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Books to help your faith: 4-30/5-1-11

New faith-based books keep piling up on my desk, so today I want to introduce you to a small stack of them. Each of them in this group in some way is concerned with how individuals relate to the divine. If you are a seeker, maybe one or more of these volumes can help you find your way.

A few of these books may not have been released yet but will be soon. And you can always preorder them either from a local bookstore or from, among other sources.

Monastery-heart * The Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life, by Joan Chittister. By now a classic herself, Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine leader for decades, seeks in this intriguing volume to distill the core of the ancient Rule of Benedict and offer its monastic wisdom as a gift to seekers. As she correctly notes, people today are often simply overwhelmed by life and its choices. In that situation, people often are uncertain where to turn or how to make sense of life. In response, Chittister suggests that it's possible to find direction by doing what Benedict himself suggested, which is to focus on the very ordinary and daily gifts of life. Although the words in this volume clearly are prose, they are printed in poetic form, and the effect is to help readers concentrate more directly on their meaning. Chittister fans -- and they are legion -- will be delighted to have this new book.

A Willing Heart * A Willing Heart: How to Service When You Think You Can't, by Marci Alborghetti.  Just as Joan Chittister draws on the trusted wisdom of St. Benedict, so Marci Alborghetti finds inspiration in the often-silent words (how's that for a paradox?) and work of St. Francis of Assisi to guide Christians into the kind of service that will help the world's needy and wounded people. Service, in the Christian tradition, is not done to earn God's favor but to express gratitude for what God already has done for us. In this book, the author offers ways to get moving to do works of service, especially at times when it's hard to get motivated or hard to imagine how to begin. This book looks like a good candidate for church study groups -- but groups that then want to turn their study into action.

Fragments of Your Ancient Name * Fragments of Your Ancient Name, by Joyce Rupp. Perhaps you know that in Jewish tradition, the name of God is not said aloud. Indeed, many Jews use the term HaShem to refer to God. And the literal translation of that word is "The Name." Drawing on various God-naming traditions, this popular spiritual author offers here daily meditations that, in the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, amount to stammering fragments of God's ancient name. The goal is to put readers in some kind of touch with HaShem, The Name, God. And Joyce Rupp draws from a wide range of sources for the meditations. Here's what to do with this book: Get it now and, after you read it through in a couple of sittings, hide it away and give it as a Christmas present to someone who can start with the 365 meditations next January, which is where the book begins.

God-of-me * God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime, by Rabbi David Lyon. Judaism's central prayer, aside from the Sh'ma, is called the Amidah, and begins this way: "Praised are You, God, God of our fathers and mothers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel. . ." If you notice nothing else about this prayer, you immediately will recognize that it describes God as relating personally to people. Rabbi Lyon suggests in this quite readable book that each person can find a way to be and feel in personal relationship with God. It won't surprise you that a rabbi suggests a good way to achieve that kind of intimate spiritual state is to study Torah and to be familiar with what rabbis throughout history have said in their midrash commentaries about what the Torah says. But Lyon has an engaging style and should draw readers into that process. Yes, this is written primarily for Jews, but Christians and others will find lots of good insights in it, too -- beginning with the excellent suggestion that adults move past the simplistic images of God that have been with them since childhood.

Mysteries-of-the-jesus-prayer * Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, by Norris J. Chumley. It would not surprise me to learn that when you saw the title of this book, you wondered if "the Jesus Prayer" was, in fact, what Christians call either "The Lord's Prayer" or the "Our Father." No, is the answer. This is not about a prayer that Jesus prayed but, rather, about one prayed to Jesus. It goes like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." A mere dozen words. But as the author (and the author together with a priest and professor in a new film of the same name) notes here, the prayer has much power and has been used for centuries, especially by monks in the Orthodox tradition. The book in some sense is a spiritual travelogue. Readers accompany Chumley and the Rev. John A. McGuckin to various sites -- from Egypt to Russia to Greece -- to learn about the people for whom this prayer is a centering metaphor and defining way to live. The question ultimately facing readers is whether this ancient prayer might be something they can use to find their spiritual home.

Four-purposes * The Four Purposes of Life: Finding Meaning and Direction in a Changing World, by Dan Millman. Let me be as clear as I can be here. I don't get some so-called "self-help" books. They seem too simple or too obvious or too formulaic. I'm reluctant to toss this small book by Millman into that pile dismissively because I know that lots of people (his many books have been translated into 29 languages) find value in his insights and his way of putting things. Indeed, this book may be exactly what some of you need to clarify the purpose or purposes of your life, to figure out how to move off dead center and work your way toward a path of usefulness and insight. But it didn't do that for me, partly because I found its listed four purposes too vague and overlapping. But if you're a Millman fan, give it a read and tell me what I'm missing here.

Expand-moment * Expand This Moment: Focused Meditations to Quiet Your Mind, Brighten Your Mood & Set Yourself Free, by John Selby. This may be a quintessentially American approach to spirituality and particularly to meditation. Why? Because it should appeal to our short attention spans. It offers 12 focal phrases for meditation and suggests that instead of sitting quietly for half an hour or much more, you can gain insight and calm by meditating on each phrase for no more than, say, five minutes. Then, Selby suggests, you can expand your brief meditation either by really stretching out the time you take for meditation or by hanging on to the peace and wisdom you've received from doing the brief meditation. I'm not someone who regularly uses meditation techniques, so I can't tell you that this is a guaranteed way to "quiet your mind, brighten your mood and set yourself free." You'll have to test that for yourself.

Following-Footsteps * Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospels for Year A, by José A. Pagola. What, you ask, is Year A? Unfortunately, this thin volume of excellent meditations on passages from the gospels, assumes you know that it's the first of three years of a sequence of biblical readings for worship services. The list of readings is called the lectionary, and preachers use it to prepare sermons each week. (This draws on the lectionary used by Catholics, which differs somewhat, though not radically, from the lectionary many Protestants use.) The idea of the lectionary (which has its faults) is that it should keep preachers from preaching only on their favorite texts and to help each congregation learn about lots of different biblical texts. All that said, is this a worthy book? Yes. It's the sort of small booklet that Christians might do well to keep either at their bedside or in some other handy place so that once a week they can think about the gospel reading they well may hear in worship on Sunday. The author teaches theology in Spain, though the book is in English, save for some cover notations in Spanish.

My-Other-Self * My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith, by Clarence J. Enzler. It might be thought of as enormously arrogant to put words into the mouth of Jesus Christ -- words that do not appear in the Bible (even many of those biblical words are disputed by scholars). And yet this little devotional book, first published decades ago, does exactly that as a way of bringing readers closer to the one Christianity calls lord and savior. The author died in 1976, but Ave Maria Press has elected to bring this highly personal book back into print because it long has spoken to so many people. Some of the language seems a bit outdated -- especially the masculine pronoun language. But it's nonetheless a book many will find helpful, especially Catholics.

Difficulties-prayer * Difficulties in Mental Prayer: A New Edition of a Classic Guide to Meditation, by M. Eugene Boylan. Like the previously mentioned book, this is a reissue by Ave Maria Press. This book first appeared in 1943, and was designed to help people get through various stumbling blocks to prayer. There are many forms of prayer and many purposes. This book takes note of that and seeks to guide people out of a kind of rote approach to prayer and into something more dynamic. This newly issued book contains a good biographical sketch of the author, an Irish-born priest and, eventually, a Trappist monk. That biographical piece acknowledges some of the criticism this book received when first published, including some dislike of its title. Readers will have to decide whether those early critics were right.

Tao-motherhood * The Tao of Motherhood, by Vimala McClure. Continuing what has become a bit of a pattern here, this book is a reissue of one that first appeared in 1991. The author draws on the ancient Chinese wisdom of the Tao Te Ching to think about what is required of mothers. There is much here that is thoughtful and helpful and may help both mothers and fathers avoid some of the normal pitfalls in parent-child relationships that seem to plague almost every such union. Readers soaked in Western spiritual traditions may resist some of what this author offers, but being exposed to a fresh way of thinking about motherhood may well cause people to re-examine how they approach what is both a responsibility and a gift.

Dreamgates Active-dreaming * Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination, and Life Beyond Death and Active Dreaming: Journeying Beyond Self-Limitation to a Life of Wild Freedom, by Robert Moss. The first of these books by this teacher and spiritual leader is a second edition of a volume first published in 1998. As you can tell from the titles, Moss is deeply involved in trying to understand dreams (the ones we have asleep and the ones we have when we think we're awake). So he offers in the first book ways to explore the content of dreams and guides readers toward a deeper understanding of their source, their contents and their implications for daily living. In the second book, which is being published for the first time, Moss continues his exploration of dreaming but this time he encourages readers to use techniques that can make the most of dreams in an active way. There's a feel of Eastern, even New Age, spirituality to these books. I have never studied dreaming in any depth, so I'm not a good judge of whether his specific advice here is worthy. But the subject intrigues almost all of us, and these books might be a place to stick your toe in the dreaming water to see what you make of it.

Setting-agenda * Setting the Agenda: Meditations for the Organization's Soul, by Edgar Stoesz and Rick M.Stiffney. I serve on three boards of directors (two non-profits and one for-profit company that has an important ministry component), including one for an organization whose CEO has a short essay in this helpful book It's an essay urging members of such boards to consider "ordinary days" as opportunities to think through the future more clearly. Whether boards oversee non-profit or for-profit organizations, they have an internal life of their own that, in the end, helps to create the life of the organization they guide. This book from the Mennonite Publishing Network can help any board find its sea legs and work harder to create something of lasting value for others. It's full of wise meditations and even suggestions for prayer. Boards that ponder the contents of this book almost certainly will do better work -- and feel better about it, too.

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The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has added Egypt to its list of countries with terrible religious freedom records. This is a good government agency and it annually highlights countries that violate religious liberty. For the full 2011 report, click here.

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P.S.: Sunday is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, (though the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum lists it as Monday because that's when it will be celebrated in Israel) and The Forward has put together what it calls "The Thinking Person's Guide to the Holocaust." It has some flaws (as commenters have picked up on) but it's an interesting list. Read all the books on this list, but also read my book, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

On hearing God's voice: 4-29-11

What do we make of people who claim God has spoken to them and told them to do this or that? Well, in this culture we often try to get them mental health assistance.

JoanOfArc But in previous times that sometimes was far from the case. And today is a good day to think about religious visions and messages from God because it was on this date in 1429 that Joan of Arc (depicted here) -- convinced that God had ordered her to help Charles, the French dauphin, gain the throne -- led a small force of troops that brought relief to the city of Orleans, which had been besieged by the English since the previous October.

You can read a bit about that day in history here, and you can read a brief biography of Joan here. But if you really want to get a flavor of Joan and her life, I recommend none other than Mark Twain's remarkable book about her, called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. It's a wonderful read.

But back to the question of how, if at all, God speaks to us. Traditional Christianity says God speaks to us in various ways today, primarily through the words of the Bible, but also through the words and actions of others. Religion also would say that God speaks to people in prayer and through the natural world.

But outside of the mystic traditions of the great religions, it's pretty rare nowadays to find religious leaders suggesting to their people that they listen to an audible voice coming directly to their ears from God. And when we hear about such things, it's often a deranged person who's just been arrested for murdering someone he or she said God suggested be murdered.

I'm certainly not proposing to limit the ways in which God can speak to us. But my guess is that today Joan of Arc would have a much tougher time convincing anyone in France -- much less a leader there -- to buy into the notion that God had ordered her to lead troops into battle. And, no, I'm not going to make any French surrender jokes here today. You can tell those yourself, if you want.

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Speaking of people with odd thoughts, I want to say something about the "birthers" in view of this week's release of a quite famous person's long-form birth certificate. Well, what I really want to do is to link you to this story, which quotes prominent Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, whom I've met and whom I like (though I don't always agree with him), as saying that the people insisting President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. are "irrational and a little imbalanced." I couldn't have said it better myself. And did you ever notice that birther rhymes with earther -- as in Flat Earther? Hmmm.

9/11 anniversary plans: 4-28-11

As you will remember, this Sept. 11 will mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States that murdered nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew.

9-11-lights In some ways it's hard to know what to do about such anniversaries. As much as we might like to, we can't just whistle past them and hope they don't stab our hearts again. And yet the inevitable question -- especially for short-attention-span Americans -- is how long we should continue marking such dates in some special way.

Well, on the theory that the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is one that simply cannot be ignored, a group of Kansas Citians has come together to plan a commemoration event. It will take place at 7 p.m. on Sept. 11, which is a Sunday this year, at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St.

The centerpiece of the evening will be an orchestra and chorus performance of "Memorial," by René Clausen, written after 9/11.

After some readings and perhaps some other music, the Medical Arts Orchestra will join with around 100 voices to perform the piece. The event will be free to the public but tickets will be required. When arrangements for ticket distribution have been made, that information will be posted on the Web site to which I've linked you above with the words "commemoration event." An orchestra representative has been meeting with us at Westport Presbyterian Church, home of the Westport Center for the Arts, which has taken the lead in planning this event.

I wanted you to know about it now so you can book it on your calendar and join us.

In 10 years, we have not rid the world of terrorism -- or even come close. So the 9/11 commemoration will be a chance not just to remember those who perished but also to think anew about our response to that catastrophe and what our continued response should be.

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OK, yesterday here I hit Lady Gaga (and other celebrities) as examples of cultural emptiness. So today I'll repent just slightly by linking you to this column, which argues that Lady Gaga herself may be the one who is finally re-linking pop music and Christianity. Hmmm. I guess the next question is whether that's a good thing. Probably is.

The emptiness of celebrity: 4-27-11

As people who have read my columns and blog postings over the years surely know by now, pop culture often drives me crazy.

Lady-gaga I just don't get a lot of it. And much of it appears to be a greedy response to this puzzling need people seem to have to be entertained to death. I'm certainly not against everything we label as entertainment. I regularly go to live plays, for instance, because I think they often speak to the human condition in ways I find helpful. A few movies hit that mark as well. And concerts of classical music attract me.

But what people call the cult of celebrity is simply beyond me. What does it say about our sad and empty lives that we thirst to be entertained by stories about, say, Lady Gaga. Or that we will mindlessly stare at TV shows in which people known simply for being well known speak to us about meaningless subjects?

This week, my friends over at the section of are considering the cult of celebrity, and they began this Monday with a look at Lady Gaga (pictured here) and some provocative music she has recorded. Yesterday they were on to The Donald.

I'm sure it's some kind of personality defect I have that drives me away from sitcoms and other forms of empty entertainment. But I just plead guilty and then go read a book or take a walk or play with grandkids (or write).

If you've worried about what our celebrity-soaked culture says about our true values -- values that often find their roots in religion -- drop in on the OurValues discussion this week. You can even add your voice over there.

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Your religious beliefs may play a significant part in how you approach the end of life and whether you're willing to spend yourself broke to prolong your life, a new study finds. I sort of like the attitude I heard from my father now and then -- "If you can't take it with you, why go?" (For the humor-challenged, that was a joke.)

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Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture, by Stephen A. Marini. Speaking of public culture, as I was above, this new book unpacks an important and valuable segment of that culture, sacred music. It's a remarkably thorough look at everything from gospel music to the sacred harp singing. One of the things that makes the book so readable is that the author, who teaches at Wellesley, describes some of his own experiences with the various types of music about which he's writing. For instance, he tells about attending a rehearsal in Salt Lake City of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and readers will feel as if they are getting a wonderful inside look at that iconic institution. Music has played important role in many faith traditions, and this book seems to touch on most, if not all, of them. A word of appreciation here to the University of Illinois Press, which has done a good job in recent years turning out solid books that deal with various aspects of religion. Count this one an excellent example of that.

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P.S.: A reminder that Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I will be speaking about our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue In Poland During the Holocaust, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3, at the "Arts of the Holocaust" event at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, North. For details, click here.

Living out one's faith: 4-26-11

n engaging new book about the band that continued to play on-board while the Titanic sank 99 years ago this month confronts us with a stark reminder that we never know when our final test will come.

Band-Played-on As described in The Band That Played On, by Steve Turner, Wallace Hartley, one of the eight musicians on the doomed ocean liner, faced his final test when the Titanic was sinking. Would he leap for one of the lifeboats to save himself? Would he help others get off the ship? Or would he use his musical talents to comfort the shocked passengers, who never imagined such a disaster was possible?

Hartley and the other musicians did the latter. They played comforting music while people were evacuated from the ship. Indeed, they continued to play until they themselves were swallowed up by the ocean and drowned. Tradition holds that the last song they played was "Nearer My God to Thee."

No previous book has told the whole story of these brave musicians and their self-giving decision. Turner has researched each of the eight and tells us their stories in the context of the early 20th Century, before both world wars, before the astonishing technological advances, before the horror of the Holocaust, before the Internet -- and on and on.

In the chapter that describes Hartley's funeral, Turner quotes a section of the sermon delivered that day by the Rev. Thomas Worthington, in which he says that although the call from the Titanic captain to the musicians to "Be British" is inspiring, "I have a still more noble, more inspiring call to utter == 'Be Christian.'" Worthington then goes on to describe how Hartley, especially in his dying act of compassion and selflessness, lived out that call.

The book is a lovely and necessary addition to the history of this famous disaster. But what I found most useful in it was the reminder that we never know when we will be called to demonstrate our religious beliefs in sacrificial ways. But we must be ready for whatever comes. Hartley and his fellow musicians were ready. More, they were able.

(The picture here of the sinking of the Titanic I found at

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As you probably know, hell has been getting lots of press lately, at least in part because of Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins. But columnist Ross Douthat wants us to back up a think a bit before we discard the idea of hell. He argues against universal salvation this way: "If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either." Chew on that a bit today.

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P.S.: Don't forget that the 2011 AIDSWalk Kansas City will happen this Saturday, April 30. I will be walking in it. If you want to make a pledge, click here. And many thanks.

Christianity vs capitalism: 4-25-11

Wes Jackson, the brilliant creator of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., once told me how nearly impossible it was to sit at a diner with farmers in rural Kansas (or anywhere) and say anything critical about capitalism. Folks just don't want to hear it, Jackson said. It's like attacking motherhood.

Prosperity0909 Well, either Jackson was talking to the wrong people or some of those attitudes are changing. A survey released just a few days ago indicates that 44 percent of Christians think capitalism's values clash at times with Christianity's values, compared with 36 percent who see no conflict between the two. Where's the other 20 percent? Off trading frozen pork bellies?

To read the full Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Service survey, click here.

I am pretty firmly among the 44 percent on this one. At the same time, I am in substantial harmony with author Glenn Tinder, who writes in his book The Political Meaning of Christianity that although all economic systems are flawed, capitalism may be the least flawed of all. But even then I sometimes disagree with myself about that, especially when I see all the abuses in our banking and equity trading systems that, with other factors, led to the terrible economic crisis that exploded in 2008.

The point is that people of faith must be careful before pledging allegiance to any economic, social or political system, because almost inevitably something about those systems will run afoul of what their faith teaches them. So none of them must claim our first loyalty.

If this subject interests you, I invite you to sample two pieces from previous issues of Theology Today, a quarterly that comes out of Princeton Theological Seminary. The first is "The Christian Calling to Business Life." The next is "Freewill Theism: Doing Business in a Free-Market Society." There are lots of other resources to ponder when considering whether capitalism and Christianity are compatible. But those, along with the new survey, should get you started.

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New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd pulls no punches in her piece arguing that the late Pope John Paul II does not deserve to be made a saint. By contrast, Catholic News Service has done an admiring piece about why JP II is being beatified. As for me, I don't pretend to understand why the Catholic Church creates its list of saints. But last month I wrote this column for The National Catholic Reporter suggesting there would be better ways to spend the money and other resources now devoted to the saint-making process.

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P.S.: Don't forget that the 2011 AIDSWalk Kansas City will happen this Saturday, April 30. I will be walking in it. If you want to make a pledge, click here. And many thanks.

Resurrection's meaning: 4-23/24-11

n this Resurrection Sunday weekend, I want to share with you a reading I've done of a column about resurrection. It's one I wrote for The Kansas City Star in late October 1995, and you can find it in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.

Resurrection is not, by the way, the same thing as resuscitation, though the dictionary I use has them both on the same page. Resuscitation is a restoring to life. Resurrection is the creation of a new life out of a life that's been snuffed out, that is dead, kaput, gone. In Christian theology, that's the kind of stone cold dead Jesus was. He was beyond resuscitation. He needed resurrection.

So the piece I'll read for you today takes note of that kind of theological thinking about resurrection but it also moves to the creation of new life out of old in other areas of our life.

Readers of this column at the time didn't know this, but I wrote this column some months after my divorce had been finalized -- and some weeks after having met the gift of grace who, the next year, would become my new wife. But now you know that.

To listen to the reading, which runs a little over five minutes, click on this link: Download Resurrection-column

(Because I was having some kind of download problem with this audio file -- and presume you were, too -- I've given you a printed version of the column here:)

The Promise of Sunrise Can Fill Our Lives

(First published in The Kansas City Star Oct. 29, 1995)

For reasons I cannot fully explain, fall sunrises where I live strike my eyes and heart with enough power to leave me silent and filled with a sense of the sacred.

Maybe it's because morning's eastern horizon seems regularly to be dappled with clouds. And these clouds -- often long but broken horizontal brushstrokes -- serve to focus, shape and display the amazing light of daybreak. They become a moving canvas.

Or maybe it's because the early light plays off the golds, reds, yellows and mahoganies of leaves still holding stubbornly to trees.

Whatever the cause, the stunning autumn sunrises this year--pinks and oranges bleeding into peach, reds, into purple--have awakened in me a realization of how indelibly the world's natural physical patterns imprint us with understanding, with insight, with deep ahas of recognition.

When I was a boy, I saw a sunrise whose meaning it has taken me almost forty years to unpack. In the Bible, forty years sometimes is used symbolically to mean, simply, a hell of a long time. And I have found that sometimes it takes forty years--actual and metaphorical years--to discover what things mean.

The sunrise I'm talking about occurred in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains in northern India. I was a schoolboy there for a time.

On Easter morning of 1956 I went to a sunrise service on the top of a hill. As we looked expectantly toward the east, toward the snow-slicked hills of Tibet, the sun shot rays straight up into the empty, chilly air. Then, at the bottom of a V-shaped spot in the mountains, the sun itself began to appear, slowly but relentlessly filling the air with ineffable light and--as I now understand--affirmation. And maybe even angels.

It has taken me until now to realize what I took away from that morning of grace. Somehow I viscerally grasped the idea of resurrection. I had no meaningful words for that as an eleven-year-old American boy far away from home. I probably didn't even know that some things, to respect their mystery and depth, are better said without words.

But it's clear to me now that ever since that day--despite much outward evidence and many words to the contrary--I have believed in resurrection. And I don't mean that only in the Christian context of Easter, though that certainly has become a core belief in my life.

Rather, I mean resurrection in all aspects of our bruised and difficult lives. I mean a hope--almost an irrational faith--that when parts of our lives go dead, it's possible that they will again know life and health.

We can never know when--or even if--this miracle of resurrection will occur in our lives. But I have discovered that each of us can be agents of resurrection for others. We can be channels of grace. We can be carriers of hope. We can reveal possibilities to others--possibilities they may have thought foreclosed or may never have imagined at all.

For most of us. most of the time. We are the center of our pre-Copernican universes. So we forget history. We forget others. We lost perspective--especially eternal perspective.

I was taken by surprise the other morning, as I watched the autumn sun pushing its way into the cool air, not only to be reminded of that sunrise forty years ago in India but of sunrises that have happened for hundreds, thousands, millions of years.

We have come to this amazing theater of natural phenomena in the middle of the play--or maybe quite late in the run. We have missed an eternity of sunrises and sunsets, all of which happened without us, without, in fact, any need for us. That they still happen for us is a gift of wonder to cherish, a gift from which to draw deep measures of meaning.

(Oh, and if you wnat to know what Christian preachers really should be preaching this Sunday, read this "First Things" blog entry by Russell Saltzman, a Lutheran pastor whose mother died recently.)

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A Yale professor has a new book out in which she argues that Oprah has turned herself into a religious icon. Well, maybe. But I've never been a member of Oprah's congregation, so I don't know if this new theory holds (holy) water. I'm not sure why, but when I watch Oprah (hardly ever) I wind up feeling just a bit manipulated. Is that the sign of good preaching? I don't think so.

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Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church, by Jonathan Wright. Christian history is a fascinating mix of faithfulness, challenge, violence, love, charity, coercion and ideas, some of which have caused people to run amok. Some of these ideas wound up being labeled as heretical, which is to say that some authority or authorities decided these ideas were beyond the boundaries of what had been determined to be orthodoxy. And yet these supposedly untoward ideas wound up challenging and even changing Christianity. This churning process has been, Wright contends, "creative." This quite readable book by a scholar of history and faith is an engaging accounting of various heresies over the centuries. One of the ideas that the book challenges is that there once was, as the author writes, "a single, obvious, and authentic version of Christianity to which all true believers should subscribe." In fact, the church has argued over theology almost since the beginning. Indeed, Wright says, "the period of the early church was actually one of the most befuddled and contested in Christianity's history." The story of how any faith develops and evolves is intriguing, and this book tells of the bubbling cauldron of ideas that Christianity has been from the start. Yes, there isa central orthodoxy to Christianity today, and it's amazing how consistent that core has been over the centuries. But in and around that core there's been lots of churning, and this book is a good account of that action.

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P.S.: Don't forget that the 2011 AIDSWalk Kansas City will happen next Saturday, April 30. I will be walking in it. If you want to make a pledge, click here. And many thanks.

Trusting in You-Know-Who: 4-22-11

Yes, it's Good Friday for Christians. And Jews are celebrating Passover, or Pesach. And some of the Buddhists yesterday finished celebrating Theravada New Year.

All of which gives me an excuse to take note of the fact that on this date in 1864, the phrase "In God We Trust" first was added to U.S. coinage.

No development like this happens outside of a particular context, and if you know your history you will recognize that this generic faith phrase got plopped on a coin toward the end of the brutal American Civil War. So, in effect, the North added it, no doubt in part to remember where its hope lay in the bloody conflict.

In god we trust I understand all of that. But I also understand that we live in quite a different time now, a time when our nation is religiously pluralistic, although -- as one of my Jewish friends noted once with a bit of a sigh -- this country still is a landslide for Christianity.

So although I would not lead a fight to have the phrase removed from our money (I have bigger fish to fry), I would not be disappointed if it were removed. And I say that as a person of faith. One reason I'd favor removal is that I think the sloppy use of the term "God" devalues the particular God that Christians come to know most fully in Jesus Christ.

At any rate, the phrase has been challenged in court cases, but I'm not sure it will ever get removed. And no matter which way it goes, In God I Trust to get it right -- eventually.

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Pope Benedict XVI this week bemoaned growing secularism in Europe. Seems like an old story. Seems like maybe the church -- and all people of faith -- should be not just grieving over shrinking congregations but, rather, doing and saying things that might seem relevant and helpful to people who, despite their spiritual drifting, have not lost their hunger for meaning. I also wonder whether, in Europe (and maybe elsewhere), some of the movement away from religion, might be related to aftershocks from the Holocaust, in which so many people of faith -- and their leaders -- betrayed their principles and beliefs.

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Tha'ts When I Talk to God, by Dan and Ali Morrow. This is an illustrated children's book that tells the story of a young girl whose eyes get opened to the idea that she can pray any time and in any place. It's an engaging story told in a way that children can understand, and the illustrations by Cory Godbey are effective. My one hesitation about this book, however, is that when God is referred to in pronoun form it's always as the capitalized male Him. It would have been good for the authors, in an introduction or somewhere, to talk a bit about whether God should be conceived of as being either male or female. Children want to know such things, and some help for parents and grandparents in discussing this with children would have improved the book. Speaking of grandparents, Ali Morrow's father is Lee Strobel, who is grandfather, thus, to the two Morrow children, and there's a letter from him (not Him) in the back of the book. Strobel has written books that are especially popular with Christians who identify themselves as evangelical.

Reliving the crucifixion: 4-21-11

Tomorrow Christians (including the Orthodox, who often celebrate Holy Week later than do Catholics and Protestants) will commemorate Good Friday, the day on which Jesus was crucified.

Crucifixion I will mark the day by attending one or two Stations of the Cross services and by being one of the speakers at a 7 p.m. service at Community Christian Church, where Haydn's "The Seven Last Words of Christ" will be performed.

I am not, however, planning to be crucified tomorrow, unlike a number of men in the Philippines, who ask to be nailed to a cross each year.

I'm not quite sure whether to admire the men who do this or be appalled by them. Maybe both. Surely it's a way of displaying one's solidarity with Christ. And surely it gives one a sense of what Jesus went through.

But it's unclear to me why it's necessary to repeat a violent act to understand it. If the child of one of these men were to be shot to death, would the men shoot themselves each year on the anniversary of the murder? And what good would that do?

Sometimes religion makes all of us do strange things. Perhaps it's usually best simply to observe and ponder and not condemn -- unless the actions we're witnessing are destructive to those beyond the people doing them.

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Britain's prime minister says the law banning Catholics from the throne should be scrapped. He's right. The surprise is that often it's the church (or other faith communities) that is behind society when it comes to equality and liberation. Only now, for instance, is my own Presbyterian denomination close to scrapping the part of our constitution that bans ordination of otherwise qualified gays and lesbians in committed relationships. The church should be leading in liberation, not following.

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The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock. If there has been a better narrative preacher -- or maybe just a better preacher of any kind -- over the last several decades than Fred Craddock, I can't imagine who it would be. I've been blessed not just to read some Craddock sermons, such as the ones that make up this volume, but also to hear Craddock in person. What a phenomenal gift to the church he is. And he's right when he suggests that good sermons don't inform Christians, rather they form them. But Craddock is also right in his introduction to give us fair warning that the spoken word differs -- sometimes significantly -- from the written word. And what we have here, of course, is not the spoken but the written word. We have to imagine hearing it. We have to picture Craddock in the pulpit. Because of the man's wonderful ability to tell important, insightful and transforming stories, it's nowhere near as hard to do that with a printed Craddock sermon as it might be with your average preacher. I'm not going to give you samples of Craddock sermons here, thus creating even more distance between the spoken word and its hearers, or now readers. Rather, I will simply tell you that if you've never heard great narrative (story-telling) preaching, get this book. By the way, if you want to read an excellent book about narrative preaching, pick up What's the Shape of Narrative Preaching?, a collection of essays in honor of my friend Eugene L. Lowry, who taught homiletics at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column, "Hospitals, Alice's Wonderland and the bishops on health care," now is online. To read it click here.

Not Hitler alone: 4-20-11

On this date in 1889, Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria. It's one of those births most of the world wishes had never happened.

Adolf-hitler But I want to suggest today that when we focus on the obvious evil committed by just this one man, we miss the larger picture -- a picture that involves all of us.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld, author of The End of the Holocaust, which I reviewed here over this past weekend, understands why Hitler myopia is misleading and dangerous.

He cites Ronald Reagan's words at the time the late president made a misguided and offense visit to a cemetery in Bitberg, Germany -- a cemetery that contained the bodies of Nazi troopers. On several occasions, Rosenfeld notes, Reagan referred then to "the awful evil started by one man." And the president mentioned "one man's totalitarian dictatorship," both obvious references to the murder of six million Jews in Europe, the Holocaust.

Then Rosenfeld writes this: "There are aspects of Nazi Germany that we still do not understand fully, but by now it is clear that the Nazi state was not run by 'one man,' that the Nazi war machine was not and could not have been driven by 'one man' alone, and that the terror carried out over a dozen years in the name of the Third Reich could not have come about had a great many people not actively and willingly followed the lead of this 'one man.'"

Exactly. When we simplify history, we distort it. And, by distorting it, we may well miss harsh truths about our own responsibility to stand against evil when we see it either in our leaders or in our neighbors. For each of us has within us a capacity for evil, and the less we acknowledge that the more likely it is that evil will occur.

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A British scholar now says the Last Supper took place on a Wednesday, and thus the date of the first Easter can be reliably known. Why am I underwhelmed? This isn't quite as useless as the date-setters at the other end who consistently predict (wrongly) the end of the world. But other than to confirm that Jesus was a historical figure (to say nothing of historic), I'm pretty sure it does nothing to change or improve the Christian faith.

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No Argument

No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith, by John Wilkinson. People of faith, especially Christians who feel the mandate to share their faith with others, often make the mistake of imagining they can argue others into faith. Such arguments, of course, depend on reason, on rational thinking. But, of course, faith by its very nature is not rational. As the author of this book notes, in many ways faith is simply absurd. (Thus the title, No Argument for God.) So we people of faith can agree with critics of faith about that. But instead of that being a reason to turn away from faith, Wilkinson, a youth pastor, thinks it's a reason to embrace faith. He describes a conversation he had with an older man who "had obviously given up on God because that thought seemed too fairy-tale-esque." Rather, the man said he believed in karma over grace because "at least karma makes sense; grace is ridiculous." Wilkinson agreed with him that grace is ridiculous, but he asked the man this question: "If you have karma that is reasonable and grace that is not, which one do you think is most likely the product of a human mind?" The man said karma, and Wilkinson agreed. Then he added, "the truth that grace is absurd helps nail down its divine source." In the end, this is a book about evangelism, but it's written in a way that provides fresh insights into faith and how to talk about it with others. But beyond that, the book makes clear that instead of just talking about faith as a means of evangelism, Christians are required to make their lives a model on behalf of faith. I just wish the first sentence in the book didn't contain a grammatical error -- one of those who-whom errors. Editors did the author no favors by missing that.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column, "Hospitals, Alice's Wonderland and the bishops on health care," now is online. To read it click here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read "Resurrecting the Church," click here.