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A free will theology: 1-19-10


The old man looked around at the devastation and said this: "If there is a God up there, he's probably turned his back on us by now."

At least that's how I remember the quote from the stark and wonderful movie "The Road" that my wife and I saw the other evening. It's based on the book by Cormac McCarthy.

A father (played by Viggo Mortensen) and a son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) are traveling by foot through a ruined land. It's the United States, and although we're never told what caused the ruin, the obvious conclusion to draw is that it's after a nuclear war and they are trying to survive nuclear winter.

Father and son come upon the struggling old man (played by Robert Duvall, though you'd hardly recognize him) from behind and eventually, at the boy's urging, offer him some of their food and some of their company.

In the ensuing conversation, the old man offers his theology -- an agnostic sort of affirmation of humanity's free will and how people have used that free will in destructive and evil ways.

There is no Pat Robertson goofiness here about how God is punishing the U.S. and the world for making a pact with the devil or for supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians. There is no pollyanna refusal here to see the wreck of humanity. But neither is there any wildly enthusiastic affirmation here of God's presence with the sufferers in the midst of havoc.

There is simply an acceptance of responsibility. There is an accounting. There is a sense of guilt, but also a sense that the punishment is self-inflicted, as it often is. Indeed, that's quite biblical, as any clear-eyed reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son attests. In that story, the father, who stands for God, punishes the wild son simply by allowing him to have his own way. Or, rather, the father lets the son punish himself in that way.

That's the message I took away from what Duvall, as old man, said in "The Road." And it's fair to middlin' -- although not exhaustive -- theology, if you ask me.

(The photo here from the movie I found at

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The Church of England, this report says, is worried that the depiction of religion on British TV is awful. Well, it's not so hot in the U.S., either, though as I've said before perhaps the show that gets the point of religion the most is "The Simpsons," believe it or not.

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NOTE: At least temporarily, I've decided (starting with yesterday's blog posting) to stop allowing readers to leave comments on this blog. You're welcome to e-mail any comments you have to [email protected] in response to the blog's content each day. But for now you won't have the opportunity to leave comments here. Why? Well, the main reason is that the cost/benefit analysis I've done tells me it's not worth it any more. First, it takes too much of my time to moderate the comments. I have many other projects and responsibilities beyond this blog and moderating the comments is reducing the time I have to work on those. And, frankly, only about 20 percent of the comments in the last year or so ever contain anything fresh or in any way responsive to what I'm writing about that day. (Feel free to think you are the source of those good comments; maybe you are.) Instead, the comments section has largely turned into a platform for uncivil discourse between and among people who don't respect each other and who endlessly repeat theist or atheist arguments that would try the soul of any lively college sophomore. I'm tired of it to the marrow. I reserve the right on occasion to reopen the comments section (you'll know by looking for a note about it at the bottom of that day's posting). And I reserve the right to change my mind about any and all of this. But for now, I'm closing comments. Thanks for your understanding. Bill.

King and us as theologians: 1-18-10

Because it is both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and my own birthday (it's one of those years for me that ends in 5), I'll be brief today.


After all, I assume that some of you want to participate in Martin Luther King Day of Service. Good for you. Go do it.

It's intriguing that while much attention continues to be focused on King (pictured here) as social activist, considerable attention in some circles is being paid to King as theologian.

An example is a course taught last spring at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary called "Theology and Praxis of Martin Luther King Jr." As many of you know, praxis is the 64-dollar word that theologians use for practice or the living out of one's faith.

The course outline to which I've linked you has lots of good reading lists in case you want to dig deeper into King as theologian.

As for me being a theologian, too, well, each of us is a theologian whether we want to be or not -- and that includes people with deep faith and people who reject any religion at all.

And yet, when it comes to professional theologians, I've always liked and been amused by this comment from the 18th Century French philosopher Denis Diderot: "I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest. Up comes a theologian and blows it out."

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The response by Haitians to the earthquake catastrophe that has struck them has run the theological gamut. This story contains evidence of some of those responses. I don't blame any victim for any response to such a calamity. But as they have a chance to think through this I hope they will avoid declaring that God was punishing Haiti for some reason or that there is nothing to do now but pray. Prayer and praise are called for, as is recovery action, but I don't have much use for a theology that charges God with mass murder or that describes God as a deity that would randomly save the person in seat 21-A but not 21-B in a plane crash. Yes, I know, we can't really say whether God does such things or not. But we can say whether such acts are out of character with the God we come to know through our faith community's teachings. And, as a Presbyterian, I would say such a description of God is severely out of wack.

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NOTE: At least temporarily, I've reluctantly decided to stop allowing readers to leave comments on this blog. You're welcome to e-mail any comments you have to [email protected] in response to the blog's content each day. But for now you won't have the opportunity to leave comments here for others to read and respond to. Why? Well, the main reason is that the cost/benefit analysis I've done tells me it's not worth it any more. First, it takes too much of my time to moderate the comments. I have many other projects and responsibilities beyond this blog, so moderating the comments is reducing the time I have to work on those. And, frankly, only about 20 percent of the comments in the last year or so ever contain anything fresh or in any way responsive to what I'm writing about that day. (Feel free to think you are the source of those good comments; maybe you are.) Instead, the comments section has largely turned into a platform for uncivil discourse between and among people who don't respect each other and who endlessly repeat theist or atheist arguments that would try the soul of any lively college sophomore. I'm tired of it to the marrow. I reserve the right on occasion to reopen the comments section (you'll know by looking for a note about it at the bottom of that day's posting). And I reserve the right to change my mind about any and all of this. But for now, I'm closing comments. Thanks for your understanding. Oh, and if by making this decision I have freed up for you some time you'd otherwise spend leaving comments here or reading them, you're welcome. Use the time well. Bill.

A Prohibition lesson: 1-16/17-10


One on-going aspect of the long-running church-state debate is whether people of faith should work to have their ideas about how people should live enacted into law.

There certainly is nothing in the Constitution to prohibit religious people from having a voice in the public square. Indeed, the idea of church-state separation is much more to protect religion from encroachment by the government than protecting the government from having to listen to ideas from religious people.

So lots of people of faith support various kinds of legislative efforts to, say, reduce abortion, reform immigration and so forth.

But this weekend is a good time to suggest that all of us should be careful about trying to enact religious ideas into law. Why? Because Saturday is the date in 1919 on which Prohibition became part of the Constitution as the 18th Amendment after Nebraska ratified it.

And it's clear that religious people were among the driving forces behind the effort to enact Prohibition. Indeed, part of the history of Prohibition to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph says this: "The prohibition leaders believed that once license to do business was removed from the liquor traffic, the churches and reform organizations would enjoy an opportunity to persuade Americans to give up drink."

In that, the churches and reform organizations got it backwards. In some ways, Prohibition was an effort to, as is often said, legislate morality. And, frankly, it worked so badly that eventually it was repealed. And the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which was favored prohibition, not temperance, eventually faded, though it still exists.

The problem, as I see it, is that religious people used the legislative process to try to encourage people to live the way they thought they should live. Instead of using Prohibition as an opportunity to persuade Americans to give up alcoholic drinks, people of faith should have focused on convincing members of their own congregations to do that through moral suasion. That's why earlier here I said they got it backwards.

So when religious people are tempted to get their moral ideas enacted into law (indeed, some such ideas are absolutely essential to a civil society, such as the prohibitions against murder and thievery), they might want to study Prohibition and see if they are shirking their own responsibilities by trying to foist those off on the state.

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Perhaps you heard the other day that the Rev. Pat Robertson, who gives me the willies, said God was punishing Haiti with an earthquake because the country had made a pact with the devil some years ago. Yikes. Still, the question of what constitutes an act of God inevitably arises in such catastrophes. Click here for one answer from a pastor. And click here for a commentary from someone who feels about Robertson the way I do. And for the New York Times op-ed mentioned in the second piece questioning why people in Haiti trust in God, click here. By the way, my answer to my headline on this item is this: I can't prove God is punishing Haiti and I can't prove God isn't. What my faith tells me is that God is love and that God aches for the victims in such circumstances and encourages the rest of us to help those same victims. And my friend Kansas Bob found this good video about this subject and put it on his blog.

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P.S.: And speaking of Haiti, the Rev. Roger Coleman and the folks at Pilgrim Chapel in Kansas City have put together a Red Cross fund-raiser I hope you'll try to attend. It starts at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20, at the Record Bar, 1020 Westport Road. The cover charge is just $10 (all for the Red Cross), and the concert will feature such great musicians as Danny Cox, The Elders and others.

Learning about religion in KC: 1-15-10

I don't know if you're familiar with the Centurions, but it's a leadership development program of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

Earlier this week, participants in the program (some of whom are seen in the photo on the left) spent the whole day learning about the religious landscape of our region and how faith communities are a rich part of our social fabric.


Good for the Centurions, I say. So many people fail to grasp what a big part of life religion plays in our nation and our metropolitan area, and in that failure they misunderstand a lot of what motivates people.

I was asked to meet with the group for part of an hour that day to give them kind of a bird's eye view of religion in our region and to answer questions. Of which there were plenty. We met at the Community of Christ Temple (pictured above) in Independence.

Earlier in the day they had spent time at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown and later were to visit the Al-Inshirah Islamic Center near 36th and Troost.

Even if one is not an adherent of any religion, it behooves all of us to get some sense of the religious motivations of people and to understand how the presence of religious communities affects life in our region. I'm really pleased that the leadership of the Centurions understands that and did something to help our future business and civic leaders with this concept.

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Yemen says it is at war with al-Qaida. That's what President Obama said recently, too. At least the right enemy has been identified. It's not Islam or Muslims. It's not Saudi Arabia or the Saudi people. It's not Iraq or the Iraqi people. It's the violent extremist ideologues of al-Qaida and its related branches that justify terrorism on the basis of a misreading of Islam.

The 'rationality' god: 1-14-10


Recently I've been looking over the last year's worth of blog postings here (they're all in the archives, along with every posting since 2004) to pick out three to enter in a writing contest sponsored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

As I've done so I've also looked again at some of the comments left in response (well, sometimes in response) to what I've written.

And I have been struck by something that I wonder if some of you have noticed. It's the insistence by commenters who identify themselves as atheists, freethinkers, secular humanists and so forth on the importance of "rationality" and "reason."

I don't for a minute want to dismiss rationality as useless. In fact, I value it quite highly. But I don't make it a god. I don't idolize it. Why?

Well, perhaps in my reluctance to worship rationality I am postmodern. Which is to say that I don't view the Enlightenment as an unadulterated success. Surely the Enlightenment liberated many people and produced much that was good and necessary.

But whatever Enlightenment values (human progress, rationality, peace, etc.) were not undermined by World War I (which poet Ezra Pound said was uselessly fought for a world that was nothing more than "an old bitch, gone in the teeth"), were seriously compromised by the Holocaust.

Indeed, as Tony Jones notes in his book The New Christians, theologian Jurgen Moltmann says postmodernism is the reality of the world "after Auschwitz." By that Moltmann means that the Enlightenment promises of the enthronement of reason and human perfectability "died in the gas chambers of the Holocaust," Jones says.

Again, I am not arguing that rationality and reason aren't useful and necessary tools. They are. But, in the end, they cannot replace imagination, spirit and poetry, metaphor and intuition, revelation and grace. If we try to live with rationality only and without all of those other attributes and approaches, we live impoverished lives. And I'll pass on that, thank you.

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The disastrous earthquake that hit Haiti this week has -- not suprisingly -- brought out lots of responses from faith communities and related entities. I thought I'd just give you a sample here today. Baptists. The Jewish state of Israel. American Jews. Episcopalians. Faith and Action, a Christian mission. MuslimsCatholics. Presbyterians. Well, there are many other examples, but it's good to remember that when catastrophe strikes, people of faith usually are there quickly to help.

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P.S: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, I'll be teaching a Communiversity class on essay writing at in the Witherspoon Room of Second Presbyterian Church, 55th and Oak. For the Communiversity catalog entry about the class, click here and then scroll down to page 14. Come join the group.

New antisemitism studies: 1-13-10

Modern antisemitism, which has roots in centuries of Christian theological anti-Judaism (see my essay on that subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page), first blossomed into its currently recognizable shape in the 19th century.


And, sad to say, it did not perish with Hitler and the defeat of his Nazi regime.

In fact, it seems that antisemitism just keeps coming back. It has had a resurgence in Europe in recent years, and a particularly vicious brand of it is being promoted by some leaders and followers of radical Islam.

What is causing this? How can it be contained, if not eliminated?

Those are some of the questions that will face a new Indiana University institute. The school is starting its new institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. The initial event will be a lecture this Thursday by Robert Wistrich, a leading scholar of the history of antisemitism. Wistrich, Neuberger chair for modern European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is one of several scholars I quote in the anti-Judaism essay I mentioned above.

Wistrich has out a new book I haven't yet read but hope to soon: A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad.

I'm really glad scholars are devoting time and effort to this important subject, and I hope the institute at Indiana University (where I'll be in July for a conference) will be able to shed some helpful light on this subject so we can find ways to end this plague. My hope is that this institute will coordinate its efforts with other groups dealing with antisemitism so that there's not a lot of duplication and wasted effort. I always worry about that when such institutions get created. But we'll see.

As my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I were doing research on our recently published book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we were struck by how some Poles seemed to overcome the decidedly antisemitic culture of Poland and not let that culture affect their decision to risk their own lives to save Jews. Perhaps the new institute will want to look into what made that possible.

By the way, a good book to read to understand anti-Judaism and antisemitism is Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust, by Robert Michael, whom I also quote in my essay.

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Like many of you, I was impressed and encouraged to learn that the father of the Christmas Day airplane terrorist had sought to alert authorities about the radicalization of his son. This interesting piece explores the phenomenon of Muslim parents turning in their children in similar cases. What do you think you'd do if your kids went off the religious deep end and became a threat to others?

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P.S.: The theological thugs who run Iran are after some members of the Baha'i faith there. But, thank goodness, our State Department is speaking up on behalf of the persecuted.

Caring for bodies, souls: 1-12-10

How many of you resolved to lose weight in the new year?


If you did, did you think about the connection between your body and your soul? I wrote here recently about souls, and I don't want to cover that ground again. But I do think it's worth it to explore what various faith traditions teach about body and soul.

Recently the Religion Newswriters Association put out this guide for journalists who are trying to write about the question of what physical fitness has to do with spiritual fitness.

I invite you today to explore what the RNA put together and see if it affirms of challenges any of your beliefs about the physical-spiritual connection.

From a Christian perspective, the best writing I've run across recently about bodies and souls is in a new book by Thomas G. Long called Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. In it he notes that the "sharp separation of spirit and body, and the devaluing of the body that inevitably accompanies it, runs like a ribbon through Western thought." By this he means the widely accepted -- but non-Christian -- view that the soul is immortal and divine while the body is temporary and profane.

Let me offer you one paragraph of Long about this:

The Christian view of human beings and human bodies, which in large measure was inherited from Judaism, forms a sharp contrast to this prevailing view and is, in fact, countercultural in two directions at once. On one front, Christians reject as reductionist the view that human beings are only bodies. Some philosophers and neurophysicists believe that Western philosophy's whole flirtation with the idea of 'souls' has been a misadventure in speculative metaphysical hooey and what we call a human being is simply a set of biochemical and electrical processes. That is all there is; there is no 'ghost in the machine.' On the other front, though, Christians with equal force reject the Platonic view that human beings are essentially nonmaterial and immortal souls, temporarily housed in disposable and somewhat loathsome bodies.

So the traditional Christian belief is, as Long says, that humans are dust given life by the breath of God. But because the whole creation, including in some mysterious way our whole selves, is to be redeemed, we value the body and do our best to care for it.

So go ahead and turn your 20 extra pounds into energy that the world can use in better ways right now. (Oh, and although I myself could do well by dropping a few pounds, the photo here today is not of me.)

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As we approach Martin Luther King Day in this country, it's encouraging to discover that some religious leaders in other countries also display bravery in the face of evil. A cleric in Iran, for instance, continues to berate the current misguided Iranian leadership and refuses to be silenced. I wish religious leaders everywhere -- especially Muslim clerics seeing acts of terrorism -- would speak out as strongly.

Palestinian Christians' future: 1-11-10

As nearly all of us know, people of faith face various forms of oppression and persecution in many parts of the world.

We can learn about this in an annual comprehensive way by reading the reports from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the U.S. State Department. For the State Department's report on religious freedom in "Israel and the Occupied Territories," click here.

As Americans who live in a nation in which Christianity is the dominant faith, it's easy to forget that Christians in other parts of the world don't share our safety and security.

For instance, this report describes the sometimes-desperate conditions of Palestinian Christians. It seems quite possible that before too long the area around Bethlehem, traditionally understood as the birthplace of Jesus, will be devoid of Christians altogether.

This is not a new problem, but it's also apparently not moving toward any good resolution. This 2006 essay by a Christian Palestinian gives evidence of all these worries back then.

My own interest in this matter goes back to my childhood. The photo here today, in fact, shows me with two of my three sisters looking at the River Jordan in December 1957.

The Holy Land is, as we all know, of huge importance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In recent decades the attention of the world seems to have been focused almost exclusively on the lives there of Jews and Muslims. But let's not leave Christians out of the equation.

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A new discovery suggests that parts of the Bible may be hundreds of years older than currently believed. It's always fascinating to me when scientific methods shed light on matters of religion. In the end, religion and science overlap only partly, but they need not be enemies. This Jerusalem Post version of the story offers some of the translated phrases.

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P.S.: Many of the comments being left on my blog are getting repetitious and tedious. If you've already made your point six or a hundred times -- whether it's that the Pink Unicorn is God or that we need a High Tech translation of the Bible or that science can't demonstrate lots of truth about the world or that religion is irrational -- please move on to some other point. You're not convincing anyone by endless repetition. Thanks. Bill.

Religion dying? Not hardly: 1-9/10-10

A fairly common assertion offered by atheists, freethinkers, agnostics and the like is that Americans are becoming less religious.


Some of them base this conclusion on polls showing a growing number of people who say they have no religious affiliation. They are the "nones," people who, when asked their religion, choose "none of the above."

For instance, the most recent survey of the U.S. religious landscape by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe, said 16.1 percent of Americans say they are unafiliated. (Which, by the way, doesn't mean they are hard-line atheists.)

Well, for sure the religious landscape in this country is changing, but the other day I was reading The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, by Tony Jones, one of the gurus of the Emergent Church Movement, and Tony has a bit of pushback on this that I think is worth hearing. (On Twitter, Tony is at, while I'm at

"We are not becoming less religious, as some people argue," he writes. "We are becoming differently religious. And the shift is significant. . .

"As the second half of the twentieth century began, most sociologists, social theorists and social philosophers were proclaming that the death of religion was nigh. They were bards of an impending secularism that was lapping onto the shores of all Western countries. We are losing our religion, they calmly -- and often approvingly -- lectured from behind their podia.

"We're leaving the myths of this god and that god behind and establishing a new spirituality that is unhinged from the oppressive regimes of conventional religion. New Ageism is a nod in this direction: as we mature intellectually and scientifically, we'll realize that traditional religions are holding us back. We'll achieve our liberation by relying less on the strictures of religions and moving into the promising horizon of 'spirituality.'. . .

"But a funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: we became more religious, not less. Fundamentalisms now thrive in all major religions, churches and religious schools keep popping up and religious books outsell all other categories. Nowadays you can't find a self-respecting social theorist proclaiming secularism. Instead, they're studying religion and getting face time on CNN explaining to often oblivious journalists how religious Americans really are.

"Back in the pulpits, ironically, pastors continue to bewail that we're living through the decline and fall of the Judeo-Christian American empire, that secularism is a fast-moving glacier, razing mountains of faith that have been part of America since its birth. But the data just don't back up this interpretation."

Well, no doubt statistics from other sources can be cited to counter Tony's view, but when I was asked recently by a member of the audience at a church where I was speaking whether I thought religion would die out ever or any time soon, I quickly said no. There are lots of reasons for this -- good reasons, too. But, nonetheless, the religious landscape here and in other countries will continue to evolve, and those changes shouldn't surprise any of us.

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As Pope Benedict XVI prepares his important visit to the main synagogue in Rome, lots of dynamics are at work, this report correctly notes. As the writer points out, Jews have been in Rome longer than there's been a Christianity, and their relationship to the Vatican over the centuries has been dicey at best at times. The book to read (it's from 1974 but still full of good history) is Sam Waagenaar's The Pope's Jews.

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P.S.: Under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page you will find, among other things, a description of how to leave comments on this blog. But a reminder: No more that five posts a day, none of which should be more than 300 words long. In recent days some commenters have tried to post more than that and some have tried to post longer than that. Thanks. Bill.

Perpetual terrorism? 1-8-10


Because terrorism as we have known it for several decades has a religious element to it (I would say a misuse of religion), it is helpful now and then to take a big-picture look at where we are with confronting, reducing and possibly eliminating it. (And yesterday's remarks by President Obama about the Christmas Day attempted terrorist attack make this subject even more timely.)

So today I want to share with you this interesting essay by George Friedman that seeks to give us that big-picture look.

I can't say that I agree with everything he says, but I do think he's right about the reality that we will never eliminate terrorism no matter how hard we try. Rather, the goal should be to reduce it to as small a level as possible, a level that will allow our nation -- and the world -- to live without undue fear.

As I say, much modern terrorism finds its roots in a misreading and misuse of Islam. The people who are committed to the Osama bin Laden view of the world are murderous extremists and we must do what we can to stop them from killing others the way the killed my own nephew and nearly 3,000 other people on 9/11.

But to paint this picture in stark black and white, in good versus evil, as former President George W. Bush was wont to do, gives us false hope that we can eliminate terrorism. The reality is that there will always be people who misunderstand and misapply religion in violent ways. History surely has taught us that.

Our task is to make sure the religion we follow, if any, does not move people toward violent extremism, and when we see it happening in our own faith or others' faiths, we must speak out against it. Just because we'll never be completely free of terrorism doesn't mean we should stop opposing it publicly. It just means we cannot let its existence consume us and prevent us from moving foward with our own lives.

(For White House summary review of the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas, click here. For President Obama's directive on corrective actions needed in the aftermath of that event, click here.)

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In the New Testament book of I Thessalonians, the apostle Paul suggests that followers of Jesus "pray without ceasing." A pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Adam Wainwright, takes that to heart, and says that before each pitch he says a little prayer. There are so many ways to understand prayer and so many kinds of prayers and purposes for prayer that Wainwright's approach doesn't surprise me at all. In fact, for some people the goal is to make their whole lives a prayer.