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Quick(en), pray tell what's this? 6-30-11

Detroit -- While I was here in the Motor City last week attending the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, we were regaled by various business and professional people about how Detroit is making a rebound from its doldrums.

Quicken-1 For instance, we visited the new downtown headquarters of Quicken Loans, which has moved about 1,700 employees from the suburbs to a downtown building. And Quicken plans to move more people into downtown until it has nearly 4,000 employees here.

As we toured the facility, I came around a corner and noticed a "Prayer Room" sign on a curtained room, pictured here. Our guide told us that it's regularly used by Muslims who happen to be at work when one of their five daily required prayer times occurs. But it's also available to people of other faiths and is open all day every day. (The Detroit area has a large Muslim population.)

This is one more good example of how thoughtful business leaders make accommodations to meet the religious needs of employees. And it's happening in various places around the country as the religious landscape of America changes.

I asked a Quicken p.r. person for a fuller explanation of the company's decision to create some prayer space in the work area and she told me that Quicken "decided to establish a prayer room because about 10 team members requested it in move meetings we held before the company relocated to Detroit."

There was prayer space available at Quicken's former facility in suburban Livonia, "but it was not a designated space," she said. This room, which is approximately 10-feet by 10-feet, is dedicated to prayer and meditation use and can accommodate six to eight people at a time, though often it's used just by one employee at a time. About 10 to 12 people use the room on a daily basis. Although I was not able to go into the room, it was described as intimate with seating. Inside, signs ask visitors to remove their shoes and put them in a shoe rack. As I indicated, there are curtains for privacy. And there's a white board on which to leave prayers. Soft carpet allows people to lie down or kneel comfortably. The room can be reserved for a specific time through the same scheduler employees use to reserve any conference room.

Good employers find ways to meet the religious needs of their workers without making a big deal out of it or making employees uncomfortable by calling attention to them. And people of faith who feel welcome in the work place must, in turn, not violate that welcome by pushing their faith on others.

The folks at Quicken seem to have figured all that out.

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Pope Benedict XVI tweeted the other day to announce the launch of a new Vatican news site. Obviously you're not going to get balanced or critical news and analysis there but on the whole it looks like a useful site for anyone wanting to keep up on Vatican thinking and actions. So have a look.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.

Rembrandt's faces of Jesus: 6-29-11

Detroit -- Bad timing on my part. I am here more than five months before the opening of the "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus" exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Christ (2) But at least I got a preview of what promises to be a terrifically engaging exhibition of about 60 small, intimate paintings by the Dutch master, Rembrandt van Rijn. These paintings, prints and drawings portray Jesus and some of the events described in the Bible.

The curators of this exhibition spoke recently with a group of religion journalists and other communicators about the exhibition and made the point that unlike most artists before him, Rembrandt, who lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam, sought out Jewish models for his portraits of Jesus. After all, Jesus, despite many popular paintings of him to the contrary, was not a white, male, blue-eyed suburban Methodist. He was, of course, a first-century Middle Eastern Jew.

(Sorry if that came as a shock to some of you.)

Surely that ethnicity is evident in the Rembrandt painting you see at left. The proper cutlines for that photo, which I obtained from the DIA, say: "Rembrandt van Rijn, Head of Christ, 1648/1650, oil on oak panel. Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo ©Detroit Institute of Arts."

DIA staff members have been putting in a lot of time preparing for this exhibit. One of the things they do is talk with randomly chosen prospective viewers to see what they want to know and how they react to having things displayed this way or that. All this was a good reminder to me that curating such an exhibition is a lot more complicated than the average person seeing it would imagine.

The Supper at Emmaus - Louvre (2) The other photo here today shows Rembrandt's "The Supper at Emmaus." And the proper cutlines, provided by the DIA, say, "Rembrandt van Rijn, The Supper at Emmaus, 1648; oil on mahogany panel. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photograph ©2010 Musée du Louvre/Philippe Fuzeau."

For century after century, people have wondered what Jesus looked like. And, as I wrote about here in 2009, there's an amazing collection of art depicting faces of Jesus at a Kansas City church. If you haven't seen it, please do.

Knowing what Jesus looked like would not, of course, change a thing about what Christianity teaches about him. But I think it's important for Christians all over the world to remember that he probably didn't look like he was a member of their immediate family.

By the way, if you can't wait to see this exhibit in Detroit, it's currently at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, though it closes there July 18. Then it opens July 30 and runs through Oct. 30 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

If any of you wants to fly me to Paris to see it, let me know. I haven't been to Paris since late 1999 and would love to go back.

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Has America lost its moral compass? Columnist Roger Cohen of The New York Times thinks the answer is yes, and it worries the devil out of him. My own worry is that things change so fast nowadays that it's increasingly difficult to find common moral ground among people of different faiths and ethnicities because no one has the years and years necessary to devote to understanding people of faiths different from our own.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.

A worthy Sikh movie: 6-28-11

DETROIT -- I don't often write about films here on the blog -- especially ones I've not yet had a chance to see.

But while I was here in Detroit for a media conference I learned about an award-winning film that looks as if it can teach us a lot about the intersection of faith and culture.

"Ocean of Pearls" has just been released on DVD, and the filmmaker, Dr. Sarab S. Neelam, spoke about the award-winning movie recently at a gathering of a Michigan religion communicators conference here.

Ocean-Pearls The movie is about a young Sikh man who lives in tension between two cultures, that of the West and that of India.

At some point he is offered the position of transplant surgeon in a Detroit hospital, and he wonders whether people will accept a turban-wearing man in that job. As Kevin Thomas wrote about the film in The Los Angeles Times, "Neelam raises tough issues of the slippery slope of compromise and probes life-endangering hospital politics and the horrors of U.S. healthcare. . ." (For a Village Voice review, click here.)

Sikhism is not nearly as well known in America as Hinduism, and, as we learned soon after 9/11, some American confuse Sikhs with Muslims.

I'm anxious to see the film and am guessing it would be a good one for people in churches and other faith communities to watch together.

(For more about the movie, see this entry from my friends at

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My former Kansas City Star colleague Barbara Shelly has posted this blog entry about Rep. Todd Akin saying that people who are political liberals hate God. Barb's right that lots of people will find this offensive. But my bet is that there won't be enough people who take offense to make him regret it. Akin's remark is what often passes for political wisdom today. God help us.

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P.S.: Don't forget that Deborah Lipstadt, author of The Eichmann Trial, will speak tomorrow evening at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. For details, click here. For my review of her book, click here.

Did you hear the one. . .: 6-27-11

Calvinists -- back when most of the population knew what that meant -- used to get accused of being terribly worried that someone, somewhere was having fun.

Sexting One of the foundational doctrines to grow out of Calvinism and the Reformed Tradition of Christianity that John Calvin birthed with his theological writings is called the Total Depravity of Humankind. It's really not as bad as it sounds, but it does suggest that all of us are capable of evil and that none of us can save ourselves.

What the doctrine has meant to me, as a Presbyterian, is that I must always be aware of my capacity for evil and that I should never be surprised when I find that behavior in others.

Still, there are times when my surprise-resistant approach gets tested. Like this story of a 21-year-old Amish man arrested after sending hundreds of sexually explicit text messages to a 12-year-old girl, whom he then tried to meet so he could have sex with her in his buggy. An Amish sexting scandal. Imagine that.

Well, it's really no more shocking that priests abusing children or pastors having affairs or police officers stealing cars.

And that's sad. But it's the reality of the human condition. Maybe the surprise is that more people don't fall into such scandals.

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Want some good advice about religion? Blame the fools who misuse it, not the religion itself. That's exactly the message in this piece about Mormonism and some of the things happening recently in Utah. It's good advice.

An 'open source' church? 6-25/26-11

Authors Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren and Tony Jones have, in their books, told us how and why the Christian church is in the midst of tumultuous change.

Open-source-church Now the Rev. Landon Whitsitt, in an important and terrifically useful book, Open Source Church, tells those of us who are Christian what to do about it.

The church in many ways is at a crossroads. It can keep doing the things it's been doing in the same old ways it's been doing them for decade after decade or it can find new life, which means more effective ways of introducing people to Jesus Christ, who, the church says, will transform their lives.

Whitsitt here offers page after page of insightful suggestions for how to think about church today and how to create effective ministries that all -- but especially younger -- people can be part of.

Before I give you some examples of what Whitsitt, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Liberty, Mo., and vice-moderator of the national governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA), means when he talks about the church needing to be "open source" let me unpack that term a bit.

It is taken from the world of computer software. It means, among other things, not only that the software is free but also that once it's  released, anyone can change it and re-release it. The idea is that a whole bunch of people working on the same problem will be smarter than one person, even if that person is a so-called "expert." Whitsitt puts it this way: "Groups of normal people can consistently discern better solutions than an expert." One open source model that Whitsitt draws on is the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, to which thousands of people contribute.

When this pattern of operating is moved to the church, all kinds of good things can happen, even if there may be some reluctance to adopt the open source model for fear of jeopardizing basic theology or undoing all the sacred cows that churches have created over the years.

There are lots of people who, in their professional lives, get blocked from being creative. Whitsitt asks, "Why can't the church be the one place in someone's life where it is not only acceptable but also expected that they act creatively and contribute significantly to the life of the church community and the community at large?"

Whitsitt pleads for humility when it comes to various understandings of church and of the gospel. No doubt there are churches, denominations or whole branches of Christianity that would disagree with Whitsitt on this, but he argues that "No person or group should claim to possess the original, correct or sole understanding of the gospel."

Whitsitt's idea is to open up stifling church structures to let people contribute their collective wisdom. And he draws on his experience as a pastor to offer specific and detailed advice for church leaders. I've just agreed to lead a strategic planning task force for my own congregation and I can tell you that I intend to draw on some of Whitsitt's thinking for that work.

The only thing I'd criticize Whitsitt for is that I think he needs to unpack more fully his idea that "the gospel of Jesus Christ exists to set us free." He's right about that, in my view, but the concept is so rich and complex that it deserves more space than he gives it. Indeed, when he writes that "freedom should be the sole concern of an open source church," it raises the question of whether he's somehow making freedom an idol.

Well, Whitsitt certainly would deny that he's making freedom an idol. And I'm not accusing him of it. But without a careful, more detailed explanation of what freedom in Christ means, this idol question gets raised.

In the end, this easy-to-read book is a gift to the church universal. It will stir up debate, no doubt, but if everyone participates in the debate, the crowd will discern a better answer than any one expert, even Whitsitt himself, as he would acknowledge.

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Some branches of the Christian church are turning themselves inside out to try to deal with how to handle questions of homosexuality instead of confronting the issues openly and honestly and in a, well, straight-forward way. For instance, the rules of discipline in the United Methodist Church still forbid clergy from performing same-sex holy union ceremonies. But when one of its pastors recently violated that rule, the punishment was a 20-day suspension. Clearly the church doesn't much care whether its rule is violated. So why doesn't it just remove the rule altogether? And why doesn't it allow ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians? My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) finally did that this year after arguing about it for way too long. (For what the Bible says about homosexuality, read my essay on the subject found under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

Eeeeek! Muslim picnickers: 6-24-11


When we arrived at the park (Do dangerous, subversive people hold picnics in public parks?) we passed by, well, an SUV and the man unloading it handed me what I thought was a suspicious package. It turned out to be full of badminton rackets and birdies, plus another roundish package containing, uh, a ball to play with.

Hmmm. Pretty dangerous stuff, I thought. These are weapons that could, uh, enliven an afternoon.

Yes, this group of Muslims was weird and scary, all right, just the way those fright-mongers on the radio and elsewhere tell people Muslims. Well, that is, they weren't weird and scary yet -- but maybe they would become so as the annual Crescent Peace Society picnic last Sunday at Shawnee Mission Park unfolded through the afternoon and evening.

But as it turned out (and as I knew it would), the Islamophobe fear-mongers would have been terribly disappointed in the Muslims (and a few others) who showed up at this event -- disappointed that they didn't measure up to the terrorist images they like to promote.

Here's who I ran into:

* First, a man who is a vice president at a huge international engineering firm based here. He was just back from England, where he attended a conference on shipping liquified natural gas. While he was there he visited his daughter, a student finishing up at the London School of Economics and about to head back to the U.S. to enter law school.

* This man's wife, a physician who directs a specialty clinic for people with Down Syndrome. She was describing a fund-raiser she and others just pulled off to be able to hire someone with Down Syndrome to be on the clinic's staff.

* Nearby was a man who directs a program that sends health care workers to the homes of people who need this service. But that's not what he wanted to talk about. Instead, he told me about how he and others from an area Muslim council have been sending people and resources to help Joplin, Mo., recover from its recent devastating tornado. He himself just returned from Joplin.

* An area physician was nearby helping to set up the food table. Her husband, also a physician, arrived later. They're about to become grandparents for the first time and they're overjoyed.

* As we ate, I sat across from a woman who was describing the work her son was doing as a journalist for the ABC TV affiliate in Cincinnati. (Ah, a journalist. Finally someone sort of subversive, like me.)

Well, there were others, but no one seemed interested in terrorizing anyone or forcing Shawnee, Kan., to adopt Sharia law or turning Johnson County, Kansas, into an Islamic state. I'm not suggesting that no one claiming to be Muslim in America wants to harm the country. Clearly we all know better than that, just as we know that there are some Christians, Jews and others who are willing to be violent extremists.

But maybe those talk radio guys trying to scare us about Muslims in the U.S. should have been here to meet a whole picnic shelter full of Muslims who love America and add much to our culture, which is also their culture.

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Quite different from most Muslims in the U.S., the Pakistani military seems to be deeply embedded with radical Islamists, writes journalist Fareed Zakaria. These people are on the wrong side of history, but it will take a lot of time and much else to change this picture. In the meantime, we must hope and pray that that country's nuclear weapons don't fall into the hands of people who think of the U.S. as the great Satan.

Describing the ineffable: 6-23-11

I was in my regular adult Sunday school class this past weekend talking about another challenging sermon the week before from our pastor.

Love In the midst of our discussion our leader asked how it might be possible describe the ineffable. How, he asked, can we describe something like love?

Well, I had an answer from the evening before that worked for me.

That Saturday evening my wife and I were privileged to witness the bat-mitzvah of the daughter of my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and his wife Denisse. This was the first bat-mitzvah in the history of his new congregation, Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City.

It was a lovely and moving ceremony, but no more so than when, toward the end, Jacques offered his daughter the rabbi's blessing. Jacques was wearing a prayer shawl, and he brought his daughter into its folds, placed his hands on her head and said words only she and he could hear.

Jacques emerged, well, in tears and the two hugged on to each other. Lots of the rest of us were in tears, too.

That is what love looks like, I thought. Well, that and the wonderful words that were said -- by the girl being celebrated, by her sister, by their mother and by their father.

This is why ritual is so important to us. The girls -- even later when they might be angry at each other -- will always remember telling a whole room full of people that they love each other. They will remember the wonderful words their parents said about both of them. And it will sustain them.

The next day we celebrated my oldest granddaughter's ninth birthday and, in a much less formal setting, expressed our love for her, too, by sitting on the porch of her home, eating cake and ice cream and sharing presents. That, too, is what love looks like. 

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How involved do popes and bishops get in international politics? Well, it depends, of course, but if you think they stay out of it and just pray, think again. As this intriguing story suggests, Pope John Paul II and the Catholic bishops of Venezuela were quite involved in the question of who would run that country, and they were on different sides, with the bishops defying the pope.

A science-religion explainer: 6-22-11

I used to write a lot about scientific developments when I was an editorial page columnist for The Kansas City Star.

Religion-v-science Only not in the usual way. Instead, I would write about discoveries and alleged break-throughs using humor because that seemed to me to be a way that people would stay with me while I was telling them about some huge cosmological matter or some teeny subatomic happening.

I think it was clear, however, that I much admired the scientists doing all of this work, just as I much admire many of the theologians who are giving us new ways to think about God.

I also was quite interested in the connection between science and religion, and even helped to create a local initiative through my church that put on seminars and other events exploring the relationship between the two fields.

All of which is background to tell you why I especially like a new book called Religion Versus Science: Where Both Sides Go Wrong in the Great Evolution Debate, by Ron Frost, a professor of geology at the University of Wyoming. Frost also is a Buddhist.

Front has little patience for people of faith -- especially the young-Earth creationists -- who ignore or deny science when science contradicts what their version of religion insists is true about the way the world works. But he also has little use for scientists who draw on their field of expertise to pretend that it's possible to prove that there is no God or, as Frost puts it, Ultimate Reality.

Frost draws a useful distinction between "naturalism" and "materialism." By the former, he means an approach that looks for -- and expects -- natural explanations for physical phenomena. By the latter he means an uncalled-for denial that anything beyond the material world exists. More than that, the materialists say that there are material explanations even for "the religious experience."

Frost argues that "rather than presenting antagonistic views of reality, science and religion are complementary ways of examining the world." And he insists that "if we really want to understand the world around us, each of us must be able to integrate objective and subjective reality into the mystical whole."

One thing I especially like about this book is its clear way of explaining basic science. Frost doesn't write down to those of us who aren't scientists, but neither does he rely on difficult, technical language that makes these concepts unavailable to most readers. In that, he's a bit like Brian Greene, who, in such books as The Elegant Universe, is able to explain String Theory, M-Theory and other impossibly complex ideas in ways that most of us can grasp, at least in outline.

If I were to fault Frost, it would be that I think he is a little too hard on the people who promote the Intelligent Design movement. Frost tends to identify them more closely with creationists than I do, though I agree with the courts that have ruled that I.D. should not be taught as science in public school classrooms. Still, I.D. has some interesting insights and I think Frost dismisses them a bit too quickly.

Religion and science must learn how to talk respectfully to one another. Frost's book can help.

(Just for the record, books about the tension between science and religion are not new. Indeed, you can go back to the late 1800s and find them, including the still-available classic by Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom.)

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I'm always intrigued by what it is about faith and patriotism that gets people riled up. Lots of folks were upset this past Sunday when, in an introduction piece to the U.S. Open, NBC offered the "Pledge of Allegiance" but without the "one nation, under God" wording. Well, of course it was a stupid decision to cut it out and of course NBC quickly apologized. But I'm wondering how many of the people who got upset about this also expressed outrage over, say, news of six distressing trends in antisemitism. Or at the news that hunger continues to be a big problem and that faith communities aren't doing enough to help with it. Show me someone who said something publicly about all three matters and I'll be impressed.

The mysterious 'Tree of Life': 6-21-11

Ever since I read about the new film "The Tree of Life" on a few weeks ago, I've been anxious to see it.

Tree of Life Movie Poster I got that chance the other day at its opening, and I can tell you that if you want a challenging, intriguing, somewhat mysterious movie to get you thinking about eternal things, this is it.

In fact, I had breakfast yesterday with a clergy friend who had seen the film over the weekend and was somewhat puzzled by it. But was thinking about it, talking about it, asking about it. That's what good films do to viewers.

There is, in fact, a plot, though sometimes it wanders away and you're not sure it's going to come back -- or needs to. But it's about a white, lower-middle-class family in the 1950s and the eventual death of one of the three sons. So for people like me, who grew up in the '50s, it's a return to all the cars of our childhoods and so much else.

But this is a family with issues -- particularly a father with control issues, even emotional and some physical abuse issues. And each one of them is trying to figure out the answers to eternal questions, including the haunting one aimed at God, "Who (or maybe what) are we to you?" We see the oldest boy as an adult trying to figure out how life's meaning drained away for him, and thus we retreat to the 1950s to relive that time with him.

As my ReadTheSpirit friends correctly note, this really is a movie about prayer. But not the kind found in a neat compendium of prayers suitable for all occasions. Rather, these are prayers of angst and questions, of anger and frustration, of puzzlement and exhaustion. And they are landmined into the movie in the voices of the various characters.

But I wouldn't stop with saying the movie is just about prayer. That's because I think prayer in this case is a sign of something deeper -- a spiritual hunger that grows out of bafflement at a world that God seems sometimes to have abandoned. In the end, it's the old question of theodicy -- why is there evil in a world that a good God created and declared to be good? How, in other words, do we explain the existence of suffering? Is God not powerful enough to stop it or doesn't God care? Theodicy, as I've said before, is the open wound of religion. And, in the end, all theodicies fail.

These questions prod and poke these characters and each responds in different -- sometimes destructive -- ways.

In some ways it is the beautiful, loving, weak, always-anguished mother in the film who comes up with a response that works the best, at least for her. It's submission. She finally tells God that she gives God her dead son. She sees no other answer. And in that letting go one senses the lifting of an enormous burden.

The movie is cosmic in its scope, in that we graphically experience the development of the cosmos, including dinosaurs and the Chicxulub asteroid that smashed into the Yucatan Penninsula 65 million years ago and led to the extinction of the species.

The film seeks to invoke a sense of eternal mystery, and succeeds at that. If you like your theology neat and uncomplicated, don't bother with this film. If you can live with ambiguity and mystery, this will give you most of a year's load at once.

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This intriguing op-ed in The Wall Street Journal is getting lots of reaction. It asks how the world might be different (worse) today had post-World War II Jews followed the path down which the Palestinians have gone. Catch the various comments left with the piece -- both pro and con.

Our extraordinary universe: 6-20-11


As we celebrate (or possibly mourn) the official arrival of North American summer early tomorrow afternoon, I invite you to think about the finely tuned nature of creation. It's that fine tuning that allows us to say with precision when each season begins and ends -- and many other things, as well.

But how finely tuned is the cosmos?

Years ago I recall reading in a book by the eminent scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne a wonderful explanation that said essentially this: Immediately after the Big Bang, the forces expansion and the forces of contraction were astonishingly close (finely tuned), which allowed the universe to develop as it did. How finely tuned? Well, he wrote, take a regular rifle and move to the far edge of the universe -- which is nearly 14 billion light years across. At the other edge of the universe, have someone set up a target roughly the side of a bandage. Now, if you were to shoot at that across those 14 billion light years and actually hit it (not necessary in the bull's eye, but somewhere on it), you would have an idea of how finely tuned the universe is.

Well, I can't find that Polkinghorne book now but I have found this essay by him from Commonweal Magazine that makes some of the same ponts. And I invite you to ponder the delicate balances of creation tomorrow as summer rolls in, just as predicted. (Science seems better at predicting these things that do the religious doomsday date-setters, who so far are batting a perfect .000.)

Does the finely tuned universe prove there's a God and that God created things that way? I'm not going to -- and don't need to -- claim that. But it does give one pause.

(The artwork here today shows the summer solstice at Stonehenge. You can find this image at

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Where does worship happen? Anywhere, as this story about church at a rodeo shows. It's a good reminder to people of faith that worship doesn't require a big building with a fancy steeple. Never did. Never will.