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July 31, 2007


COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- They came, some 70,000 of them, to the shrine here to honor the gods of baseball on Sunday.

Roch0736_3They were here at the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame mostly to offer their veneration to the two official new gods, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Tony Gwynn, each of whom had spent a couple of decades collecting adoring worshipers by playing the national pastime with grace and skill and determination.

I was here, by contrast, to honor my friend Denny Matthews, who for almost four decades has described on radio (and sometimes TV) the ups (not many) and downs of the Kansas City Royals and who was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, too. (That's Denny giving his acceptance speech in the photo below.)

But it was hard not to see this whole show as permeated by theological overtones.

One man wore a T-shirt bearing this headline about Ripken: "Immortal Cal." It was the headline used by The Sun newspaper in Baltimore the day after Ripken, the Orioles' shortstop, had broken Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game playing streak of 2,130 games. (Eventually Cal played in 2,632 straight games.)

Nearby I saw another man holding this sign: "Holy Cal!"

Roch0739Oh, yes, I know such headlines and signs are light-hearted, but isn't it interesting that when we want to pay homage to our cultural heroes, we often do so in religious language?

And yet these gods are mortal. Only 63 of the 280 players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame still are alive. An astonishing 53 of them were at the ceremony here Sunday, including some of the younger members, such as Kansas City's George Brett and Milwaukee's Robin Yount. But there sat Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Duke Snyder. Nearby was Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. Johnny Bench was there, along with Gaylord Perry and Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Billy Williams and even George Kell. And Monte Irvin using a cane.

None of them, of course, could take the field now and duplicate anything like what they did to earn their way into the hall of fame. Time is exacting its price on them, and fans know deep in their hearts that these men aren't either immortal or holy. They are, rather, practitioners of a game we care about because of its grace and beauty, its insistence on timing and distance, its requirements that the players pay close attention even when nothing seems to be happening.

All sin, ultimately, is idolatry. And I think most fans understand that their fanaticism (where do you think the word fan comes from?) for the game is not the same thing as worship. But now and then it's good to be reminded of that -- even here where baseball is next to godliness.

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

July 30, 2007


Afghanistan's government is using religious language to appeal to the Taliban to do the right thing.Well, to communicate, you have to know the right language.

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I recall with considerable clarity my visit to the Holy Land when I was about to turn age 13. It was Christmas 1957.

JerusalemBecause my family was next headed to Egypt, we couldn't go into Israel because Egypt wouldn't let us in if we were coming from Israel. Rather, we had to stay in Jordan, but a good part of Jerusalem then was in Jordan, as was all of Bethlehem, where we went to the Church of the Nativity for Christmas Eve services.

It seemed to me that along with many Jews and Muslims, there were lots of Christians, both visitors and local residents.

But things have been changing, especially in recent years.

And now, as this report indicates, life for Christians in the land where Christianity has its roots, is tenuous and difficult. In fact, Christian numbers in the area are dwindling quickly, and it's hard to imagine what the future holds for Christians there in the near future.

The writer of the piece to which I've linked you reports that the proportion of the Jerusalem population that's Christian has dropped from 18 percent in 1910 to 2 percent in 2000. And it's probably below that today. Similarly, Bethlehem was 80 percent Christian in 1948 but only about 20 percent today.

In some ways, I suppose it doesn't matter much to the global health of Christianity that these numbers suggest trouble in the religion's place of origin. After all, Christianity is booming in the Southern Hemisphere, and especially across Africa. But to me, as a Christian, it seems sad that the Christian population of the Holy Land is struggling so much to maintain itself.

And yet it's also true that the faith historically does best when it finds itself persecuted or under other kinds of duress. So maybe there's a comeback in the making. Stay tuned.

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

P.S.: I was in Cooperstown, N.Y., yesterday to see my good friend Denny Matthews, the radio voice of the Kansas City Royals, get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Great ceremony. Beautiful day. And I hope to do a blog entry about it this coming week, but it won't be for today because as I write this Sunday night I'm back in Rochester, N.Y., with family and it's late and I need to get ready to fly back home tomorrow. So stay tuned -- because there's something I want to say about the connection to religion of what I witnessed today.

July 28-29, 2007, weekend


Yes, the pope represents spiritual matters, but his presence also can mean economic activity, as shown in this report from the little town where he has spent some recent vacation time. So even if it's possible to separate church and state, it may not be possible to separate church and estate.

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Earlier this month, when Pakistan's Red Mosque was the center of violence, Reuters put together an interesting fact box about the place. Given the new violence there, I thought it would be helpful to link you to that background.

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It's time again to pass along the titles of some new (some brand new, some pretty new) books that deal with various matters of religion and ethics.

Books* How the Quakers Invented America, by David Yount. Small religious groups in the United States often have had influence far beyond their numbers. The Quakers are among them. This account, by a nationall syndicated columnist, unpacks the many ways in which Quaker values have helped to shape our nation.

* Forgiveness: A Legacy of the West Nickel Mines Amish School, by John L. Ruth. And speaking of the influence small religious groups can have, the Amish showed that in the forgiving way they responded to the terrible disaster in October 2006 when a gunman killed five Amish school children, wounded five others and then killed himself in Pennsylvania. The author, a Mennonite minister, helps us understand how the Amish response was possible.

* Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, by Joe Mackall. A clear-eyed, careful writer offers us an inside look at this fascinating group of people who choose to live against the tide of modernity in many ways.

* Don't Chew Jesus: A Collection of Memorable Nun Stories, by Danielle Schaaf and Michael Prendergast. These Catholic-educated writers give us a fun and revealing look at their 20th Century Catholic education, and the remarkable women who gave it to them.

* Encyclopedia of Catholicism, by Frank K. Flinn. This part of the Facts on File Library of Religion and Mythology series on world religions gives us more than 600 interesting pages about many aspects of Catholic Christianity, though the one-paragraph entry on the word "nun" isn't nearly as much fun as the previous book's stories about nuns.

* The Complete Idiot's Guide to Kabbalah, by Rav Michael Laitman, with Collin Canright. If you want an understandable introduction to this mystical path of Judaism, this is the book for you. Well, this and the Web site operated by the author Laitman.

* Emerging Ministry: Being Church Today, by Nathan C.P. Frambach. The emerging, or emergent, church movement is producing some fresh thinking in Christianity, and this small volume adds to it with a Lutheran perspective. For more information, see this Web site.

Books_2*Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination and Spirit, by Luci Shaw. The author, a poet and teacher, who "vowed never to cut myself off from beauty," explores the connection between religion and art in helpful ways.

* When Grief Comes: Finding Strength for Today and Hope for Tomorrow, by Kirk H. Neely. This Baptist pastor writes not from an abstract theological perspective but from the personal experience of profound loss, including the death of his son.

* Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities, by Robert M. Franklin. The author, both a scholar and a preacher, draws on both academia and the church to suggest remedies for the disasters that have plagued black Americans.

* The Seduction of Extremes: Swallowing Camels and Straining Gnats, by Peter Kurowski. This pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod offers a wise word of caution about taking extreme religious positions as well as the virtues of learning to live with paradox.

* From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible, by Eric H. Cline. This is an archeologist's scholarly but accessible take on some of the mysterious stories in the Bible, including Noah's Ark and the Ten Lost Tribes.

* From Power to Purpose, by Sen. Sam Brownback, with Jim Nelson Black. Think of this as a presidential campaign book if you want to, but it gives you a chance to understand Brownback's thinking, including his religious views, on his own terms.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (In my Saturday column this weekend, I write from the high desert country of northern New Mexico and ask this question: Was humanity meant for misery?)

July 27, 2007


Mitt Romney says he's going to give a speech focused specifically on his Mormon faith. Good. The more open presidential candidates are about such things the better, but let's remember that the only relevant question for voters in a religiously free country is how a candidate's religious beliefs will affect his positions on public policy.

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I often write about interfaith and ecumenital relations, but was surprised the other day when I attended a memorial service to realize how much all of this has become woven into at least some of the fabric of our culture.

InterfaithI, a Presbyterian, was in a United Methodist church sitting between a Presbyterian and a Methodist. In the pew in front of us was a Buddhist. And the person giving the eulogy that day was a Catholic nun.

All of us were there because of our attachment to a woman who used to be a teacher, and among the people she taught were my two daughters.

But her range of friends was wide, indeed.

My guess is that anyone driving by the church would have assumed a bunch of Methodists were simply there to say goodbye to another Methodist. But that assumption would have been wrong and it would have missed some of the increasing richness of the religious makeup of America.

That makeup has changed rather dramatically since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed immigration reform into law in 1965, opening the doors to millions of people from many places, but especially Asia. Those people have brought with them their own brands of religion, including varieties of Christianity different from what had been here before.

I think the United States has a chance to be a model to the world for how people of many faiths can live together in harmony. That does not require anyone to give up or compromise beliefs. Rather, it requires all of us to be respectful of people who hold religious views different from our own. And it might be a good idea if we began to notice more often when we find ourselves in the company of people who differ from us religiously.

As I discovered at the recent memorial service, it happens more often than we might imagine.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (In my column tomorrow, I write from the high desert country of northern New Mexico and ask: Was humanity meant for misery?)

July 26, 2007


There's an interesting debate going on in Malaysia over the recent assertion by the deputy prime minister that Islam is its official religion and it's a Muslim country -- just in case you needed a reminder that the religious freedom and church-state separation we enjoy in the U.S. is not universal.

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The other evening I finally had the opportunity to visit the magnificent Bloch Building, the controversial new addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

Bloch_3Whatever you think of the exterior (it's really growing on me), the interior space is simply stunning.

My wife and I were with friends that evening, and later we talked some about the role of religion and art and whether this kind of expensive space functions as a sort of temple to which art worshipers come on a pilgrimage to pay homage to the art and the artists.

I haven't figured out quite what I think about all of that, but I am both moved and a little discomforted by the idea that in such museums and galleries we may have created something slightly idolatrous. Or, if not, at least something that should give us pause about idolatry and what we worship.

I am not very well educated in great art. I've never swooned even when I've seen world-famous paintings in museums in such places as Paris. And yet I certainly am attracted to particular paintings and to other works of art, from music to architecture. But I think of art not as an end in itself but, rather, as a vehicle for giving us the opportunity to think and feel beyond ourselves.

I will have to return to the Nelson again and again before I've clarified my thinking about art, idolatry and religion. But I'd be interested in hearing about your own experiences when you visit such secular shrines.

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

July 25, 2007


A top Islamic scholar and adviser in Egypt says Muslims are free to choose which religion to follow -- an opinion certain to have various ramifications, including for Christians there. In the best of all possible worlds, of course, one wouldn't need to say this at all because of its obviousness.

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Now and then this summer, just for a change of pace, we've been talking a little religious history here on the blog.

GreatAnd today I'd like to continue that theme by noting two events tied to this date.

The first is the birth in 1899 of Stuart W.K. Hine, an English missionary who, with his wife (whose first name I cannot find), wrote the English words to one of my favorite hymns, indeed, one of the most popular hymns in all of Christianity -- "How Great Thou Art." (The picture here is of evangelist Gail Richardson singing the hymn at a White House service last year.)

Some years ago a wonderful pianist at our church played a version of that one evening as well as "Great is Thy Faithfulness" when a group of us met in the sanctuary, and it was simply transforming.

I said earlier that Hine wrote the English words. The hymn originally was written in Swedish by a pastor named Carl Gustaf Boberg, entitled O Store Gud (Oh Great God) and published in 1891. Hine later found a Russian version of the text and sang it on missionary work in Ukraine.

Today is also the 39th anniversary of the publication of an important encyclical by Pope Paul VI called Humanae Vitae, which condemned artificial methods of birth control. It's hard to think of a papal position that more American Catholics ignore (at least by anecdotal evidence). Perhaps one reason is that most of the members of the Pontifical Commission appointed to make study the subject favored contraception in certain cases.

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

Today's religious holiday: St. James the Great Day (Christianity)

July 24, 2007


The small Christian Science Monitor, known historically for its excellent foreign coverage, has a pretty good take on the national elections this weekend in Turkey and what it may mean for the important secular tradition of government in that mostly Muslim country. Turkey is one more place that should have been getting more attention from U.S. policy makers but hasn't because of the attention required by the war in Iraq.

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Regular readers of this blog know that from time to time I write about how various religions, especially Christianity, view homosexuality.

GaychristianThey also know that my personal position, based on careful reading and study of the Bible, is different from the position of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). I believe otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians should be eligible for ordination to be church officers and clergy. The church forbids that now.

But from time to time I run across resources that can help all of us think about this matter. A Web site, and related book, I found recently is called Gay Christian 101.

The Web site, which contains quite a bit of information about various biblical passages and their meaning, also promotes a book by Rick Brentlinger, also called Gay Christian 101.

The book, which I have not read, offers the author's views about why homosexuals should understand that God loves them and that they should be fully part of the Christian community.

Well, look, I'm not much interested in provoking more angry arguments about this subject. Rather, I just encourage you to visit the site and see if you discover some fresh way of thinking about this matter -- an issue I consider important, but certainly not the most important one facing people of faith today.

(By the way, for something related to this issue but from the other end of the spectrum, you might be interested in hearing Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, talk about why federal hate crimes -- or, in his words, "thought crimes" -- legislation really wants to target Christians who wish to make public their view that homosexuality is a perversion of biblical teaching.)

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

Today's religious holiday: Pioneer Day (Mormonism); Tisha B'Av (Judaism)

July 23, 2007


Pope Benedict XVI issued a new call for peace yesterday, calling wars "useless slaughters," in an echo of a pope's words 90 years ago. You have to wonder why the voices calling for peace don't just give up and go home once they've read history. I don't want them to give up, but I do wonder why they don't.

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I'm often asked -- often in a hostile tone -- why traditional Muslims don't speak out more often and with more passion about the radicals who claim to operate in Islam's name.

Actsfaith200Well, I agree that Islam clearly is in a struggle for its heart and soul, and -- despite some troubling statistics about young American Muslims who have sympathy for suicide bombers (I discussed that in this May entry)-- I often think it's Muslims in America who will create a model for how Islam can prosper and be a healthy and constructive force in the human community.

That's why I was pleased a few days ago to listen to an interview on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" shows that featured a young and articulate American Muslim named Eboo Patel.

Patel is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. He's also of a group called Interfaith Youth Core.

In the NPR interview, he said that the people of various faiths who are part of Interfaith Youth Core are sure they have found the right religion and some of the IYC members probably believe other members will spend eternity in hell, but despite that they all can and do agree that they can work together to accomplish such important social goals as improving housing for poor people.

The NPR link I've given you has an excerpt from Patel's book. I encourage you to give it a read because I agree with him that "one of the most important questions of our time" is this: "In a world of passionate religiousity and intense interaction, how will people from different faith backgrounds engage one another?"

Some days, reading the comments left on this blog, I become pessimistic about whether it's possible for people of differing beliefs to treat one another with respect and civility. But I haven't given up hope. And hearing a rational voice like Patel's gives me courage.

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

July 21-22, 2007, weekend


Tammy Faye Bakker Messner has died in suburban Kansas City. For the front page story The Kansas City Star used on Sunday, click here.

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Sunday's national elections in Turkey could represent a turning point in that Islamic but secular nation. In many ways, modern Turkey has been a model the West would like to see copied in other predominantly Muslim countries. But first the model has to survive there. UPDATE: Turkey's ruling party won big.

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A man in Utah has just bought -- for a song -- some rare and valuable books published by the tiny Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an off-shoot that still practices polygamy. Insight into religious groups often is offered most clearly from the group's own writings. So maybe we'll learn something about this group. (For more on the group, click here.)

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Every field of endeavor has its slanguage -- those inside-baseball words that folks use for brevity, levity and sometimes just plain -evity.

WordsReligion is no different. In fact, the language of religion can be highly technical and esoteric. Theologians discuss soteriology and eschatology the way pitchers unpack the minutia of curveballs and sliders.

So I'd like to enlist your help to come up with a collection of these terms -- just for the fun of it.

Terms like what? Let me list a few:

* Tall Steeple: A big church, often downtown, but the biggest church of that denomination in the area.

* P.K.: Preacher's kid.

* The Good Book: The Bible.

* MOT: Member of the Tribe, a phrase often used among Jews for other Jews.

* Fundy: A short-hand version of fundamentalist, sometimes used pejoratively.

* Smells and bells: Usually an Episcopal or Catholic church that uses incense and all the extras of a high liturgy.

* Tall (or high or big) hat: A bishop.

I don't want to include words that are dismissive or name-calling words. And maybe I should remove "fundy" for that reason. But either leave a comment here with inside-baseball religious terms you know or e-mail them to me and I'll eventually create a report on all this.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend is about religion and politics and talks about a new book by a Kansas City native.)

P.S.: What looks like an interesting documentary film with religious overtones, "Missionary Kid," will be shown at 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 27, at the Kansas City Central Library as part of the KC Fringe Festival. I'll be out of town, so if any of you can go, let me know how it is.

July 20, 2007


Members of some churches in Kentucky are spending time as volunteers in courts of law to try to help cut down on drug use and trafficking in their area. Isn't this exactly the kind of life-affirming action that faith communities should engage in? Or do you think that in this case they're going beyond what's appropriate?

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I cannot recall having a near-death experience. Well, unless you count the time when I was a teen-ager and my parents came home before we had cleaned up from an unauthorized party.

NdeBut NDEs, as they are called, have become the source of much conjecture and attention. Even Newsweek devoted part of the current (July 23) issue to the subject.

Caution, however, is the right theological stance to take, I think, when pondering NDEs. In that, I pretty much agree with this online Newsweek commentary from Rabbi Marc Gellman.

Science, Gellman writes, is about how we are here. Religion, by contrast, is about why we are here. Although there are areas of mutual interest for the two fields, it's finally true that there are some questions science can't answer and there are different questions religion can't answer.

Still, it's fascinating to hear about what people report about their NDEs. And I think we would do well to listen to these stories and to try to make sense of them in the context of the broad range of human experience. There might be even something theologically significant that NDEs can help us learn.

But Gellman is right to suggest that we not fall into the trap of thinking that science can figure out all of the death questions that religion wrestles with. Religion should not get seduced by science, nor should science imagine that it has ultimate religious answers.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow is about how religion and politics should interact, based on a new book by a Kansas City native.)