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Nature's dependable laws: 9-18-2008


The other evening my wife and I attended an outdoor wedding, after which the reception was held at a party room attached to the Boulevard Brewery just west of downtown Kansas City.

The room opens out onto a large patio area (on the third floor) from which there is a wonderful view of downtown, Crown Center and some buildings south of there.

The day had been rainy, and there even was a bit of mist in the air while the ceremony was taking place in a park. But as sunset neared, the western sky began to turn orange and the sky began to clear, though off to the east it still was cloudy and dark.

Perfect, I thought, for a possible rainbow. Which is precisely what began to appear over the northeast section of downtown. After a bit, there even was at least the hint of a double rainbow. (Full disclosure: I didn't have my camera right with me, so the picture here is not of what I saw that evening.)

All of which made me think of the rainbow story in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is, of course, at the end of the story of Noah and the flood, told in chapters 7 through 9 of Genesis. Once the flood has ended, God promises never to do that again. As a sign of God's covenant "between me and you and every living creature that is with you," God puts a rainbow in the sky. God promises to remember the covenant whenever a rainbow appears.

Rainbows also appear in the New Testament in Revelation 4:3 and 10:1, and you can look those up.

I take the scriptures to be authoritative for my life and I believe they contain what we Christians would call God's word to us. I do not, however, read scripture literally and do not believe it is necessary to think of the God-talking-to-Noah story about rainbows as literal history in the way we understand literal history today.

But I do think rainbows and other physical phenomenon are helpful reminders to us that ultimately God is the guarantor of the physical laws of the universe, laws that make life both possible and dependable. And I'm in no way ashamed to admit that when I see rainbows in the sky I think of God's faithfulness to human kind. Well, I also think of physics lessons I once learned and now have forgotten and I give thanks that I never became a physicist, as much as I loved the discipline. My bad math skills would have made me a danger to all of science.

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Just to maintain some perspective here, I want to link you to this BBC story about growing threats from radical Muslims in Yemen, where a car bomb exploded Wednesday just outside the U.S. Embassy. In yesterday's posting here, I linked you to some information about people defending Islam as a religion of peace. I agree with that, but we simply can't lose sight of the fact that some radical Muslims are willing to use violence for religious and ideological purposes, in violation of their faith. And that's what we all must work against. (And, yes, historically people of nearly every faith have engaged in or supported violence in defiance of their religion's core theology.)

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P.S.: A reminder: In the comments section here you may post a maximum of five times a day, each no more than 300 words. Thanks. Bill.

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


Is religion a downer? 9-17-2008

Over the years, I've seen tons of studies that suggest religion is good for your health, that it gives you a sense of balance and that it will keep squirrels out of your birdfeeders.


Well, maybe not the last thing, but the health benefits of religion are widely attested to. (For some discussion of that from a Christian apologetics perspective, click here.)

Now, however, comes a study from Ohio State University that offers something of a counter view. It suggests that young people from racial minority groups who are religiously active may be more susceptible to depression.

I think it's always a good idea not to draw too broad a conclusion from such studies because they may simply be anomalies or they may eventually be tempered by other studies that looked at a broader sample or something.

Still, in this case I can see some basis for the conclusion in that it appears that beliefs being taught by religion are running up against different and contrasting messages from the culture. Because adolescents may not be mature enough yet to know how to process those differences or to discern when the religion is right versus when the culture is right, the result may well be some kind of angst.

What's your experience either as an adolescent or as a parent of one or more when it comes to how to deal with clashes between religious values and the surrounding culture?

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When the Times of India sent a reporter to talk with people about a terrorist bombing in New Delhi a few days ago, some of the Muslim people quoted repeated what most American Muslims have been saying since 9/11 -- Islam does not encourage or approve of terrorism. Which, of course, is true, even though some radicals who call themselves Muslims don't believe it.

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P.S.: I mentioned here the other day that a DVD called "Obsession" about radical Islam was distributed as paid advertising by many newspapers around the country. But Editor & Publisher, which covers the newspaper industry, reports that one paper, the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina, refused to distribute the controversial product because the publisher thought it was divisive and "plays on people's fears."

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

Faith's funny side: 9-16-2008

It's been way too long since we took a levity break here, what with all the goings on, some of which Palin comparison to others.


So today we'll pause for some faith-based humor, none of which is original with me. Some it comes from, some from other sources, including you.

And we begin with a question:

Q: What do you call a non-churchgoing Christian?

A. A Seventh-Day Absentist

^ ^ ^

A child was watching his mother sift through and delete a long list of junk E-mail on the computer screen.

"This reminds me of the Lord's Prayer," the child said.

"What do you mean?" the mother asked.

"You know. That part about 'deliver us from E-mail."

^ ^ ^

A father was reading Bible stories to his young son. He read, "The man named Lot was warned to take his wife and flee out of the city, but his wife looked back and was turned to salt."

His son asked, "What happened to the flea?"

^ ^ ^

The Wednesday-night church service coincided with the last day of hunting season. Our pastor asked who had bagged a deer. No one raised a hand. Puzzled, the pastor said, "I don't get it. Last Sunday many of you said you were missing because of hunting season.  I had the whole congregation pray for your deer."

One hunter groaned, "Well, it worked. They're all safe."

* * *


Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at Lourdes, suggested that people accept their deaths "at the hour chosen by God," this report says. So I ask: Do you think God chooses the moment of death for each person? If so, is the moment chosen at the time of birth or some later time? If not, what role does God have in our deaths?

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


The elixir of freedom: 9-15-2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- As part of last week's celebration here of the 100th anniversary of the founding of my alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, we saw a performance of "Freedom Sings."


As you can see at the Web site to which I've linked you, this is a musical performance having to do with the First Amendment. Naturally, at a journalism school, the part of the First Amendment that gets the most attention is freedom of the press.

But to someone like me whose journalism centers on religion, the freedom of religion and press join together in importance. Let's not, however, forget the other freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Can you name them? If not, here's the amendment: 

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

In some religious traditions, freedom of inquiry seems limited. That is, adherents are not encouraged to or liberated to ask hard questions, to walk publicly through doubts, to challenge authorities.

I've always believed that any religion that's healthy and whole can stand all the questioning and doubters possible. Each time the freedom to ask questions and seek answers is curtailed, the religion is wounded, it seems to me, just as our government is wounded when it seeks to limit dissent and censor critics.

Politics and religion can be messy things at times. But they can be much healthier because of that very messiness.

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A reader called me the other day after she'd found a DVD called "Obsession" about radical Islam as an insert in a Sunday edition of the New York Times. She was disturbed by it, but wasn't quite sure what to make of it. She told me it was from the Clarion Fund, but couldn't find much information about who was behind that fund, though she said it also was connected with a Web site called, an effort created by the Clarion Fund. (I am always skeptical about Web sites that don't tell you who is behind them. This one doesn't.) I told her I'd try to find out what I could about it but I haven't had time to do that. Now I find that Editor & Publisher, a good publication that covers the newspaper industry, has just published this column criticizing that DVD distribution. The media should take great care in writing about any aspect of religion, but especially in distributing information (whether in news stories, columns or advertising material) about fringe elements. Any paper that distributed this "Obsession" DVD without previously having devoted lots of resources and space to examining the phenomenon represented by al-Qaida and other violent approaches to Islam and other religions was acting irresponsibly, in my view.

* * *

P.S.: If, like me, you enjoy Terry Gross' NPR program, "Fresh Air," you might be interested in a new CD that contains her interviews with lots of people on the subjects of "Faith, Reason and Doubt."

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

A chance to learn: 9-13/14-2008

Major religious holidays, it seems to me, give everyone a chance to learn more about faith traditions other than their own.


Thus, this month of Ramadan would be an excellent time for non-Muslims to be spending some time at this Web site or this one or this one. And it also would be a good time to be reading such books as The Heart of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr or Understanding Islam: An Introduction, by C.T.R. Hewer. There are, of course, millions of other resources, too.

With Judaism's High Holy Days coming up later this month, journalists have been given an excellent tool to help them not just understand Judaism and the importance of these sacred times for Jews but also story ideas through ReligionLink, a service of the Religious Newswriters Association.

This source of information is too good not to share, so click here and explore Judaism, at least as it exists and is practiced in the United States. By the way, I think the best book to read as an introduction to Judaism is by my book-writing colleague, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. It's called Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide, and can be ordered through this link. (You can read about the book Rabbi Jacques and I are writing by clicking on "The Holocaust book project" link under "Check this out" on the right side of this page.)

Oh, and if you want the ReligionLink information on Islam, click here.

Other religions and their adherents are much less scary when we know more about them. So do yourself a favor and spend a little time this month learning about Islam and Judaism. And if you're not really up to speed on your own tradition, maybe you should start there.

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When Pope Benedict XVI visits France this weekend, he'll be in a country in which religion in the public square is making a comeback, this report suggests. Every country struggles with the proper relationship between religion and public life. It's just that France's struggle is more interesting than many. Oh, and for the latest column by John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter about the pope's visit to France, click here.

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P.S.: To learn about and participate this weekend in "A Call to Oneness," sponsored by Kansas City area churches and aimed at African-Americans, click here.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend talks about the almost endless ripple effects of religious violence like the 9/11 terrorist attacks.)

A 'Faith Matters' collection: 9-12-08

Sometimes there's so much going on that I have to pile it all into one stack.


So here's today's collection of items:

* A church-sponsored effort known as "A Call to Oneness," aimed at African-Americans in Kansas City, is going on this weekend. For information, click here. Several events are scheduled tomorrow.

* David Crumm, former Detroit Free Press religion writer, is doing lots of interesting work in that area that you can be in touch with through his Web site, One of the features there this month is called "Sharing Ramadan," written by a series of Muslims who tell of their experiences with this major holiday in Islam.

* A group called Faith in Public Life has created this site where you can follow the political polling this election season that involves religious questions. This is where to stay current on the shifting sands of faith and politics.

* Operation Breakthrough, a great Kansas City agency that helps needy children, needs volunteers to work at a fund-raiser at the Sept. 20 Kansas City Royals game. If you want to help, contact Debbie Skaggs at

* At a recent meeting of the American Society of International Law, international criminal prosecutors issued a statement calling on countries to protect their citizens' human rights. One of those rights, of course, is freedom of religion.

* Finally, for an interesting take on newly adopted revisions in the Catholic Mass liturgy, click here.

* * *


In case you missed Gov. Sarah Palin's interview with Charles Gibson of ABC, here's a story that focuses on some religious aspects. This subject is a long way from disappearing in the news.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My column tomorrow talks about the continuing ripple effects of 9/11.)


A date living in infamy: 9/11

I will deal with this 9/11 anniversary in my column this Saturday. That will include something of an update on my family and the death that awful day of my nephew, who was aboard American flight 11, the first hijacked plane to hit the World Trade Center.


For now, I'd simply like you to take a moment some time today to remember all the people affected by religiously and ideologically driven violence not only on that day but on many days since then, here and around the globe. I want to remind you, also, that the enemy is not Islam. Rather, the enemy is the collection of fanatics who misuse Islam to justify violence.

These seven years have seen astonishing bloodshed, a lot of it tied directly or indirectly to religious fanatics who want to remake the world according to their own strange visions of how it should be. We simply have to find a way to stop that.

To help you remember what happened on 9/11 and some of what has happened since, I'm giving you these links today:

* The 9/11 Commission's flawed report.

* The MSN Encarta entry on 9/11.

* A site dedicated to the rebuilding of Ground Zero.

* A PBS timeline from 9/11 on.

There is, of course, much more to focus on, from the war in Afghanistan to the war in Iraq, from terrorist attacks in various places around the world to the controversial actions by our own government to secure our safety.

But for today, I hope you'll just take a minute to remember the many people killed and wounded by religiously motivated violence and think about what you can do to help prevent more of that from happening.

* * *


God finally has been found in a lab. Or, anyway, a particle of God. Don't believe it? Click here.

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

JuBu: A religious merger? 9-10-2008

Sometimes, as you know, it takes news, trends and fashions a little time to migrate from the coasts to the Heartland.


So what some people have known about for some years -- some people who identify themselves religiously as JuBus or JewBus -- may be new to you. I certainly have been aware of people from different faith traditions who study and even practice some elements of Buddhism, but I hadn't heard the term JuBu until someone recently sent me a copy of this 2006 piece from the Los Angeles Times. That piece was mentioned on this blog entry, which is where I found the photo you see here today.

After reading the LA Times article, I did a little hunting around to see what else I could find about this phenomenon and I discovered this 1998 story from a TV station in San Francisco.

I think it's next to impossible to be really committed to more than one religious tradition, in part because there truly are conflicting theological positions between and among religions. Which is why I don't put much stock in the idea that some people (I think of Mahatma Gandhi, for instance) can claim to be Christian, Jewish, Muslims and Hindu all at once.

That's not to say that we can't or shouldn't learn from religious traditions other than our own. We certainly should. And we can even develop an appreciation for certain of their practices, beliefs and approaches to the eternal questions. But I don't see how it's possible to be, for instance, both a committed Muslim and a committed Christian at the same time, given conflict in their theology.

Perhaps it's a little different being a JuBu in that many American Jews would identify themselves as of Jewish heritage but not observant and given that Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition.

So what religious combinations are you aware of that surprised you when you first heard of them? And if any of you is a JuBu, tell us your experience.

* * *


You may recall a blog posting I did in June when I visited New Orleans. It was about a small Southern Baptist church called Noah's Ark and how, after Hurricane Katrina, it got one of the extreme makeovers from the TV show. Out of curiosity and concern, I e-mailed the pastor, Willie Walker, the other evening and asked how his congregation came through Hurricane Gustav. Here is his answer. Please respond, if you are able to:

"Hi, Bill. Doing fine. Thanks for your prayers and concerns. We made it through just fine. Our problems now are with making sure people have food etc. Our beloved governor is line vetoing. . .funding for the poor and seniors so we are stretched real thin trying to help people. If you could, would you please direct people to give to Noah's Ark ministries at 2840 S. Saratoga St., New Orleans, La. 70115. We really need the donations. We lost food in the deep freezer and supplies are real low in the food pantry. I personally toured southern Louisiana. It was really hit hard . Most people won't have lights until the middle of next month. So please continue with the prayers. We really need them, and if (Hurricane) Ike hits or not we really don't need the extra rain and wind. Thanks again. Pastor Willie Walker.

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NOTE: I may be a bit slow to post your comments in the next couple of days. Just be patient and they'll get there. Thanks. Bill.

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

New interfaith leadership: 9-9-2008

I have mentioned here before that over the years the Kansas City area has done quite well (though even that isn't good enough) in encouraging interfaith dialogue and education.


Much of the credit goes to the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, of which the Rev. Vern Barnet was the principle creator in 1989. Until recently, the council has been run by a dedicated group of volunteers on a shoe-string budget.

But the group has decided it's time to take the next step to become more structured, permanent and effective. So it has hired an executive director, Shannon Clark (pictured here), a psychology graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City who has worked with several nonprofit organizations in this area. For now, she will be a half-time employee of the council.

I spoke with Shannon the other day about her new role and where the council hopes to go with a professional staff person on board. I found her open to ideas and yet committed to the council's vision of itself as an educational organization.

"Our programs will be focused on educating the community rather than on social services," she told me.

Shannon said she was "very surprised to see all the interfaith work already going on. But a lot of it has been behind the scenes. There's a huge amount of the public still to be reached."

She's hoping to have more youth involvement in the council and to draw in people who for various reasons have been reluctant to engage in interfaith work. She hopes to convince them that the purpose of such work is not to change their beliefs or to work as missionaries for any particular religious tradition. Rather, it's to be educated about other faiths and to work together on common goals.

Shannon grew up a Baptist and later attended an independent Christian church, but at the moment she's not active in any congregation. Over the next several months, however, she is planning to visit congregations representing each of the 15 religions represented on the council.

The council is funded mostly by donations from individuals and from money raised through such events as the council's annual Table of Faiths luncheon (this year's version will be Nov. 13). But Shannon said the council will be applying for grants to help build its capacity to operate programs and will be creating on-going fund-raising efforts to allow the council to expand its work.

As we approach the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks this week, it's a good time to remind ourselves that we must find ways to live in religious harmony in this country, which is increasingly diverse in terms of the religious commitments of its citizens. That requires interfaith connections and effective work on the part of groups such as the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

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Gov. Sarah Palin's former pastor says people should pray for the press. Good idea, as long as the prayer isn't roughly this: "Lord, please make the media the voice of my brand of politics."

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P.S.: If you want to check in this Thursday on a national summit on torture led by the head of Evangelicals for Human Rights, click here.

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

Training wheels for pastors: 9-8-08

Twenty-some years ago, when I spent six years on a committee that helped to oversee the theological education of area Presbyterian seminary students, I worried about lots of things, including what would happen to them once they were out of school and into their first job.


Would they be prepared? Would they have in place a support system to help them through troubling times that were sure to come? Did they have access to information about mistakes other first-time pastors had made?

Well, it turns out I haven't been the only one worrying about such things. The Alban Institute, using Lily Foundation funding, has been working with more than 800 beginning pastors in a program called Transition into Ministry, and it has just released a long, comprehensive report on that experience. The report link I've just given you will get you to an online version of the report, which you may download or read online.

I'll be brief today so you can spend some time looking at the report and deciding whether it will be of value to your community of faith, if any. But let me just mention something I liked about the approach taken in this work. Beginning pastors were connected with more experienced people in what the study called a "community of practice." I suppose in some ways that amounted to a mentoring program, but it appears to be more complex than that.

The failure rate among beginning pastors is high (though I don't have precise figures and am not sure if anyone does) -- failure both in the sense of making serious mistakes and of realizing this is the wrong field for them and leaving. Perhaps this Alban approach can affect that problem in good ways and be adopted by religions beyond Christianity who are seeking to have more effective leadership.

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Cheers for both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama for agreeing to set aside their presidential campaigns a bit on this Thursday to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks together. It's a sign that when we want to we really can rise above partisan, divisive politics and see our common humanity in each other. Maybe next we can apply this good example to religious disputes.

* * *

P.S.: I've mentioned in the past some efforts at reform going on in Saudi Arabia, including by King Abdullah and other leaders of the House of Saud, historically an oppressive regime. A new example is establishment of a women's branch of the relatively new Saudi Human Rights Commission, set up to monitor abuses of rights. Reform comes by tiny steps in a country like Saudi Arabia. But when it happens and when it means additional attention to foundational human rights, we should applaud the effort.

ANOTHER P.S.: As a reminder, the maximum word count for posting a comment is 300. For more information about posting comments here, click on the "How to comment" headline under the "Check this out" heading on the right side of this page. 

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