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A Jewish-Christian question: 11-30-11

In recent weeks I have mentioned (here and here) the fascinating new book, Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: New Explorations of Theological Interrelationships, edited by Philip A. Cunningham, Joseph Sievers, Mary C. Boys, Hans Hermann Henrix and Jesper Svartvik.

Christ-JesusToday I want to take a bit of a broader look at it.

I call it fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that it focuses on the relatively new (less than 50 years) serious dialogue between Catholicism and Judaism, and that converstion is both lively and vital.

Indeed, that conversation began not long after the Second Vatican Council issued the document called "Nostra Aetate," which for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church declared that Jews should not be considered collectively guilty of the death of Jesus. This came after almost 20 centuries of virulent anti-Judaism taught by the church. For my essay describing that history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

So Catholic-Jewish dialogue is important, as is the broader Christian-Jewish conversation, partly to help Christians understand our own sordid history of treating Jews as pestilent. And this book, including an excellent "Foreward" by Cardinal Walter Kasper, can help with all of that.

But another reason the book is fascinating is that it reveals again Christianity's need to understand what it got so wrong for so long and to repent of that. No doubt many Jews are grateful this finally is happening, but in some ways they must ask themselves, "How is this about us?" The analogy I'm about to use breaks down in many ways, but it's sort of like a divorced man who was an abusive husband finally deciding to get therapy, and the divorced wife, while she may be glad of that, knows that this is almost entirely about him, not her. She's long ago moved on.

As I say, that analogy helps only a little in understanding Christian-Jewish dialogue today, but when Catholic scholars are digging so deeply into not only what went wrong but, more to the point, how the church's relationship to Judaism can be healthy today, there's a sense in which it's all about Catholic (and, more broadly, Christian) needs, not Jewish needs.

And yet the reality is that Christianity is the 800-pound religious gorilla in the world, with more than 2 billion people identifying themselves as Christian, compared to only about 13 million Jews. So whatever Christians (about half of whom are Catholic) do matters to everyone.

That's a long preface to this book, which I highly recommend to anyone who cares generally about interfaith relations and specifically about Christian-Jewish dialogue. It is in some ways not an easy read, not only for the references to the bleak history it raises up but also because it's written by theologians who often use language that is not readily accessible to lay people in congregations, whether Christian or Jewish.

Indeed, in his Foreward, Cardinal Kasper says that the initial exploration of core issues between Jews and Christians "should take place between specialists on an academic level and not be part of the official dialogues."

In the end, this book and the work it represents is concerned with one core question -- how, as Kasper puts it, "to relate the universal saving significance of Jesus Christ to Israel's ongoing covenantal life with God."

As you can see, that is very much a Christian-formulated question. Judaism, after all, does not recognize "the universal saving significance of Jesus Christ." But if Christians and Jews cannot stand where they stand on that issue, the idea of dialogue is pointless. Each must come to the table being fully what and who it is.

Perhaps the most that can be hoped for in this on-going conversation (and thank goodness for its existence) is mutual respect, which would be a big step forward from what has been the case throughout history.

Tolerance isn't a very high standard. But when you start with the followers of Jesus labeling Jews Christ killers and, in turn, first century Jewish leaders labeling followers of Jesus heretics -- and when this whole antagonism (fostered almost entirely by official Christian teaching for centuries) finds its horrific nadir in the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered only because they were Jews -- tolerance represents real progress.

And this important book is evidence of that.

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Christians, of course, are far from the only group to engage in anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Much of the antisemitism in the world today, as I've noted before, is coming from radical elements within Islam. And as this piece makes clear, even the Arab Spring movement contains increasingly visible antisemitic elements. It's all so sad because it's all so unnecessary.

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

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ANOTHER P.S.: For your holiday giving this year, may I immodestly suggest that you give family members and friends one of my two books that you yourself (surely) already have read: They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and/or A Gifit of Meaning, a collection of my more serious columns from The Kansas City Star. If you prefer to order directly from the University of Missouri Press, call 800-621-2736. Or if you're in the Kansas City area, see me or Rabbi Cukierkorn for the first book. Or buy yourself and your significant other an April Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel, led by me, Rabbi Cukierkorn and Father Gar Demo. For details, click here.

Marking ecumenical dates: 11-29-11

On my (and my bride's) 15th wedding anniversary today (an ecumenical union of an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian), I want to note two other ecumenical unions that occurred on Nov. 29, though in different years.

CNI-logoAnd I want to suggest that such unions are to be encouraged, though it's important to recognize the reality that Christianity (as well as Judaism, Islam and other faiths) has been divided almost since the beginning and no doubt will be divided long into the future.

On this date in 1970, the Church of North India was created as a combination of several Protestant denominations. This occurred some 12 years after I left India, where I spent two years of my boyhood, so I can't claim to have had anything to do with CNI's creation.

This Indian church union had been under discussion for more than 40 years. Sometimes churches move really, really slowly.

NccbannerIt was also on this date -- though in 1950 -- that the National Council of Churches was officially formed. Today, the council says on its Web site that its "member faith groups — from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches — include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation."

Many members of Protestant churches go a long time without hearing a single word about the National Council of Churches, but if you surf around on its Web site, you'll find it engaged in lots of work of various kinds.

I'm not sure why it's so difficult for faith groups to work together in unity. But the record clearly shows that to be the case. So it's probably a good idea to celebrate ecumenical unions when they occur and when they work.

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When Newt Gingrich, among others, invokes the image of America as a "City on a Hill," what he is calling to mind is something most Americans would shudder at, writes author James Carroll. Yes, and as Ronald Reagan and others sought to turn John Winthrop's 17th Century image into poltical capital, they helped to fuzz up America's historical memory and contribute to America's theological illiteracy. But that's no surprise. Probably most Americans think the term "immaculate conception" refers to the birth of Jesus when, in fact, it's about the birth of Jesus' mother Mary.

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P.S.: For your holiday giving this year, may I immodestly suggest that you give family members and friends one of my two books that you yourself (surely) already have read: They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and/or A Gifit of Meaning, a collection of my more serious columns from The Kansas City Star. If you prefer to order directly from the University of Missouri Press, call 800-621-2736. Or if you're in the Kansas City area, see me or Rabbi Cukierkorn for the first book. Or buy yourself and your significant other an April Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel, led by me, Rabbi Cukierkorn and Father Gar Demo. For details, click here.

Who founded Christianity? 11-28-11

Did Jesus found Christianity -- and, by extension, the Christian church?

Star of David with crossWell, over the centuries various branches of Christianity have spoken to that question, perhaps none so strongly in the affirmative as the Catholic Church.

For instance, in the Handbook for Today's Catholic, which includes a foreward by a cardinal and an "imprimatur" indicating the church approves its contents, Section 8 on page 24 has this subheadline: "The Church: Founded by Jesus Christ." It describes various ways in which Jesus' actions can be understood as him purposefully founding the church in his lifetime or immediately thereafter, and concludes by saying that "Jesus' founding of the Church was completed with the sending of the Holy Spirit. The actual birth of the Church took place on the day of Pentecost."

Today, however, even Catholic scholars are calling this rather simplistic narrative into question. For instance, in Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today, a fascinating new book I will review later here on the blog, John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M. (meaning a priest who is a member of the Order of the Servants of Mary, a Catholic mendicant order), professor of social ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, suggests it's historically inaccurate to say that Jesus founded the church.

"Can we," he asks, "continue to present the church as a distinct, separate institution founded by Jesus prior to his death? I frankly do not think we can, even though we continue to proclaim that message on Holy Thursday in particular. Our theological assertion in this regard must become far more nuanced in light of the new historical research. Admittedly such a reformulation will test the faith of many in the church."

No doubt.

But it won't change the core of the faith to acknowledge some historical realities. And it will have the benefit of giving Christians a better place to stand in trying to understand why the church preached a virulent anti-Judaism for centuries, even up to 50 years ago. (For my essay on that history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

Pawlikowski quotes the scholar Robin Scroggs as concluding that the movement Jesus began can best be described as a reform movement within Judaism, that Paul's missionary work was a Jewish mission that focused on the gentiles, that prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. there was no such reality as Christianity and that even though some later sections of the New Testament show signs of a movement toward separation, they also mostly retain contact with their Jewish context.

Pawlikowski also comments on what has become known as the "parting of the ways" movement among scholars studying how Christianity became a separate religion from Judaism. In this section he quotes scholar David Frankfurter as suggesting there was no distinct Christianity "before at least the mid-second century."

"Surely," Pawlikowski concludes, "we can no longer glibly assert that 'Christ founded the church' in his own lifetime if we take seriously, as I believe we must, that the church evolved out of Judaism quite gradually over a couple of centuries and that there was no distict religious body called 'church' in Jesus' own lifetime and for decades thereafter."

As I say, this acknowledgement can have profound implications for the way in which Christians relate to Jews even today. But I'll talk more about that when I focus more broadly on the new book from which I've quoted Pawlikowski today.

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Pope Benedict XVI says all institutions should be held to strict standards when it comes to sexual abuse of children. Certainly true. But it's hard for the leader of the Catholic Church to say that now and not have it sound a bit defensive.

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P.S.: For your holiday giving this year, may I immodestly suggest that you give family members and friends one of my two books that you yourself (surely) already have read: They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and/or A Gifit of Meaning, a collection of my more serious columns from The Kansas City Star. If you prefer to order directly from the University of Missouri Press, call 800-621-2736. Or if you're in the Kansas City area, see me or Rabbi Cukierkorn for the first book. Or buy yourself and your significant other an April Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel, led by me, Rabbi Cukierkorn and Father Gar Demo. For details, click here.

Rewording the Mass: 11-26/27-11

As I've been heading up a strategic planning committee at my church since July, I've time and again learned that sometimes what's important to one person about worship is utterly meaningless to another.

Roman_missalBut the one who considers it important often is ready to battle to the near-death to preserve whatever it is.

I don't quite understand all that, but I know it's true. Which is why I'm feeling some pain this weekend for my Catholic brothers and sisters. On Sunday parishes around the country are having to switch to a new English translation of the Roman Missal, which means changing some of the familiar words they say at Mass.

This new translation has been years and years in the making, and it has been nothing if not controversial for many reasons.

One view of all that can be seen in this recent editorial about it in The National Catholic Reporter, which laments some of the new wording but suggests there's nothing to be done about it now, so Catholics might as well learn to live with it.

The blogosphere (and elsewhere) is full of Catholic angst over the inauguration of the new translation, such as this recent piece. And, once again, the church will divide up between those who love the new version and those who loathe it, with many Catholics in the middle.

That's just the way it is in the life of faith, I guess.

But there's another lesson I've learned in the planning work I've been helping to do for my congregation: People don't fear change as much as they fear loss. In the case of the new missal, it sounds to an outsider like me as though lots of Catholics are feeling real loss along with just change. My guess is the church could have done things differently to avoid that. But maybe not.

Catholic-PrayerIf you are Catholic and want help understanding not just the new Mass but also the essential nature(s) of Catholic prayer, you would do well to get a copy of a new book by Catholic writer Mary DeTurris Poust, The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass. In addition to a pretty comprehensive look at prayer and what it means to be in relationship with God in that way, Poust has devoted a good part of this helpful book to the new English translation of the Roman Missal, including some history of how and why it came about. She doesn't take the side of the strong proponents of a translation closer to the Latin or of those who are profoundly unhappy with the changes, but she does acknowledge (and even quotes Pope Benedict XVI to this effect) that many will find these changes difficult to adjust to. In the end, Catholics of many persuasions will find this book a useful guide to deepening the meaning of prayer.

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We have entered the secularized winter/Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza silly season, which means someone will start asking questions like, "What religion are the Muppets?" You will forgive me if I seem reluctant to weigh in on this question. I worry that it might lead to some kind of syncretistic Marionetteology.

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P.S.: For your holiday giving this year, may I immodestly suggest that you give family members and friends one of my two books that you yourself (surely) already have read: They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and/or A Gifit of Meaning, a collection of my more serious columns from The Kansas City Star. If you prefer to order directly from the University of Missouri Press, call 800-621-2736. Or if you're in the Kansas City area, see me or Rabbi Cukierkorn for the first book. Or buy yourself and your significant other an April Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel, led by me, Rabbi Cukierkorn and Father Gar Demo. For details, click here.

The violence in sacred texts: 11-25-11

Nearly all sacred writ contains passages that need a lot of explanation, given that they seem to say things out of harmony with that religion's primary thrust.

LayingDowntheSwordIn the New Testament, for instance, Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5:29 this way: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away."

And that's not the half of it.

There are violent, dark passages in quite a number of places in both the Bible and the Qur'an, and religion scholar Philip Jenkins insists that it's time to face up to them and seek to understand what they can possibly mean.

So Jenkins, perhaps best known for his insightful book, The Next Christendom, has written Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses.

It's a book full of wisdom and insight for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. It is sure to be rejected by some among those adherents who are strict literalists when it comes to reading sacred texts, but that, to me, just confirms its usefulness. I suspect that some of these literalists will simply come unglued when they read Jenkins writing this: "If religions are to succeed -- if they are to live, and grow, and change the societies around them -- then of necessity they must outgrow at least parts of their scriptures." And if not outgrow them, at least understand why some dark passages were written and what meaning, if any, they might have for adherents today. Even some devout Muslims may have trouble with Jenkins' acknowledgement that he's not a Muslim and, thus, "I do not believe in the precise divine inspiration of the text." In other words, Jenkins takes the Qur'an not as God's dictated words through an angel to Muhammad's ear but as a product of a particular movement in a particular period of history.

Jenkins' book is especially helpful for people who seek a reasoned and educated response to those who want to present, as Jenkins says, "the Qur'an as a terrorist tract loaded with hate propaganda." Indeed, says Jenkins, by comparison to the Bible, the Qur'an is lacking in verses that can be read that way: "If Christians or Jews needed biblical texts to justify deeds of terrorism or ethnic slaughter, their main problem would be an embarrassment of riches."

As Jenkins notes, "Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions -- all are in the Bible, occurring with a far greater frequency than in the Qur'an."

Besides, he writes, many of the problematic texts in any religion have to be understood in their proper historical context and how the religion has developed since those texts were written: "If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery. Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam."

Jenkins is wise to take account of the reality that many adherents of various faiths rarely study their own sacred writings. Indeed, in Christianity and Judaism, biblical illiteracy among people in the pews is rampant. And yet we find biblically illiterate people willing to condemn the Qur'an, which they almost certainly haven't studied either.

JenkinsJenkins (pictured here) puts it this way: "If Western believers, either Jews or Christians, start from a wholly inaccurate and selective view of their own faith, and its violent or intolerant components, they have no basis for dialogue with Islam."

So Jenkins wants Jews and Christians to go back to the violent portions of their scriptures so they "can be absorbed, comprehended, and freely discussed."

And we need not look long and hard to find such passages: "The Bible contains many passages that to us seem bloodthirsty or upsetting -- stories of casual murder, mass slaughter, rape, adultery, and treachery. In many cases, these texts are so ugly that they have been dropped out of memory."

One of Jenkins' most useful chapters is called "Truth and History." In it he describes the reality that many of the stories told in the Hebrew Scriptures were written hundreds of years after the events described and were written not to offer what we today would consider accurate history but, rather, to make political and theological points to the readers of the time. Indeed, Jenkins argues, some of "the historical credibility of these books is severely limited." For instance, he points out, there is almost no historical evidence that anything like Joshua's conquest of Canaan ever happened. And if that's the case, then we must reinterpret the violent accounts of that conquest found in the Bible to understand what they can possibly mean.

Now, not all violent verses fall outside the realm of historically trustworthy accounts, but even in those cases it is important to do the proper exegetical work to understand their purpose, and Jenkins helps guide readers through some of that meaning-extraction process.

In the end, Jenkins writes, it's vital that followers of all the Abrahamic faiths, including Islam, confront the violent texts in their sacred writings. But for Christians and Jews, "the more we explore the darkest Bible passages, the more they would benefit from being brought back into the wider story through public or liturgical readings. . .Not only can the dark passages be read, but they demand to be."

And Jenkins' new book can be an excellent guide for how to approach that task.

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No matter what you hear on the airwaves or read in cyberspace, America is becoming less religious, not more, it's reported. No surprise. In many ways, it's the post-Christendom Europeanization of America. But it's no straight line down.

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P.S.: For your holiday giving this year, may I immodestly suggest that you give family members and friends one of my two books that you yourself (surely) already have read: They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, co-written with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and/or A Gifit of Meaning, a collection of my more serious columns from The Kansas City Star. If you prefer to order directly from the University of Missouri Press, call 800-621-2736. Or if you're in the Kansas City area, see me or Rabbi Cukierkorn for the first book.

A Thanksgiving sermon: 11-24-11

For my Thanksgiving post this year I'm going to give you the text of a sermon I preached earlier this week at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service in Blue Springs, Mo.

Prayer_HandsObviously it is a Christian sermon. But perhaps non-Christian readers here will get a sense of what such sermons are like. And if you don't like it, you have another reason to give thanks today, which is that you didn't have to hear it in person. Thanksgiving blessings on all of you. Here's the sermon, which begins with a prayer. (By the way, the title of the sermon was "5Q Plus 5Q," a title I explained at the end.)

Please pray with me: Eternal God in Christ, out of darkness you bring light, out of sickness, health, and out of death, life. So I ask that you take these inadequate words of mine and make them your word for us in this time and place, for I pray it in the name of your very Word, Christ Jesus. Amen.

The American humorist, Finley Peter Dunne – who, like me, spent years on a newspaper trying to make people appreciate life enough to laugh at it now and then – once put these words about the Thanksgiving holiday into the mouth of his character Mr. Dooley: “’Twas founded by the Puritans to give thanks for being preserved from the Indians, and we keep it to give thanks we are preserved from the Puritans.”

Well, I’m not sure that’s very good history and I’m not sure it would pass muster today for political correctness, but it does seem to me to be said in the spirit of our New Testament reading from Philippians, which calls on us to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.“

What can the Apostle Paul possibly mean in his letter to the church at Philippi when he says rejoice always? Probably the same thing he means in his letter to the church at Thessalonica when he says we are to give thanks in all circumstances.

In his paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts that Thessalonians passage this way: “thank God no matter what happens."

The New King James Version says: “In everything give thanks.” That’s a reminder that we are called to be thankful “in” everything, not necessarily “for” everything. It’s the attitude that’s important. The Good News Bible carries that same meaning by using the words “Be thankful in all circumstances.

These are not just words from an individual self-help book meant to infuse us with a winning attitude. Rather, these are words of encouragement and even correction to the covenant community, to the whole body of Christ, no matter which corner of the kingdom we Christians call home. We are to rejoice always. We are to give thanks in all circumstances.

Those are the words that describe the attitude that should mark us as Christians. The Rev. Jesse Jackson no doubt would call it the attitude of gratitude. The great Scottish preacher and Bible scholar William Barclay says it plainly: “There is always something for which to give thanks.”

Our natural and quite understandable response to that is: “Oh, puh-leeze. You can’t tell me that people in Nazi concentration camps were thankful.”

As a matter of fact, I can tell you a little about that. Corrie ten Boom, whose family spent much of the war years in Holland hiding Jews from the German occupiers, was taken to prison with her family when they were found out.

The detention camp was nearly overrun with fleas, but Corrie came to give thanks for the fleas because the guards did not like them. In fact, the guards hated the fleas so much that they wouldn’t come into the cells Corrie and her family occupied. That prevented those guards from doing worse things to the prisoners than what the fleas could do. So, thought Corrie, thank God for the fleas. Imagine that.

“Thank God no matter what happens.” “In everything give thanks.” “Be thankful in all circumstances.” “Rejoice always.”

Admittedly, Corrie ten Boom’s life is not our life. Most of us never will have to face anything like Nazi death camps. Our own challenge is more often to find ways to live with gratitude when we are feeling overwhelmed by life and disconnected from God.

Our call to worship today was drawn from Psalm 100, which calls on us to make a joyful noise to the Lord and to enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving. How then do we reclaim the joy of Psalm 100? How do we find a way in all circumstances to give thanks and to praise God? How do we enter God’s courts with singing and praise? Again, let me turn to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible. Here’s how he renders part of Psalm 100: “Enter with the password: ‘Thank you!’”

My old friend Dave in my congregation has a simple theology. Asked what it is, he’ll say, “I’m wrong. God forgives me. Thank you, God.” Hard to do better than that.

Once in a Bible study class I often attend at my church, we were talking about what we do in those times when we feel cut off from God, when we have entered an arid spiritual season, the kind that happens to all of us eventually.

My friend Jane offered this beautiful answer: “When I feel disconnected from God, what helps me is an attitude of gratitude. (Jane must know Jesse Jackson.) When the washing machine works and the daffodils come up and there’s food on the table, I give thanks for that and it helps.”

“Thank God no matter what happens.” “In everything give thanks.” “Be thankful in all circumstances.” “Rejoice always.”

So a young woman went to the doctor. He told her she had only six months to live. She was in shock.

“Isn’t there anything that can be done?” she asked. After all, she was still young and had many things left to do in life.

The doctor thought a long while and finally offered her this solution: “Go out and find the ugliest, meanest man in the county and marry him. Make sure he’ll constantly criticize you and complain about everything you say or do. Then go out and buy the most beat-up old car you can find, preferably one that won't run all of the time. Next, buy a run down old house in a bad part of town.”

The young woman looked at the doctor in disbelief and asked, “Doc, are you sure that this will help me to live longer?”

“Oh, not at all,” he replied. “But it sure will make six months seem like a lifetime!"

Look, life throws us curveballs. Our best laid plans go astray. Like Jesus himself, sometimes we are people of sorrow, acquainted with grief. It’s in those times that we must remember our gratitude for what God has already done for us. We must live lives of gratitude not to earn God’s favor but because we are thankful that God first loved us – loved us enough to die for us.

It’s not easy sometimes to be grateful in all things. I can tell you that for more than a decade now I’ve been angry at the terrorists of Sept. 11, 2001, who murdered my nephew. As many of you know, Karleton was a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. Why in God’s name would I give thanks for that? I don’t. I won’t.

But that doesn’t stop me from being grateful for the 31 years we had with Karleton. It doesn’t stop me from giving God thanks for the strength that his widow, Haven, and his mother, my sister Barbara, have found to allow her to carry on without him. It doesn’t prevent me from praising God for Karleton’s and Haven’s two sons, one of whom was born eight months after Karleton died, and one of whom was only a year and a half years old on 9-11 and, thus, will never remember his daddy.

My call is to find God’s blessings in the midst of this pain, to find God’s comfort and rest in the middle of anger and sorrow and to give thanks. And because of the incarnation, Christians know we have a God who has suffered human pain and understands it, a God who loves us through the worst parts.

Just before Thanksgiving some years ago, it was raining one morning, and the colossal pile of leaves I’d raked in the back yard the day before was getting increasingly sodden.

TG-candlesBy early afternoon, however, the rain vaporized to a mere mist, and I decided to get the wet, messy leaf-bagging job done. Under normal conditions, I'd have waited a day or two for better weather, but all these leaves were stacked in the yard of a home I was selling — a home, in fact, I was to turn over to the new owners within 36 hours. So I couldn't wait.

As I stuffed what seemed like billions of slimy leaves into yellow trash bags, I was tempted to curse my fate. What an awful job. My work gloves were soaked and cold and it got worse from there.

But for reasons I still can't explain, I began to think about Thanksgiving. And when I did, I felt a little embarrassed and even slightly ashamed to be griping about the soggy work I was doing. The work, after all, meant that I was blessed enough to own a home (in fact, for a few days, my wife and I owned two homes). It meant I was healthy enough to do the work. It meant I had a job that allowed me to take some vacation time to take care of moving from one house to another. It meant I owned a rake and some bags. And that I lived in a place where public and private arrangements can be made to haul away trash and yard waste (left over even after I had stuffed tons into our compost bin).

In a culture that by historical standards is hugely affluent, we often find ourselves complaining without taking time to understand that our temporary troubles are really indications of our fortune, our wealth, our luck, our blessings. When we change the reeking diapers of our babies or grandbabies, do we see just the annoying mess or, rather, the profoundly promising bundle of biology and spirit who needs our help?

The Thanksgiving season is a good time to teach ourselves anew to discern blessings in the midst of what may seem like curses. All we have to do to find a model for being grateful like that is look to Jesus: Just hours before his own death, he gave thanks for something as simple and mundane as a meal.

“Thank God no matter what happens.” “In everything give thanks.” “Be thankful in all circumstances.” “Rejoice always.”

By being Thanksgiving people, we demonstrate that we don't take our gifts for granted. We also show that we also don't take the Giver for granted. And I can tell you that humans and God both appreciate that.

Indeed, God asks us for our thanksgiving, even when we don’t feel like offering it so that we might experience the blessings that gratitude brings. God often hides in the ordinary routine of our lives, in our waking, our sleeping, our working, our playing. Our practice of thanksgiving will bring God to our sight – or at least to the sight of our heart.

In his great poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," W.H. Auden spoke of the Old Masters painters: “About suffering,” he wrote, “they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

Well, not just suffering takes place while someone is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along – that is, in the routine of our lives. God also is present in those times and places. And it takes a heart full of gratitude, a heart full of thanksgiving to recognize the divine presence in our midst.

When we practice gratitude, when we give thanks in all circumstances, we will make a joyful noise to the Lord, we will worship the Lord with gladness and come into his presence with singing, we will rejoice always. We will know that the Lord is God, that God made us and we belong to God. We will know that we are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture. Every day we will want to enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. We will want to give thanks to God and bless his name, for the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Before I close, let me answer your question about why I called this sermon 5Q plus 5Q. When we were little, my three sisters and I used to tell each other this riddle: What is 5Q plus 5Q. The answer? 10Q, to which we would say, “You’re welcome.” So now that we’re scattered coast to coast, we stay in touch mostly by e-mail, and when we want to express our gratitude for something, we simply type either 5Q plus 5Q or 10Q. You’re free to steal this silly idea. 10Q to God. Amen.

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Some faith communities seem to be joining the Occupy Wall Street movement by withdrawing money from Wall Street banks in protest. Why would it not surprise us to find the banks charging a fee for that?

When religions lobby: 11-23-11

In what ways do people of faith seek to see their values represented in the work of the government?

Church-stateThat's a question the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life wondered about, so researchers there set out to find out how the world of lobbying by faith communities has changed over the years and what it looks like today.

A report issued this week, "Lobbying for the Faithful," suggests religious bodies are as anxious as all other interests groups to have a say in the political process.

An online summary of the report's findings begins with these highlights:

"The number of organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C., has increased roughly fivefold in the past four decades, from fewer than 40 in 1970 to more than 200 today. These groups collectively employ at least 1,000 people in the greater Washington area and spend at least $390 million a year on efforts to influence national public policy."

Some people may find these results depressing and evidence that religion is just as worldly and cynical as any other group of people.

I don't react that way at all. Although I'm sure there are occasions when religious lobbying is as ethically out of line as some of the more egregious types of lobbying we've seen in other cases, much of religious lobbying has to do with making sure that public policy protects the most vulnerable in our society and that people are treated fairly by government.

In that sense, you could look at such lobbying as having failed in many ways in the last decade or more. The economic crisis that began in 2008 and has its roots in such disasters as sub-prime mortgage lending is evidence that public policy often runs roughshod over the desires of religious lobbyists and the people of faith they represent.

At any rate, the link I've given you to the report will let you read about the findings yourself and draw your own conclusions. I conclude that religious lobbyists need to figure out how to be more successful in advocating public policy that reflects universal values taught by the world's great religions. That's what it means to have and exercise a prophetic voice.

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Mitt Romney admits that despite Mormon prohibitions against alcohol and tobacco, he once tasted beer and a cigarette, but only once. Why does this sounds so much more credible than Bill Clinton's assertion that he didn't inhale? And yet why do many of us find Clinton so much more approachable?

Remembering C.S. Lewis: 11-22-11

It was an odd fate that resulted in the great 20th Century Christian writer, C.S. (Jack) Lewis, dying on the very day on which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 48 years ago today.

CS-LewisI was a freshman in college on that date and spent that weekend completely focused on the news about Kennedy, barely aware, therefore, that the world had lost the brilliant Lewis.

Nonetheless, Lewis today continues to be remembered and celebrated. There's even a C.S. Lewis Foundation, which now is seeking to create a C.S. Lewis College.

And, of course, it should be no surprise that various wings of the Christian church over the years have claimed Lewis as one of their own or have selectively picked out some of his words to defend their own positions on this or that.

But what I most enjoyed about Lewis was his unfailing ability to speak deep truths through both fiction and nonfiction. His writings about the death of his wife, Joy, have especially been meaningful (and useful in teaching about death) to me. (The Lewis book to read on that is A Grief Observed.)

If you've never sampled Lewis, you might want to start with Mere Christianity. I still go back to it from time to time though there are parts of it that I think Lewis got wrong.

So while you're remembering JFK today, don't forget Jack Lewis.

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Anyone who has studied the Hebrew Bible has heard the myth that Moses wrote the first five books, collectively called the Torah, or the Pentateuch. The theory falls apart on many levels, not least of which is the impossibility of Moses describing his own death. But scholars have proposed several alternative theories, with as many as four sources being cited. But a new computer analysis of the Torah suggests two primary sources. (By the way, on Friday of this week here on the blog I'll be doing a review here of Philip Jenkins' new book, Laying Down the Sword, in which he talks at some length about the various sources and authors of the Torah. He does not, however, cite this new research.) Speaking of matters related to the Bible, the National Geographic has done this excellent piece about the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. Have a look.

Why religious hate crimes? 11-21-11

A week or so ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released its annual statistics on hate crimes, and what struck me about the stats is also what struck the folks at, which was this:

Hate-crimes"Of the 6,224 single bias incidents reported in 2010, 20 percent were motivated by religious bias -- second only to racially motivated hate crimes, which accounted for 47.3 percent of the incidents."

(The author of the ReligionClause blog is Howard Friedman, an emeritus law professor at Toledo University.)

So what motivates religious hate crimes?

I thought the maverick Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong had some useful insights about this when he spoke recently at Unity Village near Kansas City.

“It is out of need and desire to survive,” he said, “that we will do every evil imaginable. That’s why we human beings build ourselves up by tearing other people down. That’s where prejudice originates. That’s where xenophobia is born. That’s where religious bigotry comes into being. That’s where we get religious persecution and religious wars and religious intolerance."

Well, that may not be an exhaustive answer, but in my experience religious hate comes out of fear, ignorance and insecurity. In a pluraistic culture like America, we have the opportunity to educate one another about our faiths to defuse fear and, ultimately, hate crimes and violence.

It's the mandate of our time.

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Part of the job of a religious leader (and, well, follower for that matter) is to speak truth to power. That's what Pope Benedict XVI did the past few days in Africa, as he called out unethical and brutal dictators and told them to shape up. But it's also what lay leaders and prosecutors are doing here and abroad as they move against the church's unacceptable responses to the priest abuse scandal. If the church itself needs to be a prophetic voice -- and it does (and often is) -- the church also needs to hear prophetic voices speaking about it.

Remembering Nuremberg: 11-19/20-11

This weekend I want to go back to the year of my birth, 1945, and remember an astonishing way in which at least some German officials were held accountable for the Holocaust.

NurembergThat's because the Nuremberg trial of 21 Nazi war leaders began at 10 a.m. on Nov. 20, 1945. The Nuremberg International Military Tribunal announced its verdicts on Oct. 1, 1946, convicting all but three of the defendants for crimes against the Jewish people -- crimes, as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, that included murders, wrongful imprisonments, tortures, rape, theft and other sorts of destruction.

Several things about the Nuremberg trials have always stood out to me. One was that the trial was begun within months of the end of the war. (By the way, the link in this paragraph will take you to a wonderful site created by faculty at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.)

Justice delayed often winds up being justice denied. And the international community, shocked by the reality of the extent of the Holocaust, seemed unwilling to wait around for the right moment to hold such a trial. Getting it done sooner rather than later was vital.

But beyond that, the trials in effect created a means to begin the process of reconciliation.

As German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote a few years ago in Theology Today, "The politics of reconciliation replaced the old German 'realpolitik' power-politics. It began with the Nuremberg trials, which brought some justice into our bloody history, and with the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt made by the Protestant Churches in the summer of 1945."

It remains for historians and others to determine whether the German move toward reconciliation ever has been completed or, as I suspect, there still are some who wish Hitler had succeeded completely, instead of just two-thirds, in wiping out European Jewry.

But when a public evil occurs, something like public accountability for it must occur, too. That's what started to happen at the Nuremberg trials and, later, with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the system of apartheid was dismantled. All of this speaks to the human capacity for forgiveness and re-creation.

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The famous Crystal Cathedral in California now will belong to the Catholic Church. The famous church that Robert Schuller founded has filed for bankruptcy, which apparently is what sometimes happens when churches spend way more than they take in. Whoda thunk?