time working for charitable organizations.)
P.S.: In a July blog entry, I mentioned a great book called 
Born to Kvetch, about Yiddish culture. The author, Michael
Wex, is to be a guest today on NPR's show, "Fresh Air."
In Kansas City, that means 3 p.m. on KCUR-FM, 89.3.

			

Nov. 9, 2006

DIVINING RUMSFELD'S DEPARTURE

The resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense comes just a few weeks after a top general said the Pentagon chief's leadership was inspired by God. But so far I've read no quotes from God about why this change was thought necessary.

* * *

A MUSLIM VOICE OF REASON

Akbar S. Ahmed (pictured here) is one of the top Islamic scholars in the world. I had a chance to meet him and hear him speak a few nights ago at the 10th annual dinner of the Crescent Peace Society, and it was well worth the time.

Ahmed_1Ahmed is a professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., and author of Islam Under Seige.

He emphasized something I've been trying to tell readers for several years, which is that Islam, though monotheistic, is not monolithic. Rather, it is a house divided. Ahmed identified three broad models at play in Islam today.

The first he called the Sufi, or mystic, model. Sufism is the mystic path of Islam and is widely accepting of other religious traditions.

The second he described as the orthodox, formalist interpretation of Islam, which he named the Dilban model after a city in the northwest of Pakistan. This model sees the West almost always attacking Islam. It's the model followed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it has experienced a growth in popularity in recent years. Clearly it's a dangerous model that can lead to terrorism.

The third model is a tribute to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of the modern state of Pakistan. Jinnah used Islam to provide a vision of an open society and a modern democratic state, though Pakistan has degenerated into something less than Jinnah's ideal today. But Jinnah's vision, rooted in Islam, balanced modernity and tradition and was very much against violence, Ahmed said. This is the vision we should be describing to Muslims today, he said, and urging them to adopt.

Ahmed told members of the predominantly Muslim audience that they should work to build bridges by getting outside their comfort zone and entering into dialogue with people of other religions. Then, he said, they should follow up that dialogue by trying hard to understand how others see things. That will require some serious reading, he said. He recommended three books. The two besides his own were Dignity of Difference by Jonathan Sacks and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong. After that, he said, it's crucial to build real friendships with people of other religions.

"Friendship changes everything," he said.

Ahmed is one of the voices of reason and harmony within Islam, a voice that needs to be heard more widely. The Crescent Peace Society, dedicated to being such a voice in this area, did the community a service by bringing him here to speak.

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

P.S.: Speaking of Muslims, in case you missed it, Minnesota elected the first Muslim to Congress on Tuesday.


Nov. 8, 2006

MINING RELIGIOUS DATA

Religious scholars and researchers met recently in Portland, Ore., and shared a big stack of findings about faith and the people who old it. Click here for a report. If nothing else, people of faith are good for the economy in that they keep scholars and researchers employed.

* * *

A DAY OF BLOG POTPOURRI

It's catch-up day here in blogland now that we've voted and analysts are telling us why the results were inevitable.

DnaI've got several items I want to share with you.

* Let's start with a professor who says believing in a young earth is critical to Christian doctrine. So Kurt Wise, director of the Center for Theology and Science at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, has agreed to serve as a consultant for a new Creation Museum in Kentucky. It is to open in April of next year, dedicated to countering the errors in the theory of evolution. Is this a museum you'd go to? If so, why?

* Former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke was a guest speaker at a university in Ukraine recently, blowing hard about the threat posed by Jews. The university's leaders have gained a reputation as being deeply anti-Semitic. So is it surprising that anti-Semitism has gained new ground in Europe?

* The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has signed an anti-torture statement also signed by lots of other religious leaders. This is a good example of people of faith using what I like to call their prophetic voice. He signed the statement last week. Click here for the statement.

* An excellent theological resource, a publication called Vital Theology, has expanded its size and now is available monthly by electronic delivery. A new feature called "Vital Question" asks theological thinkers to ponder one issue from a variety of perspectives. Unlike some specialty theological publications, Vital Theology is written to be understandable by Christian lay people.

* The biblical book of Esther has been made into a movie. Click here for the story. By the way, did you know that Esther is the only book in the Bible -- at least the Hebrew Scriptures -- that doesn't even mention God?

* Speaking of movies with religious tie-ins, how about "Southern Baptist Sissies," reported to be due out next year, about four gay men who grew up in Southern Baptist churches. Oh, my. Wonder if this will get more attention after the Ted Haggard matter. And speaking of Haggard, click here for the Beliefnet.com site that continues to cover all things Haggard.

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