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October 2011

Those faithful hypocrites: 9-30-11

Hypocrisy. It's one of the first things people pick up on about people of faith. In fact, it's what, as a teen-ager, drove me out of the church for a time. Until, that is, I realized that I myself was also a hypocrite and needed help with that.

Two-faced So when, for instance, Christians preach the gospel of no sex before marriage but then don't practice that, people dismiss them as hypocritical and unworthy of investigating to see if Christianity might be a faith they want to follow or at least explore.

And hypocrisy is exactly what has raised its two-faced head in a new survey about what Christians who consider themselves evangelical say and do about premarital sex.

As this report notes, evangelical Christians are just as likely as anyone else to engage in sexual activity prior to marriage, no matter what they say.

This information and more is to be published in an upcoming edition of Relevant magazine.

Maybe we should think about preaching for good values as much as we preach against destructive values. If we don't always manage to live up to those high values we may seem more forgivable than when we preach against certain thiings and then do them anyway.

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As nearly everyone knows, Christendom is dead in Europe. The question is whether Christianity detached from the burdens of Christendom can make a comeback there. Pope Benedict XVI hopes so and now is calling for a re-evanglization of the continent. My guess is that if he's offering essentially what Europeans already have rejected it won't fly. But if Christians of all varieties can find new, effective ways of sharing the gospel there's an opportunity to connect with people who are searching for meaning -- which is all of us. Same goes for the U.S.

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P.S.: At 9:30 a.m. this Sunday I'll be speaking at St. Thomas Episcopal Church of Overland Park, Kan., with Father Gar Demo and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn about "Israel Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." The three of us will be leading a Christian-Jewish study trip to Israel in April. We'll do the same class at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13, at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City. And on Friday, Oct. 21, Father Demo and I will speak about what Israel means to us as Christians at Rabbi Cukierkorn's congregation, Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City.

Fixing biblical ignorance: 9-29-11

Biblical literacy -- which is to say biblical illiteracy -- is a serious problem among American Christians and Jews.

Reading-the-bible-for-all-the-wrong-reasons The standard joke about this is that many people think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

But the problem goes deeper than people who simply have no working knowledge of the Bible. The problem extends to what theologians call hermeneutics -- which is to say how one interprets sacred writ.

As one of my pastors is wont to say, you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both.

OK, but if you don't take it literally, how do you decide how to interpret what you're reading?

Prof. Russell Pregeant's great new book, Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons, should help everyone with this question.

It is a brief, reasonable, intelligent, careful and understandable book that makes clear, for starters, what the Bible is not. It is not a fortune cookie full of aphorisms, not a book full of historical or scientific facts, not a book of systematic theology, not a crystal ball, not rule book and not a weapon with which to beat on people who don't believe what you believe.

Rather, the Bible is a library full of books written by many authors over hundreds of years as a witness to the love and on-going creative and redeeming power of God. For Christians, it is a fully adequate revelation of who Jesus Christ is.

When you hear the Bible being used as a high-powered rifle in today's hot-button social issues, you can be pretty sure that the reasonable methods of interpretation (and even literalists interpret the Bible; there's no other way to read it) that Pregeant proposes are being damagingly violated.

It would be enormously helpful if Bible studies in churches and synagogues began with this book.

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Who says the lives of Christian pastors are dull? That's certainly not the case with Tracy Bernard Burleson of Houston. Get this: He's facing capital murder charges for the 2010 slaying of his wife, not because he pulled the trigger but because he allegedly got his stepson to do that. This would be the same stepson who also was in love with the pastor's mistress, it's reported. If I went on, you wouldn't believe it, so I won't. Hope your clergy folks are in less trouble than this.

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P.S.: At 9:30 a.m. this Sunday I'll be speaking at St. Thomas Episcopal Church of Overland Park, Kan., with Father Gar Demo and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn about "Israel Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." The three of us will be leading a Christian-Jewish study trip to Israel in April. We'll do the same class at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13, at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City. And on Friday, Oct. 21, Father Demo and I will speak about what Israel means to us as Christians at Rabbi Cukierkorn's congregation, Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City.

Ordaining gays to ministry: 9-28-11

Slowly the world -- at least parts of it -- changes for the better. A wonderful example that especially pleases me is that earlier this year the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which my congregation is a part, changed its constitution to allow the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians.

Anderson_scott And now the first ordination of a gay candidate under the new rules is scheduled for Oct. 8. He's Scott Anderson (pictured here), executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches.

Scott originally was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor in 1982, but, as he confirmed to me in an e-mail, "I 'set aside' my ordination in 1990, and...when my sexual orientation was made public I had to leave parish ministry."

As most of you know, the battle over ordaining gays and lesbians has gone on for decades in many different religions, including various branches of Christianity.

Among Mainline Protestant churches, the United Church of Christ has ordained gays for years, and now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are following suit.

My guess is that 100 years from now almost every major Christian denomination will have changed its rules to allow for ordination of gays. There's essentially no biblical reason not to. For my essay on the subject of what the Bible really says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

It's not that our churches are caving in to the movement of the culture in this area. Rather, it's that some churches finally are doing what they should have been doing all along -- being voices for liberation and against a harsh, restrictive, literalistic reading of scripture.

It feels good to be on the right side of history, welcoming all of God's children into all roles within what we Christians call the Body of Christ.

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Speaking of needed reforms, the King of Saudi Arabia this week declared that women there finally will be allowed to vote. But as this New York Times editorial suggests, that's just a needed first step. The problem is that King Abdullah, whom I met in Saudi Arabia in 2002 when he still was crown prince, feels beholden to Islamic clerics, many of whom want nothing to change. Their recalcitrance is in conflict with Islam as it was originally embraced by the Prophet Muhammad, whose words and deeds were quite liberating for women. But as Islam moved into different cultures, the patriarchal nature of those cultures often overwhelmed islam's liberating impulses. And that has continued today in many countries where Islam is dominant. The worst example of a repressive interpretation of Islam, of course, is the Taliban -- and, by extension, al-Qaida.

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Beyond the Pews: Breaking with Tradition and Letting Go of Religious Lockdown, by Jillian Maas Backman. This book may challenge what you think you know -- or at least suspect -- about God's presence in our midst. From early childhood, the author began to experience almost a physical connection with spirits she came to conclude were from the divine. She would see colors around people and see ephemeral beings and feel shocks of electric energy. She came to understand that the beings she was in touch with were teaching her spiritual lessons that were not in conflict with -- but that supplemented -- what she was learning in a Christian church that her father pastored. In this book she draws together lessons she has learned about how to me more aware of the divine presence in our lives and seeks to teach them to her readers. She calls this spiritual intuition and says that we can get much better at it than most of us are: "The promising news is that your spiritual intuitive language will be sending signals and guiding you to a place of spiritual equilibrium throughout your lifetime." I would not classify this as a slightly different take on traditional theology but, rather, a take that both challenges and affirms that theology. Although this book was a bit beyond my personal spiritual comfort zone, it may be right in yours.

A new interfaith magazine: 9-27-11

As my regular readers know, I often promote interfaith dialogue and similar connections as a way toward reducing the tensions in the world that are caused by ignorance, prejudice and fear.

TIOBanner And, thus, I'm delighted to see new efforts toward this kind of understanding.

Which is why today I'm introducing you to a new online magazine called The Interfaith Observer.

As its opening page notes with considerable (maybe even too much) optimism:

"In spite of the daily news, the great good news is that people everywhere, in fact, are reaching out. A thousand interreligious flowers and more are blooming across the globe. No one organized, planned or even predicted this surging proliferation of activity. It seems to be a natural human response when the races, religions, and cultures of the world interact freely with one another, face-to-face, on a daily basis."

Religions You can read about the group that is producing TIO, as it's known for short, at the "Who We Are" page on its site.

So have a look at TIO's initial Sept. 15 issue and see what you think. I know I'll look forward to the section in each issue on "interfaith news," a roundup of events and developments in this field.

And if you know people who do interfaith work, make sure they know about this new effort.

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Rob Bell, whose recent book questioning hell stirred up much of the evangelical branch of Christianity in the U.S., told his congregation, which he's leaving, that they'll do fine without him in the pulpit. That's one of the issues this era of rock star preachers and megachurches raises -- is it about the preachers or is it about Jesus and Christianity? Well, I'm afraid in our consumerist culture it's not always the latter. Sigh.

America's own holy war: 9-26-11

You hear a lot these days about "holy war." Indeed, I recently wrote here about a book with that title that offered the idea that Vasco da Gama's journey to India was, in effect, the last Christian Crusade and served, in the end, to block Islam's advance into Western Europe.

Civil war But I think that all of these thoughts about what is holy war and what isn't might become more clear if we went back into our own American history and looked at the Civil War.

That's exactly what people at a Baylor University symposium did recently, and I regret not being able to attend. But here's a newspaper account of the event.

What I find so fascinating from the symposium is the discussion about how much each side in that conflict believed that its position was in some way divinely approved.

We all know, of course, that many people in the 19th Century used (well, misused) the Bible to justify slavery. And that helped to lead to the belief among members of the Confederacy that God was on their side. Similarly, of course, many people in the North, particularly the strong abolitionists, felt they were doing the Lord's work in opposing slavery.

So America has experience with the concept of holy war, and before we trash others who have bought into the concept today, we might delve into our own history to see why our ancestors thought they were fighting a holy war 150 years ago and whether there's something we can learn about how to prevent holy wars based on that assessment.

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Germans who were hoping for a message of reform in the Catholic Church would have been disappointed with Pope Benedict XVI's final words on his trip to his native land. Here's a central message of the trip, as reported by Reuters: "Benedict has closed the door on changes to the Church's opposition to gay marriage, married clergy or women priests, and has indicated he will not ease restrictions on divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the Church. From highly secular Berlin to former communist Erfurt to Catholic Freiburg during this four-day trip, he has hammered home his view that the Church cannot change merely to suit the whims of the times."

Struggles for congregations: 9-24/25-11

A new study confirms what many people of faith already know: It's been a difficult 10 years for congregations of nearly all faiths.

Congregations As the press release announcing the study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research says, "faith communities are entering this decade less healthy than they were at the turn of the century."

One indication of this -- beyond financial struggles -- is worship attendance, and as David A. Roozen writes in the study,  "... more than 1 in 4 American congregations had fewer than 50 in worship in 2010, and just under half had fewer than 100. Overall, median weekend worship attendance of your typical congregation dropped from 130 to 108 during the decade, according to the FACT surveys." (FACT is a reference to Faith Communities Today, a multifaith research coalition.)

Well, none of that is good news for congregations, but I want to suggest that measuring worship attendance is an increasingly misleading way of measuring the health of a congregation.

Many people find traditional worship times (Sunday mornings for Christians, Friday evenings or Saturdays for Jews, Friday afternoons for Muslims) difficult to live with nowadays.

So although many of these people won't be found in regular worship services each time there is one, they remain active in their faith in many ways. They may volunteer at the site of one of their congregation's mission partners, attend a study group in the middle of the week or visit the sick on behalf of their congregation.

Studies such as the one I've linked you to are useful in that they point out some harsh realities that congregations must face. (So I'll get out of the way here and let you go back and read the full report.) But such studies don't tell the whole story, and especially those congregations that are encouraging lots of connections outside of worship should remember that.

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A prominent Southern Baptist leader says the death penalty is inherently pro-life. In the same way that burning down that Vietnamese village was pro-saving it?

Who owns the church? 9-23-11

Anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with Christian churches knows two things:

Gods-church-post * Change is often difficult for them.

* Without change they die.

That's the reality I'm facing as I chair a strategic planning committee at my (ha!) congregation, so the task before us is to find a way that will honor our nearly 150 years of wonderful (mostly) history and yet move us toward an ability to do effective ministry in the 21st Century, when change is happening at warp speed.

One of the excellent resources I've found to help us with that is a 2007 book by the Rev. Gordon MacDonald. It's called Who Stole My Church?: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century. One of our task force members gave it to me and insisted I read it. Good idea.

MacDonald puts himself and his wife squarely in the middle of the story, but for the story itself he creates a fictionalized church in which members in their 50s, 60s and above are grumbling about some of the changes in worship and programming that the church is doing under MacDonald's leadership.

It's really quite an engaging story and worth a read by anyone faced with the prospect of introducing necessary (and even exciting) changes to a congregation.

But I want here to focus on one small but crucial idea from the book. And that idea is found in verse 28 of the 20th chapter of the book of Acts. It's this: "Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood."

The idea that the church cost God everything means that this is not our church. Rather, it's God's, and our task is to try to discern how God would have us use this church for ministry.

As MacDonald writes, "God sees the church as precious. . .valuable. . .important." (Emphasis and elliptical dots his.)

Once people understand that, fights over the color of the carpet or the times of worship services or whether the pastors and choir wear robes all seem pretty insignificant. As they should be.

Perhaps you know the hymn that wraps up this idea this way:

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.

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Pope Benedict XVI is back in his native Germany on an official visit. And what would such a visit be without fancy welcoming ceremonies plus protests galore? B-16 gets it all. But at least Germany's president has an appropriate first name for this event -- Christian (Wulff).

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P.S.: I've just received approval to teach two weeklong seminars at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico next July. To read about them so you can mark your calendar to attend one or both, click here.

Celebrating Desmond Tutu: 9-22-11

It astonishes me to think that three of the moral giants of our time have deep roots in South Africa.

Tutu Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (pictured both on the cover of a new book and in the photo below right).

Yes, Gandhi was a native of India, and it was in India that he did his most impressive life's work, but he spent 21 formative years in South Africa first as a young lawyer.

I'm not sure I can explain how one country can help produce such towering people, but I can celebrate these leaders. And one way to do that is to learn more about them.

That's why I'm glad that Tutu's daughter and others have created Tutu: Authorized, a far-ranging biography that includes insights from many souces. Its official publication date is Oct. 4 but it can be preordered now. (The book is issued on the occasion of Tutu's 80th birthday on Oct. 7.) The perhaps-surprising thing about this authorized biography is that, although it certainly is full of praise for Tutu, it also includes crtical comments and analysis of his strengths and weaknesses.

Desmond-tutu For instance, I was surprised to learn how long it took for Tutu to have any sense of calling to the ministry even though he'd committed to becoming a pastor because "it was a job and he needed one." Only later did he really believe himself to be called by God to the ministry. The authors are Allister Sparks, a journalist, and the Rev. Mpho Tutu, the archbishop's daughter.

Tutu, who helped lead South Africa out of the evil system of racial segregation known as apartheid, "did not do it alone," as the book says. Indeed, Tutu is known for what's called "ubuntu theology." It's an approach that emphasizes our interconnectedness. Ubuntu theology insists that if one member of the community is not well, the whole community is not well.

Desmond Tutu was a bit of a reluctant leader of the liberation movement in South Africa. He stepped into the interim leadership role when just about everyone else, including Mandela, had been jailed, silenced or both. Part of the story in this book is how he managed to walk a careful line between appealing for support to more militant segments of the oppressed society and, at the same time, not alienate powerful white interests who could easily jail and silence Tutu himself.

When Mandela finally was released from prison, Tutu moved out of his political role and more intentionally back into his role as an Anglican clergyman, in which role he became a champion for peace and -- like Mandela after him -- a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In addition to many excellent photographs, the book is full of lots of interesting family history along with words about Tutu from such people as Barack Obama, Bono, the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton.

We may have to wait until some years after Tutu is gone for a definitive biography by a qualified historian, but in the meantime this book can help introduce people who may not know much about Tutu to this remarkable man.

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A new Harvard study finds people who are more intuitive in their thinking processes tend to believe in God more than do people who are more reflective thinkers. Intuitively that seems right but I bet if I reflect on it for awhile I'll disagree.

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All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir, by Brennan Manning. Yes, I declare it legal to talk about two new books in the same blog posting. And like Tutu: Authorized, this life story by former Franciscan priest Manning is due out officially Oct. 4 but can be preordered now. Manning has lived a rocky, desperate, redeemed, fallen, glorious life and his many fans will want to hear what he says are his final words, given that he's in his late 70s, is frail and in ill health. There's something profoundly sad about the story he tells, especially his relationship with his emotionally distant mother, whose funeral Manning failed to attend because he had passed out drunk in a motel room. Many other family dynamics come into play in this story as well, and few of them seem healthy. Still, even though there's pain and depravity and even desperation in Manning's story, you also will find redemption and a sense of both forgiveness and reconciliation, not just with other people but also with God. And it's God's amazing love for him and for all of creation that Manning moves us to ponder. For, as he writes, in the end all is grace.

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P.S.: The Vedanta Society of Kansas City will present the third Arjun Kumar Sharma Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall, 7725 W. 87th St., Overland Park, Kan. The speaker will be Swami Sridharananda, the sixth president of the Ramakrishna Order of India, with which the Vedanta Society is affiliated. For more details, click here.

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

Seeking refuge from God in God: 9-21-11

The other evening I was honored to be given the Crescent Peace Society's annual Peace Award at a festive dinner at which several other people also were presented with awards.

WDT-CPS-11 I'll list them at the end of this entry, but first I want to unpack a small part of the prayer offered at the close of the event.

"I seek refuge in you from you."

I was struck immediately by the beauty of the thought and by the way in just seven words it managed to draw us into two views of God that must be held in creative tension.

Yes, God is our refuge. Christians, Jews and Muslims (as well as others) all affirm this in various ways, including in this prayer offered by a Muslim. God is a safe haven, a protector. The images of such a God are many.

And yet God is eternally "other." Which is to say that nothing is a more ultimate and eternal mystery than God, despite the ways in which people of faith assert that God's own revelation has helped us to understand who God is.

One aspect of this mysterious God is judgment. God calls us to righteousness, to live at peace with all people, to treat others with dignity. And when we fail we are aware that our actions and thoughts deserve divine condemnation.

In Christian theology, it is God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, absorbs that condemnation and liberates us through forgiveness and reconciliation.

And so I can hardly think of a more Christian prayer than "We seek refuge in you from you." And yet, as I say, it was uttered by a Muslim.

Thus, it was one more example of the wonderfully surprising things we learn about one another when we are in connection with people of faiths other than our own.

The other award winners:

* Shakil Haider -- Community Service

* Priscilla Wilson -- Lifetime Achievement

* Amina Patel -- Education

* Aziz and Kalsum Choudhry -- Business

* Donna Ziegenhorn -- Literary

* And the Syed Farrukh Shabbir Memorial Scholarship winners were Brooke Benson of Shawnee Mission West High School (first place) and Lauren Nichols of Grain Valley High School (second).

And just FYI, the Crescent Peace Society was formed in 1996 by a small group of Muslims from the Kansas City area after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which first, you may recall, was blamed on Muslims by various sources.

(In the photo here, that's M. Khurram Qureshi, president of the Crescent Peace Society, handing me my award.)

* * *


More and more weddings are being presided over not by clergy but by friends of the couple, this report says. Heck, I myself, though not clergy, have conducted two weddings and done all but the vows at a third. And all three couples still are married, just as all the people whose funerals I've presided at are still dead. More seriously, the question is whether these marriages are starting out with any kind of theological context or whether they're just secular contracts. If people want the former, then I think clergy should have some part in the process, even if non-clergy do the ceremonies themselves.

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

Faith's college dropout issue: 9-20-11

As a planning task force I'm chairing at my church thinks about the kind of ministry our congregation should be doing over the next several years, one of the subjects that comes up again and again is how to educate our youth and keep them connected to -- and passionate about -- faith as they move into their college-age years.

Youth-prayer Lots of other people in other settings are thinking about the same thing, too.

One of the most recent projects looking at all of this is coming out of Fuller Seminary in California.

Researchers there have noticed how big a dropoff there is in college-age youth sticking with their faith. The link will tell you about some survey information they've turned up on this subject.

So they are creating various resources at a new Web site called to help churches, parents, youth and others grapple with this issue. (And, as you can see here, there's also a Sticky Faith book.)

Sticky Faith The reality is that teen-agers (to say nothing of the rest of us) are spiritually hungry.

But as they explore life at that age, they're not terribly interested in pre-packaged answers. So they need to be allowed to find their own way to make faith real to them, and congregations (of whatever religion) that allow them to do that -- and yet are in regular, healthy contact with them -- do the best, in my experience.

Anyway, have a look at what the Sticky Faith folks are up to and see if it might be of any help to you and your situation.

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The folks who want to create an Islamic center near Ground Zero on New York will open temporary space there tomorrow. Good. Maybe when people experience that space in a good way it will defuse the anger about the site. In this blog entry in August 2010 I made the case for building this center near Ground Zero.