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Congregations meeting in gyms: 2-17-12

The church building that houses my congregation is nearly 100 years old, and, well, looks like a stately and gorgeous church building. (You see it in the photo here today.)


In some ways, I suspect, having such a structure is off-putting to some people who are spiritually hungry but who are intimidated by large and even foreboding church buildings.

My congregation is doing its best to figure out how to make that building more hospitable. Indeed, we devoted a whole section of the new long-range visioning report I just helped to write to what we call radical hospitality.

Some other congregations, especially new ones, are finding they do better meeting not in church buildings at all but in such places as gymnasiums.

This Religion News Service report, written by a Mississippi journalist, describes the ways in which various congregations are drawing people in, partly because they meet in gyms, strip malls and warehouses.

There are good reasons to have  churches, synagogues, mosques and temples housed in traditional buildings, but when those reasons get in the way of living out the faith of the various congregations that meet in them it's time to rethink what locations mean.

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Quite a few times in recent months I've written about the ridiculous efforts in such states as Oklahoma to ban Shari'a, or Islamic law. Here, for instance. Now a writer in "First Things," which has a reputation for theological conservatism, suggests that it's hard to seem serious about religious liberty if, on the one hand, you're complaining that the Obama administration is waging a war on religion while, on the other hand, you're saying America should ban Shari'a. Bingo.

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P.S.: Speaking of the dangers of inconsistency, the Los Angeles Times takes note of the fact that before so many Republicans discovered new contraception rules are, in their view, a war on religion, many Republicans sponsored and signed into law exactly these kinds of contraception rules. Just a reminder: When you are a public servant you leave a public record, which can be compared to the public statements you're making now.

Help for caregivers: 2-16-12

Because my wife chairs our congregation's Pastoral Ministries Committee, on which I serve, I'm pretty attuned to the need to support people who wind up as caregivers to people they love.


It may be a situation that gets thrust upon them suddenly because of an accident or diagnosis of a serious illness or it may simply be the need to care for fragile, aging parents or grandparents.

In early January I mentioned a helpful guide for caregivers in this post.

Today -- along with mentioning several other books that might interest you -- I want to highlight an excellent new book for caregivers called Leaning into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers, by Stan Goldberg.

I'm giving you a heads up on it now, though it won't officially be released for a few weeks. But you can preorder it at the Amazon link I've given you in the previous paragraph.

The author has been a hospice volunteer and caregiver for a long time, and he draws on that experience to offer many practical bits of advice for people who find themselves -- or choose to be -- caregivers.

What caregiving amounts to, in the end, is a living out of the profoundly religious notion that every individual is of ultimate and inestimable worth. And although you won't find much that's overtly religious in this book, Goldberg writes from a Buddhist perspective.

Among his best advice is to lean into the sharp points, which is to say, don't avoid the obvious pain and difficult issues you'll confront as a caregiver. You'll be much more useful if you deal with all of that head on.

The book is rich with good ideas and practical help -- even for those who will never be caregivers but who may be served by one.

In keeping with my previously stated commitment to spend less time doing full reviews of books, I nonetheless want you to know about the books that I'll list here now, with links to help you discover whether you'd be interested in reading any of them.


* In the Shadow of the Buddha: One Man's Journey of Discovery in Tibet, by Matteo Pistono. The author is founder of Nekorpa, which works to protect sacred pilgrimage sites.

* The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience, by Kevin Nelson. The author is a neurologist who teaches at the University of Kentucky.

* Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath, by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. The author, born in the Himalaya Mountains, is a Buddhist teacher in many parts of the world.

* Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life, by Kent Nerburn. The author, a Ph.D., in religion and art, completes a trilogy with this book. The other two are Simple Truths and Small Graces.

* Everyday Meditation: 100 Daily Meditations for Health, Stress Relief and Everyday Joy, by Tobin Blake. The author teaches meditation and spiritual awakening. For more about him, click here.

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New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reports that exorcisms are back in popularity in the Catholic Church. I gather she doesn't put much stock in them. I have a pretty low demonology, too, but I'm perfectly willing for others to think exorcisms are good and necessary.

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P.S.: Have you signed up yet for the 7-9 p.m. March 1 worshop on "Writing Persuasive Essays" that I'll lead at the Writers Place in Kansas City? The link I've given you gives the modest price and details for Writers Place members. Here's the link for nonmembers. Tell your friends. Let's have a good crowd and some fun as we learn.

Grasping Christian doctrine: 2-15-12

I was going to put a dateline on this entry so you'd know where I attended a funeral last week, but I've decided that the where doesn't matter.

Immortal soul

The funeral was for a member of my extended family, though someone I had never met. She became part of my extended family due to marriage in the generation after me.

The funeral was held in a Protestant church to which this person had belonged for a long time. The young pastor, who had known the deceased for two years, did an admirable job of giving those in attendance a sense of the person's spunk and curiosity and faith. All well and good.

But then he started talking about how the human body is just a shell and how "you have an eternal soul that will live forever."

I know this is the kind of trumpery people -- even Christians -- say to one another to try to be of comfort, but it is in no way Christian doctrine or teaching. The idea of an immortal soul is an old Greek idea that has infected the Christian church, despite the church's alternative -- and quite distinct -- teaching called the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

The great theologian Shirley C. Guthrie, in his classic book Christian Doctrine, outlines what I mean as clearly as anyone:

"If we hold to the genuinely biblical hope for the future, we must firmly reject this doctrine of the soul's immortality for several reasons.

"First, the Christian faith does not pretend that death is not so bad after all. . .For the biblical writers death is real, total and terrible. .

.Death is hideous, because, so far as we are concerned, it means the death of us, not just the death of our bodies.

"Secondly. . .the Christian hope is not in the indestructibility of man, but in the creative power of God. . .God alone has immortality. If there is life beyond death for men, it is not because they possess in themselves some immortal quality death cannot destroy, but because God gives them eternal life or immortality. . .Christians are not optimistic about man and the potentialities he has in himself, but about God and what he can and will do. . .

"Finally, Christians reject the doctrine of the immortality of the soul because of the unbiblical split it makes between body and soul, physical-earthly and spiritual-heavenly life. . .The Bible does not teach that the body is only a worthless or evil prison which degrades our true selves. . .(T)he biblical hope is not for the soul's escape from the bodily-physical into some purely spiritual realm. Our hope is for the renewal of our total human existence."

Indeed, as Bishop N.T. Wright makes so clear in his book Simply Christian, the Christian belief is that God will renew not just human existence but the whole of creation.

The pastor who spoke of the deceased person's body as just a shell from which her immortal soul now was evacuated could have learned true Christian theology about this also by reading Faith Seeking Understanding, by Daniel L. Migliore, as well as Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.

Somehow I expect Christian pastors to understand traditional Christian doctrine and am always disappointed when I find them offering something else. Though, to be fair, even the Westminster Divines in the catechisms they produced got mixed up on this issue. But we've had hundreds of years since then to get it right.

* * *


OK, speaking of Christian doctrine, I'm going to all traditional Catholic on you by endorsing the thrust of what the archbishop of Louisville says in this video, which is that "destination weddings" can set the wrong tone for a marriage. I just don't get why so much preparation goes into the wedding and, by comparison, so little to the marriage. Now, the fact that Protestants like me, unlike Catholics, don't consider marriage a sacrament doesn't change the fact that more preparation should go into marriage than goes into the wedding.

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Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, by Lauren F. Winner. Maybe my expectations for this book were too high. Although I hadn't read Winner's previous book, Girl Meets God, my wife had and really liked it. Same for other friends. But this new book, while it had its moments, seemed so self-referential that I had trouble understanding what I was supposed to get from it other than the opportunity to sit on the sidelines and watch as the author, through clever and engaging writing, expressed angst about her relationship with God. Winner converted from Judaism to Christianity and then eventually began to lose the passion for the faith that permeated her when she was a new Christian. Loss of faith is a common affliction in today's culture. Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to hold to a strong faith without going through the valley of the shadow of doubt and a feeling that God has gone missing. And Winner expresses that feeling in sometimes-compelling language. But in the midst of all this we also learn of her divorce, and yet she really doesn't give us a chance to grasp what caused it, what kind of man her former husband was, what role faith played in all of that and so on. Like much else in the book, it struck me as just a lot of free-floating distress. Perhaps if you are now experiencing a disquieting distance from God and want words to help articulate what you're feeling this book can help. I just found it too much about Lauren Winner and not enough about why her experiences matter to the rest of us. But I've been wrong before.


Some St. V-Day birthers: 2-14-12

Yes, yes, I know it's St. Valentine's Day and that because I mostly write about religion you expect me here to tell you who the heck St. Valentine was and describe the religious connections to this hearts-and-flowers holiday.


And you expect me to dig through my stack of photos I've taken of celebrities to find a shot of Valentine that I took back 1,800 or so years ago. Well, fine. That's the photo you see here today, and I recall what a pain it was to get Val to stand still and let me shoot this.

But everybody and his sainted brother writes about the alleged real St. Valentine, and I've done that several times myself.

So instead today I want you to know that this is the anniversary of the births of several people who helped to make up the history of religion on this planet.

I'll therefore just name them and give you a link to a site that will educate you about them, one by one.

* Richard Allen, born 1760, black American church leader.

* Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, 1843, Methodist clergyman and author.

* Luther B. Bridges, 1884, Methodist clergyman and hymn writer.

* Robert H. Pfeiffer, 1892, Methodist biblical scholar. (What's with all these Methodists being born on St. V. Day?)

* James A. Pike, 1913, Episcopal bishop.

* Ira F. Stanphill, 1914, singing evangelist and Assemblies of God pastor. (He died in 1993 in Overland Park, Kan., a KC suburb.)

OK. Now you know enough Valentine's Day trivia to impress your sweetheart all day. And isn't impressing your sweetheart what this day is all about?

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Look. I'm all for innovation when it comes to faith communities. But given the tremendous needs of so many hungry and homeless people, I don't get why the Catholic Diocese of Montreal would place an ad in newspapers urging people to pray that the Canadiens, Montreal's NHL team, will make the playoffs. I don't know what it cost the church, but whatever it was it was too much.

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P.S.: I'll be participating again this year in the annual AIDSWalk Kansas City as part of my congregation's AIDS Ministry and am starting a bit earlier than usual to raise funds for this great charity event to benefit the AIDS Service Foundation of KC. To donate, click here. And many thanks.

Not just for drive-by shooters: 2-13-12



Ah, the American way of death.

I have been thinking about this recently as I've been reading (one tombstone at a time), a book someone gave me as a gift, Where Are They Buried: How Did They Die? by Tod Benoit.

It covers most of the famous people you could imagine and is oddly comforting in that it proves there is a lot of variety in how people choose (if they do) to be dealt with after life has drained out of them.

So I'm a little more sensitive these days to stories about how Americans treat death. Which is why I happened across this odd tale of a funeral home in California that offers drive-through viewing of people in their caskets.

And Reuters even offers a slideshow of all this. Lordy, lordy. That's where the photo here today came from.

The major religions all have, if not rules, at least traditions for how to handle death. The best recent book about this subject from a Christian perspective is Tom Long's Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral. It's excellent.

But the drive-through idea I find too something. Knowing my odd sense of humor, I'd be afraid I'd knock on the window from the car and say, "Can I have fries with that?"

* * *


I'm all for careful analysis and criticism of the policies and positions of politicians. Debating such stuff is part of what makes America great. But the rhetorical overkill has gotten so ridiculous that it's nearly impossible to take seriously people who say President Obama is "waging a war on religion." That's just delusional claptrap designed to draw political support from ignorant people. Its shamelessness is shameful. Does that mean I think Obama is above criticism for some of his stances and policies as they affect religion. No. But war talk is tedious and so outlandish as to be laughable.

Creating the Vatican: 2-11/12-12



The sometimes-awkward ways in which religions relate to political states make for some fascinating history, and this weekend is a good time to think a bit about all of that because it was on Feb. 11, 1929, that Vatican City was created as a sovereign state within the boundaries of Rome.

That's when the Lateran Treaty was signed by Benito Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III and Pope Pius XI.

As you may know, for many years whoever was pope controlled what were called the Papal States, which formed an independent political entity in Italy. They were ruled by the pope from the 8th Century until the unification of Italy in 1870. In effect, the pope served as king of the Papal States.

But when Italy was unified, in the reign of Pope Pius IX, the pope declared himself a prisoner in the Vatican. Subsequent popes didn't make quite such a big deal of that but maintained essentially that position. Finally the stalemate ended with the treaty signed 83 years ago this weekend.

If you want to get into all that history, the online Catholic Encyclopedia has a pretty good rundown on it here. There's also some good information about this in the Encyclopedia of Catholicism by Frank K. Flinn.

In some ways, I see the Vatican's current status of being an independent, sovereign nation as sort of an accident of history. The question now is whether it's good for the church, and I frankly haven't throught that question through deeply enough to have an informed opinion.

But I do think it's always worth being careful how the structures of religions relate to temporal powers and civil societies. (Like when John Calvin ran Geneva.) And some day I'd love to sit in on a discussion by Catholic leaders and political scientists on the pros and cons of the state of the Vatican today.

* * *


Speaking of the Vatican, it is difficult to know what to make of the news that a cardinal has claimed there is an assassination plot afoot against Pope Benedict XVI and he could be dead within a year. Why would the cardinal inform Italian businessmen of this while in China? Why did he name someone being set up to be the next pope? Why was the report back to the Vatican done in German? And on and on and on. Baffling. Just baffling.

Endless ripple effects: 2-10-12

Ideas have consequences -- both for good and evil.


For instance, I recall that when I was in high school I read Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. There's a passage in it that contains and idea that led me astray for more than a decade.

In that passage, a main character remembers a Persian rug that someone told him holds the key to understanding the meaning of life. He ponders the rug and then concludes that life is just a meaningless pattern. There's no purpose. There's no God. There's no meaning.

I bought much of that bogus idea for too long. And, thus, I missed being in a loving community, missed learning wonderful theological insights, missed a relationship with God.

The late (thank goodness) Osama bin Laden promulgated a lot of bogus ideas, too. The only good religion, he said, was his own particular (and twisted) version of Islam. Americans are evil, he said. Good Muslims should kill Americans every chance they get.

Osama bin Laden was too cowardly to take his own advice and risk his own life killing Americans. But lots of his followers were willing to make that deadly decision.

Some of those followers got on American flight No. 11 in Boston the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and eventually grabbed control of that plane and smashed it into the World Trade Center in New York, killing everyone on board, including themselves pluse lots of people in the center.

One of the passengers on that plane was my sister's son, Karleton.

Today Karleton would have turned 42.

Ask Karleton's family whether ideas have consequences.

* * *


Catholics (and others) have been upset by the Obama administration's plan to require all employers to provide free contraception coverage. Even some of the president's supporters have been expressing displeasure. Here is a good explanation of why. Keep in mind, however, that polls show a majority of Americans -- including a majority of Catholics -- support what Obama is proposing.

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P.S.: Earlier this month I wrote about military chaplains. An atheist reader, in response, reminded me that there are non-religious, "humanist" chaplains in such places at Harvard University. And there are efforts to get such chaplains into the U.S. military, too. For details on that, click here. That's a cool thing about this country. Everyone is welcome, religious or not. I just wish everyone would remember that more consistently.

Falwell: Prophet of certitude: 2-9-12

When I first glanced at Michael Sean Winter's new biography of the late Jerry Falwell, God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, my temptation was to give it a fast scan and then just mention it here on the blog.


Falwell (pictured below), after all, was far from my favorite preacher, and I thought the book's title was a bit too cutesy, buying into the same divisive rhetoric that Falwell used so annoyingly over and over.

But the more I read the more I became convinced that this is an important book that anyone who wants to understand today's political and religious divides in the United States would do well to read.

If nothing else, Winter's description of fundamentalism (Falwell happily identified himself as a fundamentalist Christian) is worth the price of the book:

"Fundamentalism is a self-contained intellectual whole. From the inside, it is supremely coherent and everything fits neartly into place. There is a certainty and a clarity to fundamentalism: all the answers to all life's questions are found in the Bible if you know where to look. This certainty and clarity are opaque to those on the outside, and fundamentalism is ill suited to dialogue with nonfundamentalist believers. Fundamentalists do not recognize the kind of mediating intellectual traditions by which people of different points of view find common ground or, at least, clarify their differences. Conversely, most modern thinkers, even most modern religious thinkers, who do not share the fundamentalists' views about biblical inerrancy, find fundamentalist discourse and methods of analysis confounding. Fundamentalism is forceful but blunt. It is morally rigorous but not intellectually curious. Fundamentalism is accessible but not dexterous. Fundamentalism conforms easily to parts of American culture but is profoundly countercultural in other parts. In all these regards, fundamentalism conformed well to Falwell's personality. . ."


In a world full of perplexing uncertainty, Jerry Falwell was the prophet of certitude. He was often wrong but never in doubt, at least not in doubt in public. It was his baptizing of certitude that constituted his most destructive disservice to American Christianity and to reasonable and civil public discourse. (In some ways I thought Winters was too soft on Falwell for these things.)

It's partly because of Falwell (though far from him alone) that so many Americans can neither talk to nor understand one another today in civil ways. He helped to create the nasty divisions among us by being so certain that God had deputized him to deliver stark black and white truths (some of which even he had to take back). In the end, Falwell gave zealotry a bad name as many Americans outside of or only nominally attached to Christianity began to assume that he (and Pat Robertson and such folks) spoke for all Christians.

Falwell's certitude exposed the inability of followers of more thoughtful forms of Christianity to state their case and join in the discussion in a way in which they could be heard. He drowned out voices of reason, who proved inept at explaining themselves or gaining enough attention at least to try.

Winter's book does an excellent job in helping to humanize a man who might otherwise have become nothing but a cartoony charicature. We find that Falwell really was a devoted family man (though his family of origin was messed up in many ways) who, unlike many televangelists, never was unfaithful to his wife, Macel.

And Winters describes a man who, though he may have been sloppy at times (especially early in his ministry) about finances, was thoroughly honest.

These characteristics gave Falwell credibility that public sinners like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker lost by their own actions. And that credibility helped to draw people into his no-nuances approach to Christianity.

What Jerry Falwell never seemed to grasp was that faith does not mean having all the answers. Rather, faith means living confidently without all the answers. It means having a willingness to wrestle with the questions. It means understanding that at the core of Christianity is paradox, not certitude. Other forms of Christianity don't always get this right, either, but in most non-fundamentalist forms there is at least a willingness to ask hard questions and challenge conventional wisdom in an effort to own one's faith in deeper ways.

By the way, did you know that Falwell once spent a bit of time as a youth pastor in Kansas City? After graduating from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., he came in 1955 to the Kansas City Baptist Temple (which recently changed its name to Graceway), which Winters once misidentifies as the Kansas City Bible Temple.

I asked Jeff Adams, the pastor of Graceway, about the Falwell time there. In reply, Jeff said that "Jerry Falwell did indeed serve as youth pastor here. . . As I understand the story, he was a student at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., and would drive up on weekends. I'm not sure how long that lasted, but not long. You might be interested to know that for a time Jerry was college roommate with Truman Dollar, the senior pastor here before me. Wendell Zimmerman founded the church in April of 1943. Truman followed him in 1968. I came in 1984 and am just the third senior pastor since 1943."

Falwell was a dedicated man with many skills. The sad thing to me is that he employed those skills to promote false certitude, which has not served either the nation or the church well. Such certitude is a product of fundamentalism, a rigidity that serves no religion well.

* * *


Religious intimidation comes in all shapes and sizes. An 18-year-old Hasidic Jew in New York has just pleaded guilty to setting another Jew on fire for not praying with the community in the synagogue. That was like a taste of hell, except that so is hanging out with people who would do that.

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

A tri-religious conversation: 2-8-12

I have argued over and over that interfaith, or interreligious, dialogue needs to be a long-term commitment to be effective.


One-shot dinners or two-hour seminars may be helpful, but, in the end, true understanding takes time and effort.

Which is why I was glad recently to learn about a new international gathering of Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars who will be committing to several years of conversation about various interfaith issues -- and then making their conclusions available for free on the Internet.

Something called, appropriately enough, The Abrahamic Council, is up and beginning to run. Admittedly it includes representatives of just the three Abrahamic faiths, leaving out such religions as Hinduism and Buddhism, but this is a good place to start.

As you surf around the Council's site, you may be left with the impression I had, which is that this is in quite early stages and there's still a lot of construction work to be done on the group as well as the site.

But perhaps the page of FAQs will help you grasp the idea.

I like the concept of religious scholars tackling some of these issues and then sharing what they're concluding with people around the globe. Let's home some good comes of this and it doesn't become an insular conversation.

* * *


More women than men were ordained as Church of England priests in 2010, it's reported. That's the first year in which that's happened, though male priests still far outnumber female priests. You'll know this trend has spread elsewhere with some finality when there's a, say, Pope Margaret I.

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

Moving a congregation ahead: 2-7-12

See the people in this not-very-good picture that I snapped in a hurry on my iPad2 this past Saturday? I'm honored to call them co-ministers of my congregation.


They are elected officers -- elders and deacons -- who gathered this past weekend for a retreat to think about the future of our church and how we can and should do ministry in today's enormously different context from the one that existed when the church was started in 1865.

These people spent part of Friday evening and most of the day Saturday thinking about all of this as a result of a report (to read it, click on this link: Download GPS-Report-Final) just issued by a task force I've chaired for the last seven months -- the GPS task force, as we called ourselves.

The report makes a series of recommendations for how our congregation might faithfully move into the future in a way that will help transform the lives of people.

And what I want to say about these people is that they elected to spend much of this last weekend doing church work. They could have been out shopping or at the casinos gambling or cuddled up in a chair at home reading or watching mindless TV.

But they felt called to work on ways to meet the needs of other people by being part of a congregation that cares profoundly about people in need. We don't get it all right and sometimes we fight with each other over how to proceed (we even had some disagreements this weekend).

But in the end these people have elected to do what they can to make the world a little better place. That's because even though we have a pastor and an associate pastor on our staff, the real ministers are the members. They're the ones who work with neglected and abused children, who feed the hungry, who minister to AIDS patients, who pray for and visit the homebound and on and on.

And just so you know, there are congregations -- of various religions -- all over the country doing similar kinds of work because they feel called by God to do so.

Just think how much worse this country would be without all of them.

* * *


The Southern Baptists, formed in the 1840s as a pro-slavery denomination and with a history of supporting white supremacy well into the 20th Century, appear on the brink of electing their first African-American president. It's a hopeful sign, especially for people who lean toward staying within organizations and changing them from the inside instead of breaking away.