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The centrality of paradox: 1-31-12

Christianity -- perhaps more than any other religion with which I'm familiar -- is characterized by paradox.


And in his compelling new book, Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty, Tomáš Halík, describes the central paradox of the faith, Easter, this way: ". . .the paradox of victory through an absurd defeat."

In fact, the Christian faith is riddled with paradox, and people who want things in black and white, yes and no, good and evil, either abandon the faith or, misunderstanding it, become fundamentalist literalists.

Halík insists that there is a different path -- the humble path of acknowledging what we cannot know for sure, the path of placing our trust in a God we cannot see, the path of following the incarnate God-man who spoke in parables, who taught not vengeance but love, who understood that all language is metaphor.

Halík was active in the underground church when Czechoslovakia -- now the Czech Republic -- was dominated by the Communists under the thumb of the Soviet Union. Eventually he was ordained as a Catholic priest and served as general secretary to Czech President Vaclav Havel, the wonderful writer who opposed Communism and eventually became his people's leader.

Halík, as a priest, heard many, many confessions, and began to draw conclusions about humanity and religion from that experience. Those conclusions make up the core of this book -- not lists of specific sins he heard from people confessing to him.

As I say, Halík will not let us walk away from paradox. He writes:

"God, who is preached and represented in this world by the One who was crucified and rose from the dead, is the God of pradox: what people consider wise He considers fooly, what people regard as madness and a stumbling block is wisdom in His eyes, what people see as weakness He considers strength, what people consider great He sees as small, and what they find small He regards as great."

With this attitude ingrained in us, we can understand Halik's reluctance to declare with precision that he knows just what happens to us when we die:

"The fact is that we do not know. And the only thing I can add to that state of unknowing is my hope: I trust that even beyond that final frontier of my faculties, God will not let me fall into nothingness."

It is hard to live with such uncertainty, such contingency. But it is precisely what the Christian faith calls for because we are finite creatures and God is not.

* * *


Mitt Romney tithes to the Mormon church. Do you tithe to your faith community? Although there's debate about whether it's a biblically mandated practice to give 10 percent of one's income, it's an excellent spiritual discipline. What's more, if tithing were more common, imagine the good that churches and other congregations could do that they can't afford to do now.

It's about being like Jesus: 1-30-12

A bit over a week ago here on the blog I featured a remarkable new book, Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project, by Jack Mayer, about the fabulous woman who helped to save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. (And who inspired my latest book.)


I want to return to the Life in a Jar book today to share with you a wonderful insight about Christianity delivered by a mother to her daughter. The daughter was among the rural Kansas high school students who created the play, "Life in a Jar," about Sendler. This conversation took place on returning from a visit to Warsaw to see Sendler.

Debra, the mother, had been in remission from cancer, but recently has discovered that the cancer is back and "has moved to my liver -- five spots. My blood test shows higher cancer markers. I'll need more chemotherapy."

Debra's daughter, Megan, begins to tear up and then asks her mother this: "Why can't it be like it was before? I pray all the time for you to be just like before."

Next comes Debra's wise and insightful answer, in which she nails a core essence of the Christian religon:

"There's always suffering, darling. . .You don't pray to Jesus to make everything better or to get what you want. That's what children do -- it's a magical way of thinking. Every time you walk into church, the first thing you see is a man on a cross. He died to save us -- not to give us everything we want -- to save us. That's what's so hard to understand. It's not about Him answering your prayers -- it's about you being like Him no matter what happens on this Earth. 'Thy will be done.' There will always be sadness and pain."

It is, of course, impossible to capture the whole of Christianity in a few short phrases -- or, for that matter, any religion at all.

But Debra's explanation that it's not about God answering our prayers it's about Christians seeking to be like Jesus gets the emphasis right, even if the concept of saving us can have several meanings. We all know, of course, that we'll never be fully like Jesus, which is why we need a savior, why we need grace. But that's the right vision for us Christians, the one that will put us on the right path.

* * *


Here's another example of a Muslim leader denouncing terrorists by people who claim to be Muslims: A former governor of a Nigerian state says the violent sect Boko Haram there can't be Islamic because it's violating what Islam stands for.The denunciation is good and standing up for traditional Islam is good. But it also would have been good to acknowledge that for some reason various terrorist organizations seem to keep finding reasons in Islam to exist. It's the same problem Christianity has dealt with concerning the Ku Klux Klan and similar extremists.

Leaving a spiritual legacy: 1-28/29-12

Even if we don't intend to, we will leave behind a legacy of some kind when we die.


Part of that legacy may be a massive financial fortune that can be used in lots of good (or not so good) was after we're gone. Or it may be simply some high-class debts.

But much more important than a financial legacy will be our spiritual legacy. Not many of us, however, have thought about exactly what that might look like.

The other day I attended a two-hour sessioin on this subject at the Keeler Women's Center, a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters in Kansas City, Kansas. (Yes, they let men in.) Mary Fran Zeller, a hospice chaplain, walked us through some exercises to help us understand what a spiritual legacy is and how to create one to leave for our friends or family.

I'll be using some of this information the evening of March 28 when I lead the sixth and final session in an end-of-life series at my church. And no doubt I'll also be drawing from some of this for the July 8-15 class on end-of-life care I'll be co-teaching at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.

A spiritual will, Mary Fran told us, is a statement of one's faith, beliefs and values. Not only can it be a great gift to one's family members but it also can be of help to a member of the clergy who will conduct your funeral or memorial service, especially if that person hasn't known you personally very long, if at all.

"What we're looking for -- and what you should strive for -- is a statement of how you view yourself," she told us. "While an obituary is a very factual account of what you've done in your life, this is a take-off from that. . .You're going to look for what you value to be said about yourself."

This can be a difficult task involving lots of soul-searching and honest assessment. But it also requires great care so that you don't use such a tool -- in the form of a letter, say, to those you leave behind -- to get in any last-minute digs. Thus it's necessary to think really deeply about how others will hear what you have to say. You might even ask others to read over whatever you write so they might catch some words of phrases that would be easy to misunderstand.

In any case, a spiritual legacy can be a wonderful gift. I hope you'll think about creating one.

* * *


A Chicago TV station put up a commentary on its website the other day in which Hindu gods were called "weird." It didn't take long for complaints to pour in, and -- good for the station -- it removed the objectionable content. The whole tale is one more example of how Americans are learning to negotiative life in an increasingly pluralistic culture. In many city neighborhoods today -- unlike 50 or so years ago -- you will find Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and adherents of other faiths. So it behooves us to be good and respectful neighbors. Which means we don't go around in public denouncing the gods our neighbors worship as weird. Just common courtesy. By the way, people speak of Hindu "gods" but despite conventional wisdom, in the end, Hinduism (at least in most of its forms) is a monotheistic religion. Just FYI.

* * *

P.S.: I'll be teaching an essay writing workshop from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 1, at The Writers Place in Kansas City. Nonmembers may sign up here, which is also where you can learn more about this opportunity. Hope to see you there.

Hellish theology on the fly: 1-27-12

It's so much fun, in a twisted sort of way, when politicians get into the business of theology and start drawing conclusions -- especially when those conclusions aren't up to them but are, rather, the prerogative of God.


Earlier this week, for instance, at a GOP presidential debate in Florida, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich started speculating about the ultimate, eternal destiny of Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Thus they broke Rule No. 1 (or so) for people of faith: Don't ever think you know the eternal destiny of anyone else.

But asked what his reaction would be when he hears that Castro has died, Romney answered: "Well, first of all you thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker and will be sent to another land."

Another land? Hmmmm.

Then Newt Gingrich half-upped Romney by saying this: "I don't think Fidel is going to meet his maker. I think he's going to the place."

The place?

New (or Newt) putdown: "Go to the place, buddy."

Anyway, the piece to which I've linked you walks through some of the Mormon and Catholic theology about all of this and how Romney and Gingrich were just winging it -- to the slack-jawed amusement of many of us.

Where is Jeremiah Wright when we need him?

(Just so you know, I risked life and limb to get the photo here today. You're welcome.)

* * *


Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and my friends over at have created this page of information about it. Worth a read.

The need for faith runs deep: 1-26-12

Because Chris, one of my stepsons, is a special-needs adult with developmental disabilities, I am tuned in to such people and especially to their spiritual sensitivities. Which leads me to this story:

The other morning my wife had to take Chris to the hospital because he had developed an infection. The first full day he was there, his three group-home roommates came to visit him along with staff who help to manage that small home.


 I already had left by the time they arrived but my wife still was in the room. She later told me that Chris's three roommates all gave him a hug and told him they loved and missed him.

Then the highest-functioning of the three asked my wife if they would be allowed to say a prayer for Chris.

"Of course," Marcia said.

So they all joined hands around Chris's bed and one of Chris's roommates prayed. Marcia said it was a lovely and touching moment.

The religious impulse is deep and profound. It seems not to be wiped out by mental retardation or developmental disabilities, though, of course, each person is different and reacts differently to such matters.

But I find it encouraging that even people who might be expected not to grasp the concept of God at all -- or at least many of them -- seem to be fully capable of a relationship with the divine. My guess is that people who work closely and regularly with the developmentally disabled population have some wonderful stories to tell about their spirituality.

And for sure Chris was touched by the visit of his friends and the prayer offered on his behalf.

* * *


It's hard to imagine why so many Americans seem not to understand the church-state separation required by the Constitution. Here's a description of another obvious case in which a school board caved into community sentiment that runs afoul of constitutionally rooted requirements that the government not foster one or another religion. This is pretty simple stuff, folks.

* * *

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

A religiously literate city: 1-25-12

What if Kansas City were to become the most religiously literate city in the country?


Well, ways to accomplish that great and big idea already are in the works -- and you can help by adding your recommendations for how to accomplish it.

Some folks from the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council have in mind a year or year and a half effort to have the whole region focus on religious literacy.

So earlier this week I sat down with Bob Bacic, Covener of -- and a Roman Catholic representive on -- the Council, to talk about this project and why it's important. Here's part of what he told me:

"The goal here is to raise religious literacy of Kansas City. By that we simply mean becoming more familiar with one's own faith tradition -- and the faith tradition of our neighbors.

"The reason we want to do that is because we are neighbors and because religion plays an increasingly important role in civic events as well as the internal spiritual lives of people. We think that by becoming more religiously literate you get to meet your neighbors in a new way and a deeper way, which strengthens the civic bonds of folks who are living in the same community."

Much of the impetus for this idea has come from Steve Israelite, former head of the Jewish Heritage Foundation. Steve has long advocated finding ways for people in our area not just to have interfaith experiences but to learn in a deep, consistent way the core of their own faith traditions and those of many others.

Steve has recognized that religious literacy begins with understanding the tradition to which we have pledged allegiance. But in my experience, many people are ignorant of many of their own faith's history and theology.

Even people who can articulate their own faith in deep but understandable ways rarely know much about the faiths of others.

This wouldn't be a problem if ignorance didn't lead to prejudice and even to hatred and violence. But we all know that ignorance leads directly to such terrible consequences.

So how would you help Kansas Citians become more religiously literate? I'm kicking around ideas about tours of sacred structures, about film and music festivals, about the whole city reading and discussing one or two books together, about people of different faiths gathering together to do a combination service project-learning experience.

As the Interfaith Council says, no idea is too big or two small.

So send your ideas to [email protected] with "Religious Literacy" in the subject line of the e-mail.

Before too long a representative committee will shape those ideas into a program and then arrange to implement it with community help.

In some ways, this religious literacy idea is the logical next step to build on the good work that the annual Festival of Faiths has done for the last several years.

Let's help it succeed.

* * *

Good for Pope Benedict XVI: He's advocating that all of us make silence a bigger part of our life. The noise of the culture around us is distracting and causes our thoughts to be fragmented. So how about a day without being plugged into your iPod? Of course, there's a time for silence and a time to speak. And had that correct distinction had been maintained within the church it might well have avoided much of the priest abuse scandal. But that's not the kind of silence B-16 meant in his recent remarks.

* * *

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

Preparing to visit Israel: 1-24-12

I am getting more and more pumped up about the trip I'll be helping to lead to Israel in April.


This past Sunday, my two co-leaders, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and Father Gar Demo, and I met with some of the folks who will be going along with us on this 10-day Jewish-Christian study tour.

That's Jacques in the picture here today going over the itinerary. In front of him is a map of Israel he used to point out our various planned stops.

What especially excites me about this journey is the chance to spend 10 days with Jews and Christians together as those of us who are trip leaders try to facilitate some good discussions about the various ways people of different faith traditions may see things the same and may see things differently. And each person going on the trip will bring along a unique perspective that will add richness to the mix. That's already clear.

I'm also excited about the opportunity we'll have to juxtapose biblical and modern times. For instance, as we visit a place like modern Caesarea, I'll be sharing some passages of scripture that describe some events that happened there 2,000 or more years ago. We'll see if we can more fully grasp history by standing in places where history happened.

We're beyond the deadline for locking in airline reservations at the guaranteed rate, but we're not too late to add more people to the trip. The link I gave you in the first paragraph here will give you a page that gives you links to register. And from there you can contact the company making our arrangements to see what costs would be.

As time and opportunity permit, I hope to be sharing with you here on the blog some of our experiences from the April trip. By the way, two good ways to keep up with news from Israel is to read the online version of the Jerusalem Post and of the newspaper Haaretz. I've downloaded free apps on my iPad2 for both of those outlets and will be trying to stay somewhat up to speed on Israeli news as we prepare for this trip.

* * *


And speaking of that part of the world, Egypt's new parliament gathered for the first time yesterday, and this good analysis in the Christian Science Monitor lays out some of the concerns about some of the members who represent a rigid and deeply conservative movement within Islam. In any democracy there should be room for all but violent extremists, but if Egypt is to emerge from its long nightmare of dictatorship and into liberty it will need approaches different from those of the Salafis.

Losing Europe's soul? 1-23-12

Several weeks ago, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, gave this cogent, indeed quite remarkable, address in Rome on the same day he met with Pope Benedict XVI. (That event is seen in the photo here today.)


It could have sounded like an angry, unfocused shout at the evils of both modernity and post-modernity. But it didn't come off that way at all.

Rather, it struck me as an enlightened, thoughtful and balanced description of how Europe got to be modern Europe and why Europe today risks losing its own soul.

About that, Sacks was forthright: "Europe is in danger of losing its soul," he declared.

My only small complaint about what Sacks said is that he seemed to minimize the brutal way that for century after century Christianity mistreated Judaism, dismissing this murderous oppression simply by saying that "The history of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews was not always a happy or an easy one." (For my own essay on this lamentable and sad anti-Judaism in Christian history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

And then I thought he was overly generous in how the Christian-Jewish relationship is going today: ". . .today Jews and Catholics meet not as enemies, nor as strangers, but as cherished and respected friends." Well, that's the hope -- and at certain levels it happens -- but it's not always the reality.

That said, Sacks' analysis of religion's role in creating modern Europe is quite intriguing and on target.

I especially liked this passage about Europe today:

Today, in a Europe more secular than it has been since the last days of pre-Christian Rome, the culprits are an aggressive scientific atheism tone deaf to the music of faith; a reductive materialism blind to the power of the human spirit; global corporations uncontrollable by and sometimes more powerful than national governments; forms of finance so complex as to surpass the understanding of bodies charged with their regulation; a consumer-driven economy that is shrivelling the imaginative horizons of our children; and a fraying of all the social bonds, from family to community, that once brought comfort and a redemption of solitude, to be replaced by virtual networks mediated by smartphones, whose result is to leave us “alone together.”

Well, give Sacks' rather long lecture a read and see if you detect parallels between Europe and the U.S. today.

* * *


It's hard for me to understand why some GOP presidential candidates -- Rick Santorum, in this case -- want to hang out with people who are so divisive and full of what strikes me as hate. But Santorum just visited with the Rev. O'Neal Dozier, who has said, among other outrageous things, that homosexuality makes God want to vomit.

A book worthy of Sendler: 1-21/22-12

One of the major motivations for the book I wrote with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, was his trip to Poland and his getting to meet Irena Sendler (pictured below) there.

Life in a Jar - CoverA Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Sendler is credited with helping to save 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. But not many people -- especially Americans -- had heard of Sendler until some high school students from near Fort Scott, Kan., created a play about her called "Life in a Jar."

When these students began their research and discovered some bare-bones information about Sendler, they simply assumed she was long dead. In fact, Sendler lived well into her 90s and died just a few years ago.

The incredible story of Sendler and the Uniontown High School students who discovered her and then actually got to meet her in Poland is told in a marvelously readable new book by Jack Mayer, a writer and pediatrician who lives in Vermont.

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project is hard to put down. Mayer has produced a work of what he calls "creative non-fiction." That is to say he draws heavily on his own interviews with Sendler and many of the lead characters in the story -- as well as many historical documents -- but then uses his own imagination to recreate dialogue and scenes that perhaps did not happen exactly that way but well could have.

This can be a tricky business, fiddling with the the tiny details of history. And Mayer is wise to alert the readers to his method in an early "Author's Note" so they can decide for themselves whether he got it right.

Irena-SendlerAs some of us mainline Protestants sometimes say of the Bible, this or that particular story may not be historically accurate, but it is true. And Mayer's book is full of truth.

Mayer, indeed, is able to create a realistic sense of the desperation experienced by Warsaw's targeted Jews in the Holocaust. It was the nadir and result of what poet W.H. Auden called "a low, dishonest decade." Everyone in Warsaw in World War II, Mayer writes, was a criminal, even the heroes like Sendler because to save lives they had to break ridiculous and immoral laws.

Mayer even manages to describe in compelling detail the lives of some of the high school students who, at the behest of a good teacher, began to discover the vicissitudes of history and the moral giants who in the worst of times have stood against evil. Seeing their eyes open to a world beyond Kansas is inspiring.

In the book that Rabbi Cukierkorn and I wrote about Polish rescuers, we honor the work Sendler did by describing other non-Jewish Poles who -- defying the threat of death -- did the right thing by helping to save Jews.

Our book and Mayer's book both raise the almost-unanswerable question of what each of us might do in similar circumstances. But having models of courageous people like Sendler willing to behave in redemptive ways at least gives us the hope that we might do the same.

By the way, 60 percent of the profits from the sale of Mayer's book go to the Irenda Sendler/Life in a Jar Foundation. So make sure not just that you read it but that any teens in your life get a copy of this book, too.

 * * *


Pope Benedict XVI is warning American biishops not to cave in to "radical secularism." Well, there is a fringe element of the population that might be described that way, but the church seems to be in more trouble because of internal errors and bad judgment that it is from external attacks by secularists. It's not the secularists, after all, who have been molesting Catholic school children, and it's not secularist bishops who have been failing to protect such kids.

* * *

P.S.: What looks like it will be an excellent workshop to help churches do better ministry to the poor is scheduled for March 24 in Kansas City. For details, click here.

The anti-religion instinct: 1-20-12

This may or may not have been the exact date in 1918 (various sources differ) when the folks who brought the world the Bolshevik Revolution decided to ban all religious instruction inside the new Soviet Union.

No-religionWhether today is the day or not, what strikes me nearly a century later is the utter foolishness of trying to shut down religion. Oh, I quite agree that in the U.S. today the public schools should teach about religion but not teach any particular religion.

But efforts to crush the human impulse toward finding religious answers can succeed only temporarily.

I ran across an example of this temporary insanity in Poland a few years ago when I was there doing interviews for They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

So today, in contempt of people who think they can destroy religion, I offer a reprint of my column about that Polish experience. It first appeared in The Kansas City Star on Sept. 1, 2007.

Where the streets have new names
 NOWA HUTA, Poland — This planned community just outside Krakow was meant to be
a Soviet communist dream town for steelworkers.
So in 1949, having evicted a longstanding Cistercian monastery and church, the
Soviets, who dominated Poland then, began construction.
They created four main residential sectors, named — with all the efficiency and
imagination the bureaucracy could muster — A, B, C and D.

Those sectors in turn were divided into districts of prefab, soulless housing.
They built libraries and movie theaters, sports venues and social clubs. And, for sure,
schools: 16 primary, 17 nursery, two secondary, four adult primary, four vocational, plus
a music school and a university extension center.
What was missing? Exactly what you’d expect these utopian lunkheads to leave out — 
houses of worship. They purposefully built no churches. Not a single one for the
people of this mostly Catholic nation.
They believed that somehow they could short-circuit the spiritual wants and needs of
thousands of people by promoting an atheistic society and refusing to include
churches in the social fabric they were weaving.
It was idiocy and the Poles knew it. So when most of the town was completed, some of
the residents simply put up a big cross near a prominent intersection and began to
gather there for encouragement and worship. It drove the Soviet masters crazy, but it
took time for them to do anything about it.
Finally, in the spring of 1960, the bureaucracy ordered the cross destroyed. The
authorities had put up with this ridiculous symbol of religious superstition long enough.
That’s when the mothers showed up. Holding their babies, they surrounded the cross
and dared officials to attack them. These were women who understood that any society
worthy of the name must make room for expressions of faith, even if not everyone in
that society agrees on all matters religious. The mothers were willing to face down the
foolish rulers who apparently had never read history — or who chose to interpret what
history they knew in dimwitted fashion. And the mothers won.
Today Nowa Huta stands as a redeemed monument to all that foolishness. Thousands
of people still live here, but it’s different now.
Streets that used to be named Lenin, Marx and Engels now bears such names as
Solidarity and John Paul II. And the street where the famous cross stood — replaced
now by a newer model next to an active church — is called Obroncow Krzyza, or
Defenders of the Cross.
I spoke with the vicar of that church, Kazimierz Klimczak, who told me that the
congregation keeps the memory of the cross defenders alive in many ways. There’s an
annual commemoration of the 1960 event, for instance. And there’s a book about it for
sale at the church. It’s also mentioned frequently in sermons.
The Soviets oppressed Poland from the end of World War II in 1945 until, with a big
push from the Solidarity labor movement (which was encouraged by a Polish pope),
they finally gave up in late 1989 as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe.
In Nowa Huta on Dec. 10 of that watershed year, a huge statue of Lenin in the main
public square came tumbling down. Today flowers grow in that space. And nearby is an
exhibit of photos showing life in the village of Mogila, which used to be where Nowa
Huta is today. Other photos show the construction of Nowa Huta and the resistance to
martial law there prior to Poland achieving liberation from the Soviet noose.
And here and there in Nowa Huta you can find what it always needed — houses of
worship. As I walked along a sidewalk toward the cross defense site, in fact, a man
tried to give me a pamphlet promoting the views of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He was free to offer it. I was free to turn it down.
And I thought, “Take that, you clueless communists, who knew nothing of human
spiritual needs.”

* * *


My friends over at Religion News Service say this CNN piece about a South Carolina evangelical powerbroker is the best read of the campaign so far. Indeed, it's pretty engaging as it describes the religion-politics relationship in South Carolina and elsewhere. 

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P.S.: Today is the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference at which top Nazi leaders made (or at least were informed of) a final and firm commitment to the plan to murder all the Jews of Europe. My co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, describes the meaning of this dreadful day and decision in No. 6 of his excellent YouTube series, "Jewish Tidbits." To view that, click here.