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Modern hopes for Islam: 3-20-12

Yesterday here on the blog I praised religious dissidents -- or, anyway, thoughtful in-house critics who make religious leaders and followers rethink what they believe and do.


Today I want to extend that praise to the author of a book I've read about but haven't yet had a chance to read -- a Muslim woman who is challenging what the author of this New Republic piece about her calls "the general famine of intellectual daring in contemporary Islamic Studies."

Her name is Irshad Manji, and her new book is Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom.

What I find so encouraging about the book and what the reviewer has to say about it is that it is another piece of welcome evidence that some Muslims are working hard to counter the influence of the radicals in their midst who would prefer to have the religion -- and the whole world -- return to the 7th Century.

Such reform-minded people may not make up a majority of the world's Muslims, but they clearly are becoming a force to be reckoned with as Islam seeks to negotiate its place in those parts of the world (including the U.S. and Europe) where Islam is not the majority religion of the population.

As Omar Sultan Haque, author of the piece about Manji says of the Islam she is promoting, it's one in which "Muslims can think for themselves, and overcome a fearful, passive, conformist religiosity."

As I said here yesterday of Catholic theologian Hans Küng, may Manji's tribe increase.

* * *


And speaking of changes in religious traditions, the Church of England faces exactly that now in the wake of the resignation of Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Already England has opened up a debate about the proper role of political leaders in choosing the head of the church.

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

Praising dissident voices: 3-19-12

This is a good day on which to take note of -- and even celebrate -- people who, well, drive religious authorities a little nuts.


It is the birthday of the Swiss-born Catholic theologian Hans Küng (pictured here). He turns 84 today.

Küng, whose life in many ways has paralleled that of Pope Benedict XVI (they're almost the same age), has long been a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church, which in 1979 censored him. Indeed, as the biography to which I've linked you reports, Küng was "banned from teaching as a Catholic theologian, which provoked international controversy. An agreement of sorts was reached in 1980 that allows Küng to continue teaching at Tübingen under secular rather than Catholic auspices. He is now professor emeritus of Tübingen University."

Over the years, Küng has been a critic of the papacy (which, of course, tends to distress whoever happens to be pope) and has become a leading Catholic spokesman for the reunification of Christianity, which I consider to be a worthy, if somewhat unrealistic, goal.

I think all religions need thoughtful critics within their own houses. Küng has been one within the Catholic branch of Christianity just as, say, Bishop John Shelby Spong has been one within the Anglican tradition in the U.S.

As a rule, voices that challenge the status quo -- however annoying (to say nothing of wrong) they sometimes can be -- can wind up making a particular tradition stronger because those voices cause a re-examination of some aspect of theology or practice. The result can be a needed clarification or correction.

It's what the abolitionist and Civil Rights Movement voices helped do not just for Christianity in the U.S. but also for the nation as a whole.

So birthday cheers today to Hans Küng. May his tribe increase in all religious traditions.

* * *


Egypt's Coptic Christians are in mourning over the death of their leader, Pope Shenouda, 88. And it looks as if this tolerated but oppressed minority -- numbering perhaps 10 million -- may face difficult days ahead. As the 2011 annual report (the 2012 report is due out soon) of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said, "The Egyptian government has failed to protect religious minorities, particularly Coptic Christians, from violent attacks, including during the transitional period when minority communities are increasingly vulnerable." And now the man who has served as their protector for decades is gone.

* * *

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

500-year church storms: 3-17/18-12

Because I, your Swedish-German American blogger, marched in a St. Patrick's Day parade last Saturday, I'm sort of done with Irish celebrations, so if you're looking for profound St. Patrick wisdom, well, I guess you'll have to look elsewhere this weekend.


Well, wait. Here's a good talk about St. Patrick by Raymond J. Boland, bishop emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

OK. Now I want to return to some things Emergent Church Movement leader Brian McLaren (pictured here) said a week ago in a talk he gave at Village Presbyterian Church in suburban Kansas City.

I thought Brian did a good job drawing out the main thrust of what Phyllis Tickle had to say in her recent book The Great Emergence, in which she argues that about every 500 years Christianity goes through a major upheaval of some kind -- and now "we're in the midst of one of those 500-year storms that give birth to a new situation," McLaren said.

"We could say it this way: We got from the very early church in the ancient world to the church in the medieval world, then the Dark Ages and then coming into the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation and then we come into this modern world."

By the year 500, he notes, the Roman Empire, newly Christianized, had collapsed and the papacy had begun to assume a much more central and powerful role in Christianity. Some 500 years later, the church split into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a development sometimes called the Great Schism or Great Divorce -- one that has yet to heal.

About 500 years after that came Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, which wound up atomizing those who broke away from the Catholic Church. And by atomizing, McLaren said, he means into some 38,000 different recognizable denominations.

So if we are now in the midst of a 500-year storm in Christianity, many people ask, "What will happen to us?" McLaren said.

But he called that the wrong question, one that sounds like it comes from helpless people simply watching events. The better question, he said, is "What needs to happen?" That gives the questioner the opportunity to think about becoming part of the answer.

And it's exactly the question that Christians today should be talking about not only amongst themselves but also in conversation with people of other faiths around the globe.

* * *


A religious leader in Saudi Arabia says there's no place for Christian churches in his country. This is the kind of foolish defensiveness that does nothing but cause trouble around the world for Islam. It makes it appear as if Islam is so weak and uncertain of itself that it can stand no competition. I just don't get why this is necessary.

* * *


Abraham one god

Abraham: One God, Three Wives, Five Religions, by Frances Worthington. In recent years books about Abraham -- to whom Judaism, Christianity and Islam look as a crucial early figure -- have been numerous. Among them: Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, by Bruce Feiler, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, by Marvin R. Wilson, and Abraham: The First Historical Biography, by David Rosenberg. Worthington's book differs in that it is written from a Baha'i perspective and published by Baha'i Publishing. So here we learn how Abraham is connected not just to Judaism, Christianity and Islam but also to Baha'ism and Babism, the latter founded in the mid-1800s by Mirza Ali Muhammad of Shiraz, recognized by the Baha'i faith as a forerunner to Bahai'sm's founder, Baha' Ullah. I found this perspective intriguing, in that it told me things about Abraham that were new to me or reminded me of things about him I'd forgotten. For instance, the Baha'i faith believes that Abraham's wife Sarah was in fact his aunt. Worthington, a journalist, approaches the subject using an allegorical reading (meaning in harmony with the Alexandrian School of thought) of the Bible. So, for instance, in the biblical story of the sons of Noah finding him drunk and naked in his tent, the story, she insists, is not about a literally drunk and naked man in a tent but about how the man's sons understand his messages from God. Two buy into all that, one doesn't. An allegorical reading also is applied to the story of three men (or angels) visiting Abraham and Sarah so that these three visitors "represent the three Messengers who will be descendants of Isaac -- Moses, Jesus and Baha' Ullah." Well, this is an interesting read for followers of any of the faiths mentioned, offering a different lens through which to understand how important Abraham is to well over half the people of faith on the planet.

* * *

P.S.: Can you help the homeless of KC also have a Spring Break? An organization called Care of Poor People, Inc., is planning just such an event on Saturday, April 7. Here's a story about it and how you can help.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Another Nazi death camp  guard is dead. This time it's the infamous John Demjanjuk. Although we may want to shout hurray, as we wanted to when Osama bin Laden died, the more humane and true response is this: "May God have mercy on him, because I probably wouldn't."

Theologies of disasters: 3-16-12

Every time some kind of natural disaster -- hurricane, earthquake, tornado -- occurs, killing all kinds of people and disrupting lives, people ask why God caused it, why God let it happen or why God didn't protect the innocent.


It's a variation of the old question of theodicy, which is why there is evil if God is good and all-powerful. As I've said before, all answers to that question, which is to say all theodicies, fail. And that failure constitutes the open wound of religion.

We have many things we can say about God and natural disasters, but in the end there is mystery and in the end we must be silent before that mystery.

I was thinking about all of this the other day when the media was marking the first anniversary of the earthquake that let loose a horrifically destructive tsunami in Japan. (To see an excellent presentation about Japan's efforts to rebuild and its need to educate its people, click here. And don't miss the news media links at the end of that page.)

I was recalling a sermon, Paul Rock, pastor of my congregation, gave right after that, one called "Why Sendai?" using the name of the most heavily damaged Japanese city.

As Paul said that day:

"We Christians believe that there is a God. We profess that this God created the heavens and the earth and we profess that this God created us and we profess that this God said that we were good and that this God loves us. If that’s the case, if that’s what we profess, then how do we make sense of any of this? This is the age old question of theodicy. How do you have an omniscient and omnipotent good God who created out of love a good planet, and then you have pain and suffering and struggling and evil like this? How do make sense of any of it? . . .

"There are those who of course sadly have said that somehow God was sending a message of judgment to the people of Japan. I don’t even want to take the time to honor that by even thinking about it, how wrong and disgusting that theology is and the repercussions that it has for us."

Part of what Paul was saying was that although we all want a perfect world and have "come to expect a perfect world, God created the world and said, 'It’s good.'  It’s not perfect. Never has been perfect. . .To be perfect means to be complete. To be perfect means to be mature. To be perfect means to be flawless. And we know that is not this world."

In the end, Paul said, "When nature or addiction or nuclear power or war or sin have done their worst, and we slip from or are ripped from the arms of this life, the cross and the empty tomb assure us that the faithful arms of our loving God will always catch us and heal us and set us free to know true life, eternally."

In the meantime, it's OK to shake our fist at the world, at God, at nature when natural disasters happens. But it's better to join in the rebuilding.

* * *


Speaking of natural disasters, an earthquake last August caused extensive damage to the Washington National Cathedral, and new estimates suggest an immediate need for $20 million worth of repairs with an additional $30 million needed to take care of deferred maintenance. If 50 million of you would send in $1, the problem would go away.

On Jewish-Christian relations: 3-15-12

Regular readers here know of my long and deep interest in interfaith relations and especially Jewish-Christian dialogue.


A good example of what I've written about this matter can be found here, and it will link you to two other examples.

In recent days I've run across two things about this subject I want to share with you.

The first is this in-depth column by John L. Allen Jr. of The National Catholic Reporter (for which I also write a column).

John recently gave an important lecture on this subject, and in the column to which I've linked you, he summarizes it.

The good news in John's column is that none of the oft-distressing events now happening in the world should mean "any fundamental rollback on the Catholic commitment to good neighborly relations with Judaism, which has come to be an utterly conventional feature of church life in the last 50 years."

Next is this story from The Jerusalem Post.  It describes a visit to Israel by Latin American Catholic priests and their Jewish counterparts. These kinds of events are designed not simply to educate clergy but also to work to undo some of the anti-Judaism and antisemitism still found in some Latin American countries.

I hope those priests and rabbis also will begin to bring members of their congregations to Israel. I'll be helping to lead just such a trip next month with a rabbi and an Episcopal priest.

* * *


Mark Silk. professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., writes this interesting piece about how Barack Obama is a disciple of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and why that puts him at odds with folks on both the political far left and far right. Obama's fondness for Niebuhr (one of three theologian siblings) is well documented, though in this piece Silk, an excellent observer of religious affairs in the U.S., describes how he sees that playing out in political terms.

* * *

P.S.: The other day here I wrote about an upcoming local (KC-area) production of "The Diary of Anne Frank." Today I add to that by offering this perhaps-unique story from Tablet magazine about a woman who knew -- but didn't like -- Anne Frank.

Ministering to the disabled: 3-14-12

Ever since my stepson Chris came into my life more than 16 years ago, I have been sensitive to how faith communities relate to people with developmental disabilities.


Chris has a seizure disorder that has led to mental retardation. But he loves people, wants to hug everyone in the world and he loves going to church.

Sometimes he goes to church with the other residents of the group home in which he lives. And sometimes he goes with his mother and me to our congregation.

I'm pleased to report that for the most part he has encountered friendly people who are welcoming. But that's not always the experience of people with such disabilities.

As Mark Pinsky reports in his wonderfully helpful new book, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion, faith communities have a lot to learn about how to welcome and minister to people's with disabilities. Indeed, as Pinsky notes, about one in six Americans deals with some kind of disabling condition -- from mental health issues to physical limitations.

Pinsky, an excellent journalist whose stories about religion I've enjoyed reading for years, offers in this new book a compendium of stories about how different churches, mosques, synagogues and temples are working to welcome people with disabilities (or how they have failed) to do so.

Partly because of such failures, research Pinsky mentions shows that people with disabilities are less likely to attend religious services at least once a month than are people without disabilities.

One of my favorite stories in this book is about how St. Andrew Presbyterian (well, of course, I'm one) Church in Albuquerque, N.M., welcomed a young man named Rob, who had behavioral disabilities, into the congregation. The story shows that the beneficiaries of a welcoming attitude aren't just the people being welcomed but also the ones doing the welcoming.

That and other stories in this book reminded me of what the great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, which is that congregations without people who have disabilities are themselves disabled congregations. Moltmann's brother was severely disabled and was euthanized (read murdered) by the Nazis.

In the end, the book becomes guidance for congregations -- not just about adapting their worship space to accommodate wheelchairs but how to adapt the hearts of congregants to welcome all people.

* * *


For fans of odd religious news, here's a story about underage drinking and drag-racing (well, sort of) by Amish youth. I'm thinking some kids will be grounded until retirement age.

* * *




What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying, by Karen M. Wyatt. The author, a physician, has spent many years as medical director of a hospice. Out of that experience she draws lessons for the living -- all of whom, of course, are also dying. I'll be co-teaching a class at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico this summer on end-of-life issues, and Wyatt's book is one participants may well want to read. For one thing, it reminds us of how much America is a death-denying culture. A stark measure of that, Wyatt reports, is that about one-fourth of the annual Medicare budget is spent on aggressive, life-sustaining care in the final months of life, "much of which is futile and may actually prolong suffering rather than enhance life." Wyatt has a tougher job contending (but not really conclusively) that "suffering is ultimately a gift, a divine assistance for your spiritual growth." She's right that we should "embrace and embody suffering, making it your own, in order to transform and transcend suffering." Her section on forgiveness, though good, was compromised by the misguided notion that Judaism did not have "the concept of a merciful God" until "Jesus introduced" it. Taken to its extreme, such ideas amount to the religious bigotry known as anti-Judaism (and for where that can lead, look for my essay on the subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page). And to call the concept of people forgiving one another a Jesus idea that was "totally revolutionary" is to reveal evidence of a lack of understanding of -- and appreciation -- for Judaism, no matter how much some of its leaders at the time of Jesus were in the pockets of the Roman rulers and, thus, not serving their people well. Those matters aside, there are some compelling personal stories in the book that people moving toward the end of their life or people caring for the frail elderly should find helpful.

How churches divide: 3-13-12

The phenomenon I'm about to describe here today is not new. But I think its prevalence is increasing -- sometimes at warp speed.


It's a phenomenon that Emergent Church Movement leader Brian McLaren (pictured below) mentioned the other evening when he spoke at Village Presbyterian Church in suburban Kansas City. Brian put it this way:

". . .the differences between denominations are no longer as big as the differences within denominations."

My friend Fr. W. Paul Jones talks about this phenomenon, too, in his book Theological Worlds.

I suppose you can find these differences inside any denomination, but at the moment, my own, the Presbyterian Church (USA), seems to be a prime example.

We Presbyterians have been fighting over many things in recent years, but the most public battle has been over whether to ordain as clergy otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians. Last year we finally changed our constitution to allow such ordinations (it was the right thing to do), but the aftermath is that a number of churches are leaving the PCUSA.

Some are joining the Fellowship of Presbyterians, which in turn recently started a whole new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, or ECO-Presbyterians.

Not all of this struggle is over the gay-lesbian issue, but that's certainly a primary symbol. In the end, the differences have more to do with how the Bible is read and interpreted.

But I'd say that the differences between Presbyterians who belong to the Fellowship of Presbyterians and those who would never belong to that group are much wider than the differences between your average Presbyterian and your average United Methodist, say.

And it's another reminder that labels -- even proper names -- often hide much more than they reveal. Life is complicated, nuanced -- though you'd never suspect that listening to much of talk radio these days.

* * *


The recent death of one of the 1960s "God is dead" theologians has prompted this good piece from journalist Jon Meacham, an excellent thinker, speaker and writer. Oh, for more people who understand that not everything about faith is nailed down -- nor is meant to be.

The Holocaust in drama: 3-12-12

However it's done, the task of teaching young people about the Holocaust must be accomplished. And parents and teachers are finding many ways to do that, including using the resources of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.


But drama can be a tool, too.

And the other evening my co-author and friend Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn was privileged to visit the young actors who will appear in an upcoming production by Culture House of "The Diary of Anne Frank." (That's Anne in the photo here.)

As you know, I'm sure, Anne Frank's family was hidden by a non-Jewish family in Amsterdam to try to escape the death that Hitler's Nazi regime had purposed for all of Europe's Jews in World War II. Anne kept a diary that was found after her death, and it has become perhaps the best-known Holocaust-era story.

Jacques spoke to the cast about the Holocaust, particularly through the eyes of the survivors and the non-Jews who saved them that we wrote about in our recent book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

The play will be presented May 4, 5 and 6 at the Just-Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Penn Valley Dr.,
Kansas City. I wish I could see it, but I'll be in Georgia for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. You, however, can buy tickets by clicking here.

* * *


And now the pro-Santorum pastor who has said some terrible things about gays and lesbians (I wrote about that here) is asking Mitt Romney to denounce his "racist religion." No wonder people get turned off religion -- with leaders like this. Yikes.


Two of the 10 Commandments: 3-10/11-12

No, the Decalogue is not something you burn in a fireplace -- well, not if you wish to stay on the good side of Jews and Christians.


Rather, it's another name for the Ten Commandments, and it's the subject of a current series of luncheon gatherings at Community Christian Church in Kansas City.

The other day, in fact, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I spoke there about commandments No. 3 and 4.

We agreed on a lot, including which commandments are numbers 3 and 4. It turns out that the Bible doesn't number them, so Protestants, Catholics and Jews have their own lists, and they don't always match up.

But for both Jews and Protestants, No. 3 has to do with not taking the name of the Lord in vain, while No. 4 is about remembering and honoring the Sabbath.

I'll share with you today a few of the points I made (or, anyway, meant to make if I didn't). If you want to hear Rabbi Jacques on this subject, invite him to your faith community.

  • The two versions of the Ten Commandments (or, really, Ten Sayings) are found in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. And there are parts of them scattered throughout the Qur’an.
  • The different versions used by Jews, Catholics and Protestants are connected to the way the verses are divided and counted, and there are three basic divisions — Philonic, Talmudic and Augustinian.
  • The Jewish version of one of them says not to “murder,” while the Christian versions say not to “kill,” thus leading to great debates about capital punishment.
  • I was not around to see the 1923 release of Cecil B. DeMille’s movie “The Ten Commandments,” but was around for the 1956 remake starring Charlton Heston.
  • Although a good case can be made that all the commandments are important, the first one trumps them all because if you truly abide by it you abide by the others as a matter of course. That’s because, in my view, all sin is a matter of idolatry, and the First Commandment forbids idolatry.
  • Because the Ten Commandments are part of the five chapters that make up the pericope, or section, about the Sinaitic Covenant, it’s important to think about the idea of covenant in scripture to grasp fully what’s going on here. The covenant proper, including the Decalogue and the laws of the so-called Covenant Code, are found in chapters 20-23.
  • A covenant is simply an agreement found in the Bible. It is the customary word used to translate the Hebrew word berith. It is used in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Scriptures, 286 times. (Someone else counted, not me.) There are various covenants in the Bible.
  • What I find especially interesting about the Decalogue is its form. God addresses humanity in the first person, identifying God as the one who rescued the people of Israel from slavery.


    It's a reflection of the reality that Jews and Christians envision the essence of God in much the same way. For instance, Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson notes that when Jews are asked who God is, they say, "Whoever rescued us from Egypt," while the Christian answer is "Whoever rescued Jesus from the dead." In both instance, God is seen as rescuer, redeemer, savior.
  • As for the third commandment about taking the Lord’s name in vain, I prefer the translation in the New International Version, which says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”


    There’s a paraphrase of this Commandment worth looking at, and that’s found in The Message by Eugene Peterson. It says: “No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name.” Which raises the question of what is God’s name. And the only answer we have from God is “I Am.”
  • I think this third commandment has to do with simply remembering that God is God and we are creatures who must honor God at all times. That doesn’t mean we have to be deadly serious — humorless — all the time. But it does mean that God is holy and we are not. What’s the first Commandment? No other gods. This is simply another way of saying that.
  • As for the fourth about keeping the Sabbath holy, Christians sometimes find it shocking when I assert that Christianity really doesn’t have a Sabbath. Rather, we have a day on which we celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s resurrection, Sunday. But trying to win that argument is like trying to win the argument about the word "hopefully," which is misused roughly 99.9 percent of the time. So I’ve sort of given up making the argument.
  • But keeping the Sabbath holy is yet another way of repeating the first commandment to have no other gods. We are to remember who we are and whose we are seven days a week. And setting aside a special day for that kind of rest, as God did in the creation story in Genesis, is one way to do that.
  • And I might just add that we need not wait through a whole week to get to Sabbath time. We can observe holy space and holy time any day of the week and any hour of the day. It’s simply a matter of being in touch with the image of God within us and with our relationship with the eternal.
  • One final point: I have never understood why people of faith want to turn over our most powerful symbols to the government to display — putting tablets of the commandments in courthouses or Nativity Scenes on City Hall lawns. That cheapens those symbols. I say let the government worry about the eagle and the flag and let people of faith worry about such symbols as the Ten Commandments and the cross.

* * *


Residential houses aren't the only structures being foreclosed on in this economy, it turns out. So are houses of worship. Some 270 churches were foreclosed on in 2010, it's reported. And the foreclosures keep on coming. Can you get raptured as well as ruptured?

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Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, by James Martin, S.J. The author is a Jesuit priest, so you might imagine that this book is just for Catholics. But he makes it clear that his intent is to introduce everyone of any faith -- and of none -- to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and to the Jesuit approach to faith and spirituality. And at more than 400 pages the "Almost Everything" in the title is only a slight exaggeration. Martin, whose book, Between Heaven and Mirth, I wrote about last fall here, covers things in an organized way. He writes about four foundational understandings of Jesuit spirituality, about the four weeks of Ignatian "Exercises," about the Jesuit understanding of six paths to God and so on. And he's easy to read. He tells good stories, some of which include himself -- sometimes as the butt of the joke or anti-hero of the tale. At the end of the book, in addition to a helpful interview with Martin, there's a series of questions about what you've read, though you won't be quizzed there on such information as how many colleges and universities the Jesuits run in the U.S. (28).


                            Sites in the Holy Land: 3-9-12

                            In about six weeks, I'll be heading to Israel for 10 days to help lead a Jewish-Christian study tour there with my co-author and friend, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and our mutual friend, Fr. Gar Demo, an Episcopal priest.


                            So I was intrigued to run across this feature at called "Seven Holy Land Sites No Visitor Should Miss."

                            You can run through them yourself to see if you've visited them if you have been to Israel, but it looks as if our tour's itinerary calls for us to see nearly all of them.

                            I've been doing some extra reading about Israel, including material about the history of that land, and I'm really anxious to get there. I was in Jerusalem and Bethlehem when I was about 13, but at the time the areas my family visited were all in Jordan. Even Jerusalem was a divided city then, and we couldn't go to Israel because the next stop on our trip was Egypt, and Egypt at the time wouldn't let you in if you were coming from Israel, so we had to stay on the Jordanian side of things, including the Jordanian side of Jerusalem.

                            One of the people going on the trip next month asked me the other day whether she should feel worried about visiting Israel in light of all the news now about Israel's relationship with Iran. I suggested that if American foreign policy was that we will stand with the Israelis, maybe the best way to do that is to go and actually stand with them in person. She liked the thought.

                            (The photo here today shows crowds at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.)

                            * * *

                            A VISIT TO MEXICO, TOO?

                            I have spent very little time in Mexico in my life, but after reading this engaging AP piece about Guanajuato, which Pope Benedict XVI will visit soon, I'd love to go. Maybe I'll wait until the pope has come and gone, however, so I won't be tempted to buy any of the goofy trinkets that always seem to be available wherever he travels.