Previous month:
August 2009
Next month:
October 2009

More church divisions: 9-30-09


Since shortly after the start of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, the Protestant world has been dividing and dividing and dividing.

Atomized is a pretty accurate description, and some of us Christians think it must break the sacred heart of Jesus, who, as recorded in John 17, once prayed that we all "may be one."

The dividing continues in many denominations, including my own, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This recent story from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will serve today as an example. It describes a large church in Arizona that has decided to leave the ELCA and Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, an association of 197 congregations in the United States.

The Arizona church cited several reasons for the split, but my guess is the most important had to do with action taken by the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly on the topic of human sexuality. As an ELCA press release describes it, "The assembly approved a series of proposals to change ministry policies, including a change to allow Lutherans in lifelong, publicly accountable, monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA associates in ministry, clergy, deaconesses and diaconal ministers." (My opinion is that it was a laudable, long-overdue action.)

Well, whatever the reason for the split, I find such decisions sad and evidence of an unwillingness to find peace and harmony with people who disagree with you. I am not saying there never is a good reason for leaving a faith community. I can think of several good reasons.

But what's happened in Protestantism is similar to no-fault divorce. It's easy for petulant people to pick up their marbles and walk away instead of doing the hard work of finding ways to reconcile differences or to live in community even when differences have not been reconciled.

It's a terrible model for the world -- a model the Christian church should be ashamed of.

(The graphic here today is from

* * *


Ah, the courts and religion. Seems as if there will never be an end to cases about faith that wind up in our judicial system. One the U.S. Supreme Court will have to decide has to do with a cross on federal land. Click here for the Washington Post story. On the whole, I think it's a good thing that some of these cases wind up in our court system. It shows that we Americans value religious freedom and the concept of separation of church and state. That doesn't mean I always agree with what the courts decide, but better the decisions be made there than by armed individuals facing one another.

Faith, eyeball to eyeball: 9-29-09


I have said here over and over that the purpose of interfaith dialogue is not conversion and not turning all religions into one mish-mash, common-ground religion.

No, the purpose is to know and to be known -- so that we reduce ignorance, which in turn reduces fear. As we all know, fear based on ignorance or misinformation can run amok into dangerous acts, including violence.

I was gratified the other evening when I heard this same message from Dr. Alp Aslandogan of Houston, president of the Institute of Intefaith Dialog. The I.I.D. has roots in the work and writing of the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. Locally, the I.I.D. is represented by the Raindrop Turkish House in Lenexa, Kan.

"The best weapon in the hands of the fear-mongers and hate-mongers is fear," Aslandogan said.

Later, Aslandogan offered his own explanation of what interfaith dialogue is about:

"Interfaith dialogue has nothing to do with conversion or unification of religions or compromising any of the things that you cherish that you believe. No. It is the coming together of people who are committed to their respective faiths. It expects every partner, every participant at the interfaith dialogue table to be committed to their own faith but also to be open to learning about each other and also building a trust base and working together."

However, he said, "in the area of interfaith dialogue there is quite a lot of work to be done. Although the churches, the faith communities and the organizations who are interested in dialogue -- there are quite a few of them. But I think majority of the faithful in this country are either indifferent or distinterested or right out antagonistic toward interfaith dialogue. . . .Without the participation of at least a majority of the population, construction is always difficult. Destruction is easy. . . .Our challenge as people who believe in interfaith dialogue is to try to bring to the table people who might be suspicious or who might be disinterested or right out antagonistic."

I see this challenge as even broader. I also see it as overcoming turf battles among people who share a commitment to interfaith dialogue. Sometimes our faiths are so scattered and divided that we wind up with Christian versus Christian suspicion or Muslim versus Muslim contention. The result is that various groups don't get to know one another or learn to work with one another to advance the same cause. This is especially true when there are national groups with local representatives who sometimes get so busy with a national agenda that they don't connect to others on the local scene who share their values and goals.

That's why sometimes Presbyterians and Methodists just down the street from one another may not talk with each other about common goals. That's silly.

(By the way, one nice thing about going to events such as the dinner sponsored by the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue is that you get exposed to some lovely Turkish music. I've saved a minute of this background music here for you, but you'll have to ignore the chatter occurring among people at my table as they also listen to a stringed instrument called a saz and a drum. To hear the clip, click on this: Download Turkish-1)

* * *


Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in the Czech Republic, told people that the fall of communism showed that people need God. Communism is a flawed economic system, but as it has been brought to fruition in various countries it also has adopted an antagonism toward religion, and often more than antagonism. Downright hatred. Which means communistic governments have not acknowledged the spiritual needs of people and built in religious freedom. It's a fatal mistake. And in that sense the pope is absolutely right.

Do even sleeping dogs lie? 9-28-09

We've all heard the joke: How can you tell when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.


Yeah, well.

But what about lying? Don't most of us fairly regularly violate the guidance of religion to be honest by telling lies of various sorts?

One new study and an interview about this are worth looking at.

In the study, researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of California-San Diego found that parents regularly lie to their children as a way of influencing their behavior and emotions. I especially liked the example of parents who told a child that if she wrapped up her pacifiers as gifts, the "paci-fairy" would come and give them to children who needed them. Pretty inventive.

This example was rather different from the approach by my mother, who used to tell me to clean my plate because children in India were starving. Then, partly to prove to me she wasn't lying, she and my father moved our family to India for two years when I was a boy. Mom was right.

The question, of course, is whether there are times when "parenting by lying," as it's called, is a moral choice. What do you think?

Next, James E. Mahon, head of the philosophy department at Washington & Lee University, says that, strictly speaking, there's much less real lying in society than we might think. Here is his definition of a lie:

“Certain conditions have to be in place for a statement to rise to the level of a lie. First, a person must make a statement and must believe that the statement is false. Second, the person making the statement must intend for the audience to believe that the statement is true. Anything else falls outside the definition of lying that I have defended.”

For Mahon's full definition, click here. And for links to more of his publications about lying, click here.

When an unbelievably rude member of the U.S. House shouts "You lie" at the president, I'm thinking that representative needs to read some of this stuff about what lying really is. Well, that's not all I'm thinking but I'll leave it at that here today.

* * *


Are Americans increasingly walking away from religious faith? A new study would suggest something like that is happening. Well, look. These studies reflect reality, but not perfectly. It's really hard to get a completely accurate picture of the religious landscape in America for many reasons, not the least of which is that often Americans themselves aren't quite sure where they are with religious commitments.

Reconciling science, religion: 9-26/27-09

Sometimes I'm really slow to find good articles in print. An example is the piece I want to share with you this weekend. It's from the November 2008 issue of Scientific American, one of the millions of magazines I don't take but that I enjoy reading now and then.


A friend from church handed me this piece recently, and it made enough good science-religion points that I wanted you to be able to read it.

It's called "The Christian Man's Evolution," and is about Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California-Irvine. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1960, but then elected to go into science full time.

What I especially like about the piece is its explanation of Ayala's view "that scientists who attack religion and ridicule the faithful -- most notably, Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford -- are making a mistake." Ayala, the piece says, believes that "is destructive and gives fodder to the preachers who insist followers must choose either Darwin or God."

Ayala would like people of faith to reconcile their faith with science.

I've said before here that one of the more articulate books about this subject is God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, by John F. Haught. In it, Haught describes a biblical vision of God and how God works that is not in conflict with evolutionary theory.

There's really no need for contentious controversy between science and religion if scientists and people of faith will both acknowledge that there are some things each area cannot answer. The problem comes when religionists make claims about the physical world that are in conflict with what science can prove and when scientists dismiss religion as foolish superstition.

* * *


About a year and a half ago in this blog entry, I wrote about a wonderful clergyman/author who was facing his own death from cancer. He's a man I had gotten to know a bit in recent years and one I admired a great deal. The Rev. Forrest Church died Thursday. A sad, sad day, and yet I'm sure he would have us spend our grieving time celebrating his remarkable life. Before I knew Forrest, I had met his late father a time or two, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, who gained much fame in the 1970s for investigating abuses by the CIA. The Church family has contributed a lot to this country. To read more about Forrest Church on his congregation's Web site, click here.

Really knowing Judaism: 9-25-09

Now that Jews are in the midst of their High Holy Days, I thought you might be interested in learning some things about Judaism that you may not have known.


For that, I turn to Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, author, speaker and blogger. He writes a blog for, a wide-variety spiritual site. And his current entry is called "12 Things You Didn't Know About Judaism."

It starts with "Judaism isn't about being Jewish." Huh? Well, you can read Brad's entry and see what he might mean by that.

There are, in fact, lots of sources for learning about Judaism. I think one of the most readable books is by my book-writing colleague, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, co-author with me of the newly released They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Rabbi Jacques has written a book called Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide. You can order it here.


Other good books to learn about Judaism and other religions include, of course, the classic The World's Religions by Huston Smith. But for a basic book about what you should know about religion generally, it's hard to beat Religious Literacy, by Stephen Prothero.

* * *


Israel's president says Iran's president is "the antithesis of moral." Exactly right. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous man who stands for things civilized people reject. That doesn't mean Israel is right about everything and Iran is wrong about everything. It just means wise people should place no trust in Ahmadinejad, a reprehensible man with reprehensible policies. And for the Israeli prime minister's U.N. speech yesterday about Holocaust denial, click here.

Faith WITH works: 9-24-09

A bit of a collection of items today:


* Are you aware of the multi-faith effort called ONE Sabbath? It was launched recently to encourage faith communities to take action to help end poverty around the globe.

Is that an idealistic goal? Of course. Poverty has always been with us. But that doesn't excuse people of faith. Rather, it requires them to understand the causes of poverty and to work to eradicate them, even as they also seek to minister individually to people in poverty.

The page to which I've linked you will allow you to get your church, synagogue, mosque or other congregation registered to be part of this broad effort. The lead singer of U2, Bono, is a member of the ONE board.

* The third annual "Faith in Action" Sunday is coming Oct. 11.

The idea was developed by World Vision, Zondervan and Outreach, Inc., in 2007 to encourage churches, ministries and small groups to find ways to meet needs in their local communities.

For a roster of participating congregations, click here.

Even if such efforts sometimes aren't as effective as one might hope, I think they're important because, as most religions say, what matters is not good intentions (or even bad intentions) but action. And these efforts are about action.

* * *


Although this piece appeared in the Memphis newspaper a month ago, I just found it and think it's worth passing along. It's about the U.S. Army's first Buddhist chaplain. Although I'm a pretty strict church-state separationist, I have no problem with the military having chaplains. I think they perform a necessary and valuable service for our people in uniform.

* * *

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

Faithful care of the Earth: 9-23-09

Several years ago, when I was still a full-time staffer at The Kansas City Star, I wrote a longish piece about how people who would identify themselves as conservative or evangelical Christians have become much more interested in environmental concerns, which they often called "care for the Earth" or "care for the creation."


The subject has gained considerable traction since then, as groups such as the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, led then by Calvin DeWitt, have found ways to connect scientists and people of faith who have an interest in environmental matters.

Yes, you still find some people of faith who say this whole area doesn't deserve much attention because, after all, the world is coming to an end soon, so why bother?

But generally the ecological concern among evangelical Christians is real and growing -- and for good reasons.

The most recent academic look at this subject has come from the University of New Hampshire, where researchers have found that a the green movement is creating common ground on which evangelicals and secular environmentalists can stand.

In the end, that common ground is our home planet, and it must be cared for no matter how long we have left to live on it.

* * *


OK, look. I have said this before but apparently it needs to be said again and again: If you think God has told you to go harm someone or stalk someone, chances are really, really, really good that the message isn't really from God and that you need mental help. Get it. Don't go to Jewel's ranch in Texas and stalk her. Just don't. If God needs to speak harshly to Jewel about something, God will find another way.

Christianity's global reach: 9-22-09

It's no longer news that the growth of Christianity is occurring not in North America or Europe but in the Southern Hemisphere and Asia.


The books to read are The Next Christendom, by Philip Jenkins, and The New Shape of World Christianity, by Mark Knoll.

My interest in Christianity in other parts of the world probably began when I was a boy and had a chance to live in India for two years. But more recently, I read Pentecost in Asia, by my friend Tom Fox, which describes especially Catholic expressions of the religion.

I raise all this today because it's good to be reminded that Christianity's spread beyond the land of its founding is a long, long story. For instance, it was on this date in 1601 that the first priests of the newly established Christian Church (it was Roman Catholic) in Japan were ordained in their hometown of Nagasaki.

Today there are many Christian churches in Japan. Just as there are many in India and in many other Asian countries. Indeed, a few years ago I was in Uzbekistan in Central Asia doing some reporting on Islam when I ran across Korean Christian missionaries at work there.

Not all churches belong to the World Council of Churches, but 349 churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world, representing over 560 million Christians are within that council. That's about a majority of the non-Catholic Christians in the world. The Catholic Church is not a formal WCC member but participates in some ways.

The point is that Americans -- whether Christian or not -- tend not to think about the global spread of the church. Today's a good day to remind ourselves of exactly that.

* * *


As President Obama prepares (without big expectations) to meet today with Middle East leaders, Pope Benedict XVI has called for a special synod of bishops to consider ways toward peace there. But that gathering won't take place until a year from next month. Well, what the heck. There really hasn't been peace there since Israel's founding in 1948, so why rush now? It's just loss of life we're talking about. Is it just me or do our leaders seem unbothered by much sense of urgency?

* * *

P.S.: The Kansas City branch of Habitat for Humanity will be celebrating 30 years of work in our area with several events next month. Join in the anniversary events if you can. It's a great agency with faith roots.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook now is online. To read it, click here. To read previous Outlook columns, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page for a page containing links to them.

* * *

A FINAL P.S.: You can follow me on Twitter at

Why Communion weekly? 9-21-09

For today's main post, non-Christians may feel excused.


I want to talk about a Christian sacrament, Holy Communion, also known as the Lord's Supper and as the Eucharist.

And as a Protestant in the Reformed Tradition with its roots in John Calvin's theology, I want to argue (again) for weekly celebration of this sacrament, as happens in the Catholic and Anglican traditions.

I'm prompted to do this by a piece I've just read in the current issue of Theology Today, a publication that comes out of the Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution. (You won't find the piece I'll be quoting online. At least not yet.)

In "Speaking of Religious Practices," Gordon S. Mikoski, the publication's reviews editor, writes about how religious practices (prayer, hymn singing, fasting, etc.) teach theology.

He writes that his study of Calvin, the 16th Century reformer, has "yielded another discovery: The Reformed (T)radition may have been richer and less prone to certain forms of propositional excess if it had followed Calvin's vision of a weekly celebration of the Eucharist immediately following the proclamation of the gospel. The weekly juxtaposition of Word and table -- with a decided priority given to the Word, to be sure -- would, perhaps, have helped the Reformed (T)radition to hold together things like understanding and mystery, theory and practice, and doctorine and embodiment in a more faithfully effective manner. . . (W)e should have taken Calvin more seriously on the need for weekly juxtaposition of Word and table."

Exactly. But Calvin couldn't get weekly Communion done as a long-lasting practice even in Geneva. Still, it's worth pursuing.

Why? Because people in our congregations learn in different ways. Some learn in left-brained ways. Some in right-brained ways. The sermon (Word, in the above quote) is a left-brained way of preaching the gospel. Communion is a right-brained way of preaching exactly that same liberating gospel.

If we leave one out, we impoverish worship. My own church, in my view, thus impoverishes worship every Sunday except the first one of the month, when we celebrate the sacrament.

Now, to be fair, it's also a reasonable and often accurate criticism of Catholic and Anglican worship that their attention to the Word -- in sermons -- is lacking. The high value we Presbyterians place on the sermon is kind of a mystery to some of my Catholic and Episcopal friends.

But both their traditions and mine should offer balanced worship that holds up both word and sacrament. And I'm glad Mikoski's piece prompted me to make that plea again.

Now, if you non-Christian members of other faith communities still are with me for some reason, perhaps you could tell me whether there are aspects of worship in your tradition that get out of balance in this way and what you're doing to restore that balance.

* * *


American Muslim kids playing punk rock? Oh, come on. But it's true, this report says. And the music is helping them express their sense of difference in being pulled between two cultures. Know any punk-rock Muslims?

A new Holocaust film: 9-19/20-09

In my new book, They Were Just People, my co-author and I were able to tell about 20 stories of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Poland with non-Jewish help.


Well, 20 stories is representative of what happened but obviously not an exhaustive account of rescue in Poland.

Which is why I was glad to learn recently of a film addition to this history of rescue -- a film you in the Kansas City area will be able to see on Wednesday, Sept. 23. It's scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. showing at the 2009 Kansas International Film Festival.

"No. 4 Street of Our Lady" tells the story of Francisca Halamajowa, a Polish-Catholic woman who rescued 15 of her Jewish neighbors. This took place in a small village in what then was eastern Poland but what today is Ukraine. The link I've given you in this paragraph will tell you much more about the movie. (The photo here today is from promotional material for the film.)

The film has been receiving some wonderfully positive reviews.

The movie's producer and co-director, Judy Maltz, is the granddaughter of one of the people Francisca Halamajowa saved. When she called me the other day she had just learned about my new book, written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and was delighted to find out I lived where her movie was about to be shown soon.

Judy teaches journalism at Penn State University in the same department as a friend of mine. Click here for a column that friend wrote in which he talked about Judy's movie.

One of the joys of writing my new book was realizing that it was preserving memories that simply must not be lost if we're to learn anything from history. Judy Maltz and others who created "No 4 Street of Our Lady" have done something similar in a different medium. I hope you take the opportunity to see this important work.

* * *


Iran's president now calls the Holocaust "a lie." Yes, it's sad that some people can be so misled about this subject. But it's both wrong and evil for the leader of a country to tell his people such big lies for political reasons. Holocaust denial is like denying that the Earth moves around the sun. No doubt in his cruely, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calculated his slander to coincide with the start of the Jewish High Holy Days this weekend. The man is despicable.

* * *

P.S.: The Mental Health Association of the Heartland and the Kansas City Blues Society will present "Beyond the Blues" on Oct. 24 to raise money to help combat depression. This disease is one that clergy often don't know how to deal with when they encounter it among congregants, so in recent years there have been lots of efforts to help them. The "Beyond the Blues" link I've given you should give you all the information you need to attend. Hope you can.