Previous month:
December 2006
Next month:
February 2007

Jan. 31, 2007


Jermaine Jackson wants his brother Michael to convert to Islam. Hey, hold on. Doesn't Islam, already struggling with image problems, get a say about this?

* * *


Every January for the last however-many years, my wife and I have gathered with friends to celebrate the birthdays of the four of the six of us born in this month. That includes me.

Lake0718We do this at the Lake of the Ozarks.

January at the Lake of the Ozarks? Isn't that a summer get-away place? Well, yes. But one of the things I've learned about our world is that the Creator has made each season beautiful in its own way.

So today I just want to share with you a few photos of what I found to admire on a January day while wandering about at the lake.

Those of you who own my book, A Gift of Meaning, may well recognize the first photo. One very much like it, taken seven or eight years ago, was used on the cover of my book. By "very much like it," I mean the photo on the book's cover was one I took from exactly the spot where I took this one, looking up what I've come to think of as my own hill.

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

Lake0717Lake0720Lake0722Lake0723Lake0726P.S.: For you Superbowl fans, click here for a Baptist Press story about the deep Christian commitment of Bears' coach Lovie Smith. Well, with a name like Lovie, how evil could a guy be?

Jan. 30 2007


The other day someone shared an e-mail with me from a man who had just returned from a trip to Jordan in which visiting Christians attended lectures and seminars on interfaith and related matters. One of the speakers was Jordanian Prince Al Hassan bin Talal, who some years ago was instrumental in creation of a group called the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies. I frankly didn't know much about all of this and was glad to learn. Then just yesterday I discovered this press release that describes a two-day conference on religion and reform under Prince Hassan's sponsorship. (I will warn you that the press release has not been translated into English very clearly.) At any rate, the prince appears to be an interesting force for religious understanding in the Middle East, and worth learning more about. Any of you familiar with him and his work?

* * *


As I've mentioned here before, every month or two, I take members of my church on a tour of sacred spaces in the Kansas City area -- churches, synagogues, mosques, temples.

Sacred_spacesIn fact, the next such tour will happen in a few weeks, and we'll be visiting a mosque and two predominantly African-American churches.

My family, of course, is aware of my interest in the architecture and geography of religion, so for my recent birthday I received a wonderful book that I recommend to all: House of Worship: Sacred Spaces in America, by Dominique Browning. The Rev. Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University has written the introduction.

Although no Kansas CIty structures are included, the book is a beautiful collection of words and pictures describing sacred space in many parts of the country -- from a cathedral in, of all places, Fargo, N.D., to America's oldest synagogue in Newport, R.I. Well, I say no Kansas City structures, but two are included (back to back in the book, in fact) that are close by.

First is the Saint Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. And the other is the stunning Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel at Powell Gardens east of Kansas City.

It pleases me, as a Presbyterian, to say that one of my favorites in this collection is First Presbyterian Church of Stamford, Ct., an astonishingly beautiful sanctuary, the entire walls of which are stained-glass windows. (The link to the church's Web site shows some recent restoration but no really great pictures of the breathtaking sanctuary.)

As Gomes says in his introduction, "All worship spaces, from the great cathedrals to the smallest storefront Penecostal temples, suggest something more than the private agenda of those who visit them. . ."

To me, they suggest our acknowledgement that we are a small part of a sacred history that began long before we arrived and will continue long after we're gone.

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

Jan. 29, 2007


Some schools are adding yoga to their curriculum -- but it's yoga with all of its roots to Hinduism removed. So, then, is it really yoga? If not, what is it? And if it's still yoga, should it be taught in public schools? Or has what most Americans think of as yoga merely been reduced to some physical exercise techniques with no spiritual component at all?

* * *


A year or two ago I did a long story for The Kansas City Star about the ways Christian evangelicals are moving into more areas of social action, such as issues of justice, poverty and environmentalism.

Globe_1Then I followed that with a piece specifically about how this is playing out in the field of ecology, or as evangelicals often put it, care for the Earth.

It pleases me that this movement seems not to have gone the way of the dodo bird. Rather, people continue to make an effort to get evangelicals and secular environmentalists working together on a common cause.

Recently a big group of folks interested in this matter held a press conference in Washington to release a statement about their agenda. Click here to read it. And, yes, it's worth reading and won't take you forever. Please note the interesting list of signatories.

The statement talks about "a shared sense of moral purpose," which tells me two things: One, scientists increasingly are comfortable using metaphysical language to describe some of the reasons for why they do what they do, and, Two, evangelicals increasingly understand that they come from a long tradition that teaches good stewardship of nature -- even if you believe the world will end soon.

That's progress, folks.

Faith communities -- of many kinds, not just evangelicals -- in the Kansas City area and all over the country are finding ways to become more engaged in environmental protection, including how to respond to global climate change. (Give a Southern Baptist a little credit here -- Al Gore.) I'd be curious to know if your congregation, if you have one, is working on this. And, if so, how?

At my church, the Social Justice and Peacemaking Committee has begun to talk about various ways our congregation can be more engaged in this issue. (I know that because I'm married to the committee chairperson._

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

Today's religious holiday: Ashura (Islam).

Jan. 27-28, 2007


A month or two ago, I had the chance to meet and hear Rabbi David Saperstein, who essentially is Reform Judaism's top lobbyist in Washington. He is a wise man who, I think, understands pretty well how the real world works. He's got some thoughts on how political candidates can avoid abusing religion. They're posted on the relatively new Washington Post religion blog, and I'd like you to look at them. Is he right? What did leave out?

* * *


What is it about Jesus of Nazareth that produces so much literature, art and, well, strangeness?

JesusinlovecovmPeople inevitably seem to find new and odd ways of depicting him, of conceiving him, of writing about him. It can be books and movies like "The Last Temptation of Christ" or the more recent "The Passion of the Christ."

Or it can be such plays as "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

In that edge-of-reality genre I might be tempted to put a new book I haven't read but have read about. It's a novel called Jesus in Love and is by Kittredge Cherry. Publicity about the book says it follows "standard Christian doctrine while speculating on Christ's erotic, mystical inner life."

Cherry, who identifies herself as a lesbian, says that in her prayers she "met a Jesus who is both divine and human, including the full range of sexual orientations and gender identities."

Because Jesus is so cosmic, so astonishingly universal, he seems to draw out such wide-ranging speculation. My question, especially if you're Christian, is whether this kind of literature strikes you as fair comment and criticism -- valuable art, in other words -- or simply sacrilegious.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend asks how we are to react when our politicians invoke God.)

Today's religious holiday: Triodion begins (Orthodox Christian, 28th)

Jan. 26, 2007


An in-flight version of the movie "The Queen" has come to the airlines with "God" bleeped out of it. Supposedly it was a mistake. But what could the person who made the mistake have been thinking? Yikes.

* * *


I declare a one-day halt to so much seriousness. Laughingface_3 It's time for a humor break. As regular readers of this blog may recall, I am not the source of these jokes, merely a channel to get them from their source (whatever that might have been) to you. Some of them, along the way, have traveled through, one of the better spiritual Web sites out there. Oh, and pardon the various font changes in here today. I'd like to tell you I did that as a joke, but the joke, apparently unfixable, is on me.

1. Two Jewish women were next to each other on a plane.
One leaned over and said: “Excuse me. I couldn’t help noticing your diamond.
It’s gorgeous."

“It’s 45 carats.”

“I’ve never heard of one so big.”

“Yeah. It even has a name, the Potnik Diamond. But it comes with a curse.”

“How romantic. What’s the curse?”

“Mr. Plotnik.”

2. Did you hear about the Hindu yogi who was having a filling put in
a tooth? When the dentist asked him if he wanted Novocain, the yogi
said, "No. I can transcend dental medication."

3. 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."

4. There once was a 94-year-old nun in the 1890's whose worn-out body began to surrender. Her doctor prescribed for her a shot of whiskey three times a day, to relax her.

However, not to be lured into worldly pleasures, she huffily declined. But her mother superior knew the elderly sister loved milk. So she instructed the kitchen to spike the milk three times a day. Eventually, the elderly pious one approached her final hour. As several sisters gathered around her at bedside, the mother superior asked if she wanted to leave them any words of wisdom.

"Oh, yes," she replied. "Never sell that cow!"

5. An elderly Italian Jew wanted to unburden his guilty conscience by talking to his Rabbi. "Rabbi, during World War II, when the Germans entered Italy, I pretended to be a Catholic and changed my name from Levy to Spumoni, and I am alive today because of it."

"Self preservation is allowable, and the fact that you never forgot that you were a Jew is admirable," said the Rabbi. "Rabbi, during the war, a beautiful Jewish woman knocked on my door and asked me to hide her from the Germans. I hid her in my attic, and they never found her."

"That was a wonderful thing you did, and you have no need to feel guilty."

"It's worse, Rabbi. I was weak and told her she must repay me with sexual favors, which she did, repeatedly."

"You were both in great danger and would have suffered terribly if the Germans had found her. There is a favorable balance between good and evil, and you will be judged kindly. Give up your feelings of guilt."

"Thank you, Rabbi. That's a great load off my mind. But I have one more question."

"And what is that?"

"Should I tell her the war is over?"

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will explore ways we should react when our politicians invoke the name of God.)

Jan. 25, 2007


Former President Jimmy Carter yesterday defended his controversial new book on the Middle East before an audience at a predominantly Jewish university, Brandeis. For a story about this by the JTA, a Jewish news agency, click here. For an account in the International Herald Tribune, click here. I watched a live C-SPAN broadcast of Carter talking at length the other day about all of this in Georgia, and although I may disagree with him on some matters, I still find him to be a reasonable man with a genuine desire for a future that includes both a secure Israel and a peaceful Palestine. I would not have used the word "Apartheid" in the book's title and I would have been clearer about a commitment to Israel. But on this issue, Carter is no wingnut.

* * *


Have you heard about the Canadian Broacasting Corporation's fascinating TV series, "Little Mosque on the Prairie"? (The photo here shows two of the actors from the show, Carlo Rota and Sitara Hewitt.)

JammosqueFor a report on the show from National Public Radio, click here. And for a wire service report, click here.

I think it's a good sign of religious integration and acceptance that Islam can become the subject of such an entertainment program.

This show is a comedy, one designed to poke a little fun at parochial attitudes of people who may worry to death if a Muslim family moves into their neighborhood. Humor, of course, can soften the edges of the world and let us all laugh at ourselves.

If you've seen any of these episodes somehow and can tell us what you think, please do.

My guess is there is lots of room for faith-based TV comedy, in which our many fears are flayed open for all of us to understand. So good for the Canadians.

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

Today's religious holiday: Conversion of St. Paul (Christian) (By the way, I believe "conversion" is the wrong term here. He started a Jew and remained a Jew. But he became a member of the Jesus movement within Judaism at the time.)

Jan. 24, 2007


Perhaps you've read or heard in the last day or two reports about Pope John Paul II considering resigning when his health got bad. I may be in a minority here -- and because I'm not a member of the Catholic Church, my vote should count for less than those of Catholics -- but I have long thought it to be simple hubris for an ailing pope or, say, an ailing U.S. Supreme Court justice to imagine that he or she is so essential to the church or the court that there can be no resignation. The pope felt God wanted him to continue, according to a new memoir (A Life with Karol) by his private secretary. I have no way of knowing what God did or did not want in that case. But for him to think that he's the only person out of one billion Catholics around the world capable then of being pope strikes me as arrogant.

* * *


Can you think of a profession outside the mental health field in which people are regularly confronted with sufferers of depression?

DepressionTry the clergy.

And yet the question is whether they are trained to recognize depression in others and know how to help the people who suffer from it.

To its credit, the Center for Practical Bioethics, a national agency with headquarters in Kansas City, has recognized this problem and is doing something to address it. CPB has created a program called Sabbaths of Hope, and as part of that is co-sponsoring a daylong conference Feb. 12 at the St. Paul School of Theology to train clergy on how to handle people suffering from depression. CPB's co-sponsor is the Mental Health Association of the Heartland.

Clergy frequently encounter members of their congregations who clearly are distressed. Sometimes the tendency among clergy is to think that there is just a theological problem and thus they propose a theological solution. At times that may be exactly the right response. But sometimes people in distress are clinically depressed and need attention from physicians and mental health professionals. But clergy must be trained to tell the difference.

For more information about the Feb. 12 conference, including a detailed schedule and list of speakers, click here. And if you know clergy members who should be there, tell them.

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

Jan. 23, 2007


President Bush on Monday spoke by phone and loudspeaker to the annual anti-abortion rally tied to the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Click here for the text of Bush's remarks. It's hard to think of an issue that has more deeply divided people of faith. And although I don't see the Supreme Court reversing Roe soon (but who knows?), I also don't see people who are strongly committed either to the so-called pro-life stance or the so-called pro-choice stance finding a way to compromise soon. Do you?

* * *


A little inside religious baseball today. Or at least religious journalism baseball.

RnaThere's a wonderful national group called the Religion Newswriters Association, to which I don't belong because all my professional group energy has gone to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, which claims correctly that I once was its president.

But RNA recently put together what in newspaperese is called a stylebook. That is, an alphabetical order collection of useful information about religion that people who write about it need to know so as not to make fools of themselves. Can you, for instance, give a reasonably complete definition of the term "Yahweh"?

The stylebook, though not exhaustive, goes from "A.D." to "Zoroaster," and is an excellent way to get basic definitions of such terms, as well as how to use them in what you write. (By not exhaustive, I mean it has "monotheism" but not "Moonotheism," the theology of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.)

There are, of course, a hundredyskillion books and Web sites that contain basic religion information, such as Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions, a favorite of mine. But I think it's particularly useful to have this RNA stylebook because it's compiled by people who have learned what mistakes to avoid

So even though neither you nor I belongs to the RNA, the stylebook Web site is public. So educate yourself a little today.

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

Today's religious holiday: Vasant Panchami (Hindu)

Jan. 22, 2007


Speaking of a religiously diverse culture, as I will below, Greece is experiencing some of that nowadays. In fact, on Sunday, Zeus worshippers there held a ceremony in Athens. And it sounds as if some of them are still upset at what Christians did to their religion centuries ago. I don't know a lot about Zeus, but I've always admired the way his name ends, at least the arrangement of the final three letters.

* * *


In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed immigration reform into law, and one of the results has been a large influx of people from the Southern Hemisphere and especially Asia.

Xianflag_1They have brought their religions with them, and it is changing the demographic face of America. One of the things that means is that a nation that long considered its culture rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition (however that's defined) has had to negotiate ways to integrate Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and other religions into the culture.

Another example of how that is going is playing out now in the courts in North Carolina, where the State Court of Appeals recently ruled that a lawsuit over taking an oath in court cases by using the Qur'an should be allowed to go forward. Well, the case covers the Qur'an as well as other sacred texts beyond the Christian Bible.

No doubt you immediately will recall the recent flap over whether the first Muslim elected to Congress, Keith Ellison, should be allowed to take his oath of office using the Qur'an. He did, using a two-volume Qur'an once owned by Thomas Jefferson -- which I thought was a brilliant solution.

At any rate, American citizens, who are adherents of many religions, now have to figure out how to respect the faith of others while still standing for common values. That's part of what's going on in the North Carolina case and in many other venues -- public schools, for instance, where the answer to the question of what is permissible public expression of religion seems to change on a regular basis.

I wonder if you have experience with this phenomenon and, if so, whether you'd tell us how you see these various accommodations being made.

For if we don't figure out how to live together in harmony as people of many faiths, we will degenerate into the kind of sectarian strife we've seen in many other countries (including, at times, even our own). God forbid.

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

Jan. 20-21, 2007, weekend


A gay pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is facing disciplinary charges. Those of you who think all branches of Christianity will resolve all this in the next few years, speak up. My guess is that if there still were phone booths around, everybody with that optimistic opinion could meet in one and there'd still be room leftover.

* * *


A conference on world religions is scheduled for this weekend in Victoria, B.C., but the editorial writers at the Victoria News don't think much of it. Is that how you'd have reacted?

* * *


I am often intrigued by the families of members of the clergy. That is, I often wonder how parents feel when their sons or daughters elect to become ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, lamas . . .

SusannawesleyAnd this weekend is a perfect time to ponder all of this because Susannah Annesley Wesley (pictured here), mother of John and Charles Wesley, was born Jan. 20, 1669.

But get this: She was the 25th (count 'em, 25) and last child born into her family. And she gave birth to 19 children. Guess who the last two were. Right. John and Charles. (John was born only after Susannah and her husband and reconciled after a separation. So, in all, it's pretty amazing that he was ever born.)

By the way, 10 of Susannah's children died before they reached age 2. Imagine the heartache of that. For a more complete biography of Susannah (sometimes spelled Susanna) click here.

John Wesley, of course, became known as the founder of Methodism, though, truth be told, he really didn't mean to create a new denomination. And his brother Charles won a deserved reputation as a talented writer of hymns.

Susannah married Samuel Wesley, who was himself a preacher. Her own father was a clergyman, too, though one who came to adhere to a movement called Nonconformity -- a movement Susannah renounced in favor of allegiance to the Church of England. And Susannah become quite a well known religious teacher on her own.

Well, I know lots of clergy and even know some of the interesting stories of their parents and grandparents. But the Wesley story ranks pretty high among the most interesting.

But feel free to throw your clergy parents' story into the discussion.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about why taxpayers' money should not pay for the chaplains in the U.S. House and Senate.)

P.S.: The other day I mentioned that France was honoring its citizens who helped Jews survive the Holocaust. Here's a different example, but equally inspiring: A Muslim family has been honored for saving Jews in Albania.

Today's religious holiday: Muharram (New Year, Islam, 20th); World Religion Day (Baha'i, 21st)