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A new Jewish voice: 6-18-09

If you've signed up for my class at Ghost Ranch next month (it's full; sorry), you know that we'll be talking about ways in which our prophetic voices can help repair the world.


Today that means using blogs and such social networking sites as Facebook to engage the world on issues that need attention and to offer your own faith-based perspective on them.

With that in mind, I was intrigued recently to learn about a new online Jewish publication called Tablet Magazine.

Here is its creators' description of this e-zine: "Tablet is a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. A newspaper-magazine-blog hybrid, we offer up-to-the-minute reactions to the day's news, sophisticated cultural coverage, and in-depth investigations of broad trends in Jewish life."

Surf around at Tablet, whether you're Jewish or not, and I think you'll find a useful and quickly responsive site that will help you understand the world from a Jewish perspective. Yes, of course, I know that there are lots and lots and lots of Jewish perspectives -- even on the same subject. So over time I think you'll find a good variety of voices there.

Faith communities that don't learn to communicate effectively using up-to-date technology may well find themselves shrinking into obscurity. The trick is to maintain a consistent and authentic message no matter what means are used to communicate it.

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The Communist Party USA has created a new Religion Commission, the "On Faith" blog of the Washington Post reports. Apparently the goal is not to work to do away with religion but to attract people of faith to join the party. Hmmm. Wonder why I would join a sunken ship that, when it was sailing, wanted to haul me off to oblivion.

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P.S.: I take it as a hopeful sign that the senior cleric in Iran says nobody believes the recent presidential election there wasn't rigged. Good for him for not being afraid to speak out against what many see as an obvious injustice.

When the subject is death: 6-17-09


On an irregular basis, I walk through three cemeteries not far from where I live. I enjoy looking at the names on tombstones and thinking about the lives of the people buried there.

So the other day -- cool and cloudy -- I was walking through Forest Hill Cemetery, having just passed by the grave of Buck O'Neill, when I noticed that not far from the stone fence along Troost Avenue, a green tent was set up for a burial and that people had begun to gather.

I watched as about 30 cars drove in, carrying mourners to the burial site. I watched as one man got out of his car and hugged first a woman and then another man.

The hearse stopped as close to the grave as it could get, and eventually pall bearers carried the coffin to the tent. Most of 100 people followed and then gathered around. I was about 150 yards away and could not hear what words were said, though for sure I heard three men in military uniforms each fire their rifles three times into the air in a salute.

Several things struck me.

* First was seeing a child in the crowd of people and wondering whether he would always remember this day, the way I have always remembered watching the burial of a great aunt in 1955.

* Second was a reminder of the permanence of death. Just in front of me, for instance, I noticed a grave marker of a man who has been dead more than 100 years. And, of course, will be forever.

* Third, looking at that man's gravestone (I shot the imperfect picture here on my cell phone) I was reminded sharply of the life and death of my own father. The man buried here, Alexander Martin, was born on my father's birthday, Nov. 7 (though Dad was born in 1909, not 1846) and died on my father's death day, Jan. 2 (though Dad died in 1992, not 1908).

Naturally, all of that got me thinking about my own death and the life I'm called to lead before that happens. Which, after all, is ultimately why you think about death at all.

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A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union charges that the U.S. government's crackdown on Islamic charities as a way of stopping the funding of terrorism has gone way overboard and is hurting the legitimate needs of Muslims to make charitable donations. Giving to charity is one of the five pillars of Islam. And I know Muslims who worry about what Islamic charities to give to now. At the same time, cutting off funding for violent extremists is crucial, and efforts to raise such money should not be allowed to hide behind charity groups. For the full ACLU report, click here.

An American eugenics: 6-16-09

Most of us know that one of the goals of Hitler's Nazi regime was to preserve what he and his goons believed was a "master race," the Aryans. One way of doing that was through eugenics, the so-called science of selective breeding by which undesirable traits and unwanted people were to be bred out of existence while more and more people with the desired traits were to be born.


The list of what is wrong with eugenics would fill volumes, and I don't have time for anything like that today. Suffice it to say that eugenics violates a bazillion lessons taught by the world's great religions. You could look it up.

Rather, I want to tell you something about eugenics that I learned recently from one of my sisters-in-law while I was in Vermont. Which is that eugenics has a sad and strange history in Vermont.

The University of Vermont (UVM, to in-staters) has created this site to describe the Vermont eugenics work done in the first part of the 20th Century. I hope you'll take a bit of time to explore the site, which I find fascinating and profoundly disturbing.

The goal of eugenics in Vermont was explained by Henry Perkins, one of its leaders, this way: "All this may conceivably eventuate in bringing about in Vermonters an attitude of greater respect for the finest traditions of the state and for the best qualities in her native stock, a greater determination... to 'raise the standards of civilization' in the country places, and in this better setting, to rear a finer race, with fewer defectives and reasonably large families of children, sturdy in body and healthy in mind."

(A scholar named Nancy L. Gallagher did a 2002 book called Breeding Better Vermonters that sought to understand all of this without some of the wild rumors that grew up around the project. You can read some of that book online by clicking here.)

Ah, yes, the goal of a "finer race" with "fewer defectives." Makes you wonder what was wrong with the "human race." My guess is that people of faith willingly participated in all of this, as they did in Nazi Germany -- along with, of course, people for whom religion was no motivation at all and who, indeed, may have been hostile to religion.

It might be a good idea to remind ourselves here that the Human Genome Project concluded that "race" really is not a scientific category: "DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspecies (races) exist within modern humans. While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another. There also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity."

Eugenics seems to be one more area of human thinking and action that ran amok in ways that people of faith were either unable or unwilling to prevent.

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Pope Bendict XVI has appointed a new physician, the Vatican has announced. Just curious: In addition to an annual physical, does the pope have to get a yearly spiritual?

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P.S.: The Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement is sponsoring a prayer vigil at 7 o'clock tonight at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in KCK to ask that "God will guilde the deliberations of our elected leaders as they meet with President Obama on June 17 to discuss how to move forward on immigration reform this year."

What's sacred to others: 6-15-09

WHEELING, W. VA. -- So we're traveling along I-70 here, heading home after some time in New England, and -- as is our custom -- I'm driving while my bride is reading a book aloud.


It's a book I mentioned earlier this year here on the blog -- An Altar in the World: A Georgraphy of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor. I had done a quick reading of it over the winter but my wife had not yet read it, though both of us like Taylor's writing a lot.

At any rate, Taylor wrote some words that I must have slid over before but that this time struck me as exactly right. They have to do with interfaith dialogue.

Taylor, an Episcopal priest, teaches a world religions course at Piedmont College. She writes that long before she arrived there, the faculty decided that the Religion 101 course would not be Christian-only focused, "inspite of the fact that Piedmont is a church-related college -- or, I like to think, because Piedmont is a church-related college."

Then she writes this: "What better way for Christians to engage their commandment to love the neighbor than to learn what those neighbors hold most sacred? And while they are at it, what better way to learn more about what they hold most sacred themselves?"


In other words, interfaith contact and discussion is, in effect, mandated by Christianity as a way of living out our requirement to welcome the stranger and to be good neighbors. This, of course, does not do away with the Christian mandate to go into all the world and make disciples of Jesus. But it does mean that before we earn the right to tell our own faith story we are obliged, as Taylor says, to "learn what those neighbors hold most sacred."

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I found this story about a women's prison choir in Florida intriguing. It reminded me to remind you of a prison choir from this area that I've heard once or twice, the East Hills Singers. If you've never had a chance to hear them -- check out the schedule on the Web site. It's a great ministry.

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P.S.: I've long admired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Even when I disagree with him he challenges me. So I was interested in some recent remarks he made in Vienna about peace in the Middle East and what all stakeholders must do to get there. He has been critical both of Israel and the Palestinians, and although that kind of balance doesn't always mean he's right, I find him worth listening to. And now Tutu's daughter has become a human rights activist. For an interview that NPR did with her recently, click here.

A G(od)PS system for life: 6-13/14-09

I have just driven about 3,400 miles to visit family in New York state, Vermont and Massachussets, to say nothing of friends in Baltimore. Along the way I passed through such places as St. Louis; Indianapolis; Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, Rochester and New York, N.Y.; Bridgeport, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Philadelphia; Boston, and Wheeling, W.Va.


And I did it all without a GPS system in my car. I used maps -- both ones in print and ones in my head, given that I mostly knew the way to the places my wife and I were going.

But twice while I was gone I rode in cars that had GPS systems. And the drivers of those cars -- one was my brother-in-law, the other my sister -- used those machines. Indeed, my sister says having it has been marvelously liberating for her.

Both of those systems had female voices. I named my brother-in-law's Martha because we were driving on Martha's Vineyard. We never quite came up with a permanent name for my sister's GPS, though I was partial to G-lo.

What these systems do, as you know, is give you voice commands to guide you to your destination. And if you know anything about how my mind works, it won't surprise you learn that I was struck by my own need (many others have it, too) for a different kind of GPS -- a God Positioning System. This kind of GPS also would give me directions so I reach my destination.

The fact is, all religions offer such a GPS sytem, though the systems differ from faith to faith, despite containing remarkable similarities.

In my Christian tradition, for instance, the GPS would use such tools as the Bible, the covenant community, religious leaders and sacred words in hymns and prayers to keep me on the right path. And if I listen well enough, I also can hear when I go off path. In a car GPS system, the voice sometimes tells you it's recalculating the route when you miss a turn. In a religious GPS sytem, you can hear words of judgment and direction when you get lost.

My worry is that someone will decide to put out a GPS version of the Bible along with the bazillion other versions aimed at niche audiences. In fact, it's probably already been done. But I dislike the idea so much that I refuse to Google it. If you find such a thing, keep it to yourself.

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A Polish woman is having to defend her book about her long friendship with the late Pope John Paul II. Unless I miss my guess, this controversy amounts to nothing and has arisen only because some people have too much time on their hands and use it to no constructive end. I hope some time to read the woman's book. It sounds intriguing.

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P.S.: Odyssey Networks will be presenting a film on J.S. Bach, "Glory to God Alone: The Life of J.S. Bach," by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at 6 a.m. CDT Sunday morning.

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NOTE: Sometimes I'm asked why I don't respond to comments left by readers of my blog. Let me explain again that I believe I have my own space in the daily postings to say what I want to say. I like to reserve the comments section for readers to have their own space. That said, I must say I'm sometimes tempted to jump in, such as when people make erroneous claims ( such as the one left here a few days ago that Paul created Christianity). I sometimes learn useful things from the comments. Other times they dismay me, especially when people prefer to degenerate into being mean instead of taking the high road of being kind even when they disagree. Indeed, sometimes I think I'll just cut off comments altogether so as not to provide another public forum for uncivil discourse. And it may come to that. But for now I'll continue to moderate the comments according to previously stated guidelines that you'll find under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. But I encourage all commenters to have something to say about the day's topics and I encourage all of them to imagine that they are speaking their words while looking into the eyes of either me or of the persons they're addressing in those comments. Thanks. Bill

Speaking for God: 6-12-09


WEST TISBURY, Mass. -- Her name is the Rev. Cathlin Baker, and she's about to give a meditation, or homily, or name-it-what-you-will at this wedding. Her remarks will last less than four minutes, and I'm feeling kind of bad for her.


Because my guess is that a year from now (or even a week from now) neither the bride nor the groom (my wife's nephew) nor any of the rest of the 100 or so of us gathered at the First Congregational Church (pictured here) on Martha's Vineyard will be able to remember what she said.

If you want to hear what she said (and listen to some sounds of distracted children in the background), click on this link:

Download Wedding

I will confess that without listening to a tape recording I have of a homily given at my 1996 wedding, I won't be able to tell you what the minister said, even though he was then and is still a good friend. Sorry, Ron.

I'll also confess that the only words I remember the minister saying when I got married in 1968 came not at the service but at a pre-service conversation. The minister was my brother-in-law, and he gave us this good advice: "Do not play destructive games."

So why should clergy even give such wedding sermons?

The point, I think, is not that the couple will remember the stirring words. Rather, the point is that someone needs to say a word right at this moment on behalf of God. The couple being married and the friends and family gathered to witness the union -- whether they remember the words or not -- are aware that this is a sacred moment. And one way they know that is that a few moments are given over to someone whose job it is to speak for God.

Yes, at weddings in congregations of various religions it is possible to sense a divine purpose and even presence in the music and the ceremonies. But because in the Christian and Jewish traditions, especially, God is known to value words, it is important that such words be spoken. It's the very speaking of them, not the ability of anyone to remember them in detail, that is important.

Now, of course, Jason and Marisa, the newly married couple, can come to my blog and hear the sermon over and over and memorize it and give each other quizzes about it.

But I'm going to be pretty disappointed in them if that's what they do.

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I've held off a day or two commenting on the horrific attack at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for several reasons. One is that I wanted to know more about the man accused in the shooting death of the security guard there, Stephen Tyrone Johns. For help with that, I'm grateful to Douglas Hanks, now a Miami Herald reporter, for this account of his encounter with James von Brunn, the accused attacker, years ago. Clearly this is a case of a man who is so attached to one distorted version of reality that he has been unable to discern anything like truth. I don't want to suggest that any time you hold a minority opinion you should wonder if you have fallen for some destructive lie. Minority opinions in this country are to be protected -- even valued -- as long as they don't result in the kind of destructive action that took place at the Holocaust Museum, whose staff was quite helpful to Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and me as we prepared our soon-to-be-published book. But I do mean to suggest that if your thinking is radically out of touch with nearly all of the rest of society and if that thinking also leads you to a hatred of other people -- or, at minimum, to some diminishment of their basic humanity -- and maybe even to violence against them, then it's surely time to get help to see where you've gone wrong. It's impossible to hold those kinds of extremist views without hurting yourself (and maybe others) and without running afoul of all the constructive lessons of the world's great religions. (For the story of the attack from the Jewish news agency, JTA, click here. And for an excellent commentary about what happened there from the project director of the museum, click here.)

Pondering the next pope: 6-11-09

Institutions that rely on hierarchical governmental structures inevitably find themselves thinking ahead. Which means they speculate -- if just secretly -- on who next will lead the organization.


The Catholic Church is no exception. This piece, for instance, gives us a rundown on who might get elected the next pontiff.

Indeed, although Pope Benedict XVI appears to be healthy and vigorous, the propensity to speculate about a successor is apparently built in to the hierarchy.

The list in this piece is intriguing in that it includes prelates of various theological stances. Well, maybe theological isn't quite the right term there. Rather, the men show a range of approaches to church matters. Some might be considered rigidly orthodox (see George Pell) while others might be considered more open both to theological nuance and to modernity (see Angelo Scola).

All of this seems to be a bit morbid. It reminds me of when Mad Magazine used to run a small photo of Mamie Eisenhower with a little bubble caption above her heard that said,  "I'm still alive."

So how about if we at least wait until B-16 catches a cold before we worry about who gets to be the next pope?

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This analysis piece in the New York Times correctly notes that Islam is far from monolithic. Indeed, there is a diversity within Islam that often goes unrecognized -- and went essentially unremarked upon in President Obama's recent Cairo speech. But it's a diversity that must be understood if non-Muslims are to get a grasp of what that religion is about.

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P.S.: From 7 to 9:30 tonight at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, 2310 E. Linwood in Kansas City, a nationally known speaker, Christine Driessen, will discuss "Healing the Violence Through the Christ Love." The event is free. She's being sponsored by several area Christian Science churches. For details, click here.

Golfing with the Pilgrims: 6-10-09

HARWICH, Mass. -- From the first tee of the Harwich Port Golf Course here on Cape Cod, I'm looking down a long, straight fairway and I'm thinking about Pilgrims.


What, I'm wondering, would those religious rebels think today of this beautiful land where they found safe harbor nearly 400 years ago -- land on which modern people have laid out golf courses on which other modern people fritter away the time the sovereign God gave us, giving in to the wily Satan's temptations to focus not on the needs of others but, rather, on our own frivolous desires.

Or something like that.

Seriously (if I wasn't being serious already), I really do wonder what the old straight-laced Puritans would make of thoroughly modern Cape Cod, with its golf courses and yacht clubs and Wal-Marts and Indian names on town after town but hardly any Indians.

Would they have  thought that their enterprise had come to a bad end? Would they be so shocked by our degenerate culture that they would be rendered speechless? Would they be pleased that the landscape is dotted with church after church after church?

The Puritans wanted religious freedom for themselves but, if truth be told, they weren't all that interested in others having it. But now we live in a culture that officially values this liberty for all. Good for us.

That's progress. Golf may or may not be progress -- especially the inferior way I play it, though I did manage to beat my sister (whom you see with her golf clubs in this photo) and my wife, but let that go. That's not a manly boast full of religious charity and I'm embarrassed I even mentioned it.

I'll do something quite Pilgrim-like now -- pray for forgiveness.

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My old friend and fellow journalist Robert E. Boczkiewicz reports that a court in Denver has ruled that a Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma is unconstitutional. Some of these cases seem so astonishingly easy to decide that you wonder how they ever made it to court in the first place.

A JFK-Catholic memory: 6-9-09


HYANNIS, Mass. -- Wandering through the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum here the other day (pictured here), I was taken back to that strange time in our nation's life when we were about to elect the first Catholic president.

Oh, my.

There were, of course, scurrilous attacks on JFK because he was Catholic. The minister of my hometown church, in fact, was a source of some of them, telling us that if Kennedy were elected the pope, in effect, would run the country.

Well, it turned out that the pope did not run the U.S. after Kennedy's election. And since then we've nominated a Catholic (John Kerry) and a Jew (Joe Lieberman) for president and vice president. And it appears that soon six of our nine U.S. Supreme Court justices will be Catholics.

It makes you wonder why it takes us as long as it does to overcome prejudice and irrational  thinking. When the first Muslim was elected to Congress a few years ago, a similar round of stupid prejudice was heard. And, of course, in the last GOP presidential primaries, we had to listen to a lot of anti-Mormon prejudice because of Mitt Romney's candidacy.

We change and are a reasonably tolerant people, but it certainly takes us time.

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How about this? A public official in England has nice things to say about religion. She's right, of course, but why don't we hear this more often?

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NOTE: Until June 10, my access to the Internet will be intermittent. So it may take hours and hours -- perhaps even a day or more -- for me to get your comments posted here. I'll do my best, but I'll appreciate your patience.

When congregations die: 6-8-09


NORTH SPRINGFIELD, Vt. -- Each morning here I read the Rutland Herald, quite a good newspaper that covers southern Vermont.

And one recent morning I was intrigued to read this story about a old, old Christian congregation that is soon to close its doors. (The photo here is not of the church in question, though it looks pretty much like it. Rather, this is a photo I took in Vermont in 2006, though now I don't recall where.)

The United Church of Putney, founded in 1772, is moving toward its own death, and is finding ways to celebrate its history even as it acknowledges that it no longer can afford to keep the doors open.

It's a sad story, in some ways, and yet the reality is -- as Christians would acknowledge -- that there is nothing in the faith that suggests one or another particular congregation will last forever. The closing of the Putney church does not mean Christians in this area are all gone. It does not mean that the members who still worship there won't find another place.

What it means is that sometimes congregations of any faith find themselves facing a future that doesn't include that particular institutional body. Yes, some churches certainly have closed because of changes in the religious landscape of America. But churches change, move, transform, grow, shrink or in some other ways change. That's just life.

But when it happens, it can profoundly affect that people who found a spiritual home. And that requires some grieving.

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I thought this analysis of President Obama's recent speech in Cairo to the Muslim world was on target and worth reading. Hope you think the same.

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NOTE: Until June 10, my access to the Internet will be intermittent. So it may take hours and hours -- perhaps even a day or more -- for me to get your comments posted here. I'll do my best, but I'll appreciate your patience.