Previous month:
January 2007
Next month:
March 2007

Feb. 28, 2007


Some folks have been asking why moderate, modern, reasonably Muslim voices are not heard more often than the voices of the radicals and militants. It looks as if a whole bunch of those more sensible -- and even secular -- voices will be coming together for a gathering in Florida in a few day. Wonder what kind of media coverage this will get.

* * *


Perhaps you saw the story recently about Holocaust diarist Anne Frank's family's failed effort to get a visa to come to the United States.

Anne_frankThe Jewish Daily Forward, in an editorial, had an interesting -- and perhaps surprising -- take on this. It said it wasn't much interested in the efforts by a member of Congress to name Anne Frank (pictured here) a postumous American citizen. Rather, it said, the U.S. should do what it can now to help save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Iraq.

In many ways, I like this attitude. It's similar to the idea that before we issue a formal apology for, say, slavery, we should be doing what we can today to alleviate the still-remaining vestiges of racism in our society.

And yet there is something powerful about a government taking a formal step to acknowledge its past failures.

So why can't we do both? Why can't we honor not just Anne Frank but also the many other Jews whom America should have -- but didn't -- let into the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s and at the same time be working to find help for the refugees from Iraq?

Are we limited to the number of good deeds we can do at any particular time?

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

PS: I'll be teaching a writing class the week of July 2 at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico. Click on the "writing class" link for information about the seminar and how to join us. I'd love to have you there for a beautiful week in the red rock hills that artist George O'Keeffe made famous.

Feb. 27, 2007


I suppose if Larry King devotes a lot of time to the subject on his CNN talk show, as he did last night, we all should be on the edge of our seats to see if a coming TV documentary will show that the tomb of Jesus has been discovered. On the other hand, King has had lots of guests on over the years who haven't impressed me much. (Though I like the show, generally, as an occasional viewer.) But how about if everyone takes a deep breath, sits down to read, uh, oh, I don't know, maybe the Gospel of Judas and waits patiently for the documentary to play and for qualified scholars to weigh in -- if they think this is worth their time. As a Christian, I'm not canceling my Easter plans yet.

* * *


Break time. We need some humor around here. And if you think these jokes amount to precious little humor, well, that's just your opinion. Besides, they aren't original with me. Most come from

Laughingface_4So enjoy. Or not. And if not, send me better ones.

1. A faith healer asked Sam how his family was getting along.

"Fine," he said, "except for my uncle. He's quite sick."

"He's not sick," said the healter. "He just THINKS he's sick."

Two weeks later the faith healer ran into Sam on the street.

"How's your uncle?" he asked.

"Now," said Sam, "he THINKS he's dead."

2. A Jewish man stood in front of a delicatessen display counter and said to the clerk, "I'll take a pound of that salmon."

"That's not salmon," the clerk said. "It's ham."

"Mister," the customer snapped, "in case nobody every told you, you got a big mouth."

3. A famous surgery professor died and went to heaven.

At the pearly gates he was asked by the gatekeeper if he'd ever committed a sin he truly regretted.

"Yes," he replied. "When I was a young intern at the Hospital of St. Lucas, we played a soccer game against a team from the Community Hospital, and I scored a goal, which was off-side. But the referee didn't see it and that goal won the game for us. I regret that now."

"That's a very minor sin. You may enter."

"Thanks, St. Peter," the professor said.

"Oh, I'm not St. Peter. He's on his lunch break. I'm St. Lucas."

4. Sidney phones his rabbi and says, "Rabbi, I know tonight is Yom Kippur but the Yankees are in the playoffs tonight and I'm a lifelong Yankees fan and I have to watch."

The rabbi replied, "Sidney, that's what video recorders are for."

A surprised Sidney replied, "You mean I can tape Yom Kippur?"

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

Feb. 26, 2007


Pope Benedict XVI says "designer babies" are out of moral bounds. What about genetic technology, for you, is within moral bounds and what isn't? That's a question we all should be able to answer.

* * *


Thirty years ago today was a Saturday.

VaughanI was splitting my time between doing reporting, which I did most of the time, and filling in on City Desk of The Kansas City Star as an assistant city editor. It was my morning to work the desk to help put out the Saturday afternoon edition of The Star (yes, we still were publishing an afternoon paper then).

Not too far into the morning, I got a call saying that The Star's legendary "Starbeams" columnist, Bill Vaughan (pictured here as a young columnist), had died (at age 61, a year younger than I am now).

I was, of course, deeply saddened to lose this comic genius, a man I had come to admire and think of as a work friend.

But I also thought to myself, "pretty amazing timing." For just a day or two before that I had finished writing Bill's preparatory obituary. We knew Bill was dying of lung cancer (which he used to complain he got without the benefit of smoking cigarettes), so Cruise Palmer, executive editor, called me over to his desk quietly and asked me to secretly take the library's files about Bill home and prepare an obit. Cruise didn't want me to talk to the Vaughan family or to alert others in the newsroom yet.

So I knew just what to do when the call came in -- it may have come from The Star's film critic, Robert W. Butler, who is married to Bill's daughter Ellen. I don't recall.

At any rate, I hauled out the long story I had written about Bill and sent it to the copy desk to process for the first edition of the afternoon paper. It led the top of the page and described how this gentle man had kept Kansas City chuckling and thinking for the 31-plus years he had written Starbeams, the oldest continuously published column in the country. It first appeared in the very first issue of The Star on Sept. 18, 1880.

In the process of doing Bill's obit, I reacquainted myself with the history of Starbeams, and I suggested to editors that we shouldn't let it die. Yes, they said, but who the heck can write it? Especially who is nuts enough to follow Vaughan?

"Let me try," I said. Eventually they did. My first column appeared in early May 1977, and I wrote the column for almost 27 years -- not quite as long as Vaughan, but long enough for non-government work.

What does any of this have to do with a blog of matters of faith?

Well, Bill's funeral was at his church, which he used to joke that he served for a time as a defrocked deacon. It was the first time I had been to Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. Something about it attracted me, including the fact that I knew some folks there. Before long I was attending Second. And in September 1978 I formally joined the church.

The other thing about this anniversary that has to do with faith is that both Bill and I wrote humor for almost 60 years, combined. And it's my contention that there is an important place in faith for humor. What I find most distressing about the world of faith, in fact, is that too many people who describe themselves as deeply religious are also deeply humorless.

The Bible is full of humor. Elton Trueblood demonstrated that for the New Testament in his book Humor of Christ. You just have to know where to look.

Where do I look? In the Bible's opening sentence, which is about baseball -- "In the big inning. . ."

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

P.S.: I will be participating again this year in the annual AIDS Walk to raise funds for Kansas City area AIDS service organizations. It will be on Saturday, April 28. If you want to donate, just click here. And thanks for any help you can give.

Today's religious holiday: Intercalary Days (Baha'i; today through March 1)

Feb. 24-25, 2007, weekend


As the religion question gets more prominent in presidential politics, you find it being discussed earlier and earlier, which is good in many ways. (Well, everything in the 2008 race is happening earlier and earlier.) Here, for instance, is a columnist's argument in favor of electing a Mormon, Mitt Romney. Do you agree?

* * *


Reports say singer Michael Jackson has converted to Islam. One should never, of course, question such conversion decisions made by celebrities. So, instead, I suggest we simply sit and wait and watch.

* * *


The other day here on the blog, we talked some about whether our faith communities are doing enough to encourage and sustain marriage. It was a discussion sparked by the pope's denunciation of divorce.

WeddingsIt wasn't necesarily meant to be a discussion of the issues surrounding same-sex unions, though that ended up being part of our discussion.

But as I was thinking about all of this, I was struck once again by how much planning and effort seems to go into preparing for weddings and how little preparing for marriage.

Some couples even chafe a bit at having to go through pre-marital counseling with a member of the clergy, which many faith groups consider mandatory (good for them). But they're perfectly willing to spend thousands of hours (it seems like) picking out the right flowers, the right dresses, the right tuxedos, the right reception hall, the right band and on and on for the 40-minute wedding itself.

And how many times after the wedding does the bride ever wear her expensive wedding gown? I know it's terribly utilitarian and unsentimental of me to ask that, but there it is, nonetheless.

So the other day I Googled both "wedding planning" and "marriage planning." The first wording turned up 5.42 million Web sites, the second 12.2 million. But it certainly looked as if nearly all the ones I looked at had to do with making preparations for cakes, flowers, dresses and invitations versus making plans to have a healthy, long-lasting marriage.

Then, just for fun, I went to the Web site of my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and did a search on marriage. Pretty quickly I turned up some artiicles (here's one) on how to create a strong marriage.

So my question for you today is why we seem to spend so much time planning weddings and so little on planning marriages. And since many, if not most, weddings occur in churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other worship spaces, are our faith communities simply caving in to the culture by not pushing harder for more marriage preparation? Or is something else at play here?

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

PS: I'll be teaching a writing class the week of July 2 at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico. Click on the "writing class" link for information about the class and how to join us. I'd love to have you there for a beautiful week in the red rock hills that artist George O'Keeffe made famous.

ALSO: If you get up really, really early this Sunday and, at 6 a.m., turn your Kansas City area radio to 106.5 FM, you'll hear a half-hour interview I did with newsman Dave Morton about many religious topics. If you miss it, you can hear it again at 6 a.m. Sunday, March 4, on 98.1 FM, KUDL, and at 6 a.m. Sunday, March 11, on 96.5 FM, KRBZ. No demerits for anyone who doesn't rise at that hour.

Feb. 23, 2007


What some are billing as Louis Farrakhan's last major speech may happen Sunday in Detroit when his Nation of Islam group gathers there. For a brief history of the Nation of Islam and its split from a group that moved to traditional Islam, click here. It's the entry. For a more complete look at the group, click here for a University of Virginia site. The National of Islam's official Web site is here. The Nation is quite small compared with the number of African-Americans who have embraced traditional Islam.

* * *


On Ash Wednesday of this week, I went to my church, as I usually do at the beginning of Lent. As is the custom, a pastor placed ashes on my forehead in the sign of a cross and said, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

AshwednesdayWhat struck me this time was the word dust.

I was reminded of a 2001 column that's in my book (page 86), A Gift of Meaning, in which I note that we carry in our DNA "bloodlines rooted in the fogs and smokes of antiquity."

The reality is that the elements that make up our physical bodies once were elsewhere -- almost certainly star dust that blew through the universe when a star exploded. The dust we carry around in us used to be part of another sun. Imagine that.

As I wrote in that 2001 column, "we are quite literally cobbled together from used parts."

So, yes, we are dust. And to dust we shall return.

And as the small child who heard that and then looked under her bed said to her mother: "Someone under here is either coming or going."

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow will be a discussion of our attraction to familiar places of worship.)

Feb. 22, 2007


A man sometimes considered to be the pope of Sunni Islam has agreed to visit the Vatican, it's reported. Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, whom I met in 2002 at Al-Azhar in Cairo, has set no date but has accepted an invitation to speak in person with Pope Benedict XVI. I find Tantawi fascinating. At times he says very reasonable, rational things and appears to be the kind of moderate voice that Islam needs. But at other times he seems to excuse suicide bombers, and even encourage them. If this visit comes off, let's pay close attention to see what Tantawi can teach Benedict and what Benedict can teach Tantawi.

* * *


I am going to wander a little bit afield today, but perhaps not too far.

JanisjoplinThe other night my wife and I saw the current play at the new Copaken Stage of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, "Love Janis."

As you may know, it's the musical story of the short life of singer Janis Joplin (pictured here), who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 in 1970 -- less than a month after I began work at The Kansas City Star.

I was never what you'd call a huge Joplin fan, though I certainly liked some of her work -- especially the way she could do blues. In fact, I find her rendition of "Summertime" simply an unmatched classic.

At any rate, in the show there's a talking Janis and a singing Janis, and sometimes the two appear on stage together. It sounds weird, but it's effective.

At one point, the talking Janis is reading aloud a letter she's writing to her mother in Texas, and she is telling her about recently getting a dog named George. She describes him as kind of a pain but then says that all he really wants is to be petted and loved. And that, she says, is also pretty much what all of us want.

In some ways it reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut's assertion that all people really want is to be lonely no more.

So here's my question for you: Can all religion ultimately be boiled down to different approaches that will get us loved? Is that really what we're seeking when we join a community of faith? Or is that too simplistic?

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

Feb. 21, 2007


The world seems to be full of religious fervor these days, partly because there are so many religious leaders who draw in people who seem to need someone to tell them how to think. CNN reports on another such character, about whom you have have heard. Is there a point at which such people should be stopped? And, if so, by whom?

* * *


This past Sunday I led some members of my congregation on our fourth tour of sacred spaces in the Kansas City area.

Stour418For a blog entry on the last such tour, click here.

For this tour, our plan was to visit three structures all southeast of Downtown, and we managed to do two of them. We somehow missed connections with the folks at an old Baptist church, so we'll have to come back there at some point.

But we did make it to a mosque that serves a predominantly African-American congregation and we made it to an independent, predominantly black church located in a historic building that was the first home of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue.

Both visits were fascinating -- the mosque because we were privileged to be at the Al-Inshirah Islamic Center at 3664 Troost for part of a talk (with questions and answers) by a visiting imam from Atlanta and for a prayer service. And Christ Temple Church at 3400 Paseo (the large picture above) was especially intriguing because the congregation has kept nearly all of the original internal architecture of the synagogue. Indeed, the church and the synagogue maintain an on-going working relationship.

Both the mosque and the church could not have been more welcoming. And the folks at the mosque were especially interested to hear our own questions about their mosque (part of which is pictured here on the right) and about Islam in general.

Stour43I think such contacts across faith lines have much value because it allows us to look others in the eye and see them in spaces they consider sacred. We know why our own space is sacred to us, but we don't always have a good sense of what happens inside the sacred space of others.

The idea is not to go there to convert anyone to being a Presbyterian or for them to convert us to their faith. Rather, the idea is to remove fear and ignorance, which can lead to all sorts of bad things.

I hope your congregations are doing something similar. If not, now you have the idea. Run with it.

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

P.S.: If you missed a commented posted at 8:15 last evening by Michael, a regular reader from the United Kingdom, I urge you to go back and read it -- especially those of you who are regulars here. Well put, Michael.

Below are a few more photos from Christ Temple, showing its gorgeous Byzantine architecture.


Feb. 20, 2007


It's always interesting to me to see how others see the United States. For instance, in this Arab News story, in which King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, is quoted as urging Muslims not to be divided, we also get critiques of the U.S. from others. We may not all agree with what's said, but I think it's really helpful to understand how others view us.

* * *


I'll be pretty brief today to allow you to ponder the reasons for and goals of interfaith dialogue.

Interfaith_5The Feb. 19 issue of Newsweek has an interesting short piece about this subject, and I hope you'll take a look at it and then give us your thoughts about whether it's useful for people of different faiths to be engaging in such dialogue or whether we're all just fooling ourselves in thinking that it can make the world better.

I believe that such dialogue -- if undertaken in honesty and without the express purpose of converting others -- is absolutely vital if we are to avoid further catastrophes such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

We simply have to understand each other better, even if we agree to disagree profoundly.

But perhaps you see things differently. If so, how and why?

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

P.S.: I have mentioned here the last couple of days that I will be participating again this year in the annual AIDS Walk to raise funds for Kansas City area AIDS service organizations. It will be on Saturday, April 28. If you want to donate, just click here. But I also want you to know about a new faith-based Kansas City area campaign against AIDS. It's called "The Church Has AIDS," and you already may have seen some billboards around town. It's being spearheaded by Gerald Palmer, associate minister at Calvary Temple Baptist Church, whose pastor, Eric D. Williams, has been especially diligent over the years about waking up the black community to the threat and reality of AIDS. Take a look at Palmer's Web site and see if there's a way you'd like to join his work.

Oh, and did you see the story about the U.S. military chaplain who wanted to change from Christianity to Wicca, but was turned down? If it were up to you, how would you decide this one?

Today's religious holiday: Shrove Tuesday (Christian)

Feb. 19, 2007


The pope has made another strong defense of marriage, denouncing divorce. My question for each of you is what your faith community, if you have one, is doing to help strengthen marriages and to help people make a long-term commitment to a life partner. In other words, is your congregation doing more than just talking? And how, in your opinion, is the institution of marriage wounded by couples simply living together?

* * *


No doubt many of you saw the story recently about a Holocaust denier attacking Elie Wiesel, perhaps the world's most well known Holocaust survivor.

WieselWiesel was accosted in a San Francisco hotel, but his attacker fled once the Nobel laureate screamed for help.

A Jewish publication, The Forward, has followed up this story with a piece about how Holocaust deniers are becoming more aggressive. It's a distressing reminder that a modern version of Know-Nothingism lives and that profoundly misled people are willing to act out of their willful ignorance.

In the Forward piece, Wiesel says what happened to him represents a trend, though earlier the story says this is the first known violent attack by a denier. So maybe we should withhold judgment on whether physical assaults on survivors is becoming a trend.

But even one assault is obviously one too many.

As regular readers of this blog know, I've dealt a time or two with the recent denial conference in Iran and, more generally, with the subject of Holocaust survivors because I'm working on a book on this subject (e-mail me and I'll tell you how to help). Click here for a recent blog entry on the pope and the Holocaust, for example. And click here for a January entry on Holocaust deniers.

It seems incredible that anyone should have to fear people who deny the Shoah, but increasingly I am not surprised by anything.

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

P.S.: I will be participating again this year in the annual AIDS Walk to raise funds for Kansas City area AIDS service organizations. It will be on Saturday, April 28. If you want to donate, just click here. And thanks for any help you can give.

Today's religious holiday: Clean Monday (the beginning of Lent for Orthodox Christians)

Feb. 17-18, 2007


Speaking of the way Christians and Jews relate (as I do below), a Polish politician is in the news for saying Jews are a detriment to Europe. Good heavens. So much for the idea that anti-Semitism is dead and gone forever. (To read all the story, you may have to register -- it's free -- with the Jewish news agency JTA.)

* * *


The world's best Catholic journalist, John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter, has devoted his current weekly e-mail newsletter this week to Catholic-Jewish relations. As usual, John is insightful. But I'd be interested in any Jewish reaction to what he says. So when Shabbat is over -- or whenever time is right for you -- join in, Jewish voices.

* * *


As I may have told you before, I'll be teaching a writing class the week of July 2 at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico.

Gr05b3_2And I've been learning a lot as I prepare for it.

The class is called "Mindful Words: An Interfaith Approach to Writing." My plan is to draw on sacred writing from a number of religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and maybe others.

We will be marinating a bit in these ancient texts and then we will write about whatever is on our minds -- with the lessons and sensibilities of those texts in mind.

So I've been reading or re-reading not just the Bible but also some other Jewish and Christian texts, the Qur'an, the Bhagavad-Gita, some Buddhists text and other sources, seeking passages to use for the class -- a class I hope some of you will consider joining.

Ghost Ranch is located an hour north of Santa Fe in the starkly beautiful red rock hills that artist Georgia O'Keeffe painted. It is a welcoming place of respite. I've been teaching there for many years, and it feels very much like home to me.

So come spend a week writing, whether you are a professional at it or a beginner. Ghost Ranch can change your view of the world.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about a new wave of books that suggest believing is God is nuts.)

P.S.: I mentioned at the bottom of my Feb. 12 posting here that I will be participating again this year in the annual AIDS Walk to raise funds for Kansas City area AIDS service organizations. It will be on Saturday, April 28. If you want to donate, just click here. And thanks for any help you can give.

Today's religious holidays: Transfiguration Sunday (Christian, 18th); Chinese New Year (Confucian/Daoist/Buddhist, 18th); Cheesefare Sunday (Orthodox Christian, 18th)