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March 19, 2008


The Dalai Lama now says he'll resign as head of the Tibetan government in exile if the violence in Tibet doesn't stop. It's sort of amazing how much trouble this gentle man has been able to give to the rulers of China over the last 49 years. Ideas are mightier than the sword.

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OTTAWA, Kan. -- A few days ago I came here to speak at a worship service in the chapel (pictured here) of Ottawa University.

Ottawa1And when you think chapel, you need to think CHAPEL. It's a huge sanctuary, built in the 1960s, on the campus of this school with American Baptist roots. As you might expect, an 11 a.m. service came nowhere close to drawing in a capacity crowd. In fact, the campus pastor who invited me acknowledged that about the only time the place actually is full is in graduation week ceremonies.

But I was struck by a couple of things. First, I almost never think about the fact that people of faith all over the country are engaging in worship activities on weekdays. Oh, I know about -- and have seen -- Muslims praying five times a day. And I know about daily Masses in Catholic churches and so forth. But when such things are generally not part of my own daily schedule (worship for me tends to happen mostly on Sundays), the reality that they're happening elsewhere sort of fades into the background.

The other thing I don't often think about is the variety of chapels on college campuses around the country. I mentioned this briefly here on the blog last year after I attended a wedding in the chapel of Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. But the collection of college chapels is really quite broad and remarkable, ranging from tiny rooms to the huge and almost overwhelming chapel at Duke University.

Well, at the Ottawa chapel service I spoke about God's sense of humor. The congregation wasn't exactly rolling in the aisles but I think folks understood what I was trying to say.

Do you have a favorite college campus chapel? And has that school figured out a way to let people of all faiths use it in a way that respects every religion represented on campus?

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

March 18, 2008


In the midst of all the hoo-ha over controversial words said by Barack Obama's preacher, here's a writer who seems to understand religion -- and our various attachments to it -- pretty well.

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Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks I -- and many other journalists who write about religion -- have devoted lots of time and space to coverage of Islam.

IslamcrescentAs many of you know, that's been both a professional and a personal responsibility for me.

Professionally my task has been to try to help readers understand Islam and the radical element that has distorted the religion and used it as an excuse to commit violence to advance a destructive ideology.

Personally I had to figure out why anyone would want to kill my own nephew, a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. (Also, see the epilogue in my book, A Gift of Meaning.)

Journalism's coverage of Islam since 9/11 has run hot and cold. There have been some excellent print pieces and some good TV coverage. But there's also been a lot of shallowness and facile junk.

But I want you to know that journalists generally are aware of their need to be better educated about thie field and they're trying to fill in their knowledge gaps.

Just the other day, for instance, I participated in an hour and a half "Webinar" called "Covering Islam 101," put together by the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA). Journalists from all over the country -- 62 of them, in fact -- were logged onto the Web seminar site while they also were plugged in by telephone to hear these speakers:

* Farid Senzai, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and an assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University.

* Andrea Useem, a journalist specializing in Islam. She writes for the blog and other outlets, including Religion News Service.

* Diane Connolly, editor of ReligionLink. ReligionLink is a project of the RNA, and it now has on its site a lot of information about Islam that is supposed to benefit journalists. But if you click here, you can read it, too.

The point is that even though journalists don't always get the story right, at least some of them continue to try to learn more about the subject -- which is especially important when writing about religion and its countless nuances.

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

March 17, 2008


Sometimes religious leaders can influence events and sometimes their followers must act without them. The latter is what is happening in Tibet now. The Dalai Lama says he feels helpless but he won't instruct his followers inside Tibet to stop their anti-Chinese protests. Surely after all these years Tibetans know what he thinks about the Chinese government.

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St. Patrick's Day seems an appropriate time to talk about immigration. Though, of course, nowadays when we debate immigration is doesn't have much to do with the Irish.

ImmigrationImmigration, it turns out, was the subject of a gathering at my church the other evening. In fact, it was the first of four presentations on the issue that we'll be doing.

The point I want to make about all this is pretty simple: Faith communities have a duty to help their members understand what their religion guides them to believe about various public issues. And immigration certainly is high on the current list of issues that divide people in difficult ways.

As part of the presentation, we watched a documentary called "Dying to Live: A Migrant's Journey." One of its overwhelming messages had to do with the economic underpinnings of the immigration problem in the U.S. As the DVD notes, there's a powerful economic tide pushing migrants north to the United States because of the lack of opportunity to advance in Mexico's economy, just as there's a powerful force pulling them north in search of work and a chance at a better life."

Our first session on immigration was focused on the humanitarian disasters that happen when people seek to cross the border and die of thirst in the desert or encounter all kinds of other problems. But underneath all of that is the core economic issue. Which, in turn, raises the question of what people of faith north of the border can do to support actions and policies by our government and Mexico's that will provide more economic opportunities south of the border so that fewer people will feel forced to leave their families and homes to find work.

I don't yet know the answer to that, but clearly it's a question all congregations of every faith need to be asking.

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P.S: Tired of all the serious political-religious news? Check out this report. (And if I have to explain satire to you I'm going to cancel your subscription to my blog.)

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Former Kansas City Star reporter Karen Blakeman and others who teach journalism at the University of Kansas are doing a survey of people who read blogs connected to newspapers. If you participate, which I hope you will, you'll even have a chance to win $50. To read about it and do the survey, click here. The idea is to help scholars understand the way poeple use blogs connected to newspapers, and there's been precious little academic research into that subject. So, if you can, lend these KU J-School folks a hand -- even if, like me, you're a Missouri grad.

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

March 15-16, 2008, weekend


Talk about unfortunate coincidences. The daughter of a North Carolina preacher has exactly the same name as the young woman identified as the prostitute in the Eliot Spitzer scandal, Ashley A. Youmans, this report says. Not only that, but the preacher's kid is a Bible college student. And she's tired of having the media think she's the other Ashley. Makes me wonder how many Eliot Spitzers there are in the world, too.

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Just who are "evangelical Catholics"? John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter says the answer depends on whom you ask. Which, as I've said before, is the trouble with labels, especially in the religious field. They hide much more than they reveal.

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What are the rules for religious organizations that want to engage in political activities without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status?

PoliticspulpitIt can be tricky. Well, heck, anything involving the Internal Revenue Service can be tricky, especially because the rules seem to change from one year to the next.

But there's help. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life -- the same outfit that recently released its study on the changing religious landscape in the United States -- has produced a 23-page guide that can help faith communities understand and abide by the rules.

Better yet, it's available free online, and you can get directly to it just by clicking here. It's called "Politics and the Pulpit 2008," and has been written by Deirdre Dessingue, associate general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Pew Forum also had other legal experts in this field review the report before its publication.

It's probably a good idea for all non-profits to be as up to speed on all of this as possible, and this document -- along, of course, with the IRS Web site -- is a good place to start. I'm all for having the voice of faith heard in the public square, which necessarily involves politics, but I'd like to make sure it's done according to the rules.

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P.S.: On Friday I mentioned Barack Obama's pastor and his notion that God should damn America for some of her policies. Obama now has denounced those statements. And if you think this is the end of candidates having to explain or back away from statements by their religious leaders, guess again.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The other day I mentioned here a new statement on global warming and general ecological concerns from some Southern Baptists. Click here for a view opposing that statement.

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Former Kansas City Star reporter Karen Blakeman and others who teach journalism at the University of Kansas are doing a survey of people who read blogs connected to newspapers. If you participate, which I hope you will, you'll even have a chance to win $50. To read about it and do the survey, click here. The idea is to help scholars understand the way poeple use blogs connected to newspapers, and there's been precious little academic research into that subject. So, if you can, lend these KU J-School folks a hand -- even if, like me, you're a Missouri grad.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend makes religious arguments in favor of civil discourse.)

March 14, 2008


As this presidential campaign rolls on, we're going to find more and more stories like this, I bet, as journalists and political operatives investigate all aspects of the candidates' lives. In this ABC News report, Barack Obama's pastor is quoted as saying people should ask God to damn, not bless, America for some of her actions. It's the sort of help Obama no doubt wishes he could do without. The test will be how he responds to such stories.

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Now and then even those of us who have given years to thinking about various matters of faith are given new insights.

BuechnerIt happened to me in a Sunday school class last weekend. We were talking about the importance of ritual (the subject of a recent post here on the blog) and what ritual has in common with sacraments. In Protestant tradition there are two sacraments, baptism and Holy Communiion. In Catholic and Anglican tradition, five others are added to those two.

At any rate, our leader said she'd gone to one of her (and my) favorite writers, Frederick Buechner (pictured here), to see what he had to say on this subject in his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC. Buechner wrote this (before he was very conscious about gender-inclusive language):

"A ritual is the performance of an intuition, the rehearsal of a dream, the playing of a game. A sacrament is the breaking through of the sacred into the profane; a ritual is the ceremonial active out of the profane in order to show forth its sacredness. A sacrament is God offering his holiness to men; a ritual is men raising up the holiness of their humanity to God."

It was the last sentence that struck me. What occurred to me was this: In the Christian tradition, a sacrament is a channel of God's grace to humanity, whereas a ritual is a channel of humanity's disgrace to the source of grace, God. The juxtaposition of grace flowing in one direction and disgrace in the other was a helpful image to me, though, of course, it is not an exhaustive explanation of the difference between sacraments and rituals. It's not even an exhaustive explanation of the Eliot Spitzer scandal and resignation.

Still, it will be hard to observe either a sacrament or a ritual again without the grace-disgrace idea leaping into my head.

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Former Kansas City Star reporter Karen Blakeman and others who teach journalism at the University of Kansas are doing a survey of people who read blogs connected to newspapers. If you participate, which I hope you will, you'll even have a chance to win $50. To read about it and do the survey, click here. The idea is to help scholars understand the way poeple use blogs connected to newspapers, and there's been precious little academic research into that subject. So, if you can, lend these KU J-School folks a hand -- even if, like me, you're a Missouri grad.

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

March 13, 2008


A Catholic priest in Poland who is also a scientist has won the big Templeton Prize for this year. He's helped people to explore the religion-science connection, so good for him. And good for Krakow, his home, the beautiful city I visited last August to do interviews for the book project I'm working on (see the "Holocaust book project" link under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page).

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Over the last several years I've gotten to know a Unitarian Universalist minister from New York who has written some really good books. He's Forrest Church (pictured here), and even before I met Forrest I had met, years ago, his father, former Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, who developed quite a reputation investigating abuses in the Central Intelligence Agency.

ForrestchurchForrest recently was required to preach a sermon to his congregation in which he told members that his cancer has returned and that he's dying. It's one of the best sermons on death (and love) I've ever read, and I wanted you to have a chance to read it, too. So click here.

One of the most striking parts of what Forrest had to say focused on the idea that a series of amazing events had to occur for us even to be here today, so the gift of life is precious in and of itself but even more so given what it took for us to be born at all. As he says in the sermon, when the cosmos was created, it already was pregnant with us.

As regular readers of this blog know, I often write about death here and in my column because I am convinced that we'll never understand our life if we don't understand our death.

Forrest's sermon helps us with the latter task. Marinate in it a little today.

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

March 12, 2008


The world's largest Islamic body wants to battle Islamophobia around the world, this report says. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, meeting this week in Senegal, wants to help counter anti-Islamic sentiment, especially in the West. One way to do that, of course, is to work to reduce the influence of radical Islamists and the damage they are causing Islam.

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Each of the last several years, in response to the Catholic priest child abuse scandal, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a report that details the status of the scandal and the effectiveness of the church's response.

PriestabuseThe scandal itself was horrendous. For decade after decade, priests got away with abusing innocent children and bishops sometimes protected them by simply moving them from one position to another without fixing the problem or removing the priest from the priesthood.

The church's response has ranged from excellent to poor, depending on the circumstances and the area being considered. But these annual reports certainly keep the issue alive and provide members of the church enough data at least to ask more questions and to pressure local congregations, church leaders and others to stay on top of this.

For one thing, these reports get some press coverage. Click here, for instance, for an Associated Press report about the most recent report. And because the reports are easily available to everyone online, Catholics don't have much excuse for ignorance at least about what the bishops are reporting. For the 2007 report, issued a few days ago, click here.

Beyond that, advocacy groups who seek to represent abuse victims read these reports and respond to them quickly, pointing out where the bishops still are failing. For instance, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests last week issued this statement, noting the failure of two large dioceses to live up to the promises made when the abuse scandal broke.

I've said this before but it bears repeating. As bad as the scandal was in the Catholic church, it's not the only religious organization where this kind of behavior has occurred or is happening even now. And it's up to the members of each faith community to find out whether their groups have policies in place that would protect children and educate everyone on how best to deal with all this.

If we can't do our best to try to protect children, what good are we?

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P.S.: A Catholic church in Azerbaijan that had been closed for 70 years has just been reopened. Here and there religious freedom makes a little progress.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here

March 11, 2008


You thought all the possible sins already have been listed? Not so fast. A top Vatican official recently provided a list of "new sins." Gee, it sort of makes you want to live longer to make sure you get to commit them all -- but probably that desire is itself a sin.

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Speaking of sin, just a quick word about Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York -- known as Mr. Clean for his supposedly high ethical standards -- and his alleged involvement in a prostution ring. He's another reason thoughtful people of faith try to be clear-eyed about the human condition and the capacity each of us has for both good and evil. When we imagine someone to be beyond temptation we set ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. But when we imagine someone to be beyond forgiveness, we set ourselves up to play God.

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No doubt you're aware of the controversies having to do with two religious leaders endorsing presidential candidates -- Louis Farrakhan for Barack Obama and the Rev. John Hagee for John McCain.

ReligioninpoliticsObama has denounced the controversial Farrakhan, leader of the radical Nation of Islam and -- at Hillary Clinton's insistence -- rejected his approval. McCain, by contrast, has appeared with Hagee and gladly accepted his backing.

All of this raises bunches of questions, but I'll try to limit my thoughts here to just a few:

* Why are religious leaders specifically endorsing any politican candidates? Although they're free to do that as individuals, their actions would seem to raise questions about the tax-exempt status of their faith communities.

* Why did Farrakhan imagine that it would be of any help to Obama to receive his endorsement? Is he so out of touch with reality that he doesn't realize he has a reputation as a radical bigot -- even if now and then he says things or does things that are rational and defensible?

* Didn't McCain do any research on Hagee's positions? If not, why not? And if so, did he not see how problematic Hagee's endorsement would be when trying to appeal to the broad electorate? Because of Hagee's pro-Israel stance, he has garnered some Jewish supporters, but, as this commentary correctly asks, why are those Jews sucking up to this man?

* If I'm a member of a congregation and my spiritual leader wants me to lean this way or that politically, what should my response be?

Well, as you ponder all that, don't imagine that we're anywhere near done with these sorts of questions in this campaign. We'll be hearing from religious leaders from the far theological left to the far theological right and nearly everwhere in between.

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P.S.: If you want to follow preparations for Pope Benedict XVI's April visit to the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is offering this Web site.

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ANOTHER P.S.: You may have read about a new Southern Baptist declaration on the environment. To read it, click here. But take note that the Southern Baptist Convention has made it clear it is not an official SBC initiative but, rather, was led by a seminary student with support from some SBC leaders.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here

March 10, 2008


In light of the horrendous death of eight seminary students in Jerusalem at the hands of a gunman last week, I thought the foreign editor of The Times of London analyzed the situation well in this commentary. Seven years later than he should have, President Bush finally is actively engaged in the peace process. We'll see. We'll see.

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When I was still a full-time employee of The Kansas City Star, I wrote a series of articles I called "Conversations with Clergy."

ClergyIt was an attempt to try to help readers understand the complexities of the work clergy do but also to help them understand that these people are like the rest of us -- with fears and concerns, loves and dislikes, pet peeves and passions.

I was struck by all of that again the other day when I was sitting in a coffee shop (I don't drink coffee; I had a cream soda) talking with a Christian pastor about an agency he serves as a board member.

What was on this man's plate? Oh, my. Well, yes, the non-profit agency we were discussing. But so much more than that. And much more than preparing a weekly sermon and making sure the church budget isn't tanking.

* His mother-in-law is quite elderly and frail, and he worries about her.

* He's set aside several hours each day for much of a week to pray in a special and organized way for every member of his congregation, after having asked the members for specific prayer requests. He's found it a fascinating experience that has created closer bonds with members.

* He's been working on the various worship services coming up in Holy Week, but already is issuing invitations to people to participate in a Good Friday service next year.

* A close friend of his, also a member of the clergy (a man I've gotten to know and admire), has been seriously ill in New York, and he's been trying to stay in good touch with him.

* And on and on.

So next time you speak with or even just see a member of the clergy of any religion, keep in mind that this job is a lot more than a couple of hours a week giving sermons and visiting sick people in the hospital. It is, instead, running an aerobically spiritual race.

My own pastor has just returned from a two-week sabbatical in Israel that was designed for him and other members of the clergy to recharge their batteries. Hang around clergy long enough and you'll soon know why they need occasional recharging.

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

March 8-9, 2008, weekend


New Catholic Tony Blair, until recently Britain's prime minister, plans to teach religion at Yale. Do you get extra credit if you can name all the monarchs of England and the religions they followed?

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The Jim Wallis-type group of progressive evangelicals, so called, is finding its voice in this presidential election, this report says. Wallis, for years, has been preaching the need for people of faith to work on issues of poverty, and now he's got a growing number of allies. Do you think this branch of evangelical Christianity will really make a difference in this election?

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It's reassuring that Pope Benedict XVI's April visit to the United States will include a recognition of the religious diversity that increasingly characterizes the United States. (See my recent blog posting on the new study of the American religious landscape by the Pew Forum.)

WorldreligionsThe pope will meet with representatives of several other religions when he's in Washington, D.C., in mid-April, and the focus of the talks will be what can be done to promote peace around the world.

The business of interfaith dialogue is tricky. On the one hand, this pope and the church he represents have made it clear that they believe anyone outside the Catholic faith is theologically off base and may be eternally doomed, though they might word it more gently than I just did.

On the other hand, this pope and the church he represents have made it clear that they want to do what they can to promote harmony among people of many faiths so as to avoid the kind of faith-based violence that has set parts of the globe aflame.

The question becomes how to accomplish the latter without the former being a barrier to fruitful discussions. It's not easy, and anyone who knows anything about interfaith dialogue knows it can't go anywhere without first a commitment to honesty and authenticity in representing one's own faith tradition.

I don't hold out any hope that this Washington gathering in April will result in some kind of astonishing reign of religious peace in the world. And yet I'm always hopeful when religious leaders are willing to talk instead of shutting their theological doors.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend takes note of the remarkable reality that religions depend on ancient printed words.)