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January 2012

An Invitation to Israel: 12-31-11/1-1-12

I have told you before about the April 2012 Jewish-Christian study trip to Israel I'll be helping to lead. In fact, I wrote about it here and have created a separate page about it that you can find under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

StarofDavid-1(That page will give you all the links you need to sign up.)

But the time is getting short for you to decide to go with us. So I wanted to remind you about the trip again today and urge you to get signed up soon.

The tour company we are using will be able to hold airline seats in a block at the current price only through Jan. 9, we are told.

Christian-crossThat doesn't mean you can't go if you don't sign up by then, but it does mean there is no guarantee that you won't pay more.

Another reason to sign up soon is that my two co-leaders (Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and Father Gar Demo) and I are planning a pre-trip orientation at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22, at Gar's church, St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, Kan.

Among other things, we'll be recommending some reading material to prepare for the trip, including scripture passages that will relate directly to places we plan to visit while in the Holy Land.

So make a New Year's resolution that you'll do something to expand your mind and spirit this year and join us for what promises to be a great trip to Israel April 15-25, with an optional three-day extension to Jordan.

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My wife and I, with another couple, had just arrived at the home of mutual friends Thursday evening when we saw on their TV a report about the fire that destroyed Westport Presbyterian Church in Midtown Kansas City. It broke my heart. My friend Scott Myers, the pastor there, has done a remarkable job reinventing Westport to be not just a worship center for a small congregation but also a community center -- home to many organizations and activities over the years. Now this 176-year-old church is in ruins. My own Presbyterian congregation has reached out to Scott and to the Westport congregation to offer space or any other help they need, but it will take awhile for Westport to figure out its future. The loss of Westport Presbyterian's building is a reminder of several things. For one, a church is not a building but, rather, the people who make up the congregation. Second, any historic church such as Westport adds to the richness of the social fabric in countless ways, and Kansas City today is spiritually impoverished by its loss. I'm praying that the congregation will find a way to go on and continue to be a force for good in the city.

How faith failed Steve Jobs: 12-30-11

It always pains me to hear stories of people -- especially kids -- who shut down on religion because clergy and other religious leaders provide stupid answers to their questions.

JobsI get upset both at people providing the answers and at the people asking them -- the latter because they quit searching for better answers.

The most recent example of this to come to my attention was in a book I got for Christmas -- Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. Not many pages into the book he writes this:

"Even though they were not fervent about their faith, Jobs's parents wanted him to have a religious upbringing, so they took him to the Lutheran church most Sundays. That came to an end when he was thirteen. In July 1968, Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church's pastor. 'If I raise my finger, will God know which one I'm going to raise even before I do it?'

"The pastor answered, 'Yes, God knows everything.'

"Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, 'Well, does God know about this and what's going to happen to those children?'

"'Steve, I know you don't understand, but yes, God knows about that.'

"Jobs announced that he didn't want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church." (Later, he did study Zen Buddhism.)

Now, let's be fair to the doofus pastor. He was trying to respond to what theologians call the questions of theodicy -- which essentially is this: Why is there suffering and evil in the world if God is good and all-powerful? Theodicies seek to defend God in the face of suffering and evil, but, in the end, all theodicies fail to one extent or another. Theodicy, thus, is the open wound of religion. There is no fully satisfying answer to that core question of evil, and because of that many people have simply abandoned faith in God.

But just because there is no fully satisfying answer does not mean there's no answer at all, especially for a whip-smart 13-year-old. For one thing, you begin by explaining that people have been puzzling over that question forever and that although some people have come up with some helpful answers, none of them completely makes sense to everyone. Instead, Jobs's pastor came off as an arrogant, condescending, simplistic know-it-all.

There should be remedial seminary for such people.

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There is something poignantly and painfully honest in this piece by a former Catholic who seems to keep having lapses of disbelief -- or at least a yearning for some kind of faith now that she's relinquished it.

'Inquisition' still with us? 12-29-11

You may imagine that the Inquisition is well over and done with.

Gods-juryAnd if you're really tuned in to the history of the Catholic Church's efforts to identify and punish heretics, Jews and others, you'll say that the Inquisitions, plural, are long gone. You use the plural because you know that there was a Medieval, a Spanish and a Roman Inquisition.

And, of course, you'd be right that those Inquisitions are long behind us. But what Cullen Murphy argues in God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, his compelling new book to be released in about three weeks, is that the Inquisitions helped to create modernity, and their methods can be found all over the map still today. (The book can be preordered now.)

Murphy is right to note that among the general populace, "the Inquisition remains very little known." Not many people, for instance, know that in one form or another the Inquisition continued for more than 700 years.

And although people no longer are being burned at the stake, Murphy argues that in some ways the Inquisition "is as robust as ever."

By that, it turns out, the author is not arguing that the Catholic Church is engaged in the kind of witch hunts that marked the earlier Inquisitions, though a Vatican agency, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is in clearly in the business of aggressively defending the faith. Rather, what Murphy means is that you can find all kinds of evidence that the techniques and attitudes that characterized the Inquisition are being employed today by religious and secular powers to maintain their hold on power.

Beyond that, the institutions created and used by the Inquisition are being used today in various ways, some of them quite benign, some not.

"Looking at the Inquisition," he writes, "one sees the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. Persecution acquired a modern platform -- the advantages afforded by a growing web of standardized law, communications, administrative oversight, and controlled mechanisms of force. It was run not merely by warriors but by an educated elite; not merely by thugs but by skilled professionals. And in its higher dimesions it was animated not by greed or hope of gain or love of power, though these were never absent, but by the fervent conviction that all must subscribe to some ultimate truth. . . .

"The advent of the Inquisition offers a lens. Through it lies the world we inhabit now; one in which privacy and freedom of conscience can be pitted against forces that would contain them. This is a central contest of the modern era and of the centuries that lie ahead. The issues posed by the Inquistion enfold the world we call our own."

Ah, yes. The ultimate truth. In many ways that was the bane of modernity, which is why we're now in post-modernity, which shies away from adherence to any ultimate truth, any meta-narrative. And yet folks who insist they know the ultimate truth still hang on and cause the world trouble.

One of the practices of the Inquisition that, sad to say, we see in our own time -- and even defended by the very government officials who should be standing resolutely against it -- is torture.

As Murphy notes, "The public profile of torture is higher than it has been for many decades, and arguments have been mounted in its defense with more energy than at any other time since the Middle Ages."

This is the second book I've read recently that dealt, at least in part, with the Inquisition. And they are quite different in tone as it concerns the Spanish Inquisition. In Rodney Stark's book, The Triumph of Christianity, which I reviewed here, he argues that it was "was a quite temperate body that was responsible for very few deaths and saved a great many lives by opposing the witch hunts that swept through the rest of Europe."

Murphy acknowledges that some new scholarship has reduced the casualty figures for the seven centuries of the Inquisition from "upwards of a million" to "closer to several tens of thousands."

Well, I'll leave that for scholars to sort out, but we should be aware of those differences of approach to describing the Inquisition. And, for sure, we should be aware that traces of the Inquisition still are with us today.

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As a bit of a follow-up to yesterday's posting here about the Holocaust and antisemitism today in Poland, I want to share this column from a Holocaust survivor who, like the survivors in my last book, was saved by a non-Jew. Only now Israel's Holocaust memorial authority, Yad Vashem, has thus far failed to honor the man who saved the author. And she's rightfully upset about that.

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

Poland's antisemitism now: 12-28-11

My interest in Poland has been quite acute since I went there a few years ago to do interviews for the book Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

PolandSo I was intrigued to read this piece in the current issue of The National Catholic Reporter. Written by a former NBC news producer, it describes how Catholicism is losing a bit of its grip on the country.

But the intriguing part of the story to me was what it said about the current state of antisemitism in Poland. The country has long had a deserved reputation for antisemitism, but that reputation sometimes has been worse than reality.

For instance, as we note in our book, Polish non-Jews helped to save Jews from the Holocaust at a rate at least equal to what non-Jews did in other countries, based on the size of those country's populations. And the punishment in Poland for helping Jews was harsher and more swiftly carried out.

Poles also sometimes get blamed for the six death camps that operated in Poland in World War II when, in fact, it was the Germans who built and operated them. Indeed, the Germans, in addition to murdering many Jews in the Polish death camps, also murdered quite a few of the Polish intelligentsia there.

As the NCR story points out, there's an interesting new twist to antisemitism today in Poland. What's described as a "socially egalitarian and explicitly anticlerical party," the Palikot Movement, has gained political strength in the country. Among other things, Palikot is committed to fighting antisemitism in Polish society.

Good. Right?

Well, it's more complicated than that.

It turns out that antisemites view Palikot as a Jewish-led attack on the Catholic Church, so the more Palikot denounces antisemitism the more some people think it's just Jews pushing against Catholicism.

What I found reassuring, however, was the information that Poland's Foreign Ministry, according to the NCR piece, "is proactive in its campaign to counteract such bigotry and to promote tolerance."

Antisemitism seems to be the hatred that refuses to die. Still, it's up to all of us to continue to stand against it wherever it shows up, whether in Poland or in our own families.

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Across religions, it turns out, there is much consensus on the need to be environmentally responsible so that we care for the Earth. Even religious folks who used to dismiss ecological concerns today are much more on board.

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

A prison hospice program: 12-27-11

As some of you know, one of the boards of directors on which I serve is that of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, a wonderful agency that is the non-profit gem of Kansas City's many hospices.

Grace-4Through that work and other experiences I've learned a lot about death and dying and the comfort that quality hospice care can provide. But I'd never thought about the need for hospice care in prison.

Until, that is, a fellow KC Hospice board member, the Rev. Bob Hill of Community Christian Church, gave me a copy of Grace Before Dying, by Lori Waselchuk.

In a series of amazing photos and accompanying text, it tells the story of the prison hospice program in Louisiana's Angola State Prison.

Until Jan. 31, photos from the book and quilts connected to the hospice program in that prison are on display in the Steeple of Light Gallery at Community Christian, 4601 Main St., Kansas City. The gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays. There is no charge to see the display, called "And You Came to Me."

Grace-3What comes through this photo work so powerfully is the humanity not just of those dying in prison but also of their fellow inmates who have become caregivers in the hospice program. The whole hospice ministry (for that's truly what it is) is transformative. It changes the one receiving care and the ones giving it in radically life-affirming ways.

As Waselchuk writes in the book's introduction, "This project is not about death. It is about life, its limits, and the choices made within those limits."

I encourage you to see the display at Community Christian and then learn about hospice care options here in Kansas City.

(The quilt pictured here today is part of the display at Community Christian. If you click on the other photo here you will get a larger view of the information it contains about the display.)

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Over and over I hear complaints that Muslims don't condemn terrorist acts done by people who claim to be Muslim. The charge is mostly (though not completely) bogus, as evidenced again by condemnations from Muslims over the Christmas violence against Christian churches in Nigeria.

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P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here.

People of faith are activists: 12-26-11

Do people active in religious communities focus so intently on that aspect of their lives that they become sort of disengaged from other activities and their communities?

PewInternet_LogoWe've certainly seen extreme examples of exactly that happening in what often get pejoratively labeled as cults.

But, in fact, a new survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates shows, as the press release says, that "religiously active Americans are more trusting of others, are more optimistic about their impact on their community, think more highly of their community, are more involved in more organizations of all kinds, and devote more time to the groups to which they are active."

As Jim Jansen, author of the report, concluded:  “Those who are religiously active are more likely to participate in all kinds of groups and more likely to feel good about their communities. Those who are active in religious groups seem to be joiners.”

To read the full report, which is part of the Pew Internet and American Life project, click here.

That's generally been my experience of people of faith. Why are they  like that?

Well, no doubt for many reasons, but my own experience is that people's faith motivates them to want to be engaged in their communities.

In Christian terms, they are anxious to provide small demonstrations of what the reign of God will look like when it's fully realized. So they work to alleviate poverty because in the kingdom of God there will be no poverty. They work to alleviate many other social ills, too, for the same reason.

I'm certainly not saying that all altruistic behavior found in our culture is motivated by religious faith. Many atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and others outside traditional faith communities also get engaged in various groups that work to better society. But in a nation so full of people with strong faith connections, it's no exaggeration to say that much of this kind of work finds its impulse in religious teaching.

By the way, the new survey also has information about how people of faith view and use technology, in case you want to poke around in it to see that aspect of the study.

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Well, yes, Pakistan is a poor, unstable, dangerous country, but it was not without Christmas, as this report suggests. Three members of my congregation recently went to Pakistan to work for awhile with the Presbyterian Education Board there, a wonderful agency that is helping to educate both boys and girls. PEB could use your help and your prayers.

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P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here.

Christmas art's context: 12-24/25-11

  In the Hands of the Father

Earlier this month I wrote here about the various ways Jesus and his mother have been pictured in art, especially in Madonna and Child renditions that get plenty of attention around Christmas.

QuiltcIt turns out others, too, have been thinking about the various styles of Christmas art over the centuries and how the context of the times in which the art is produced influences it.

The other day, in fact, Baylor University put out this press release in which a Baylor teacher talked about how "Art history offers glimpses to the socio-cultural world of the time when the work of art is created. Such paintings are also influenced by the theological outlook of that time. Context is important."

The quote is from Swee Hong Lim, an assistant professor of church music. He has researched Christian iconography and he co-moderates the Worship Committee of the 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

One of the Nativity scenes mentioned in the Baylor release is shown above here today with the permission of the artist, Roger Loveless. It's called "In the Hands of the Father," and the more I look at it the more I like it.

But I also want to share with you today two other works of Christmas art. The one at left is from a textile made for a Mennonite relief sale I attended a few years ago in Bloomington, Ill.

The one below shows the Nativity scene that has been in my family since about the time I was born. My mother bought it at our local F.W. Woolworth store and then repainted some of the pieces for reasons I never understood.


Merry Christmas

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A Southern Baptist pastor has lost his court bid to force Barack Obama to prove he's a natural born citizen. Wonder who, at the time of Jesus' birth, made up that era's birther movement? Surely someone.

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P.S.: If you're in the Kansas City area and want to hear a former Christian pastor talk about his atheism, click here.

American generosity on top: 12-23-11

Yes, I know many of us are busy with last-minute Christmas preparations (and with celebrating the birth on this date in 1889 of Swiss theologian Emil Brunner), but I'd like to take a minute to pat Americans on the back.

GenerosityA new survey says that the United States now ranks as the No. 1 charitable nation in the world.

The survey, reported this week by CAFAmerica, a member organization of the United Kingdom-based Charities Aid Foundation International Network of Offices, shows the U.S. moved from No. 5 in 2010 to No. 1 now.

The survey looks at three measures of charity -- donating money, volunteering time and helping strangers. And as you can read in the press release to which I've linked you above, the charity index is "based on over 150,000 Gallup polling interviews with members of the public in 153 countries."

You can read the full report for yourself, but I think it's worth a cheer for American generosity. And it's worth noting that much of that generosity -- though certainly not all -- is motivated by religious belief.

In any case, if you're part of what makes this a generous country, thanks. If not, what's stopping you?

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Loved this Tweet from comedian and author Andy Borowitz: "Hanukkah is the most American holiday because it's a celebration of burning oil that we don't have." (People sensitive to &^*%^# language might want to avoid clicking on the Borowitz link.)

A lectionary pitfall: 12-22-11

Once again holidays celebrated by different religions are overlapping.

JewchrisI'm thinking now of Advent for Christians and Hanukkah for Jews. And because Christianity traces its roots to Judaism, it's a good time to think again about ways in which these two Abrahamic religions (Islam is the third) relate.

Over history, the answer has been that they have not gotten along well at all. For my essay on the sorrowful tale of anti-Judaism in Christian history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

In recent decades, the two religions have enjoyed much better -- though far from perfect -- relations, and one reason for the imperfection is what theologians call supersessionism, by which they mean an arrogant Christian tendency to act as if Christianity made Judaism irrelevant.

Supersessionism came up again in the book I introduced you to here yesterday, The Hyphenateds. In it, Emily Bowen, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, notes that the Revised Common Lectionary, used by many Protestant pastors as a source of biblical texts for preaching, can reinforce the supersessionist impulse even if it doesn't mean to.

". . .the ease with which Christianity has practiced the supersession of Judaism," she writes, "is remarkable and frightening to behold, in large part because many do not even realize that it's happening. And. . .it happens in abundance throughout the lectionary.

"Hebrew Scriptures are chosen for their connection to the gospel reading for the week. Such a pairing plays into a hermeneutic of promise and fulfillment and relegates the Hebrew Scriptures to being nothing more than a prelude to the New Testament. Such a move is irresponsible."

It is understandable and, I would argue, legitimate for Christians to read the Hebrew Scriptures attuned to prophecies they believe get fulfilled in Jesus. But by reading them only in that way, those scriptures become disemboweled. It behooves Christians, instead, also to read those scriptures through Jewish eyes insofar as it's possible for Christians to do that.

In that way, the words can reveal new meaning that really is old meaning, which is to say original meaning that would have been understood by the first people to hear or read the words. That results in a much richer experience and does not contribute to a needlessly dismissive attitude toward Judaism.

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I'm a little reluctant to give Newt Gingrich any publicity because I think he has zero chance of ever being president, but the religious freedom issue columnist Maureen Dowd raises in this piece seems important enough to pass along. And, besides, Gingrich isn't the only candidate to be exploiting religious issues for political purposes. He's just among the more annoying.

Mainliners and emergents: 12-21-11

As the Emergent Church Movement has gathered steam over the last decade-plus, those of us in Mainline Protestant churches have been watching and wondering what it all means for how our congregations can survive and thrive in this century.

HyphenatedsIn some ways, it's been an odd activity because so much of what we hear about emergence Christianity suggests that the evangelicals who are leading the movement are, in effect, seeking to have their congregations become more like the Mainline churches -- at least in their emphasis on mission and social justice work.

"Mission" in this sense doesn't mean sending missionaries to convert the heathen. Rather, it refers to the deep commitment many Mainline denominations have to support ministries that work to improve the lives of people and, thus, offer small demonstrations of what the reign of God finally will look like when it comes in full.

And yet there are other aspects of emergence Christianity that have been helping Mainliners reflect on and adjust their own theology and their own ways of being Christian.

A new book, The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices, edited by Phil Snider, offers Mainliners an opportunity to think through what the emergence folks are learning and how it might apply to us. (I say us because I'm a member of a Mainline congregation.)

It's a worthy collection of essays from a variety of thoughtful people, though, to be honest, the collection is of uneven quality. The title refers to Mainliners who have connected themselves in some way to emergence Christianity.

But there is enough good stuff in the book to make it worthwhile for Mainliners to own and study it. Among the most engaging essays in it are "Peekaboo Jesus: Looking for an Emergent Savior in a Post-Christendom Culture," by Ross Lockhart, a minister in the United Church of Canada, "Emerging from the Lectionary," by Emily Brown, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, and "Satanism in the Suburbs: Ordination as Insubordination," by Christopher D. Rodkey, a United Church of Christ pastor.

Lockhart particularly makes clear what Mainliners are learning from emergence folks when he writes, "I am longing for the Spirit to move us to a place where evangelism and justice can mutually inform one another, where speaking about Jesus goes hand in hand with living for Jesus. Perhaps this is where the emergent church can offer old, mainline denominations the greatest hope."

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More a product of evangelical churches than Mainliners, the singing Christmas tree seems to be growing in popularity. Nothing becomes Christmas in America's culture like wretched excess, right?