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A laugh interlude: 11-30-10

My word, people. We've been carrying on here in such seriousness for so long that some of you have forgotten how to laugh at life, including religion.

Laughingface So we're taking a humor break today.

New readers should know what long-time readers already know, which is that these jokes aren't original with me. If they were, they'd be funnier. I get them from several sources, including readers and

So here goes:

1. A child was watching his mother sift through and delete a long list of junk E-mail on the computer screen.
"This reminds me of the Lord's Prayer," the kid said.
"What do you mean?" the mother asked.
"You know. That part about 'deliver us from E-mail.'"

2. An elderly woman died. Having never married, she requested no male pallbearers. In her handwritten instructions she wrote, "They wouldn't take me out while I was alive, so I don't want them to take me out when I'm dead."

3. After the service a young couple talked to a church member about joining the church. He hadn't met the husband before, and he asked what church he was transferring from.

After a short hesitation, he replied, "I am transferring from the Municipal Golf Course."

4. A minister in Florida lamented that it was difficult to get his message across to his congregation. "It's so beautiful here in the winter," he said, "that heaven doesn't interest them. And it's so hot here in the summer that hell doesn't scare them."

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I missed this interview with Barack and Michelle Obama the other day. In it, the president said he prays and reads the Bible each day and that his prayer life has been important to him. For you people who against all the evidence still think Obama is a Muslim, notice that he doesn't say he prays five times a day. And it's the Bible he's reading, not the Qur'an (though it wouldn't hurt for Christians to read the Qur'an, too, but in company of someone qualified to interpret it well).

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P.S.: This past Friday here on the blog, I mentioned that 2011 will mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. Religion scholar Martin E. Marty has some thoughts about that subject in the latest of his "Sightings" columns.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column, "Prophetic preaching ain't beanbag," now is online. To read it, click here.

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ALSO: For your holiday giving, may I be so bold as to recommend three books:

* They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, by me and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. (All royalties go to Holocaust-related charities.)

*Elmwood Cemetery: Stories of Kansas City, by nearly two dozen authors, including me. This beautiful book reveals lots of KC history by telling stories of people buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

* A Gift of Meaning, by me. This is a collection of Kansas City Star columns in which I look at the world through my theological lenses.

Toward marital equality: 11-29-10

As my wife and I today celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary (we're kind of cute in this photo, eh?), I am thinking about close friends of ours -- a male gay couple -- who next month will celebrate being together longer than we've been married.

08-10-2008 08;34;25PM Marriage is a wonderful institution, and when I added up the total time I've been married I find it reaches to nearly 41 years, which is well over 60 percent of my life. My wish for my friends is that instead of simply celebrating being together as a couple, they could be celebrating a wedding anniversary, too.

Indeed, it is a violation of the idea of equal protection under the law that in Missouri, the state in which my wife and I live and our friends live, they cannot be married legally -- or have their union recognized by the state, whether it's called marriage or something else.

That is beginning to change in the U.S. as several states have made provisions for exactly that to take place. But it's not nationwide and thus many couples don't have access to both the privileges and responsibilities of marriage.

I understand that many people of faith believe such same-sex unions violate scriptural tenets. I don't buy that argument, and for the reasons you may look on the right side of this page under the "Check this out" headline to find a talk I've given on what the Bible says about homosexuality.

But my argument in favor of my friends being able to have a legally recognized union is not based on scripture or, indeed, much of anything to do with faith. It's based instead on a foundational principle of American civic life, which is that the Constitution guarantees everyone equal protection under the law. My friends are not, in fact, treated equally when it comes to their relationship. Rather, the law discriminates against them.

That's just wrong. And if you want to give my bride and me a nice anniversary present, you can join people who are doing what they can to fix that.

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As people look more deeply into the interviews with Pope Benedict XVI that constitute the new book, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and Signs of the Times, they are finding things more important (perhaps) and more fascinating than his brief comments about the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. For instance, as this Jerusalem Post story notes, Benedict proclaims his strong support for both Israel and Judaism. Particularly telling is the pope's nuanced and welcome understanding that the term "elder brother," used by Pope John Paul II (the best pope the Jews ever had) to describe Judaism's relationship to Christianity, is not popular with Jews because it points to the Jacob and Esau story in which Esau, the elder brother, is rejected. So Benedict has taken to calling Jews "fathers in the faith." Well said.

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P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column, "Prophetic preaching ain't beanbag," now is online. To read it, click here.

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ALSO: For your holiday giving, may I be so bold as to recommend three books:

* They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, by me and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. (All royalties go to Holocaust-related charities.)

*Elmwood Cemetery: Stories of Kansas City, by nearly two dozen authors, including me. This beautiful book reveals lots of KC history by telling stories of people buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

* A Gift of Meaning, by me. This is a collection of Kansas City Star columns in which I look at the world through my theological lenses.

A promise kept: 11-27/28-10


t's a great joy to be able to tell you that because many of you bought the 2009 book that I wrote with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, we have been able to make a donation of $1,456.78 to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

TWJP-cover-JPG That amount represents the royalties recently paid to us by the University of Missouri Press on the sale of nearly 2,000 copies of They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, from its publication in September 2009 through June 2010.

We pledged to give away all the royalties to Holocaust-related charities, and this year we've chosen to give it all to JFR, which helps provide financial support for needy non-Jews who helped to save Jews from the Holocaust.

Completing this book-writing project took more than four years and we continue to be grateful to those of you who donated to our research fund. If you didn't get a chance to do that, you can make a donation directly to JFR through the Web site to which I've linked you in the first paragraph here (tell JFR that Rabbi Jacques and I sent you) or you can buy copies of our book to give away as gifts this holiday season. Then next year we'll report to you again how much in the way of royalties we've earned and given away.

TWJP-checks The top photo here today shows Rabbi Jacques and me holding the (larger size) checks we received from the University of Missouri Press and also holding the checks each of us wrote to JFR from our personal accounts. A letter to JFR is on the desk in front of us. (If you zoom in on the Missouri Press check I'm holding you may notice that it's for just slightly more money than the Missouri Press check Jacques is holding. That's not because I deserved more money for They Were Just People or because I'm taller and cuter. Rather, the difference simply represents additional royalties I earned from Missouri Press for my 2001 book, A Gift of Meaning.)

When we were in the rabbi's office taking care of this check business, we chatted a bit about why we decided to give away all the royalties. To listen to this brief conversation, click on this link: Download JFR

It feels good to be able to support the good work of the JFR, and we're grateful to you for your support by purchasing the book. Don't stop now. If you click on the link to this book under my photo on the right corner of this page, you will find several ways for you to buy copies of the book.

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Once more, God becomes the heavy when someone commits a heinous crime and says he was doing God's work. This time it's actor Michael Brea, who says he hacked up his mother with a sword because God wanted it done. We obviously don't need us to defend God against such craziness, but it does make you wonder how God gets dragged into this stuff. Maybe some of the biblical stories about violence done at God's behest need to be explained afresh.

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ALSO: For your holiday giving, may I be so bold as to recommend three books:

* They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, by me and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. (All royalties go to Holocaust-related charities.)

*Elmwood Cemetery: Stories of Kansas City, by nearly two dozen authors, including me. This beautiful book reveals lots of KC history by telling stories of people buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

* A Gift of Meaning, by me. This is a collection of Kansas City Star columns in which I look at the world through my theological lenses.

Four decades of good change: 11-26-10

ast week I attended the Seventh Annual Dialog & Friendship Dinner sponsored by the Intstitute of Interfaith Dialog through its local affiliate, the Raindrop Turkish House. It was held at UMKC in cooperation with the university's Division of Diversity Access and Equity.

And I was struck by one of the good ways Kansas City has changed in my 40 years here.

When I first arrived in Kansas City in 1970 to start a reporting job for The Kansas City Star, large community dinners were quite different. They were attended mostly by middle-aged-and-up white males who pretty much ran things in the city. I know because I ended up covering quite a few of these affairs.

That was true whether it was the annual Harry S. Truman birthday luncheon or some civic dinner sponsored by, say, the Chamber of Commerce. Oh, here and there you might spot a few females and once in awhile one of the few prominent people of color might be in the audience.

But on the whole these were graying white male affairs -- because they're the ones who held power.

At this most recent interfaith dialogue dinner, however, the picture was remarkably different. There may have been more women than men present in Pierson Hall at UMKC. (Indeed, the emcee was a woman as was the keynoter.) There was a wide variety of races and ethnicities represented. And people of several different faiths were in attendance (yes, partly because that was the point of the dinner, but that diversity of faiths among leaders in the community is increasingly the reality in Kansas City).

What I saw at Pierson Hall last week is more and more the model for such dinners -- whether for fund-raising or informational purposes -- throughout the city. I'm not saying that we've reached the goal of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council of being the most welcoming city in America to people of all races and religious traditions. But seen over the distance of four decades, I can tell that we're making serious progress toward that goal and the more general goal of inclusiveness in our area's leadership.

And that's worth celebrating.

Indeed, the keynoter, Karen Fontenot, interim dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Southeastern Louisiana University, said that the one-on-one contact that happens at these kinds of dinners between people of different backgrounds does more than other approaches to make our society more open to all. In her 14-minute talk, you can hear here making that very point starting about second 58 on this digital recording of her remarks. Just click on this link to hear it: Download Fontenot

Sometimes folks on our coasts think all the attention to diversity is happening there and not here in the Heartland. Well, we have a ways to go still, but  I think folks from, say, Boston and Los Angeles would be surprised at how culturally diverse we already are here now.

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The King James Version of the Bible will turn 400 next year, and a big Bible publisher today is launching a Web site to celebrate. To read about that and get a link to the new site, click here. Some commemorative editions of the KJV are coming out, and I plan to review some of them and write much more about why the KJV was and is important in an entry early next year.

I give thanks, A-Z: 11-25-10

Earlier this month I gave a talk to a men's group at an Episcopal church, and my subject, in this Thanksgiving season, was gratitude.

Thanksgiving_dinnerSo I thought that for Thanksgiving Day I'd adapt that talk for you and give you my list of mostly faith-related things, from A to Z, for which I'm thankful this year. Here goes (but please understand that I was speaking as a Christian to other Christians):

I want to speak to you about gratitude. Along with humility, gratitude is the quintessential Christian virtue.

Why do I say that? Because we are saved by grace through faith. That means that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor or to merit an eternal relationship with God. Being saved by grace requires nothing before the gift of grace is given, but after the gift is given it requires everything of us.

It requires our minds, our hearts, our all, and the way we give all of that is through conscious, intentional and lived out gratitude.

Which means we should walk through each hour of each day saying thank you, thank you, thank you. Instead, as a Jewish prayer book I once read says, we often simply walk sightless among miracles.

I want to give you an alphabetical collection of some of the things — mostly related to faith — for which I’m grateful.

I hope it will trigger in you thoughts of those people, things and gifts that fill you with gratitude this Thanksgiving season. More than that, I hope it will move you to express your gratitude to the people who deserve to hear that you are thankful for them or something they have done.

So, because I tend to be fairly well organized, I will begin with the letter A.

A — I might have chosen to express gratitude for absolution, for Abraham or for acolytes, but instead I choose to express my gratitude for Advent, the upcoming season when we seek to prepare our hearts for God’s annual pilgrimage to humanity, to Bethlehem, to Mary’s womb, to human hearts. It’s not known just when Christians first celebrated Advent, though we do know that the Council of Tours in the year 567 mentioned the Advent season. At my church each Sunday in Advent we will be lighting the Advent candles of hope, of light, of joy and of peace and, finally, the Christ candle. And once again the Christ child will come helpless into my life, a God born in weakness who will ask of me strength I do not have but will gain from this helpless child. So thanks for Advent.

BittersweetB — For B I could have chosen the Bible among many other choices, but instead I choose to give thanks for Bethlehem, where the Bible says this Christ child was born. I have been to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and to the very spot in the grotto where tradition says the birth occurred. I do not know if this is where Jesus was really born. All I know is that Bethlehem, which suffers a great deal today in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is where the Bible tells us that silently, silently, the wondrous gift was given and that in Bethlehem the hopes and fears of all the years are met. And that’s enough for me.

C — The obvious choice for the letter c is Christ, but I’ll get to him under another letter and choose, instead, to express gratitude for the church — the wonderful, frustrating, indispensible, flawed, remarkable body of Christ on earth. I do not know sometimes why God puts up with the church but I know we are called to be the church. When I used to teach Sunday school to 6th and 7th graders I’d ask them to draw a picture of the church. Inevitably I’d get pictures of buildings. No, I’d say. That’s not the church. I kept rejecting their pictures until finally one of the kids drew a picture of people. Yes, yes, I’d say. That’s right. You and I are the church.

D — For D I could have chosen, say, David the king or Deborah the judge, but instead I elect to give thanks for Paul’s Damascus Road experience. One reason is that I’ve never had such a startling thing happen to me, although I once flew over Damascus. And yet I’m grateful that Paul was knocked to the ground. By the way, artistic renderings of this event inevitably show a horse, off of which he fell. But there’s no horse in the accounts of this in the Bible. There is, however, a changed heart. In this Damascus Road experience, by the way, Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity. There was no Christianity yet. There was simply the Jesus Movement within Judaism, and members of that movement believed that the Jewish Messiah had come. Even after Damascus Road, Paul always thought of himself as an observant Jew, and we get into all kinds of trouble when we imagine that he left Judaism and, worse, criticized it for not being Christian. He did nothing of the kind.

E — For E, I pass up Eastern Orthodoxy, ecumenism, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist and Epiphany in favor of Egypt, which I’ve had the opportunity to visit twice, visits separated by a mere 45 years. I am grateful for Egypt not just because it provided shelter for the Holy Family after Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents but also because today it is where faithful Coptic Christians are standing firm in their ancient faith against the oppressions of the police state that Hosni Mubarak operates there. Their courage gives me hope.

CornucopiaF — For F, I skip past Francis of Assisi and go straight to giving thanks for faith itself. The opposite of faith, as I hope you know, is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is false certitude, a problem that plagues all religions. In his new memoir, Hannah’s Child, theologian Stanley Hauerwas, whom some of you heard speak here in this very room earlier this year, says that when his first wife committed suicide after years of mental illness and many difficulties related to that, he asked himself this: “What possibly can be said about a life so lived?” And his answer was this: “. . .none of us should try to answer such questions. Our humanity demands that we ask them, but if we are wise we should then remain silent. . . .When Christianity is assumed to be an ‘answer’ that makes the world intelligible, it reflects an accommodated church committed to assuring Christians that the way things are is the way things have to be. Such ‘answers’ cannot help but turn Christianity into an explanation. For me, learning to be a Christian has meant learning to live without answers. . . .Faith is but a name for learning how to go on without knowing the answers.” I give thanks for such faith.

G — For G, I skip the angel Gabriel and express gratitude for God, whose meaning is never exhausted by any words. That’s one reason I’m grateful for and to God — precisely because my finite mind cannot grasp the infinite. This then relieves me of having to know all the answers. Thank God.

H — I suppose that for H you think I’m going to express gratitude for heaven, though a few of you smarty-pants guys may think I’ll pick hermeneutics or even the Holy Spirit. All good choices, but instead I give thanks today for the Himalayas, in the foothills of which I was privileged to live and go to school for a time as a boy in India. The grandeur of those mountains taught me to appreciate God as artist. And at the end of Stanley Elkin’s marvelously sacrilegious little book, The Living End, he has God explain to puzzled people at the end of the world that the reason they never understood life was that they did not grasp that it was all about art.

I — For I, I pass by India, as well as the wonderful description of God as I Am, plus icons and Israel and I go, instead, to what we’re about to celebrate in the Advent and Christmas seasons — the incarnation. I give thanks for the incarnation, the journey of God into human form, but I cannot do so without taking note of the risks the incarnation meant for God. As Donald Heinz writes in his new book Christmas: Festival of Incarnation, “The great idea that Christianity calls the Incarnation requires that God suffer the consequences of coming out in earthly context, from the crucifixion of Jesus to the unsteadiness of his followers.” It’s enough to make me want to ask God about the incarnation, “How’s that working out for you”? And yet without it, life would make no sense to me.

J — And, of course, for J I will skip by Jerusalem, Judaism, John the Baptist, Joseph and Julian of Norwich in favor of Jesus, to whom I owe my life and of whom Paul says to the Philippians this: “. . .who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.”

BittersweetK — For K I raise up the King James Version of the Bible, the version I read as a boy. I’m grateful for the KJV not because I think it’s the only good version or even, as some insist, the only authentic version. It’s not. Rather, I’m grateful for the KJV for its soaring use of language, its sheer poetry, which to me represents a celebration of words and, ultimately, of the word of God itself.

L — My basket is full when I get to the letter L, but I’m going to ignore such good choices as Lamentations, Luther, Lent and liturgy in favor of the Lord’s Prayer. In his latest book, The Greatest Prayer, John Dominic Crossan says that the Lord’s Prayer “is both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world. Better still, it is from the heart of Judaism through the mouth of Christianity to the conscience of the earth.” How much better can it get to help meet the needs of our divisive time and place?

M — I know that for M you expect me to pick (friends the audience knew whose names begin with M) but I’m passing over those choices as well as Thomas Merton and Moses in favor of Mary, and in so doing I am especially remembering how, a few years ago, I was invited to give the commencement address at St. Mary University in Leavenworth, only to have the invitation withdrawn after The Star published its series on AIDS in the priesthood — a series I did not write. By the time I was disinvited, however, I already had written the speech, which was not about AIDS or anything like that at all. Rather, it was a Protestant celebration of Mary, a name all of those graduates would take with them the rest of their lives. So because I couldn’t give the speech, The Star put it on the its Web site and the St. Mary faculty loved it enough to vote 47-0 with 1 abstention to criticize the administration for withdrawing my invitation. So, thanks, Mary, for giving me a chance to make some people think.

N — We’re down to the letter N, for which I could have chosen Nazareth, Noah or the several theologians named Niebuhr. Instead, I give thanks for the Nicene Creed, which crystallizes the heart of the Christian faith. But even as it does that it reminds me that sincere Christians can disagree with one another. For instance, I stand with my Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters in thinking that the Filioque, which is the phrase that says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, is misguided theology that makes the Holy Spirit somehow a second-class citizen in the Trinity. So every time the Nicene Creed is said in a worship service I attend, I am silent when it’s time to repeat the Filioque. Thank goodness for the freedom to hold such views without being booted out as a heretic.

O — For O, I give thanks for the oral tradition, which held together the wonderful stories of faith until someone thought it was time to write them down. The oral tradition, naturally, allowed each new teller of the story to be faithful to what was received but to cast the story in a new context so that the next generation could understand it, too.

CornucopiaP — The letter P presented me with a plethora of choices, starting with Peter and Paul and moving on to Palm Sunday, Pentecost, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Protestant Reformation. But, in the end, I choose tonight to give thanks for prayer. Prayer, after all, is the way in which we align our hearts and minds with God. We pray not because God wouldn’t know what to do next if we didn’t instruct God through our prayers. Rather, we pray because if we lose our connection with God we drift alone on perilous seas and we may not, from there, find our way home.

Q — My Q choice may surprise you. I give thanks for the Qur’an. Why? Not because I’m a Muslim. Obviously I’m not — and neither, by the way, is Barack Obama. Indeed, I find the Qur’an a difficult read and, in English, repetitious. But I’m glad that Islam, like Christianity, values sacred text, holding it in high regard. It allows for a deeper appreciation of each other’s tradition to know that Muslims love the Qur’an in much the same way that we Christians love the Bible. Speaking of the Qur’an, as the Advent season approaches, read the story there of Mary and the birth of Jesus. Jesus and Mary in the Qur’an? Oh, indeed. Jesus, in fact, is Islam’s second most important prophet, though Islam’s understanding of Jesus is quite different from Christianity’s understanding.

R — When it comes to the letter R, I’m grateful for my co-author and friend Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, for rain and for the Reformed Tradition. But tonight I give thanks for ritual. Ritual helps us understand what is important in our faith and allows us to celebrate that in ways that can and often do move our hearts. When I was much younger and allegedly wiser, I dismissed most rituals as meaningless motions, empty of both substance and sense. But I’ve come to understand that we cannot be fully human without ritualizing some important aspects of our lives. And who does ritual better than the church?

S — Despite many candidates for the letter S, I have chosen to express gratitude for the Sh’ma, that most central and famous of Jewish prayers that affirms that the Lord is one. One can make a good case that one of Judaism’s gifts to the world was monotheism, and that monotheism is captured eloquently in the Sh’ma, which asks Israel to hear. To hear what? To hear that the Lord is one.

BittersweetT — OK, we’re moving toward the final letters. For T, I could have picked the Ten Commandments or just theologians, who help us understand God, though I’m also reminded of what the old French philosopher Denis Diderot once said about theologians. “I have only one small candle to guide me in the midst of a thick forest,” he said. “Up comes a theologian and blows it out.” So instead I give thanks for the Trinity, our triune God. And not just for the Trinitarian God but also for the concept of the Trinity. It forces Christians to exercise their minds, to articulate an idea that at times defies articulation in a way that all can understand. In the end, the Trinity should make us humble just because it is mysterious.

U — For the letter U I pick our country, the United States because of its cherished commitment to religious freedom. We began settling this land with people who wanted essentially a theocracy but by the time the Constitution was written there was so much religious diversity here (meaning, mostly, many ways of being Christian) that our Founding Fathers were wise enough to build religious liberty into the Constitution. It’s a great gift.

V — For V I give thanks for Vatican II, the council that altered the Catholic Church in many ways and, more importantly, gave hope to Catholics and others that people of faith can somehow not shrink from the challenges of modernity. Indeed, now we are in what’s called the post-modern world, and as Stanley Hauerwas and others argue, it liberates the church to be the church, which means that that we need no longer accommodate ourselves to the established order. Good. The established order often needs to be critiqued and challenged. And that’s what the post-Constantinian church can do and should do.

W — For W, I’ll pass over John Wesley and give thanks for the Wycliffe Bible translators, who have helped spread the gospel to the far corners of the world. There are more than 6,900 languages and dialects spoken in the world, and Wycliffe reports that speakers of more than 2,000 languages still have no access to the Bible in their language. So the work goes on.

X — For X, I give thanks for Xavier, meaning St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuits. As you know, the Jesuits have been the educational, scholarly branch of Catholicism, responsible for such institutions as Rockhurst University in Kansas City. They have raised high the banner of education that we Presbyterians, among Protestants, have held as so vital.

CornucopiaY — Two more. For Y, I give thanks to the YMCA and the YWCA, which have provided many important services to Christians and others over the decades. Indeed, there’s a YMCA camp in Estes Park, Colo., to which a whole bunch of folks from my congregation go each year for retreat and fellowship. And they return to us renewed and challenged and ready to rock.

Z — Finally, I give thanks for Ulrich Zwingli, the 16th Century reformer. He helped to shape Protestantism even though for my money he got some things wrong. My favorite Zwingli story is this: In 1529, the leading Protestant reformers gathered at Marburg to try to settle some of the differences among them so they could work together in this new movement. Zwingli was there, along with Luther and others. They agreed on more than a dozen points but, in the end, they could not come together on the meaning of the Eucharist. Zwingli argued that it was just a memorial and that the bread and wine only symbolized the body of Christ. Luther drew a circle on the table and inside that circle he wrote the words, “Hoc Est Corpus Meum,” “This is my body.” But, Zwingli argued, Jesus didn’t speak Latin. He spoke Aramaic and that in Aramaic there was no verb in that phrase. It was, he said, simply, “This, my body.” Luther ended the argument by saying he’d rather drink blood with the papists than mere wine with the Zwinglians, so even today in Protestantism we have Zwinglians who, in the Eucharist, are memorialists and we have people like us Presbyterians who are “real presence” people. It’s been a wonderful argument and it wouldn’t have been possible without Zwingli.

What's your A-Z gratitude list for today?

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What's your picture of the Puritans? A stuffy old bunch of rigid religionists? Well, this op-ed piece by a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, suggests you might want to rethink that. It's a good reminder that stereotypes, though they may contain a grain of truth, are nearly always distorted versions of reality.

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P.S.: If you want to read a pdf file of President Obama's Thanksgiving Day proclamation, click on this link: Download Thanksgiving_Proclamation

New faith-based rules: 11-24-10

I want to catch up on some news that broke last week -- and that didn't get much attention. In fact, it got zero from me because I was up to my ears in other things.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order clarifying some of the rules for the ways faith-based and neighborhood organizations receive funds overseen by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

OBAMA On the whole, this seems to be progress toward making sure that what former President George W. Bush began as his "faith-based initiative" doesn't cross constitutionally forbidden church-state lines. As the story to which I've linked you in the previous paragraph reports, however, there still are critics of the way things are done. And the White House would do well to review those criticisms to see what additional changes might be called for.

At the same time, I was intrigued to read that for the most part Jewish groups were pleased with the Obama changes. As a minority faith in the U.S., they perhaps might be more worried than Christians about whether money going to faith-based groups is being handled fairly (and constitutionally).

One of the more important changes to be implemented under Obama's executive order is that beneficiaries of federally funded services provided by faith-based groups must be told that there are non-faith-based alternatives. Seems right and fair. If you want to read all the changes, click here.

I'm all in favor of faith-based groups being part of the solution when it comes to necessary social services, but I always worried that the system Bush set up was in danger of running afoul of the Constitution -- and sometimes crossed the line. It did not surprise me, as it seemed to others, that Obama wanted to continue the program. But I'm not yet sure it contains all the necessary safeguards to prevent tax money from supporting one or another religion. So let's keep an eye on further changes in the program, especially as they relate to possibly discriminatory hiring practices of agencies receiving funds.

(I was interested in the fact that after I wrote this posting but before it was published here, The New York Times published this editorial making some of the same points I just made. Great minds. . .)

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?PopeBenedictXVI Well, despite lots of confusion in the media (no doubt reflecting confusion among some in the Catholic Church), I think I was right here yesterday when I suggested that the pope's recent remarks about condom use didn't change much. By my reading the Associated Press got it wrong when it said in the story to which I'm linking you in this sentence that a new clarification from the Vatican itself represents a "seismic shift in papal teaching." No it doesn't. As I understand the pope, he was simply saying that if someone is using a condom because he thinks it may protect the person with whom he's having sex, that may be an indication of a welcome moral awakening in the person who puts on a condom. The pope still is against condom use, but his position is a bit more nuanced and, well, thoughtful than some have imagined it to be. To be sure, the original statement in a new book that started all this controversy was just the pope talking to a journalist, after which the pontiff's spokesman tried to clear up what he meant. It was not an encyclical or anything close to an infallible teaching issued "ex cathedra," as Catholics say. Still, it does seem to tell people that the pope thinks condom use in some cases may be an indication that someone is "taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship." And the pope clearly views that "consideration" as either a moral good or at least the signs of an awakening toward such a moral good. In tone at least this is different from the pope's previous statements that condom use makes the AIDS crisis worse. But if I can put myself inside the pope's mind for a minute -- always a risky and even arrogant thing to do -- I might suggest that he would continue to ask people to think about the highest meaning of sexual relations and whether the facile use of condoms is an expression of the trivialization of sex. And I think he'd be right to ask exactly that question. All clear now? By the way, just after I wrote this I found this NPR story quoting the Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press, which just published the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, in which the pope made his condoms comment. And Father Fessio and I seem to agree. Give a listen to that interview.

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P.S.: Jewish cantors singing in a Catholic Church in Rome? Indeed. A nice story of interfaith sharing.

Protecting religious liberty: 11-23-10

When the U.S. State Department issued its annual Report on International Religious Freedom last week, I alerted you to it here but said I needed some time to digest it.

IRF_Reportcover So today I want to draw a few conclusions from it and highlight some things in it.

First, all of us should be grateful that our government produces this annual report, just as we should be grateful that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom produces its annual reports. What it says to the world is that the American government cares about and stands up for foundational human rights and that those rights include religious liberty.

These reports are not aimed at getting every country to model itself after the U.S. in the way we handle church-and-state issues or the way we guarantee religious freedom. Rather, they are a way of pointing out failures of some nations to protect human rights. Yes, it would be fair for agencies of other governments to critique religious liberty in the U.S., and, indeed, that might be hoped for as an eventual outcome because it would mean that other countries are as serious about this as we are. And it's not as if there's nothing to criticize here.

As to this new State Department report itself, it properly highlighted what are called "Countries of Particular Concern," meaning those nations where abuse of religious freedom is most egregious. I find it disheartening that year after year many of the same countries appear on this list (yes, I'm talking about you, Saudi Arabia) and that the list never seems to shrink toward nothing.

I also find this 2010 report disheartening in the way it describes for country after country how the basic laws and constitutions of the countries commit those nations to religious freedom but that such a commitment isn't lived up to.

The wording you find at the beginning of the section on Egypt is typical of this: "The constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites, although the government places restrictions on these rights in practice."

If you read the section on "Israel and the Occupied Territories" you will get a sense of how much time and energy goes into monitoring religious freedom issues. On the whole, I think this is time well spent.

If nations can't protect freedom of religion for their citizens, I'm not sure what they can protect, save perhaps their own leaders' future in office -- and ultimately that won't be worth it to anyone.

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Pope Benedict's recent comments about a possibly acceptable case of condom use (I wrote about that here yesterday) have caused many people, especially in Europe, to get overly excited about what it might mean. This report captures some of that. Settle down, folks. I can't see that much of anything has changed -- certainly not official church teaching.

Congregants in pain: 11-22-10

A few years ago I spoke to a gathering of Presbyterians in my region about ways the church can find its future by ministering to people right in the middle of their pain -- whether that pain is from divorce, unemployment, illness or any of countless other causes.

Orthodox (2)

This, of course, raises the question of whether anyone knows how many people in congregations are in this kind of pain.

A startling answer has just come from a study commissioned by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. In a study called "The Orthorox Family in America at Home and in Church," the archdiocese's "Center for Family Care" found that 52.5 percent of parishioners report having “tremendous” or “above average” stress levels over the past year.

What caused this alarming level of stress?

Here's what the study found:
* Abuse in the family (66.7 percent of those reporting tremendous stress)
* Separation or divorce (63.6 percent of those reporting tremendous stress)
* Severe financial problems (61.2 percent of those reporting tremendous stress)
* Raising a child in the absence of a spouse (60.6 percent of those reporting
tremendous stress)
* Serious marital conflict (52.9 percent of those reporting tremendous stress)

I have no way of knowing, but I can't imagine that Orthodox families somehow are remarkably different in terms of being under stress and in pain than members of any other faith community. A possible exception might be Muslims in America, who could be expected to be under even more stress because of the distressing level of Islamophobia in this country.

The point, however, is that if faith communities want to be channels of grace and love and support, they need to start by doing what the Greek Orthodox have done, which is to identify the many ways in which people are in pain. Then they need to devise ministries that respond directly to such pain.

One example I used when speaking to my fellow Presbyterians about this is that in 1968 I was married in a church, surrounded by family and friends. But when that marriage ended nearly 27 years later, the church had no liturgy prepared for the end of a marriage, one that would have blessed my pain and helped to prepare me for what lay ahead.

And yet the Greek Orthodox study found that nearly 64 percent of people who reported being under tremendous stress attributed it to divorce.

Faith communities have a lot of work to do to prepare to help people in pain heal. It's time to get on with the task.

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Pope in hat Perhaps you saw the news over the weekend that Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in a new book, indicated that condoms might be an acceptable tool in a limited number of cases for "reducing the risk of infection." It appears that he means no more than condom use by male prostitutes. As someone quotes in this analysis of the pontiff's remarks said, this is not any major change in church policy against condom use. But what the pope has done in raising the possibility of condom use in rare circumstances is to set loose the debate again about church teaching, birth control, AIDS ministry and all the rest. Critics of the church will inevitably use this opening to slam the Vatican again, while Catholics will feel put on the defensive. As a Protestant, I view the Catholic Church's stance against the use of condoms to help control the AIDS pandemic as an example of a laudable desire for the perfect driving out the available good. By the way, here's an interesting account of the ways in which the Catholic Church has dealt with condoms and birth control. To read a fuller account of what the pope said -- an account with more context than provided by most news stories -- click here. And in his remarks, you'll find him making this quite sensible point: ". . .the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves."

Relearning Ten Commandments: 11-20/21-10

For all the attention paid to the Ten Commandments, the reality is that not many people can recite all 10 of them and, worse, few people have ever really studied them to understand their broader meaning and how that meaning might make life different.TenCommandments

In some ways, the Ten Commandments have suffered the same fate as the Bible itself -- honored, revered, but seldom read with much depth of understanding.

In his new book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern LIfe, author and journalist David Hazony seeks to unpack the meaning of these ancient words and help readers apply them to their lives. And he succeeds.

Indeed, this is an excellent read, useful not just for individuals but also for study groups in Jewish, Christian or even Islamic congregations.

Hazony, who lives and writes from Israel, doesn't hesitate to raise all kinds of questions about the Ten Commandments. Indeed, he says that "despite the fact that they originally appear within a religious context and are treated as sacred by a great many religious people, the Ten Commandments are not really a 'religious' text at all -- at least not the way we normally use the term. While the Ten Commandments may serve to deepen and enrich our faith, we do not need faith to think about them, understand them, or accept their teachings as true."

What a proper understanding and adoption of the Ten Commandments can do for us, Hazony says, is to help us create what he calls a "redemptive society," which means many things, including "fostering a sense of responsibility toward those around us -- our families, our communities, our nations."

I found it intriguing to learn that the Hebrew text calls these the "aseret hadevarim," meaning the "Ten Utterances." Hazony says that these "ten statements constitute the core of everything, the essence of the covenant between God and Israel."10Commandments

One of the problems, so to speak, with the Ten Commandments is that they look so simple and brief. But Hazony correctly points out that "there is a world of meaning in the Ten Commandments, an ocean of intention locked in its few verses." It's why we need to understand the context in which they first were written down and the many layers of meaning toward which they point. That's what Hazony helps us with in this book.

Understood in this broader way, the Ten Commandments can be seen "not just as a basis for righteousness but also as the cornerstone of a good society," he says. "The Ten Commandments should be looked at as an engine that continues to drive the West at its deepest levels, a key to understanding who all of us are, and why we have acquired many of our most basic beliefs about society, nationhood, and our place in the world."

What gives the Ten Commandments their power, Hazony writes, is not their "impossibly high standards" but, rather, "the insistance that real human beings, with all their faults and failings, can improve themselves and the world around them." Thus, the Ten Commandments become a vital tool in the obligation Jews say they have, the obligation of "tikkun olam," which asks people to "repair the world."

What especially appeals to me about Hazony's book is his recognition (often missing in people who argue in favor to sticking replicas of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns) that "real life is complex and long, and entails no small measure of suffering, failure, and the daily struggle of health, financial stability, raising children, building our communities, and personal growth. This is a struggle to be embraced, not avoided. . ." 

Just a heads-up for Christian readers of this book. Versification varies in different translations of the Bible. Most Christians would say that the first commandment is that we should have no other gods before God. (See the site to which I've linked you in the first paragraph above.) But Hazony, drawing on the Hebrew text of Exodus 20:2-14, identifies the first commandment as, "I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves."

Still, he covers all the commandments, no matter how our numbering of them may differ. Maybe all of that is just one more example that, as he says, "real life is complex and long."

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The pope has been meeting with cardinals to talk about lots of issues, including the scandal of priests sexually abusing children. Good. To protect children, it's important to keep this matter in the public eye and especially for Catholics to press their priests, bishops and cardinals on what they're doing to protect children. Maybe it would be a good idea if journalists who cover the regions from which each cardinal attending this gathering hails to make it a point to talk on the record with those cardinals when they get back home. We know that silence merely leads to more trouble.

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What? A book corner on a posting when the main item is about a book? Well, yes, but I just wanted to remind you of a lovely little seasonal book that I first wrote about two years ago in this post. It's called, simply, Thanksgiving, by Glenn Alan Cheney. And it's a moving account of the Pilgrim's arrival and struggle for survival. It removes a lot of the silly warm-and-fuzzy tradition that has grown up around that history and gives it to us with all its warts.

Americans' true religion: 11-19-10

No doubt some of you saw Joyce Smith's page 1 Kansas City Star story earlier this week about how holiday shopping is starting earlier and earlier.


It was a necessary story to do in the sense that readers want to stay current on developing trends, and Joyce is good at keeping them up to speed in the retail area.

But as a person of faith, I found myself profoundly saddened at the growing evidence contained in the story that the primary religion held by Americans is no longer Christianity but, rather, consumerism.

I've just read Donald Heinz excellent new book, Christimas: Festival of Incarnation (I reviewed it here), in which he makes this very point this way:

"Christmas (has become) the civil religion of consumer capitalism. Of the approximately two hundred countries in the world today, one hundred and fifty observe December 25 as a legal holiday, a materialist sacrament everyone wants a piece of.

"Consumer capitalism's success is not an accidental, serendipitious, unplanned circumstance. Its status as the leading worldview comes from the apparent success of its claims. The argument that the truest significance of human culture, including Christmas, is the accumulation of material goods has caught on. Consumerism is the modern way of life. . . .Once consumption was what one did in secular life, or part of what constituted holiday; now it has swallowed holy day whole."

Naturally, we Christians are complicit in this triumph of spiritually empty consumerism. We have allowed gift-giving, modeled after the Magi's giving to the Christ child in the biblical narrative, to run amok. Though perhaps we couldn't control that. Perhaps gift-giving set loose profit-motive powers that no one could have controlled.

But the result is that what Christmas means for so many Americans today, including American Christians, is a season of shopping, unrelated to the startling idea that God became incarnate as a human being, which is really the story of Christmas. We've thereby lost something eternal and profound, and I don't know whether we can retrieve it for all of us or whether retrieval will have to remain an individual-by-individual or family-by-family matter.

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It's estimated that there are nearly 7,000 languages and/or dialects in the world, and the Wycliffe Bible Translators group says there still is no Bible translation for some 2,000 of them. Wycliffe now has raised about $250 million toward its $1 billion goal to pay for those translations, this story reports. I hope along with the translations there will be educated people who can help readers grasp what they're reading. To read any sacred text of any religion detached from context usually leads to misunderstanding and even disaster.

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The C.S. Lewis Bible. Fans of Lewis -- and they are legion -- will be delighted with this new Bible, which uses the widely admired New Revised Standard Version translation. It draws on the many books and other writings of this great Christian author and offers selected passages at appropriate places along with the biblical text. Indeed, editors have spent much time to compile more than 600 Lewis readings that appear alongside biblical passages as a way of helping to illuminate scripture. You'll find excerpts from Lewis' fiction as well as such widely known nonfiction words as A Grief Observed and his classic, Mere Christianity. This Oxford and Cambridge man gave the world a remarkable legacy of thoughtful theology, though he himself would have declined the term theologian. It's good to read the Bible with Jack Lewis at one's side giving running commentary. This is a wise project, well conceived and well executed.

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P.S.: In the State Department's newly released 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, Israel took some criticism. I want some time to digest the report, which, along with the annual reports of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I consider important. So my plan is to return to this subject next week. But I've linked you to the whole report if you want to read it now.