Previous month:
June 2009
Next month:
August 2009

Family and faith: 7-31-09

Because today is the birthday of my youngest sister (I have three, and we are scattered from coast to coast, literally), I've been thinking about what family really is.


Yes, family certainly is that collection of people to whom we are related by blood and DNA and similar biological markers. So my birthday sister Mary (pictured here) definitely is family, as are my sisters Karin and Barbara.

And I wouldn't have it any other way. The four of us are quite close despite the long distances between us, and we see each other with surprising frequency for being so separated.

But I also know the lesson of my faith, which is that water is thicker than blood.

What does that mean?

For Christians (I am one), it means that the water of baptism creates a family that is -- or at least has the potential to be -- eternal and thus more long-lasting than family created just by blood.

When Jesus spoke about family, he expanded our horizons. He said his family wasn't just made up of his mother and sisters and brothers but of everyone who does the will of God. He wasn't putting down nuclear families. Rather, he was saying there is more.

In that approach, he was drawing on the lesson of the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures. There, Naomi, a Jew, made Ruth part of her family even though Ruth was a Moabite. And eventually Ruth wound up in one of the New Testament genealogies of Jesus.

So, in the end, family is created not just by blood but also by welcome and by welcoming grace.

Oh, and how old is Mary today? I ain't tellin'. Ask her yourself if you have a good reason to.

* * *


I am reluctant to share this with you, but silence is not an option. I'm reluctant because I don't wish to give more attention to Fred Phelps and his hateful Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. Phelps has picketed me personally several times and has directly blamed me for the death of my nephew, a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. He is wildly irrational, wildly homophobic and generally should be ignored, partly because you simply can't reason with irrationality. But now he seems to be emphasizing something new for him -- anti-Judaism (see my essay about the long history of anti-Judaism in Christianity under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page). The Phelps folks have just sent out this notice (caution: its language is grossly offensive)

Download Kansas-City-MO-FFF-July-31

that they plan to picket several Jewish sites in the Kansas City area today, including the New Reform Temple, where Jacques Cukierkorn, my friend and co-author of my new book, is rabbi. Any individual or oganization sending out notices that say "Jews killed Christ" and "God hates Jews" should be considered dangerous at a minimum. This venom must be called what it is -- hate.

I suggest this as a way of standing up to this garbage: Make a donation to one or all of the agencies the Phelps clan plans to picket today: Jewish Vocational Services, the Jewish Heritage Foundation, the New Reform Temple and Jewish Family Services. Phelps has a right in this country to hold ridiculous opinions and say hateful things, all the while claiming to be a Christian. But the rest of us can respond in wholesome and healthy ways -- first by not engaging the picketers in any way (confrontation is what they want) and second by supporting the picketed agencies with our money and our prayers.

In a motto we trust? 7-30-09

It may come as a shock to you, but I am older than our official national motto.


What is our national motto? "In God We Trust." And when did one of our presidents sign the bill passed by Congress to make it our national motto? On this date in 1956. Ike signed it. So Americans lived without a national motto for 180 years and now have lived with this one for 53 years. (For the record, America existed only 168.5 years without me -- and without much complaining about it, too.)

Now, that doesn't mean that "In God We Trust" wasn't widely used before 1956. Oh, indeed, it was. As this history of the motto from the U.S. Treasury Department reports, the motto first was used on U.S. coins in the 1860s -- right in the middle of our Civil War.

I raise all this to suggest there is a real and perhaps unresolvable tension today between wanting to honor our history and traditions and wanting to pay homage to our commitment to the First Amendment's inherent prohibition against government involvement in religion.

My guess is that if someone today introduced a bill to place "In God We Trust" on our money, Congress would not pass it. I would go further and suggest that Congress should not pass such a law today. It's now clear that we live in a religiously pluralistic society in which our government has no business either promoting or denigrating religion. It should be absolutely as neutral as possible. (In truth, this should have been clear in 1776, too, though it was more difficult to see then.)

Besides, I've always contended that government support of religion weakens religion. As a Christian, for instance, I don't want governments to display nativity scenes on courthouse lawns next to Santa and Frosty the Snowman. That devalues a sacred symbol.

So would I remove "In God We Trust" from our coins? If it were up to me alone, yes. But I'm not at all sure it's worth the inevitable political fight and radically uncivil discourse such a move would be likely to produce at this contentious moment in our society. Rather, I think it might be worth trying to create a public discussion about it (without the threat of immediate legislation) to see if we might come to some societal consensus first.

What would you do?

* * *


The pope jokes that his "guardian angel" did not prevent him from falling and breaking his wrist recently. His words do raise these questions: Do you have a guardian angel? Do you believe they exist? Any experience with one? Do they work 8-hour shifts? Other than to acknowledge that with God all things are possible, I have neither experience with guardian angels nor any opinions about them.

* * *

P.S.: You can follow me now on Twitter at

Fair and faithful trade: 7-29-09

I can't remember exactly when I became aware of The Ten Thousand Villages, which describes itself as "one of the world's largest fair trade organizations and a founding member of the International Fair Trade Association."


But in recent years I've bought several gifts at one or another of the organization's stores and have felt good about the fact that the people who produced whatever it was were fairly paid and treated well.

This past Sunday, Linda Zemke, the manager of the Ten Thousand Villages store in our area -- it's located at 7947 Santa Fe Drive in downtown old Overland Park -- spoke to an adult class at my church and described the work the international agency does and why Christians should care about it.

The history of Ten Thousands Villages is interesting, extending back to 1946 and marking the beginning of the global fair trade movement. The agency today is, in effect, a ministry of the Mennonite Central Committee, which does fabulous work all over the world.

Linda said that the agency pays the artisans who produce the products 50 percent up front, before the products are delivered, and 50 percent when they reach the port from which they will be shipped to the U.S. That allows the producers to buy the raw materials they need to produce the products and it doesn't require them to wait to receive the rest of their money until the products are sold by the stores.

She said that women make up about 75 or 80 percent of the workers who produce products sold at The Ten Thousands Villages.

The Bible used by Jews and the one used by Christians emphasize the need to treat workers fairly and with dignity and the need to be honest in economic affairs. That's really what the fair trade movement seeks to do and why I think it's appropriate that communities of faith support its ideals.

* * *


If you have been fretting about whether actor John Travolta would leave Scientology, fret no more. This report says he's not disenchanted with it and will stay. And if you have been fretting about that, why?

Bach to the future: 7-28-09

This past Sunday at my church we said farewell to our choir director, a wonderful young man who in his three or four years with us has made great improvements in the musical offerings.


He has gone to be choir director at a large church near Baltimore, and we wish him and his wife -- a great soprano -- well, though we will miss them a lot.

Today is almost the perfect day to be mourning the loss of a church musician because it's the anniversary of the death in 1750 of Johann Sebastian Bach (depicted here), who wrote some of the most marvelous and lasting sacred music.

It will not surprise you to learn that this native of Germany was a Lutheran, but I had forgotten until reading more about him recently how much of his music -- especially the most memorable work -- was written for a liturgical church setting.

Experts think his two most important works were his Mass in B Minor and his St. Matthew Passion (those are YouTube links to performance excerpts), which reminds me of something media critic and teacher Ben Bagdikian once said, which is that trying to be a first-rate writer on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach's St. Matthew Passion on a ukulele.

Well, church music and the culture generally have moved on since Bach's day, and now we have a much broader selection of music from which to draw (including from such countries as South Korea, from which our now-departed choir director came). We aren't limited to dead European composers. And yet some of them -- certainly Bach and Mozart among them -- have given marvelous and ongoing gifts to the church, and the 259th anniversary of Bach's death today is not a bad time to remember that.

* * *


I'll soon be doing another blog book column about newly published volumes with religious topics, but one that I haven't read and won't be including in that collection is religion scholar Huston Smith's new autobiography, Tales of Wonder. So I offer you this review from the Boston Globe. It honors Smith's considerable accomplishments but thinks the book lacks emotional depth. I've read Smith's work, met him and heard him speak, and he's been a great gift to interfaith work. Smith has just turned 90.

What do clergy do? 7-27-09

The stereotype about clergy -- especially Christian pastors -- is that they work an hour or two a week, mostly preaching.


What bunk.

I know few members of the clergy who work less than 60 hours a week.

But what do they do when they're not in the pulpit? To offer a partial answer to that, I want to share with you a list of skills and responsibilities contained in a document that a committee I'm now serving on at my church had to read recently. The committee has the task of nominating a new pastor for my congregation, and one of our jobs is to decide which 10 skills we most want in the person we would recommend that our church hire.

The list is long and exhausting (and, here and there, a bit repetitive, I think) when you think about it. But think about it:

* Administration of programs.

* Adult ministry.

* Building renovation/property development

* Choir directing

* Community ministries

* Conflict management/mediation skills

* Congregational fellowship

* Congregtional redevelopment/revitalization

* Counseling

* Curriculum building

* Development of new educational experiences

* Evaluation of program and staff

* Facility management

* Governing body ministry

* Hospital and emergency visitation

* Instrumental music

* Leadership development

* Leading music ministry

* Management of building usage

* New church development

* Older adult ministry

* Organizational leadership development

* Pastoral care

* Preaching

* Project management

* Rural ministry

* Small membership church ministry

* Staffing/human resources

* Strategic planning

* Training volunteers

* Urban ministry

* Youth ministry

If I gave you the whole list, I'd have to add 32 more -- from communications to corporate worship and administration of the sacraments to evangelism to stewardship to teaching and on and on.

Now, as I say, some of the list seems repetetive to me, and clearly not all categories will be needed in all faith communities.

But at least the list reminds you that the job of clergy is a lot more than an hour or two in the pulpit each week.

(The illustration here today is from

* * *


The path from America to al-Qaida, this report says, can be informal but just as effective as using the more well-known "jihadist pipeline." I can understand why non-Muslim Americans convert to Islam. I've known a number of people who have. But why would an American then join the country's sworn enemy? All such people should be treated as traitors.

* * *

P.S.: There's been some discussion here lately among commenters about churches in Poland when that country was under Soviet domination. So I thought you'd be interested in a column I wrote about two years ago from Poland that touches on that subject. To read it, click here. The column today resides on the Web site for my new book:, which officially will be published Sept. 3 but which can be pre-ordered now on and other sites, including the University of Missouri Press.

Remember the King James Version: 7-25/26-09

This weekend I'm going to take you back a bit in history to say a few words about Bible translations and the need for good, modern versions.


Why this weekend? Well, it was on July 26, 1603, that King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, and it was James I who sponsored the English Bible translation published in 1611 that we still know today as the King James Version (KJV).

If, like me, you are past age 60 and a Protestant Christian, it's likely that you grew up using the King James Version -- at least before the complete Revised Standard Version was issued in 1952 (and it took a few years for the RSV to move into most Protestant churches). In fact, some churches that would describe themselves as evangelical or conservative never did adopt the RSV and insist that the KJV is the only truly authentic Bible.

I frankly don't understand that argument, given that the manuscripts now available to translators are much better and older, in the main, that those available to the KJV translation team, but to each his own.

Much of the impetus for Bibles published in modern-language versions came from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The reformers believed the Bible should be available to everyone, not just clergy and scholars. And they pushed to get translations done in local languages. But even before the Reformation, John Wycliffe in the latter part of the 14th century became the first translator of the whole Bible into English. Today, in fact, there's a Wycliffe Bible translation organization named after him.

Well, the KJV -- with its soaring poetry -- served well for a long time, but as the authors of So Many Versions? note, to the average person today "the language of the KJV seems strange and foreign." So lots of versions have come out in the last 50 years, and I collect them.

I use a New International Version study Bible, though I find it has a number of drawbacks. I also am quite fond of the New Living Translation, despite its odd and annoying anachronisms, such as assuming there was a Christianity when Paul began writing his epistles. In the pews of my church you will find the New Revised Standard Version, which is the widely accepted translation among Mainline churches.

But whatever version is used, the idea is to be able to study the Bible with people who can help you understand what its writers meant, which means doing serious exegetical work to know when it was written, to whom, under what circumstances and to know what words meant then as opposed to what we might mean by them today. Chrisitans also would say that to understand the Bible and its message, it needs to be read with the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

So hats (crowns?) off to old King James this weekend. In his honor, you might want to dig out your old KJV and read parts perhaps familiar from your childhood (or that you heard your grandparents read aloud).

* * *


Pope Benedict XVI, with his wrist still in a cast because of a break, just delivered a homily without notes, this report says. That's certainly much better than some sermons I've heard that were delivered without points.

What's ahead/behind in faith: 7-24-09

A few things and coming events on my mind today, not all of them related -- which is, well, sort of how our minds work, isn't it?


* Are you familiar with a group called Interfaith Peace-Builders? I had heard the name but didn't know much about it until an Episcopal priest in the Kansas City area told me she was leaving this Sunday on an IFPB trip to the Middle East so that she and other "residents of North America can see the conflict there with their own eyes."

I don't yet know enough about IFPB to know if Israelis would consider it pro-Palestinian or Palestinians consider it pro-Israel or neither. But I do know how difficult it can be for any study group or peace advocacy group to avoid bias and to get a fair and objective picture of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And yet I find it a hopeful sign that groups such as IFPB continue to work on the problems there.

* Next, the National Catholic Reporter (based in Kansas City) and Rockhurst University are planning an Oct. 8-9 conference on building social service ministries in parishes. It will be held on the Rockhurst campus in KC. Although this obviously will have a dominant Catholic flavor to it, my guess is that people from other branches of Christianity might well gain some good insights into how to create ministries that serve people in need.

One of the conference speakers will be my friend Tom Roberts, NCR's editor-at-large, who has been traveling the country lately trying to get a deeper understanding of the Emergent Church movement. The conference Web site to which I've linked you will give you what you need to know to register for the event.

* Finally, I want to take historical note of the birth of two important people in Christianity today -- John Newton, who write the hymn "Amazing Grace," and Oswald Chambers, whose devotional book My Utmost for His Highest has been a perennial best seller. Newton was born in England on this date in 1725, while Chambers was born in Scotland in 1874.

* * *


Now Jews wanting to get prayers to the Western Wall in Jerusalem can just tweet them on Twitter. Wonder what God's Twitter i.d. is. You can follow me at But if you send me prayers I'm going to have to send them along to Someone Else.

* * *

P.S.: What supporters are calling a common-ground approach to legislation seeking to reduce the need for abortions picked up support yesterday from a range of religious figures, including one from the Kansas City area, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Overland Park, Kan. For a list of those supporting the unbriefly named “Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Pregnant Women and Parents Act,” click here. For an AP report about the legislation, click here. For a site that thinks the legislation and its sponsors are "pro-life frauds," click here.


Why no church-state questions? 7-23-09

I was flying back home the other night and found that on my flight from Dallas someone had left the A section of USA Today in the seat pocket.


Which is where I found this intriguing piece about the fact that in the Sonia Sotomayor (pictured here) confirmation hearings, the issue of church-state separation cases never really came up.

The more I thought about that the more I found it appalling. What were the senators thinking? I hope some of them find a way to dig into that matter before a final confirmation vote.

Church-state separation issues seem constantly to be in the courts, and quite often they show up for resolution in the U.S. Supreme Court. This is a constantly evolving area and it's important to know what prospective justices think about it.

This is all the more true of Sotomayor because, as this Religion News Service piece notes, she seems to be quite unpredictable in this area. Besides that. she doesn't have an extensive record of ruling on cases in this field. I'm certainly not proposing that the Senate use some kind of litmus test on this or any other controversial area but I do think it's worth having nominees to the highest court in the land talk about how they approach making decisions involving church-state separation disputes.

* * *


Speaking of church-state issues, Russia's president has just announced a pilot project that will give students there a choice of whether to take a class in religion or secular ethics. This is a fascinating follow-up to mandatory atheism, though it also looks like a major concession to the Russian Orthodox Church because the religion classes do not include options of other branches of Christianity. Let's keep an eye on where this goes in a year or two.

The Episcopal Church leads: 7-22-09

Last week the Episcopal Church gave its bishops permission to bless same-sex unions.


It was the right thing to do, and from what a friend of mine who attended the General Convention says, it was done well and with a sense of mutual respect for all views on this difficult subject.

Here's what he said in an e-mail: "I was intrigued by the differences between this debate and the other sexuality debates that I have participated in during past Conventions. By the time that we arrived at this our last day of Convention, it was abundantly clear to everyone that this resolution was going to pass. There was a great amount of respect for the work that the House of Bishops had done. For better or worse, the Church gathered in Anaheim had already discerned that the Holy Spirit was leading us in the direction of same-sex blessings."

The Episcopal Church is leading us toward the proper solution to this matter, which is this: All people wanting to be married should first go to the state and be married under civil law. That would give everyone equal protection under the law and access to the benefits and responsibilities such marriage requires. Then, if the now-married couple wants to have the marriage blessed by a faith community, they can ask that group to bless the union. The faith community then has complete freedom to decide to bless it or to refuse to bless it.

Under this scenario, people's civil rights are protected and religious communities are free to make their own decisions based on their own theology. Why can't we do it this way?

* * *


I tire of people telling me that they never hear about Muslims denouncing terrorism. Here's another example: The Kingdom of Saudia Arabia denouncing the recent terrorism in Indonesia. Yes, it seems like a fairly perfunctory statement, but it's been a pretty consistent public message for quite a while from the rulers of the birthplace of Islam.

* * *

You can follow me now on Twitter. I'm

An interfaith encounter: 7-21-09


ABIQUIU, N.M. -- My friend Bill loves Jesus with all his heart, even as he recognizes his own capacity for sinfulness. It's that sense of his own fallibility, I think, that made possible what he described as "The Encounter" in a piece he wrote for the class I taught here at Ghost Ranch (pictured here) last week.

Bill was wearing a baseball cap that says, simply, "3:16" on it. As he was looking for a friend of his who was taking a photography class at the ranch, he saw a woman in western dress staring at the ground and leaning against a tree while carrying camera equipment. She was, Bill later wrote, "overdressed for the heat."

He approached her to see if she had seen his friend. But it turned out that the woman was a freelance photographer shooting pictures that might end up in the National Geographic. The woman asked Bill what the numbers on his hat meant. He said they came from the 16th verse of the third chapter of the gospel of John, and he quoted it to her: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

She said she'd never heard that before and asked if he believed it. He said yes. He asked her if she had any spiritual beliefs. She said she was a Taoist. They talked quietly and actually learned from each other, respecting the faith commitments of the other while maintaining their own identity. In their brief, casual conversation, each sought to know and to be known. Which is the main point of interfaith dialogue.

The woman took a little tract from Bill and Bill took from her a desire to know a bit more about Taoism. There was no mutual condemnation, no insistence that the other person change.

I don't understand why all interactions between people of different faiths can't be so respectful.

* * *


Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina -- he of the hiking excuse to hide a trip to South America to see his lover -- now says God will change him. I hope he won't mind if everyone waits five or six years to see if this really has happened -- as it can. But it'll take that long to trust that any such transformation is at least semi-permanent, no matter how sincere.