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Why we build cathedrals: 9-18/19-10


Last weekend, after I gave the homily at an Evensong service at an Episcopal church, a woman stopped me and told me that she had saved a column I once wrote from Paris about Notre Dame Cathedral. She alleged that she loved the piece and has shared it with others.

In fact, the piece is contained on page 23 of my first book, A Gift of Meaning, which still is available on or can be ordered through a local bookstore, such as Rainy Day in suburban Kansas City.

It's always a pleasant surprise for a writer to find a reader who not only liked something once written but who has actually saved the words.

I was thinking about all of that the other day when I came upon this collection of cathedral photos on Have a look at the astonishing variety of sacred structures that people have been to the glory of God -- at least in theory that's why they're built.

But, of course, because human motives are complicated and, well, mixed, no doubt some cathedrals rose for other reasons, too.

And yet for whatever reason they exist, they can send the human spirit soaring. I've never done a full tour of Europe's cathedrals, though I've been in several as well as, say, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and the Episcopal and Catholic cathedrals in Downtown Kansas City. (The photo here today is one I took of the interior of the gorgeous Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City.)

I used to think it was a waste of resources to put huge amounts of money into building such edifices, but I've mostly changed my mind. I see them now as works of art, as homage to the divine, as what the Celts call "thin places" where the space between heaven and earth narrows to let us taste the eternal.

Cathedrals are the architectural equivalents of hymns, of liturgical dance, of sweeping prayer into what people of faith hope is not the abyss.

* * *


A British journalist writes here that Pope Benedict XVI's speech at Westminster Hall in England on Friday was an example of his brilliant mind. Take a look for yourself at the text (scroll down a bit on the page to which I'm linking you) and see if you agree. I've always thought B-16 extraordinarily intelligent and a good thinker. As I've said before, I'm less impressed with his skill in shaping his thoughts precisely, with the result that he's sometimes offensive when he probably doesn't mean to me.

Learning from the Holocaust: 9-17-10

As a nation we've been thinking this month about the lessons of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and asking ourselves if we're safer now than we were then and if we've learned anything from having gone through that malevolent experience.


It's a worthwhile thing to do.

In fact, learning from history is so important that I wanted to remind you today that I'll be teaching a weekend seminar Nov. 5-7 at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania on lessons from the Holocaust and what they might mean for us today. I hope you'll think about joining me. The link I've given you in this paragraph should give you what you need to know to sign up.

I have not been to Kirkridge but I understand it's simply beautiful. It's in the Lehigh Valley near Bangor, Pa., and I look forward to crisp fall air for a few days there.

If you're in the Kansas City area and can't make it to Kirkridge, you have an opportunity to hear both me and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn discuss this subject in three Wednesday evening sessions in October at the Jewish Community Center. For details, click here and scroll down a bit.

We'll be drawing on the research we did for the 2009 book we wrote, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

We look forward to some fascinating discussions and hope you'll be there to participate.

If the unexamined life is hardly a life at all, we should be looking for opportunities to examine our lives, especially in light of history. These are two chances to do just that.

* * *


Pope Benedict XVI has begun his long-awaited visit to the U.K. A BBC report is here. I hope the trip gets people thinking about peace and how they can contribute to it.

Our silence can heal: 9-16-10

If God is good and almighty, why is there evil and suffering in the world?


This age-old question (read the book of Job) represents the open wound of religion. Well-meaning people have offered well-meaning answers but, in the end, the question remains a challenge to each new generation.

Mark S. M. Scott (pictured here), visiting assistant professor of the history of Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri–Columbia, has attempted yet another answer in this engaging piece in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, published by Scott's alma mater.

Scott contends -- correctly, I think -- that all attempts to answer this question (which theologians call the question of theodicy) ultimately fail. As he puts it, "To those in the midst of suffering, however, these logical explanations often fail to bring any comfort."

What we finally must do, he proposes, is simply to be companions to people who are suffering, simply to be a healing presence for them.

Our silence, he says, often is a better, more responsible witness than our attempts at helpful words and explanations.

Any of us who have heard well-meaning people tell us that a member of our family who has just died "is in a better place" or that "God needed" the person in heaven understand what Scott is saying. It's wisdom we'd all do well to heed.

* * *


Stephen Prothero, religion scholar at Boston University, makes a good case that two-plus blocks away from Ground Zero is too far away for a mosque. He says there should be a small one at Ground Zero itself. I understand his argument and don't disagree with it. But I'd be happy if only the Islamic center proposed near Ground Zero gets built.

Restitution for Holocaust crimes: 9-15-10

One of the many reasons I'm proud to be an American citizen is that our government over the years often has stood up for what's right and moral. Oh, I know its record is imperfect and that it began its life not just tolerating but defending slavery, sanctioning the oppression of Native Americans and preventing women from voting.


But quite often it has been a voice for the voiceless, for the marginalized. One good example is the way our government took the lead in negotiating restitution agreements with Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France on behalf of Holocaust victims and survivors. That work resulted in what the lead American negotiator, Stuart E. Eizenstat (pictured below), calls "imperfect justice," which is the name of his 2004 book I just finished, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II. (Yes, I'm six years behind in some of my reading.)

You may not be aware of it, but the U.S. State Department continues to maintain an Office of Holocaust Issues, now led by Special Envoy Douglas Davidson. As Davidson's online biography notes, "he is responsible for developing and implementing U.S. policy pertaining to the return of Holocaust-era assets to their rightful owners, compensation for wrongs committed during the Holocaust, and Holocaust remembrance."

The story of how Eizenstat got involved in the process of seeking restitution for Holocaust survivors is the subject of his fascinating book. These were tough bargaining sessions with Swiss bankers, German industrial leaders, Austrian and French leaders, to say nothing of a room full of class action lawyers.


The goal was not really to put a price on evils committed in the Holocaust era but to cause the countries that participated in this most heinous of human crimes to acknowledge their role and, as Eizenstat writes, "to establish the principle of accountability for violences of human rights. . ."

Eizenstat records in remarkable detail the machinations required to come to agreements on how, if at all, the governments and businesses of the countries involved were going to offer some measure of restitution to people who had been used as slave labor, people whose property, including valuable art, had been stolen, people who had deposited money in secret accounts for their children, if they survived, only to have the banks deny the accounts ever existed.

At any rate, I find it reassuring that our government has continued through the Bush and Obama administrations the work begun in the Clinton administration to bring a measure of justice to this area, however imperfect that justice is. And perhaps if the State Department knows that people are watching what it does in this area, it will press harder for compliance with the agreements that the Eizenstat team was able to put together.

* * *


When we think about that Taliban-like Florida pastor who made a big splash by threatening to burn the Qur'an on the anniversary of 9/11, I hope we also think about the gazillion members of the clergy who try to do things right. My friend Bob Welch, a columnist at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., devoted his column the other day to just such a member of the clergy. These are the kind of people who deserve press coverage, not the knaves selling hate.

* * *



The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, by David Domke and Kevin Coe. This just-released updated edition of the 2008 book comes at a good time -- when we're slogging through mid-term election season. The authors remind us that politicians have long used religion as a political device and we need to keep that in perspective. On the other hand, the more modern use of religion as a drawing card in politics, they write, began with Ronald Reagan (after a bit of it from Jimmy Carter) and then was picked up by Bill Clinton and many others since then. Is there a place in politics for religion. Well, yes and no. Clearly the values religions teach help to shape and define the work of politicians. And clearly it's helpful to know how a candidate's religious beliefs might affect public policy. But we all should reject the blatant attempt to pretend that one's own political views are the same as God's political views. To do that, however, one needs to know how politicians are using religion to appeal to voters. That's what this book helps us understand, and it's an important addition to our political process.

* * *

P.S.: For my conversation with Vern Barnet that he wrote about in his Kansas City Star column today, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. There's more there than was in Vern's column.

Finding our common humanity: 9-14-10

This past difficult and charged weekend, when the nation was commemorating the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, beyond that, was all atwitter about threatened Qur'an burnings and such, my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City, did something sane.

We invited a Christian and some Muslims (who had just marked the end of Ramadan) to come to an adult education class and talk about their long friendship and why it matters.

Ed Chasteen (third from left in this photo), a wonderful soul who is founder of Hatebusters, brought with him (from left in this photo) Imam Yahya H. Furqan, a Muslim community prayer leader, Bassam Helwani, Syrian-born founder of Culturally Speaking, and Imam Taalib-ud-Din al-Ansare, (known as Al) a clinical pastoral educator and chaplain supervisor at Research Medical Center.

The idea was not to solve all the problems in Christian-Muslim relations or to unpack the mysteries of the Qur'an or for Muslims or Christians to try to convert one another. Rather, the idea was simply to listen as these old friends talked about the common values that they draw from their religious traditions.

As our associate pastor, Don Fisher, said at the end of the hour, this is a conversation that has just begun and will need to continue at some length if we're to build a friendship more fully.

But in the midst of lots of anti-Islamism rampant in the country, it was helpful for members of our congregation to spend some time with people with whom they share a common humanity, even if they pledge allegiance to a different religious tradition.

As Ed explained about his Muslim friends, "We go around and we hold conversations. We try not to make speeches. We talk among ourselves about our families, our friends, what we eat for lunch, where we go on vacation -- just ordinary things to show that friends can be friends across racial and religious lines."

Bassam added: "The accommodation and the welcoming that we immigrant Muslims feel from this society is overwhelming," contrary to a common perception drawn from news accounts of interreligious struggles. "Everything is open for discussion because nobody is born educated. We learn from each other."

"Our friendship is cherished," Yahya said. "We're all human beings. That's the common denominattor. . .We are one family. We are one human family. . .When a baby cries, a baby doesn't cry in English. A baby doesn't cry in Chinese. A baby doesn't cry in German. The baby's cry is as a human being."

"If we look around," Al said, "we find a great variety of folks in every group. And America is the foremost place for the acceptance of this. . .And in the diversity is where our beauty is."

It's hard to hate people when you get to know them first as human beings who share common hopes and dreams. I wish the violent extremists who claim to be following Islam and radicals from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and all other faiths could learn that lesson. A conversation on a Sunday morning at a church is a good place to start.

* * *


Ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to the United Kingdom, a Catholic official there says the British people are essentially ignorant about religion. What? Just because lots of people think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife?

* * *

P.S.: Do you know about Care of Poor People? Headed by a formerly homeless man, Richard G. Tripp, it has collected and distributed clothes, food and other necessities each year to help poor people in the Kansas City area make it through the winters. A phone-in conference call to plan this year's event is scheduled for this Sunday. Click here for a YouTube video in which Tripp explains it all and how you can participate. His special goal this year is to increase involvement of people of many faiths.

A German word for it: 9-13-10

I have been reading Stuart E. Eizenstat's 2004 book, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II, which somehow I wasn't aware of until recently.

Pope in hat

I met Eizenstat in 1976 in Jimmy Carter's Atlanta election headquarters when Stu was chief domestic policy adviser to Carter. Smart guy. Well, both of them are smart guys, though Stu turned out to be a better presidential aide for both Carter and Bill Clinton than Carter turned out to be a president.

Nonetheless, as part of his work in various Cabinet departments, Stu spent much of the 1990s working out agreements for Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France to make restitution for the ways their governments and their banks and other businesses mistreated Jews and looted Jewish property in World War II. I'll have more to say about this later this week.

But as I was reading along, I was struck by something Eizenstat wrote on page 241 of this book. It has given me an appropriate German term to use to describe what I've several times called Pope Benedict XVI's occasional tone-deafness when it comes to how others will understand and react to his words.

Stu talked about two German negotiators in the restitution talks and said one of them had far less capacity than the other "for what Germans call Fingerspitzengefuhl -- literally, feeling at the end of one's fingers and, figurateively, a sense of how another person perceives your words and actions."

Yes, yes, that's what B-16 (pictured here), a native of Germany, sometimes lacks -- Fingerspitzengefuhl.

The first example that comes to mind of this cluelessness about how others will take your words is his 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, that so angered many Muslims. But he's also ticked off Jews and Protestants needlessly simply because he (to say nothing of his speech or document writers, if any) lacked Fingerspitzengefuhl.

I want to be clear that all of us -- me included -- sometimes lack Fingerspitzengefuhl. Indeed, I no doubt displayed mine in my most recent column for the National Catholic Reporter when I accused (accurately) Americans of being incredibly ignorant about religious matters but failed to note that sometimes my own ignorance about religion appalls me. Someone I respect called me on it.

I'll now make sure he knows the German word for it and its appropriate use to describe both the pope and me, given that I'm half German -- unless by doing so I would display more lack of Fingerspitzengefuhl.

* * *


In the midst of Judaism's High Holy Days comes this moving plea to remove strict restrictions at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and let all Jews and others be free of hegemony by ultra-Orthodox Jews. It's a reminder that there is dispute and controversy within every religion, and how those disputes are resolved matters because the means of resolution can teach people either peacemaking or strife.

* * *

P.S.: If you missed Nicholas D. Kristof's excellent column about all the anti-Islam garbage going on in the U.S., read it here. It's exactly what needs to be said and what many of has been trying to say.

What we're called to do now: 9-11/12-10

BOSTON -- Some marrow-deep part of me dreads flying into or out of Logan Airport here, though within the last week or two I've done both.

This was, after all, the airport from which my nephew departed Sept. 11, 2001, on American flight 11, the first plane the 9/11 terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center (memorialized in lights in this illustration), murdering Karleton and ultimately nearly 3,000 other people that day.

And so as I walk through the halls of Logan (last Tuesday I was, by mistake, in Concourse E and then C before getting to B, from which I was departing), I wonder if Karleton walked this particular way.

It's impossible for me and my family not to think such things.

So for this, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, I ponder all those things, but my thinking is disturbed this year by all of the anti-Islamic prejudice I see growing in America -- from ridiculous people who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim to that strabismic publicity-hound pastor in Florida threatening -- and then changing his mind -- to burn the Qur'an this weekend.

Islam is not my religion. I am a Christian. But I find it astonishing that so many Americans seem to have fallen for the fear tactics of people who want to gain a following by demonizing Islam, particularly over the proposal by an Islamic group to build a community center near Ground Zero in New York. Near Ground Zero is exactly where it should be. For my reasons, read this recent blog entry

A few days ago, a friend who is a pastor sent me a note pleading for help in how to respond to an e-mail he had received in which Islam was simply cluster-bombed with one fear-mongering lie after another.

Here's what I told him -- and, in turn, what I now tell you to do when you hear or read anti-Islamism (and if that term reminds you of antisemitism and its horrors, good):

Please remove me from your list. I have no need to receive hate mail, which is exactly what this is. You may feel free to discuss Islam with me when you have:

1. Read everything at this Web link (from the Religion Newswriters Association) and thought about it in depth.

2. Read and thought about these books:

* Understanding Islam: An Introduction, by C.T. R. Hewer
* The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
* American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett
* Opening the Qur'an: Introducing Islam's Holy Book, by Walter H. Wagner

3. Become active with the
Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and have worked toward creating religious understanding among people of different faiths.

Until then, I expect to hear no more about this from you.

Well, that's what I told my pastor friend. And I know that if my Muslim friends hear anti-Christian garbage from other Muslims they would respond in a quite similar fashion. Our task is to be committed to our own religious tradition, if any, but as we do so to live in harmony with people who make other choices. It's not rocket science. We can do it. In honor of Karleton and all the others who perished on 9/11, let's try.

* * *


What a week. As we mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslims around the world are commemorating the end of Ramadan with their Eid celebrations and Jews are in the midst of their High Holy Days, having entered the new year 5771 on the Jewish calendar. If you are Christian and know no Muslims or Jews and what this time means to them, isn't it time you met some and found out?

* * *

P.S.: At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 21, two good people I know, a rabbi and a Presbyterian pastor, will hold a public conversation about peace, with special focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rabbi Alan Cohen and the Rev. Scott Myers, will hold the session at Whitfield Hall at Avila University, 119th and Wornall, in Kansas City. This will be their third public interfaith dialogue. Alan and Scott are both thoughtful people whose insights should be of value to everyone who attends.

* * *

ANOTHER P.S.: At 7 p.m. this Wednesday, there will be an educational forum in Kansas City about how health care reform will affect seniors and families with children. Come to Second Presbyterian Church, 318 E. 55th. For a pdf flier about this -- one you can share with others, click on this link: Download KCflierAug30[1].

Inviting folks to church: 9-10-10

Did you know that this Sunday is "National Back to Church Sunday" in America? Well, it's true.


So if you once attended church regularly but have become a serious backslider, the organizers of this movement are looking for you.

Inviting people to church is a traditional gesture in America -- or at least used to be -- and is a response to the obligation Christians feel to share their faith. So all that's good.

But I'm pretty sure that the decline in church membership, especially among Mainline denominations, has a lot more to do with factors other than not being invited to church.

Scholars have earned Ph.D. degrees analyzing this decline, and I don't have a simple compilation of all that work for you here, partly because I don't think it's a simple problem.

What I do know is that when people feel welcomed and valued, when they feel challenged and listened to, they are much more likely to stay active in a congregation than when they run into inhospitable walls and when they think nothing is demanded of them.

So, fine, invite people to church this Sunday if you're a Christian. But don't make it a one-shot effort. Work to make sure those you invite feel included for the weeks and months and years to come.

I'll be at two churches this Sunday. First, my own for adult education classes and worship, and then I'll be preaching at the 4:30 p.m. evensong service at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church at 67th and Nall. Come join us. In fact, come to both churches. I'm inviting you.

* * *


A new organization has been created to promote good interfaith relations. It's headed by Rich Cizik, a really thoughtful man who comes out of the Christian evangelical tradition. The group is called the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and it has issued this statement decrying the rising tide of anti-Islamic rhetoric in the U.S. Good. I hope this Muslim-slamming nonsense stops. Do people not see the parallels between this hatred and other kinds of ethnic and religious hatred, such as antisemitism and persecution of Christians in several parts of the world?

* * *

P.S.: The Kansas City lodge of B'nai B'rith has announced its 2011 Margolis Memorial essay contest for high school seniors. There's a $2,000 prize for the best essay about the importance of good relations between Christians and Jews. For a pdf announcing the contest, click on this link: Download 2011_Announcement. And for a pdf file containing the contest application form, click on this link: Download 2011_Application. Feel free to copy the pdf files and send them along to Kansas City-area high school seniors who might be interested.

Do weddings need clergy? 9-9-10

CHITTENDEN, Vt. -- The day broke in alluring sunshine and sharp, 50-ish air, and the wedding scheduled for 4:30 p.m. looked like a meteorologically brilliant call.

But by mid-afternoon the clouds lumbered in and, just before the ceremony, it began to rain -- enough so that the three musicians playing stringed instruments were forced to pack things away and abandon the outdoor venue in the field above the Mountain Top Inn & Resort here.

The rain soon cleared (though not without the gift of three separate rainbows) and we moved ahead with the outdoor ceremony, though not before I quietly wondered to myself how I had gotten myself into this. Here I was about to lead the ceremony in which I would pronounce Luke and Lindsey husband and wife after they promised to be faithful forever.

I am not clergy. Thus, I am not authorized to marry anyone. In Vermont, however, you can fill out official state forms and be designated as a "temporary officiant." And because Lindsey and Luke wanted this to be an all-family affair and because I'm part of Lindsey's extended family, I was asked to do the ceremony.

And I was honored and happy to do it, too. Heck, you can see in the photo here that I'm even smiling about it. And I had done this before once in Berkeley, where I became, for 24 hours, a "deputy civil marriage commissioner."

But what I wondered through this process is what couples who choose this non-clergy route are missing. And the thing I think they may be missing most is pre-marital counseling from a representative of a faith community.

This kind of counseling by a professional can be extraordinarily valuable, if couples choose to pay attention. It can identify areas of concern and give couples a theological setting in which to think about marriage.

As I worked with Lindsey and Luke to prepare the ceremony, I offered them various church sources to help shape the ceremony, and I think that contributed to what they thought was a lovely service. But we did that long distance, not in person. And I'm no counselor.

Luke and LIndsey are part of strong, knit-together, loving families and they wanted this service to be all about family. And it was. So even if the people attending weren't representing a loving faith community, the wedding still had that feel. And I asked people to stand and pledge their support for the couple.

The phenomenon of using non-clergy to marry people seems to be spreading. Heck, Luke even performed a wedding for a friend a couple of weeks before his own wedding. And the practice has a lot to recommend it. But I worry that removing clergy from this process removes too much.

My own preference would be for couples first to be married by the state and then, if they want to, go to their faith community to seek a blessing of their union. This would make everyone (including couples in same-sex marriages) equal under the law and would preserve the freedom of faith communities to decide whether to bless all or just some marriages.

Anyway, we got Lindsey and Luke married and I am confident that they are surrounded by so much family love that they will do very well together. Any couple that starts with a three-rainbow wedding is off on the right track.

* * *


The imam who is working to build that controversial Islamic community center near Ground Zero has written this excellent op-ed piece in The New York Times explaining why he's going ahead with the project despite opposition from some quarters. Good for him. I agree with him that this is exactly what we need near Ground Zero. For my reasons see this blog entry from last month.

* * *

P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column, "On 9/11, finding hope for Islam in America," now is online. To read it, click here.

Two church problems: 9-8-10

So we stayed with friends near Boston the other night. Both he and she are clergy, though they work in different churches.


The male -- I'll call him Tom (because I don't want him to get into trouble) -- and I were talking about church and the sometimes-difficult nature of congregations. He made two intriguing comments that have me thinking about how one might change what he faces.

First, he said, most of the people in his congregation think of themselves as members of the church and not as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Second, he says that in his congregation of several hundred people he can count the true lay leaders on one hand.

I think part of the problem is American in nature. That is, we see ourselves as individuals who are free to make choices among a huge variety of choices. We don't see ourselves (I'm generalizing here) as creatures who are -- or should be -- submissive to a power far beyond our own power even to imagine. We think of our churches, often, the way we think of the other organizations to which we belong. That is, they aren't all that different from, say, the Kiwanis Club or the Business Women's Professional Club.

And that may lead to the second problem Tom identified -- the one about lack of leaders. If we're elective members of churches, we don't necessarily feel called to be leaders. But if we understand ourselves to be members of the mystical Body of Christ, we Christians then know that we have spiritual gifts and an obligation to exercise them.

If you have thoughts about all this, I'd love to hear them -- either by e-mail from here on the blog or on Facebook, if you're a friend there.

* * *


Gen. David Petraeus has condemned plans by an American church to burn the Qur'an to commemorate 9/11. Well, it's the only thing any rational leader could do, but the sad thing is that he had to take his valuable time and give attention to the theological wingnuts who are planning this abhorrent action.

* * *

P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column, "On 9/11, finding hope for Islam in America," now is online. To read it, click here.