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May 31, 2007


How do you view the Bible? Is it literally the word of God? Is it, instead, the inspired word of God but written in the culturally conditioned words of fallible human beings? Or is it just an interesting collection of fables and moral advice? (And let's not pretend those three views exhaust the possibilities.) A new poll shows how Americans view the Good Book.

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I thought it was good and reassuring news earlier this week when President Bush imposed sanctions on the government of Sudan to try to stop the genocide in the Darfur section of Sudan. It may be too little too late, but at least it's something.

DarfurAs many of you know, I'm at work on a book that has to do with genocide -- a book about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with help from non-Jews. And it's been interesting to me to note that one of the strongest voices against the genocide in Darfur nowadays is coming from the Jewish community. An example is this statement issued right after Bush's announcement.

As Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I travel around the country doing interviews for the book, we sometimes visit Holocaust centers. And almost without fail they have some kind of display on or program about Darfur.

A good example is the Holocaust Museum Houston. For its ongoing Darfur information, click here. In fact, this site gives some pretty good, if brief, background information about the human disaster in this part of Sudan and what people of faith can do about it.

The group is another excellent source of information.

People of all religions should be doing what they can to speak out against this genocidal outrage. If our religious convictions don't lead us to protest the mass slaughter of fellow human beings, what good are they?

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

May 30, 2007


A columnist for the New Zealand Herald thinks they're arrogant and hostile. What's your take on the likes of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et. al.?

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If we don't take a break and laugh a bit, our heads will explode.

LaughingfaceSo here are a few faith-based jokes, none of which are original with me, several of which came my way via (You can contribute some, too, for the next round. Just e-mail me. If it tickles me, I'll use it. If it doesn't, I'll forgive you.)

1. A archaelologist was digging in the Negev Desert in Israel and came upon a casket containing a mummy, a rather rare occurrence in Israel. After examining it, he called the curator of a museum in Jerusalem.

"I've just discovered a 3,000-year-old mummy of a man who died of heart failure," the scientist exclaimed. The curator said, simply, "Bring him in. We'll check it out."

A week later the curator called the archaelogist: "You were right about both the mummy's age and the cause of death. How in the world did you know?"

"Easy," came the reply. "There was a piece of paper in his hand that said, '10,000 Shekels on Goliath.'"

2. Three guys were fishing on a lake one day when Jesus walked across the water and joined them in the boat. When the three astonished men settled down enough to speak, the first guy asked humbly, "Jesus, I've suffered from back pain ever since I took shrapnel in the Vietnam war. Could you help me?"

"Of course, my son," Jesus replied. When Jesus touched the man's back, it was healed.

The second man, who wore very thick glasses and had a hard time reading and driving, asked if Jesus could do anything about his eyesight. Jesus smilked, removed the man's glasses and tossed them in the lake. When the glasses hit the water the man's eyes cleared and he could see everything distinctly.

When Jesus turned to heal the third man, the guy put up his hands and cried defensively, "Don't touch me. I'm on long-term disability."

3. A golfer teed up his ball on the first hole, took a mighty swing and hit the ball into a clump of trees. He found it and saw and opening between two trees. He thought he could hit it through them. So, taking out his 3-wood, he took another big swing. The ball hit a tree, bounced back, hit him in the forehead and killed him.

As he approached the Pearly Gates, St. Peter saw him coming and asked, "Are you a good golfer?"

To which the man replied: "I got here in two, didn't I?"

4. One day the zookeeper notice tha tthe orangutan was reading two books, the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species. Surprised, he asked him why.

"Well," said the orangutan, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."

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

May 29, 2007


Pope Benedict XVI has decided to upgrade a Vatican office that carries on dialogue with Islam. It's a good sign that he understands how important such interfaith conversation and contact can be.

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Quick. Who said this? "Most Americans are born drunk. . .They have a sort of permanent intoxication from within, a sort of invisible champagne. . .Americans do not need to drink to inspire them to do anything."

ChestertonAnd this? "Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it was too long and the age of great epics is past."

Yes, it was the great English Christian scholar and novelist G.K. (for Gilbert Keith) Chesterton, whose 133rd birthday is today.

Chesterton was a convert to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism, and his writings are permeated by religious thought, from a sort of mystical Catholic perspective.

Chesterton isn't quoted quite as often as Mark Twain or Yogi Berra, neither of whom said all the things they said. But he's pretty ubiquitous, even in American culture. In fact, there's even an American Chesterton Society.

I've read some Chesterton but nowhere near enough. If you want a good introduction to the man, however, it's hard to do better than Issue 75 of Christian History (now Christian History & Biography) magazine of a couple of years ago. It's devoted to Chesterton.

So experience a little G.K. Chesterton today. It will be more rewarding than, say, a little Brad Pitt.

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

Today's religious holiday: Ascension of Baha'u'llah (Baha'i)

P.S.: 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.

May 28, 2007


The new Creation Museum opens today in Kentucky. How many of you read the book of Genesis as a scientifically and historically accurate account of the creation of the world and how many of you think it uses at least some metaphorical language?

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It's Memorial Day here in the U.S., so I won't be doing much blogging today.

MemdayRather, it's a time to think about the people who have fought and died protecting our freedoms, including our ability to worship freely.

On another day, we can argue about whether some died in foolish wars entered into by politicians with big egos. We can debate the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and in other places around the globe. But today, in the midst of start-of-summer picnics and family gatherings, give thanks that Americans are free to practice religion in ways they choose.

And if you're not up to adult speed today, start with this kids' site on Memorial Day.

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

May 26-27, 2007


While America is pondering the new report on Muslims in the U.S. that I write about below, some folks in India on Saturday held a conference on "Islam and Terrorism." Here's a report. It's often helpful to hear how people in other parts of the world see all of this -- and see the U.S.

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Pope Benedict XVI is coming under increasing pressure to reform the Vatican's doctrine office, which he once headed. It's the old issue of how to maintain sound and consistent theology and yet be open to new ways of expressing it. Has any faith community fully figured out how to do that?

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If you were asked to describe the Muslim population of America in terms of size, demographics, assimilation and attitudes, what would you say?

Icofa7Think about that and then compare your answers to the findings of an interesting new survey done by the Pew Research Center. (By the way, the photo here today is one I took some months ago at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich.) For the Christian Science Monitor's story about the new report, click here.

Several things about the survey stand out to me, including its estimate of the number of Muslims in this country. Many estimates range as high as 10 or 12 million, though most are in the 3 to 6 million range. But the Pew study came up with a figure of 2.35 million, including 1.5 million adults. For a story from the Jewish publication, The Forward, focusing on the numbers, click here.

In a conference call the day the survey was released on Tuesday, I asked the Pew folks to describe how they came up with such a low figure. The study's methodology, if you want to look it over, is described starting on page 57 of the report. My reading of the study is that it probably missed some -- but not a huge number -- of Muslim Americans. My own guess, after reviewing these figures, is that a better guess would be about 3 million or slightly above.

As Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, acknowledged, "This obviously will not end the debate about how many Muslims there are."

One of the problems in counting Muslims, of course, is that Muslims don't count themselves in very rigid ways. The best estimates are made on the basis of mosque attendance, but even that is pretty slippery.

Other survey results are mostly good news, with some rather disturbing findings mixed in. Muslims generally are quite well assimilated into American life and share traditional American values. They're generally quite happy here (African-American converts less so than immigrants). And they are doing as well educationally and economically as most groups in the country.

But a larger percentage of younger Muslims display some sympathy for radical Islam than older Muslims. Fifteen percent of American Muslims between ages 18 and 30 believe suicide bombings sometimes is justfiable in defending Islam (compared with 6 percent of Muslims over 30).

Study directors said that doesn't mean the young people are about to engage in suicide bombings in Cleveland and Los Angeles. Rather, they said the responses to their questions mean the young people believe such actions may be justifiable elsewhere around the world when Muslims seem to have run out of less-violent options to defend themselves. Still, no matter how you explain it, that's a disturbing finding, as is the still-high percentage of Muslims who don't believe Arabs perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

And yet, as Kohut asserted, "Overall, this (study) is a very, very positive story for the vast majority of Muslims (in America)."

Take a look at the report and see what else you find in it that you didn't know -- or thought you knew but find you are wrong about.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about attachments one feels to former congregations and the buildings they use. I wrote it from my hometown of Woodstock, Ill.)

May 25, 2007


Various entertainment news sources report that Paris Hilton, about to be jailed, may be turning to Buddhism. Here's my prediction: Buddhism has survived much else. It will survive this, too.

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At 5 p.m. this Sunday, whole bunches of Christians plan to gather and pray at Community America Stadium (T-Bones Park, basically) in Kansas City, Kan., as a culmination of 10 days of prayer.

PrayerIt will be called Global Day of Prayer. Something similar happened last year, too, with prayer going on in countries all over the world.

I've got lots of questions for you about prayer and events like these, but I'll try to limit myself to a few basic ones:

* What difference does it make if one person prays or a billion people pray if they're essentially praying for the same thing?

* That is, does God count and respond only when the prayer volume hits critical mass?

* Is prayer meant to change God, change the world or change the people praying?

* Are well-written, theogically vetted prayers better than extemporaneous utterances?

* Do you feel differently about prayer if you know that people in Poland and India and Japan and Colombia are praying with you?

By the way, the event this Sunday will happen rain or shine. Which, it turns out, is also when I believe God hears prayer.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow is written from my hometown of Woodstock, Ill., and is about the church of my boyhood moving to a new facility.)

May 24, 2007


Uzbekistan is a fascinating country that really engaged me when I spent some time there in 2002. But the old Soviet republic seems to be having trouble finding its way into modernity, especially in the area of human right. A new report suggests the government there now wants to clamp down on religion and control everything tightly, including missionary work. Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, is a predominantly Muslim country, but the nervous government has jailed thousands of Muslims on suspicion of being too religious or too radical about their religion, though I discovered when I was there that Christian missionaries from Korea were at work in the country. Uzbekistan has many natural and human resources that could make it a powerhouse in the region. But not if it can't guarantee its people basic religious liberty.

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What if, instead of killing or permanently imprisoning violent Islamic militants, it were possible to reform them?

AlqaidaThat way they would give up their commitment to terrorism and -- more to the point -- maybe even become constructive members of society.

It seems, as first, like a naive question. But, in fact, Saudi Arabia is trying it -- and with some success. A report on the program is in the current (June) issue of The Atlantic monthly magazine. And although you must be a magazine subscriber to read more than the opening few paragaphs of the piece to which I'm linking you, perhaps you will find it interesting enough to pick up the magazine and finish it.

What I find most intriguing about the approach of the Saudi government is that it is based on an understanding that young men often drift into the clutches of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups out of loneliness. That is, they may be off somewhere studying and don't have much left in the way of family connections, so they show up at a mosque that terrorism recruiters frequent and soon find themselves committed to a radical form of their religion.

The Saudi intervention strategy tries to put them back in contact with family and friends who can guide them toward more orthodox understandings of Islam.

The Atlantic piece makes the interesting point that al-Qaida "is a spiritually vulnerable organization. In the battle for the 'hearts and minds' of Muslims, it is no juggernaut. Taking that battle more seriously. . .might go a long way toward turning al-Qaida from a global movement back into an isolated, if dangerous, cult."

It seems to me that because what the U.S. government is doing to stop terrorist groups has a very mixed record, we might want to try all the arrows in the quiver, including this one.

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

P.S.: Is your congregation participating in the effort to train clergy about how to help people with depression? It's called Sabbaths of Hope, and though many congregations already have passed a designated Sunday for this, others will commemorate their commitment in this area in the coming weeks. Sabbaths of Hope is a project of the Center for Practical Bioethics.

Also: When commenters on this blog call each other vulgar names, I'll delete the comments, as I did yesterday.

May 23, 2007


Written before yesterday's funeral for the Rev. Jerry Falwell, this analysis by Alan Cooperman of The Washington Post is worth a read. Any guesses how evangelical Christianity in America will change with Falwell gone?

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You may recall an entry I did here a few weeks ago about the opportunity to preach at a church that was celebrating its program for helping people with developmental disabilities.

Naz1Today I want to raise up another congregation that is doing similar work, though College Church of the Nazarene of Olathe, Kan., focuses on welcoming special-needs adults to its Sunday worship services. One of the people who loves to go is my stepson, Chris.

It may not be the primary purpose the church had in mind, but one of the things Chris loves about going to church from his group home is riding what he calls "the big yellow bus."

In this picture, you see my wife, Chris' mother, walking him to the bus. We were going to his church with him this past Sunday to watch him be part of a musical group, but -- thank you very much -- he preferred to ride the big yellow bus instead of ride with us.

In both the 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. services, Chris and others sang and signed a song. In this picture, you can see Chris sitting here with the group and doing some of the movements.

Naz2A year or two ago I did a story for The Kansas City Star about the spiritual needs of the developmentally disabled. They are real and need to be taken seriously.

I'm grateful to College Church and others that devote time and resources to welcoming people who sometimes feel unwelcome. It seems to me that this is exactly what faith communities should be doing.

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

Today's religious holiday: Shavuot (23rd and 24th) (Judaism); Declaration of the Bab (Baha'i).

May 22, 2007


Who are the Jehovah's Witnesses? For one interesting answer, you can watch a documentary called "Knocking" tonight on PBS. There's lots of information about the presentation on the link I've given you. Have a look, if you can, and tell me what you think of the show. The documentary will air at 10 p.m. on KCPT-TV in Kansas City.

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The divorce rate in the United States has fallen to its lowest level since 1970, reports say.

DivorceThat would seem to be good news, and certainly there is reason to celebrate. But not so fast. Some experts think part of the reason for the declining rate is that more couples are choosing to live together without getting married. Thus, when they split up, as many do, it doesn't count as a divorce.

But whatever the cause of the lower rate, my question today has more to do with what faith communities are doing to reduce the rate and, more to the point, to create stable and healthy marriages.

My prejudice about this is that many congregations that are speaking out the loudest about protecting the institution of marriage are more worried about same-sex marriage than they are about helping heterosexual couples in traditional marriages find ways to keep their wedding vows. As I admit, that's a prejudice, but it's based on the loud noises I hear about same-sex unions and the comparative silence I hear about helping traditional marriages.

Indeed, several years ago I read figures that show the divorce rate often is highest in areas dominated by churches that have protested same-sex marriage the loudest. If I were a member of such a church, I would consider that a scandal. At the same time, I can't say Mainline Christian churches (I belong to one) are doing enough to preserve marriages, either. I wish I could explain why. (And in the interests of full disclosure, I say that as a man whose first marriage ended in divorce -- not of my choosing -- after nearly 27 years, and a man whose second marriage is well into its 11th happy year.)

What is your faith community, if you have done, doing to help people keep marriages healthy?

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

P.S.: There's a new and high-quality Jewish TV network now on the Internet. The Jewish Television Network has launched its online version.

May 21, 2007


An Arizona high school removed reference to God in a high school yearbook because of misunderstood or misapplied church-state separation concerns, and it now has apologized, acknowledging it was wrong. Some people are way too skittish and way too uninformed about current case law, if you ask me. There was no reason at all to remove God in this case.

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Perhaps you've read some of my Star colleague Helen Gray's stories about the church that has made an international hit by offering purple no-complaint bracelets. People wear them as a reminder that they have pledged to get through the day without griping about things.

Gratitude1Well, that has at least a little merit, it seems to me, in a world full of people who want to sue over everything, but it still strikes me as sort of simplistic -- especially because there are things that are wrong and need to be complained about. (Including that last sentence.)

A more useful approach, it seems to me, would be to encourage gratitude and expressions of it. After all, most religions encourage adherents to live gratefully. Well, howdy. Someone is doing just that.

A fairly new Web site, called Gimundo, which specializes in uplifting news, has created what it calls a Digital Journal of Gratitude, and it wants people to create posts telling why they're grateful for this or that.

Is this just more silliness or is there some true spiritual value in this? I'm thinking there might be some spiritual value in it -- if people routinely remember to adopt an attitude of gratitude. In traditional Christian theology, after all, adherents are encouraged to do good works not to earn God's favor but, rather, to express gratitude for what God already has done for them. That always has made a lot of sense to me.

So what are you grateful for? (Sometimes I'm grateful for sentences that end in prepositions.) I, for one, am grateful for California reader Mary Behr's 76th birthday anniversary today.

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