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Generations of Bible study: 12-31-10

I don't know who Russell Laycock was, but I have his Bible (pictured here).

Laycock-Bible A family member gave it to me for Christmas. Inside the worn black leather cover there's a pasted-in note that says, "Presented by The First Presbyterian Church of Racine, Wis., to Russell Laycock, June 13th, 1909." Is there still such a church? It appears so, given this Web page.

People in my family know I collect Bibles -- not necessarily rare and expensive ones but, rather, different translations and ones that are simply intriguing. So when one of our kids was in Denver earlier this year, he bought it from some kind of clear-out sales table at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral there. And I unwrapped it for Christmas.

How the Bible made it from Racine to Denver is a mystery to me, but one I may try to unpack as I have time in the weeks ahead. In fact, I asked the pastor of the Racine church, Ben Johnston-Krase, about this and just received this answer today: "There are no Laycocks left at First Presbyterian Church that I know of, and there haven't been any for at least the past thirty years or so. Sorry to not be able to make an interesting story more interesting!"

What I do know about this old King James Version is that someone -- perhaps Russell Laycock himself -- studied it diligently.

How do I know? There are all kinds of notes in the margins of the pages. Indeed, I could be wrong, but it appears that the note maker, in the book of Genesis, was seeking to identify passages that Bible scholars attribute to different sources. I find the letter J here and there in the margin, and that may well be a sign that the reader thought that passage can be traced to the Yahwist tradition, which scholars label "J" after the German transliteration of the name for God, YHWS.

There also are E and P traditions in Genesis and the margin notes indicate that the reader, perhaps 100 years ago, was aware of all that.

My point in bringing any of this to your attention is simply to say that sacred writ continues to engage us generation after generation and that each generation must struggle to find meaning for its time and place in what has been handed down to it.

Somehow I find it encouraging to know that 100 years ago people were struggling to understand the same Bible that engages the hearts and minds of so many of us still today.

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I'm sure, sort of, that polls mean something, but often I have trouble figuring out what they're trying to tell us. Just this week, for instance, the Gallup folks released results of a poll showing that about 70 percent of Americans think religion is losing its influence in the country. Wonder what "losing its influence" means to people. Wonder if they think that's a good thing or a bad thing. Wonder what influence they think religion should have. Wonder if half those polled disagree with the other half even when they gave the same answers. Does this poll point us toward the reality that we're entering the post-Christian age in America? Maybe. If so, it's probably right. But who knows?

A call to mindfulness: 12-30-10

Each night as we head for sleep, my wife and I say together, as a prayer, a couple of lines from the ancient service of compline, an evening devotional used by both Episcopalians and Catholics. (You can find the Episcopal version, along with the whole Book of Common Prayer, here.) The lines we use go:

Watch-with-me "Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace."

It's a lovely, rhythmic way to end the day. But almost each time I say the phrase, "watch with Christ" I puzzle over it. For what am I watching? And why does Christ need my help watching? Should I watch for something different tonight than I did last night?

At least partial answers to my questions have come in a tiny (50-page) 2003 book given to me recently by someone with Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, on the board of which I serve. It's called Watch With Me, by Cicely Saunders, who helped to create the modern hospice movement and who created St. Christopher's Hospice in south London in 1967.

In her book, Saunders says she has tried to sum up the work of hospice "in the words 'Watch with me.' Our most important foundation for St. Christopher's is the hope that in watching we should learn not only how to free patients from pain and distress, how to understand them and never let them down, but also how to be silent, how to listen and how just to be there. As we learn this we also learn the real work is not ours at all. We are building for so much more than ourselves. I think if we try to remember this we will see that the work is truly to the greater glory of God."

Later, Saunders notes that the "Watch with me" phrase is one Jesus spoke to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his death. She writes:

"When first uttered by Jesus it could not have meant 'take away,' 'explain' or even 'understand.' Its simple but costly demand was plainly no more than just 'be there.'"

In some ways, Saunders is asking all of us to follow the advice of our Buddhist friends and, as they say, "be mindful." Which to me simply means paying attention to what is around us. I've quoted previously a Jewish prayer book that says we walk sightless among miracles. The call to "watch with me" is to notice these miracles and, of course, then give thanks for them.

(By the way, there's a lovely Taize song I love that expresses the "watch with me" sentiment. Listen to it here.)

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Bible scholars in England have discovered that a Greek text of the Hebrew Scriptures was in use for much longer than anyone previously thought. These old texts helped to shape whole civilizations, and knowing their history allows us to know much more about how faith formation happened then -- as well as now.

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Jesus-Man-Myth Jesus: Man, Not Myth, a novel by Peter D. Snow. I don't normally review or comment on fiction here in the Book Corner, but I thought this effort by an Episcopal priest worth your attention. As the author rightly notes, the four gospels provide just about all we know of Jesus of Nazareth. Still, the Christian church historically has said that the gospels are revelation enough. But our curious human minds inevitably want to fill in the blanks that the gospels leave. And in some sense that's what Snow seeks to do here by drawing on the main outlines of the gospels but then making up the rest of the Jesus story, dialogue and all. It's a sincere and interesting effort, though I think the Jesus he imagines is more iconoclastic, with a more intentional agenda about undermining the Judaism (really, Judaisms) of his day than the Jesus we find in the gospels. The latter Jesus seems to me more of a reformer, a voice seeking to call people back to ancient traditions and truths than one wanting to "destroy the Temple," as Snow's Jesus says -- destroy it and all it symbolizes. Still, that's the freedom of fiction. And perhaps in Snow's work you can meet a Jesus who becomes more understandable to you than the one you've thought you've always known.

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P.S.: My latest column for The National Catholic Reporter now is online. To read "Hope: Demanding the divine words," click here.

A biblical take on environment: 12-29-10

n Monday of this week here on the blog, I wrote about the question of who Christians who identify themselves as evangelicals are.

In that piece, I mentioned that in recent years many such people have shown a deeper interest in social justice issues, including environmentalism. (And Glenn Beck can scream all he wants about "social justice" issues being satanic and the more he screams about that the more foolish he looks.)

Today I want to expand that thought about renewed environmental sensibilities beyond evangelicals to all Christians as well as to people of other faiths as I link you to this interesting NPR report about what the Bible might have to say about climate change.

One of the knocks on some people of faith is that they're so focused on heaven that they're no earthly good, meaning they really don't give much thought to preserving the environment because, in the end, the world will end (maybe soon) and so who will care?

This kind of theology not only is unbiblical, it's foolish. But I think it's held by fewer and fewer people. Most sane people of faith understand their responsibility to the planet, even if they aren't sure what to do about it and even if they barely recognize that they themselves are, along with the rest of us, complicit in systems that are wounding the planet in countless ways.

At any rate, give a listen to the 22-minute NPR piece to which I've linked you today and let me know if you learned anything new in it.

(The rainbow photo here today is one I took at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico where I teach each summer. For my class this coming July, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

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Muslim women in America are not just making a name for themselves, they're turning into leaders in many respects, this New York Times article points out. It focuses on Atlanta, but there are examples everywhere, including here in Kansas City, where one of the obvious Muslim women leaders is Mahnaz Shabbir. Do you know female Muslim leaders where you live? If not, why not?

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P.S.: My latest column for The National Catholic Reporter now is online. To read "Hope: Demanding the divine words," click here.

Saving Holocaust names: 12-28-10

As you know, some people deny that some six million Jews died in the Holocaust at the direction of Hitler's Nazi German government and its "Final Solution" operation.

YadVashem This denial position is, of course, completely untenable in any historical sense. Even the Germans acknowledge the scope and horror of this genocide.

Nonetheless, it doesn't hurt to continue to build the person-by-person record of what happened. Which is one of the things being done by Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust memorial authority in Israel.

The agency announced last week that it now has identified the names of four million of the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah.

Here is what Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, said about this:

“In the past decade (2001-2010) we have succeeded in adding about 1.5 million victims' names to the Names Database, increasing by some 60% the information we had. The Germans sought not only to destroy the Jews, but to obliterate any memory of them. One of Yad Vashem's central missions since its foundation, the recovery of each and every victim's name and personal story, has resulted in relentless efforts to restore the names and identities of as many of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices as possible. We will continue our efforts to recover the unknown names, and by harnessing technology in the service of memory, we are able to share their names with the world.”

All of us should be grateful that this work is proceeding. The loss of memory, of history -- especially this history -- would be unconscionable.

It's one reason I was glad and honored to be able to preserve some of the memories of Holocaust survivors and the non-Jews who helped to save them in my 2009 book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-authored with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn.

Details matter. Facts matter. They stand as a strong defense against the destructive nonsense of Holocaust denial.

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A Hindu leader is praising Pope Benedict XVI for showing compassion for the poor. Excellent. What a difference it would make if people of all faiths looked for examples to praise in traditions different from their own. What do you find most beautiful in a religion that is not your own?

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MonteCristo The Isle of Monte Cristo: Finding the Inner Treasure, by S. T. Georgiou, the third of a trilogy that includes The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax, and Mystic Street: Meditations on a Spiritual Path. Some years ago, a somewhat lost and dejected spiritual seeker named Steve Georgiou found his way to the famed Greek island of Patmos, where John wrote the last book of the New Testament, the book of Revelation. Georgiou had a chance meeting with the great hermit and thinker Robert Lax (1915-2000) -- someone whom Thomas Merton, perhaps the most famous American monk of the 20th Century, considered much wiser and more spiritual than Merton himself. Lax became a mentor for Georgiou, and the eventual result -- besides Georgiou finding faith again and devoting himself to seminary teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area -- was these three books. You may, of course, want to read them sequentially, starting with Dreamcatcher, which has just been reissued with a new introduction. But, in fact, you can start anywhere and you will be rewarded with insight brought via good writing. This is about the inner journey that finally leads us to see not just what is essential and resident within us but also what we're missing that needs to be supplied by God. The middle book, Mystic Street, focuses on Georgiou's time back at school. This final book gathers together some of the early strands from the first and second book and moves readers up the mountain toward revelation. It's a jouney worth taking, especially with the guidance of someone like Georgiou, who knows what's important and what isn't.

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P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook, "Retrofitting for ministry," now is online. To read it click here.

Who are the evangelicals? 12-27-10

Perhaps this Christmas season is a good time to give some serious thought to the current state of a big and important section of Christianity -- variously called evangelical or conservative. It's a collection of people and groups that cuts across many boundaries of denominations and other identifiers.

Bible_cross Are the evangelical and conservative labels broad enough to include people who identify themselves as fundamentalists or Pentecostal? Maybe, maybe not. And that's part of the reason that we all need to be terribly careful when tossing labels -- especially religious or political labels -- on people or groups.

Labels hide much more than they reveal.

Still, when people self-identify as evangelical, it's worth finding out who they are, what they believe, why they matter and on and on.

A recent attempt to do just that is this longish but fascinating piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I think that one of the things the author, Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, gets right is the recognition that the evangelical umbrella is quite large. In political terms, this is a big-tent party.

As Beal writes, ". . .as soon as evangelicalism becomes a subject, it splinters and splits."

Something else he correctly identifies is the sometimes-easy adaptation to -- and puzzling use of -- high-tech media by people who in many other ways resist new ideas.

I found this paragraph from Beal's piece particularly telling:

"A hallmark of American evangelicalism, at least since the 1940s, has been its ready willingness to adapt its theological content to new media technologies and popular trends in the entertainment industry. Implicit in that openness is an evangelical counterdeclaration to Marshall McLuhan's: The medium is not the message; the message, or the Word, transcends whatever media are used to convey it. But in the long run, is the constant evangelical adaptation of the Word unwittingly proving McLuhan right? I think so. That is partly why we find so little coherence within and among the various groups and movements and productions that pass as evangelical."

What has impressed me about at least some evangelicals in recent years is their willingness to re-engage in social justice issues, whether that means a renewed commitment to environmentalism or growing attention to such issues as AIDS, poverty and criminal justice.

If you count yourself among the evangelicals, tell me if you think Beal got most or any of this right from your perspective.

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Sometimes rigid religious views smash up against other rigid religious views and the result is simply catastropic. That seems to be what happened in Egypt, events that in turn have led to murderous conditions for Christians in Iraq, according to this enlighting AP account. This tells of hard-line Coptic Christians and al-Qaida extremists drawing on their interpretation of Islam. The two have clashed and people are paying with their lives. This is what happens when people don't understand that although we're all theologians, whether we want to be or not, we're called to be modest theologians.

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P.S.: My latest column for The Presbyterian Outlook, "Retrofitting for ministry," now is online. To read it click here.

A Christian Christmas? 12-25/26-10

ecause it's Christmas, I won't take up much of your time this weekend, but I do want to link you to a Christmas-related story to which I hope you'll give some thought.

It turns out that a new survey shows that most Americans celebrate Christmas for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the birth of Christ.

I know this may sound counter-intuitive to many of you, but in some ways this non-religious reality liberates the Christian church to be the church. We Christians need not assume now -- as we once did (or nearly did) -- that almost everyone we meet is a Christian who shares the same holiday traditions that we do. We can free ourselves from thinking that we need to be in charge of the culture and, instead, pay particular attention to our own theology, our own traditions, our own practices.

Naturally, we still will be aware of the biblical mandate to share the good news, or gospel, with others, but we now can imagine that we are a cultural minority with something precious to preserve -- a religious celebration of Christmas. And we can focus on the incarnation instead of Santa and Frosty the Snowman.

As I've mentioned here before, the new book to read about all of this is Christmas: Festival of Incarnation, by Donald Heinz.

So however you are celebrating Christmas -- and even if you aren't -- I wish you a wonderful holiday season.

(By the way, the art here today is a photo I took of a textile work done a few years ago for a Mennonite relief sale to benefit the Mennonite Central Committee.)

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Just because it's Christmas, I pass along this lovely Christmas story -- full of realism and love and pain. It says something profound about the human condition at this moment in America.

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Merton-letters Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen. Between 1985 and 1994, five volumes of the astonishingly rich and engaging correspondence between the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and literally thousands of people were published. In those books we meet the agile and at times funny mind of a deeply serious man who, until his untimely death in 1968 at the age of 53, had become the poster child for the monastic tradition. Now the editors of this new volume (they teach at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y.) have attempted to pull out of those books the best letters. It's a daunting task, but they have done well. Especially useful are the many editing notes that help us understand who the recipients of the Merton letters are and under what circumstances the letters were written. The world continues to be full of Merton fans, and for good reason. This 400-page book should cheer them and also give newcomers to Merton a gateway into an important 20th Century religious voice, a voice whose words still bear the freight of truth and wisdom.

Festival of incarnation: 12-24-10

es, yes, I know that some of you (you know who you are) today will be celebrating my maternal grandmother's Christmas Eve birthday. She'd have turned 129 today.

But the rest of you get a blog day off today with just my wish for you. However you celebrate it and even if you don't:


Cheers, Bill

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Just in time for Christmas, here is an intriguing piece about Bethlehem by a man married to a Christian native of the little town. They've spent lots of time back in Bethlehem because she's making a documentary film about it.

Both relativism, rigidity hurt: 12-23-10

Our culture, it seems to me, suffers from these two conditions: The tyranny of the perpetually closed mind and the tyranny of the perpetually open mind.

EricaBrown The latter phrase is one I borrowed from New York Times columnist David Brooks in this engaging piece about Erica Brown (pictured here), a Jewish teacher of adult education, one so good that, as one of her students says, “If she taught a course in making toast, I’d take it.”

Brown is seeking to undermine the people in our culture for whom anything goes, people who are so lacking in standards that they think any idea is equal in value to any other idea. They are undiscerning because they seem to have no standards against which to judge anything. Indeed, often they throw out this line from the New Testament -- "judge not lest you be judged" -- as an excuse for avoiding criticism of even the most destructive ideas and behavior.

The other end of the spectrum, of course, are the people who adopt a false certitude about almost everything. They are so certain they are right that there is no room for discussion. You find these people in politics, in religion (especially in religion) and in many other fields. I find the religious ones the most difficult to deal with because they are convinced that they are speaking for God.

“We live in a relativistic culture,” Brown told Brooks recently when he invited her to sit down with him for coffee and conversation. And that truth is part of what the dead-sure people are, understandably, working against.

But the answer to relativism is not false certitude. The answer is to be comfortable with ambiguity but to be committed to some foundational standards that help guide us through that ambiguity, all the while recognizing that life is messy and that sometimes our discomfort is simply an invitation to explore alternatives more deeply. For Brown that is Judaism. For me it's Christianity. For others it's another religion or some other set of principles.

My worry about our culture is that people ruled by the tyranny of perpetually open minds and people ruled by the tyranny of perpetually closed minds live unexamined lives. And, in the end, that hurts all of us.

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It turns out that people in Florida this Christmas are writing letters not just to Santa but also to God, and the folks at the Postal Service aren't quite sure what to do with them. Oh, come on. Everybody knows at least a few people who think they're God. Just deliver the letters to those folks.

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P.S.: It's always intriguing to me to see how followers of non-Christian faiths think about Jesus and Christmas. Here's a Christmas meditation the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, attached to the Vedanta tradition, which has its roots in Hinduism:

A Christmas Message

 Meditation For Christmas Morn


By Paramahansa Yogananda


The following excerpt is from Metaphysical Meditations by Paramahansa Yogananda

(Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles. Reprinted with permission.)


Celebrate the birth of Christ in the cradle of your consciousness during the Christmas season. Let His vast perception in Nature, in space, and in universal love be felt within your heart.

Break the limitations of caste, color, race, religious prejudice, and inharmony, that the cradle of your heart be big enough to hold within you the Christ-love for all creation.

On every Christmas morn of your inner perception, prepare precious packages of divine qualities and deliver them to the beloved souls who gather around the Christmas tree of inner awakening to commemorate His birth in understanding, truth, and bliss.

Celebrating the birth of omniscient, omnipresent Christ Consciousness on the joyous Christmas festivity of your inner awakening, you will find the unbroken happiness of your dreams.

Let the omniscient Christ Consciousness come to earth a second time and be born in you, even as it was manifested in the consciousness of Jesus.


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 CaregiversTao The Caregiver's Tao Te Ching, by William and Nancy Martin. Increasingly Americans are caregivers. As the authors note, in any given year now about 30 percent of all Americans today provide care for someone who is chronically ill, disabled or aged. It can be both a terribly difficult task as well as rewarding, but to be the latter it helps to know how to cope with various situations and what attitude to try to maintain as the caregiver does his or her work. This thoughtful little book draws on the ancient Chinese wisdom of the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tsu, reinterpreting it to apply to caregivers in our contemporary culture. The Martins draw on their experience in ministry, in hospice work and in counseling to offer 81 short chapters (the whole book is only 130 pages) of insight to benefit people who find themselves in the role of caregivers.

A blog anniversary: 12-22-10

Today I begin the seventh year of writing this daily blog.

Wdt-star1 I started it before I retired from full-time employment at The Kansas City Star, though why I started it three days before Christmas remains a mystery even to me.

But all six years of blog entries are in the archives. Counting today's entry, that's 1,879 postings, so if you're new to "Faith Matters," you've got a lot of catching up to do. You'll find a link to the archives on the right side of this page. Feel free to call in sick for a week or three until you get through them all.

I had several reasons for starting the blog in 2004. One was to give readers access to information and analysis that I didn't have space to give them in the newspaper. The other was to create a new avenue for readers who weren't necessarily regular subscribers to the paper. Finally, having written a daily column on the editorial page of The Star for some 27 years, I missed the rhythm of having a daily voice, and the blog allowed me to recapture that rhythm.

Some things about the blog have changed over the years.

When I began I allowed unmoderated comments. Eventually commenters abused that privilege in many ways. So I went to a moderated-comments system, meaning I had to read comments before they were published.

Eventually those comments degenerated into mostly a theists-versus-atheists bash-fest. The result was that, in effect, I was providing one more platform for uncivil discourse in a nation in which uncivil discourse is a big problem. So I stopped comments altogether (with rare exceptions) but invited readers who wished to respond to anything I wrote on the blog to e-mail me from the blog -- something that's easy to do (see a link on the right side of this page).

Moderating a blog was both frustrating and time-consuming and I decided life was too short for that. Comments on the columns I write for the National Catholic Reporter and for the Presbyterian Outlook are allowed on their sites. The decision to allow comments on those sites is up to editors, not me.

My goal here has been the same one I've always had as a columnist -- to invite readers to think. You need not agree or disagree with me. But I hope you take a few minutes to ponder the topic I offer for the day and the links I give you to connect to various supporting sites.

I don't know how long I'll keep up the blog, but I'd enjoy hearing from you whether and how it's been helpful and what you might like to see me cover here in the upcoming new year.

(Just a reminder: Although The Star offers links to my blog from its Web site, no one pays me to do this blog. The only way I receive any compensation is when people click on one of the Google ads on the site -- and so far that compensation is enough to cover the cost of the site platform program I buy from So at least I'm not losing money, except that I'm not paid for my time.)

(By the way, the photo here today shows what my Star work cubicle looked like about the time I began the blog.)

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I love the variety of Nativity scenes available, which is why I'd love to see the newly reopened museum in Bethlehem that displays about 200 representations of the Nativity donated from almost 150 countries. There's something about manger scenes that set the imagination free. I suppose in some way they function like icons do in the Christian Orthodox tradition. Below, by the way, is a photo of the Nativity scene that my family had when I was growing up and that now goes on display in my house each year.


Offering words for ministry: 12-21-10

This past Sunday my wife and I attended a childlren's Christmas pageant at an Episcopal church because one of our granddaughters was in it.

Caregiving And may I just say I'm not sure I've ever seen a cuter 3-year-old sheep. But that's not what I want to tell you about today.

Rather, it's this: Afterward, as we gathered in the fellowship hall for cookies and pink lemonade, a woman called me over to tell me how much help I had been to her. This was a little odd because, although I knew who the woman was, I hardly knew her at all.

But she had been present some months ago when I spoke to this church's staff, giving them some ideas about the future shape of ministry and what a church like theirs might offer to people. One of my points was the need for churches to offer ministry that directly addressed the pain people are in.

The woman told me that what I said that day had turned out to be enormously helpful to her as she had been ministering to a family with many problems. We didn't have long to talk and so I can only guess what it was about my remarks that day that wound up being helpful to her.

But I came away from that experience thinking that we often don't know how what we say or do will affect others. So what? Well, it seems to me that for that very reason we need always to be cognizant of the message our words, our actions and our very lives are giving to others.

Inevitably, they are taking away something from their encounter with us. It could range from disgust at how we behave or what we say to profound admiration and insight, along with a desire to change some behavior of theirs. We just never know.

The Apostle Paul was right when he said to the Philippians (chapter 4): ". . .whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy == meditate on these things."

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New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes in this intriguing piece why Christmas can be so harad on the very people -- Christians -- who are celebrating it. For further help with this idea, I recommend a new book by Donald Heinz called Christmas: Festival of Incarnation.