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September 2007
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November 2007

Oct. 31, 2007


It's easy to forget the important role chaplains play in the military. I've known several and have always admired their commitment and their willingness to be in the midst of the action where the soldiers are. The Christian Science Monitor this week published this description of the role of a chaplain, and I think it's a good reminder of the wonderful work many of these people do.

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Yes, it's Halloween, but I wrote about that, sort of, in my column this past Saturday, so I'm going to ignore it today in favor of something much more important -- Reinhold Niebuhr (shown here), one of the Christian theological giants of the 20th Century. (And a Missouri-born lad.)

NiebuhrI especially want to point you to an excellent peace considering Niebuhr and his thoughts in the current 150th anniversary issue of the Atlantic monthly. You won't be able to read the whole piece at the link I've given you unless you're an Atlantic subscriber (as is any literate American). But go buy the magazine. It's worth the few bucks it will cost you.

Niebuhr was an odd combination of characteristics and traits. He was an evangelical, to be sure, but one who was questioning, thoughtful, realistic, careful -- descriptions that can't always be applied to all people who would describe themselves as evangelical.

He was a profound patriot, but one who could see with remarkable clarity the issues that would face the nation as it emerged as a superpower.

And his thinking can -- or at least should -- help guide the United States and its citizens, whether Christian or not, as the country looks toward what the world will look like once, if ever, the Iraq war and the struggle against international terrorism end.

Niebuhr, as you may be aware, is not the only member of his family to have made important theological contributions. But we all would do well to sample his thinking again and let it help us find our way in the 21st Century.

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

Today's religious holiday: All Hallows Eve (Christianity); Reformation Day (Protestant Christianity)

Oct. 30, 2007


Speaking of the environment, as I will be below, here's a column from the Los Angeles Times that raises the interesting old question of when a natural disaster really is an "act of God" and when is it an act of humanity. When do you blame God for forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and hail damage?

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A few weeks ago here on the blog, I pointed you to the upcoming Crescent Peace Society dinner as a way to expose you to some Kansas City area Muslims who are really trying to improve the world.

Well, the dinner happened a few nights ago, and the speaker, Dr. Saleem H. Ali (pictured here)Ali1 associate professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, was well worth the price of admission.

Ali is editor of a book just published last month by MIT Press. It's called Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution. The book contains a series of essays about the affect that environmental degradation and conservation has on peace in various parts of the world.

And I find it encouraging that the world finally is beginning to see this connection. That has been evidenced twice by the folks who hand out the Nobel Peace Prize -- first in 2004, when it went to a Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, and again this year when it went to Al Gore and others who have been trying to warn the world about the dangers of global warming.

"As a Muslim," Ali said, "I am first and foremost committed to peace. We can use the environment as a peace-building tool."

And when the Crescent Peace Society this year gave out its own peace award, it went to Lama Chuck Stanford of the Rime Buddhist Center. In his brief remarks on accepting the award, he, too, spoke of the way environmental concerns affect peace.

So I encourage you to find ways to unpack the connection between two mandates of all healthy religion -- good stewardship of the planet and peacemaking. And I encourage you to expose yourself to functions that include people beyond your own faith community as a way of understanding them and the world better.

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

Oct. 29, 2007


On ferry boats in New York City, evangelists are preaching the gospel to commuters, this New York Times story reports. Where would you draw the line here? When does religious freedom and freedom of speech cross over into taking unfair advantage of a captive audience? And do we haven an inherent right to be left alone?

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I've been to Philadelphia twice this year for different reasons. And now I'll have a good reason (and so will you) to go back after July 4, 2010, when the new home to the National Museum of American Jewish History opens.

Museum_july_2010_2For more about the new structure, click here.

The ceremonial groundbreaking for the new 100,000-square-foot, six-story building took place recently at 5th and Market streets in the City of Brotherly Love. The location puts it directly across from the Liberty Bell, two blocks south of the National Constitution Center and one block north of Independence Hall.

"At its heart," said Gwen Goodman, the museum's executive director, "this is a museum about the meaning of America itself, as seen through the eyes of one community."

A central theme of the museum is that although freedom must be inviolate, its guarantees are fragile.

The exhibits will trace the lives of American Jews from 1654 to the present. And they will draw on the museum's current permanent collection of some 20,000 objects.

Remembering history is vital for all people, and Jews have become models for how to do that, partly, of course, because so much of their history has been so traumatic. But America will be richer for having this new structure in an important American historical site.

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

Oct. 27-28, 2007, weekend


When I was in my early teens, I was a member of the Order of deMolay for a time, an organization that honored the values of a man wrongly punished by church officials some seven centuries ago. Now, it turns out, the Vatican acknowledges that its heresy accusations against the Knights Templar at the time were wrong, which led to punishment of deMolay and others. Sooner or later (often later in church history) the truth will out.

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When I visited Saudi Arabia five years ago, I came away with the sense that the government (the journalists I was with met with Crown Prince, now King, Abdullah and other high-ranking officials) had been chastened by the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. Something had gone terribly wrong. And there were indications even then that Abdullah could plausibly be included among the so-called "reformers" in the country. This New York Times story tells me the king now is willing to confront the country's Islamic religious establishment to move Saudi Arabia firmly toward modernity. But time will tell.

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Have you checked out yet?

GodtubeLike, it's a busy site. But seems to be overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, Christian in content -- and, from what I can tell, a fairly conservative variety of Christianity.

Despite those limitations, I do enjoy this fun little video of a little girl reciting the 23rd Pslam.

At any rate, recently decided to expand its offerings to try to create a social network that will attempt to connect the approximately 2.1 billion Christians around the globe. (Good luck with that, given how many of those Christians have no Internet access -- or even, in some places, electricity.)

The Godtube folks even promise to have real humans employed as "Video Police" to make sure the various videos available on the site are "family friendly and kid safe."

I'm curious about who would join such a social e-network and why. Would you? What would you gain from such a membership and what would you bring to the table? Would it be worth your time?

Any readers who already have joined: Tell us your experience.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (For reasons I can't explain, my Saturday column is not on the Web site as of mid-morning Saturday. I'm trying to get that fixed. In the meantime, you could buy a paper or subscribe to the print edition. UPDATE: As of 11:15 a.m. Saturday, my column is on the Web site. So click the link above.)

Today's religious holiday: Reformation Day (Protestant Christianity, 27th) Milvian Bridge Day (Christianity, 28th)

Oct. 26, 2007


A serial killer says he felt like God when deciding who would live and who would die. Among the guy's many problems, if you ask me, is that he thinks of God primarily as capricious and cruel. Is that in any sense a fair description of God to you?

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Even Christian and Jewish congregations (I don't know about Muslim ones) that teach and preach against homosexulaity often say they welcome gays and lesbians.

ChurchdoorsTo me, that's an odd stance. And yet there certainly are ways in which all congregations can be more welcoming to people of various sexual orientations. In fact, there's a group in the Kansas City area that tries to encourage such behavior. It's the Kansas City Coalition for Welcoming Ministries, and it's sponsoring a conference called the Academy of Welcome on Saturday, Nov. 10.

The link I've given you for the academy will provide details of time and place. One of the featured speakers will be Dr. Bob Minor, a professor of religion at the University of Kansas.

For the purposes of this blog entry today, I hope readers and commenters will avoid going through all of the often-rehashed arguments having to do with what the Bible says or doesn't say about homosexuality. Rather, I'd be interested in your specific ideas about how a congregation can do a better job of welcoming gays and lesbians -- and, for that matter, welcoming all people, including those with various disabilities.

I'm reminded, as I write this, that theologian Jurgen Moltmann once wrote that a congregation that does not include disabled members is itself disabled.

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

Oct. 25, 2007


In Scotland, a new exhibit features information on the many inventions that originated in the Islamic world and improved life for many people. It's the kind of information about Islam that its harshest critics tend to ignore.

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ESSEX, Vt. -- As regular readers of this blog know, I've been on the road the last week or two. My bride and I have been in New England for a school reunion in New Hampshire and then a family wedding in Vermont.

Ne072As we've traveled about in this magic time of year, we've been watching what theologians sometimes refer to as the theater of God's glory, which is to say nature. And nature doesn't get much more showy than in October in New England.

Ne07117So today I just want to share a few photos we took of what we've been looking at.


The fall colors are moving into the Kansas City region now. And if you're not in the KC region, maybe they are coming to where you live, too. So abandon your computer for a least a few hours and go outside to see what those of us with faith would say God has arranged to show us. October, after all, is its own excuse for being.

Ne0796If you don't buy into that kind of God language, get outside anyway. You may discover evidence of a cosmic artist. And as author Stanley Elkin once wrote in his book, The Living End, God is an artist who did all this for the sake of art but God's complaint is that he never found an appreciative audience.

Ne07122Ne07123To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.

Oct. 24, 2007


In a continuation of a theme noted here yesterday, another world religious leader, this time the Dalai Lama on a trip to Indiana, says conflict rooted in religion is "very, very sad." Before that the pope condemned violence that grows out of religious fanaticism. Again, not all violence has religious roots, not by a long shot. But when it does, religious leaders have a duty to speak out against it.

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EAST BURKE, Vt. -- Someone here has built a simply stunning private Catholic chapel, as you can see in this photo I took here.

Ne0777_2Well, I say it's private, but people are encouraged to drive up and see it, as I did the other day. And apparently the chapel, built just last year, will be used for various religious services, weddings and so forth.

Ne0778But the sign on the road leading to the chapel just calls it "The Chapel," and a sign on the building itself simply lists the owner as J&R Downing, the architect as R.P. Brown (who practices in St. Johnsbury, Vt.) and the builder as S. Austin. (I chatted with Rob Brown on the phone later and he told me J & R stand for Joan and Richard Downing, but he asked me to talk to Richard Downing first, since the Downings own the structure. My efforts to reach him have been unsuccessful, however.)

Ne0779If you click on the East Burke link above, you'll get something of a history of this area in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and you'll read about the Darling family, who first settled and developed this area.

In fact, the chapel is on East Darling Road, not far from the Darling family mansion. If you click here and scroll down to Burke, Vt., you'll read a bit more about the Darlings.

I am a little skeptical about private religious structures, which remind me of when royalty and other rich folks built their own little churches so they wouldn't have to worship with the common folk. I don't think this new chapel fits that model, but there is no literature or other information (including a name) at the chapel to fill anyone in on exactly who built it and why, so people are left to wonder.

If you had a lot of money, would you put it into this sort of beautiful religious structure? Or do you think there are better ways to use such wealth? Late in my life, I've become a believer in gorgeous religious structures, which, as a youth, I used to think were a waste of money.

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P.S.: Recent discussion among commenters on this blog about how atheists differ from people of faith prompts me to share with you this new Baptist Press story about a poll in Canada that has some interesting results. What do you make of the results? Can you be good without God?

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

Oct. 23, 2007


Pope Benedict XVI says religion should never be used to justify hate or violence. Ah, if only that idea had sunk in centuries ago we might have avoided, well, what? Oh, the Crusades, the Holocaust, 9/11, on and on.

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I've got to be on the road for a week-plus. If I have a chance, I may be adding some to the blog, but in the meantime, I want to give you a chance to catch up on a bit on some intriguing events in religious history.

Westportbattle_2For instance, on this date in 1864, the Battle of Westport was fought not far from where I live in Kansas City. (The painting here depicts the fight.) In fact, I'm thinking that had I been standing in what today is my backyard on that day, I'd have been in some danger of taking a bullet to the head.

But why is this significant in religious history? Well, by itself it probably isn't. But if you put it in its proper context -- the American Civil War -- and then think about the great issue of that war, slavery, religious history quickly comes into play.

For the sad reality was that many branches of Christianity found ways to use the Bible to justify slavery. It was pretty common, especially for Southerners, for people to come to church and hear sermons about why God had made black people inferior so they could serve white people. For another example of that, click here.

The way in which the Bible was misused then to justify slavery should, it seems to me, make us cautious and humble about using the Bible to justify other forms of discrimination and hatred. But it doesn't seem to.

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

Oct. 22, 2007


Perhaps you thought only Christianity or Judaism wrestled with questions of homosexuality. No, no. As this report shows, the Taoists even have a patron god of homosexuals. Is there any aspect of human experience that is not shared in some way across all cultures and religions?

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I've got to be on the road for a week-plus. If I have a chance, I may be adding some to the blog, but in the meantime, I want to give you a chance to catch up on a bit on some intriguing events in religious history.

MillerFor instance, on this date in 1844, the world was supposed to witness the Second Coming of Christ. At least that was the prediction made by William Miller, (pictured here) a Baptist preacher who founded the Millerites, whom I mentioned in my column this past Saturday as one of the always-wrong date setters.

But if Jesus showed up that day, it was a very quiet cameo appearance that no one noticed. What people did notice -- especially the folks (up to 100,000 of them) who had believed Miller and disposed of their possessions while they awaited the event -- was that Miller was wrong.

As you might imagine, their interest in "Adventism," as it was called, began to wane. Miller went on to form Adventism officially, while most of his followers returned to their traditional churches.

A story is told in my family that my maternal grandparents, Swedish immigrants who were born in the late 19th century, at one point were interested enough in a prediction about the end of the world that they went out one night and sat on a hill to see what would happen. I don't know if the story is true, but I know that if they did that, about all they lost was a little sleep.

But my view is that it's worth losing no sleep at all over end-of-the-world or Second Coming date setters.

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

Oct. 20-21, 2007, weekend


In case you missed coverage of the Values Voters Summit, here's a report from the New York Times, which many so-called "values voters," by the way, think is a liberal rag. To read how the Christian Post covered an advance of the summit, click here.

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WESTMORE, VT. -- So I picked up a Vermont newspaper the other day and read this story about parents who claim religious reasons for not having their children vaccinated. This strikes me as a way to give religion a bad name by misusing it. How does it strike you?

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I've got to be on the road for a week-plus. If I have a chance, I may be adding some to the blog, but in the meantime, I want to give you a chance to catch up on a bit on some intriguing events in religious history.

Maozedong2For instance, on this date in 1935, an event that may at first seem to have precious little to do with religion occurred -- Mao Zedong and his troops arrived in Shenshi Province at the end of what has been called the Long March. That's Mao pictured here, of course.

So where's the religion in that? The answer is that Mao's survival -- and his success more than 10 years later in driving out the Nationalist government -- eventually led to the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, which even today maintains a policy of deep hostility toward religion.

Chinese religious history -- about which I'm no expert -- is fascinating. And Chinese religious thinkers have contributed much to the world's store of religious tradition and practice. But Mao and his thugs essentially wanted none of it.

To commemorate this date, therefore, it might be worth a careful reading of the 2007 annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, paying special attention to the section on China that starts on Page 120. It begins this way: "The Chinese government continues to engage in systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom or belief." It sort of goes downhill from there.

And if you want to follow up with the State Department's annual review of religious freedom in China, click here. This report may be worded a bit more diplomatically, but the news is essentially the same.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.(M Saturday column this weekend is about some of the always-wrong date setters in religious history.)