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Those neurotic Jews? 5-31-12

Within almost every group of any sort, there are inside-baseball jokes or observations or stances, but generally it is not, well, kosher if people outside the group tell those jokes, make those observations or adopt those stances.

DiversityFor instance, we Presbyterians frequently refer to ourselves in a self-depracating sort of way as "The Frozen Chosen," by which we mean that we keep our emotions in check and do everything "decently and in order," to quote the Apostle Paul, who was not, as far as I know, the first Presbyterian.

But it feels like being picked on when a Methodist or a Catholic or a Hindu refers to us as The Frozen Chosen.

Which brings me to the fascinating question about Jews raised by a Jewish writer in this column: Do the Jews own anxiety? Another way of asking it: Is neurosis inherently Jewish? (Kansas City makes it into this column. Look for it.)

Non-Jews like me feel inevitably like an unwelcome outsider even asking that question, and yet, as the author makes clear, many Jews seem to encourage others to think of Jews that way.

That said, the author properly points out the dangers of such a stance, and I agree.

It's the age-old problem of labeling people. And as I've said over and over, labels hide much more than they reveal. It can be especially damaging to put a negative, or derogatory, label on a group of people.

What we must remember is that although all human beings -- no matter their ethnicity, religion, race, sex or anything else -- are much more alike than they are different, no group is so homogenous that within it you can't find great differences among its members.

So to call me a Presbyterian, for instance, is to say almost nothing in detail about me, given that Presbyterians are all over the lot theologically, economically, socially and politically.

Mentioning groups can be a helpful shorthand (Missourians, Unitarians, Americans) but to think that all members of the same group share the same this or that is the road to destruction.

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A snake-handling preacher whose father died of a snake bit has, himself, now died of a snake bite. It's almost inevitable that people who focus on one tiny (as well as unimportant and even dubious) passage of holy writ will wind up in trouble. (See Fred Phelps.)

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

Surviving near Treblinka: 5-30-12

One of the stories Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I tell in our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, is about how Jerry Koenig, his brother and parents survived by hiding in a barn of a willing Polish farmer not far from the Treblinka death camp.

Edge-abyssIt's an astonishing story of a whole family surviving together with seven others in a secret bunker, but a story filled with close calls and great pain when one of the people living in the bunker gave birth to a baby whose cries could be silenced only through poisoning the child so that others could live.

Now Jerry's brother Michael Koenig, who is a couple of years younger than Jerry, has written his own account of his family's survival in At the Edge of an Abyss: A Story of Holocaust Survival Near the Death Camp Treblinka.

I found it a remarkable experience to relive the story Jerry told us but this time through his brother's eyes. And Mike Koenig's telling of the tale is done with important attention to detail and with good insight about how it was to be cut off from the world for so long.

This is one more nail in the coffin of the insane sickness known as Holocaust denial.

Mike Koenig's memory is quite good, though even he acknowledges that details fade over time and from time to time he tells readers that this detail or that has disappeared from his memory.

But this clearly is the story of an eyewitness to the genocide carried out by Hitler's Germany, and we are fortunate to have the story preserved.

One of the things that helped Mike draw back the story all these years later is that he's been making notes about his memories for decades -- though until now those notes essentially have been unpublished.

Treblinka-21He is kind enough twice in this book to take note of the book Rabbi Jacques and I wrote and to point out that while Jacques and I were in Poland doing interviews for our book, we did our best -- without success -- to find members of the family that saved the Koenig family. We tell that story in the chapter on Jerry Koenig.

The day that Jacques and I spent looking for members of the family that rescued the Koenigs we also visited Treblinka (that's us there in the photo at right), where hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered in less than a year. At one point while the Koenigs were living in the barn, they could smell the smoke of human flesh being burned at Treblinka.

There are broad histories of the Holocaust written by gifted academics and other scholars. This book, by contrast, is a personal story that could be told only by a survivor. And it's told well.

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How do chickens and religion mix? I mean beyond those satanic poultrygeists. The Smithsonian's website has an entry on chickens that gets at that question this way: "Chickens were, and still are, a sacred animal in some cultures. The prodigious and ever-watchful hen was a worldwide symbol of nurturance and fertility. Eggs hung in Egyptian temples to ensure a bountiful river flood. The lusty rooster (a.k.a. cock) was a universal signifier of virility—but also, in the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, a benign spirit that crowed at dawn to herald a turning point in the cosmic struggle between darkness and light." In terms of faith, in other words, the buck-buck stops here.

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

How to misunderstand God: 5-29-12

No doubt many of you know what is meant by the phrase "God of the gaps."

Dietrich_bonhoefferIt's a reference to the practice of attributing to God pretty much anything we don't understand about the world -- anything, that is, that science can't explain.

So as science explains more and more, there's less and less need for God if one uses God in a "God of the gaps" sort of way.

In doing a bit of reading recently about the famous German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis just before the end of World War II, I was reminded of something of Bonhoeffer's I'd read years ago -- something that relates directly to the idea of the God of the gaps.

In a letter written from prison on this very date, May 29, in 1944, Bonhoeffer said this:

" wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know."

As usual, Bonhoeffer has it right.

In fact, looking for God in what we do know as opposed to in what we don't know can cause us to be even more sensitive to the divine all around us. We're generally so bad at this that a Jewish prayer book with which I'm familiar says that "we walk sightless among miracles."

If there's one approach to trying to understand God that people of faith would do well to abandon, it's the God of the gaps.

(The photo of Bonhoeffer here today came from the site to which I linked you above.)

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Perhaps you read last week that the pope's butler was accused of spying and leaking documents in an internal Catholic scandal dubbed Vatileaks. Now, it's reported, the butler has agreed to cooperate with authorities, and there's all kinds of speculation about where this will lead. It's hard to imagine that any true enemy of the Catholic Church could have dreamed up more damaging scandals than the church itself has managed to fall into in recent years. It's stunning and terrible because the world needs a healthy Catholic Church.

A day to give thanks: 5-28-12

For Memorial Day this year, I want to offer two brief thoughts.

First, let's give thanks that the hospice movement has spread to so many communities. Well-run hospices -- whether nonprofit or for-profit -- help countless families cope with the end-of-life issues for their loved ones.

I happen to serve on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, a nonprofit I consider to be the jewel of the hospice world in KC. It sponsored the "Circle of Lights" remembrance ceremony on the Country Club Plaza the other night -- the gathering you see in the photo here today.

Second, I want us all to remember that Memorial Day isn't about just BBQ and the opening of swimming pools. Rather, it's a time to pause and give thanks for the members of our military who have served and secured our freedoms.

Especially we remember those who lost their lives doing that for our sake. Take a few minutes of silence today for that -- maybe after you read this Wall Street Journal piece by the father of a soldier who died in Iraq.

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George Washington's famous, but seldom seen, religious liberty letter to a Jewish congregation will go on display soon, it's reported. Maybe some current politicians could read it. And pay attention. What a good idea.

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

Cosmic mysteries challenge us: 5-26/27-12

Ever since I read The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene more than 10 years ago, I've been a fan of Greene and his ability to make the weird and wonderful world of subatomic physics understandable (well, sort of) to lay people like me.

He's done it again in the cover story of the current Newsweek, "Welcome to the Multiverse."

The possibility that our universe -- the whole shebang -- is just one of billions of universes, which is exactly the idea Greene says scientists now are seriously considering, raises elegant and eternal questions about all kinds of things, including religion.

It's important to remember that quite often when religion has attempted to say something about the science of how the world works, it has been wrong.

The famous case of the Catholic Church condemning Galileo for saying that the Earth revolves around the sun is just one example, though perhaps the most embarrassing. Well, wait. The list of religion's statements about science is long and laughable, so maybe we would do well to hold off giving out the prize for the most embarrassing.

Another on that list is the ludicrous idea -- still held by many people -- that Earth is only a few thousand years old.

So when cosmologists begin to suggest that perhaps there are tons of universes out there and that maybe ours isn't so special after all, it raises questions about whether the biblical accounts of creation and humankind's central place in God's heart are credible.

I'm not suggesting that the central message of scripture -- that God created the world moved by the impulse of love -- is wrong. Not at all. But if Earth, the only planet we know of to sustain life, is but one tiny speck of dust in an unimaginably vast creation, perhaps our ideas about God are far too small.

What String Theory and ideas about the multiverse do is cause those of us who are people of faith to regain a sense of humility, given how much we don't know and the size of what we will have to explore if we are to reduce our ignorance.

(I borrowed the beautiful art here today from the Newsweek/Daily Beast website containing Greene's piece.)

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Ah, the life of the clergy. Folks who operate a rabbinical court in southern Israel have just heard a divorce case in which a man says he wants to leave his wife because he can't live both with her and her 550 (count 'em) 550 cats. Several of the punchlines that come to mind are inappropriate for a family-friendly blog.

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P.S.: You're running out of time to sign up for one or both of the two classes I'm co-teaching at Ghost Ranch in July, so don't wait. For details about the class on end-of-life issues and the class on forgiveness, click here. Ghost Ranch is a beautiful national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico. One week there will change your life forever. Really.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My friends over in the "Our Values" section of continue to ponder why so many Americans (compared with citizens of many other countries) express a belief in God. Late this week they even reacted to something I wrote about the subject, both agreeing and disagreeing with me. To read their comments, click here.

A religious truce in campaign? 5-25-12

It's an anecdotal and not a scientifically verifiable conclusion but here it is: Americans are sick of this presidential race and especially its many detours into various aspects of religion.

Obama-vs-romneyThe good news is that President Obama and Mitt Romney -- and their respective campaigns -- may be moving toward a truce on using religion against each other.

At least that's a conclusion of the CNN Belief Blog, and I hope it's accurate.

The movement toward backing away from focusing on religion came after a Republican Super PAC proposed highlighting Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., who was a controversial figure in the 2008 race.

Romney objected -- as he should have -- and the PAC backed away from the idea.

Similarly, the Obama team apparently now is unwilling to raise questions about Romney's Mormonism. Indeed, everyone needs to be reminded that there is no religious test allowed for holders of public office in the U.S.

And the only real concern voters should have about a candidate's religion is how it might affect public policy and the candidates actions once in office.

All of this was not evident in the GOP presidential primary race, when it seemed as if every candidate was seeking to use religion in some way to appeal to voters.

But now that the nominees are all but set, let's hope they can avoid being divisive about faith. In fact, they should work to be peacemakers in a country that is increasingly pluralistic when it comes to religion and that needs to figure out how its citizens can live in religious harmony despite their differences.

Why is that so hard?

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A researcher who at first concluded years ago that therapy could turn gay people straight has now rejected that conclusion. But a Mormon group says it will continue relying on that study as the basis for its work to change homosexuals into heterosexuals. The most credible evidence suggests that such "reparative therapy" is harmful to people. I view such therapy as similar to trying to make black people think they're white or short people think they're tall.

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P.S.: This Memorial Day, Shinnyo-en, the Japanese Buddhist denomination, will host the 14th annual Lantern Floating Hawaii on Ala Moana Beach in Honolulu, in partnership with the Na Lei Aloha Foundation. You'll be able to see it on a live webcast at Organizers say that this traditional Japanese lantern floating ceremony honors those lost to war, health and natural disasters and serves as a symbolic prayer for a harmonious and peaceful future for all. The ceremony starts at 6 p.m. Hawaii time, which I believe is 11 p.m. CDT. But if you're in a different time zone, you can do a time conversion from Hawaii time to yours here.

A pope's Jewish friend: 5-24-12

People smarter than I am have said many times that Pope John Paul II was the best pontiff the Jews have ever had.

Pope-IWhat they mean, of course, is not that Jews somehow are under any pope's rule but that this particular pope, over his long time in office, did more to improve Jewish-Christian relations than any pope in history.

And I agree, even if I think more could have been done by him and the Vatican to encourage more constructive contact between Christians and Jews at the local level.

One reason JPII improved relations between Judaism and Catholicism -- which historically, until 1965, had taught in various ways that Jews were Christ killers and pestilent (see my essay on this subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page) -- was that he grew up in Poland with Jewish friends.

Indeed, perhaps his best friend, Jerzey (known as Jurek) Kluger, has written a book about their life-long friendship, The Pope and I. Its publication now come several months after Kluger's death on Dec. 31, 2011.

I like this book a lot, although Kluger was not a professional writer. Rather, he was an engineer, and at times writes like one.

But there is much insight here. And Kluger has not written a book so full of admiration for his friend that he lets the pope off the hook on some matters that did not please the wider Jewish world.

Two examples:

JPII canonized a Catholic friar who, while a prisoner at Auschwitz, offered to die in the place of another, younger man -- and did. It's an inspiring story, for sure. But to tell the full story of Maximilian Maria Kolbe requires acknowledgement that he was connected with a magazine that produced a lot of antisemitic trash in the 1930s, as Hitler was forming plans for his attempt to conquer Europe and, ultimately, destroy European Jewry.

Kluger notes that at the ceremony beatifying Kolbe, the pope "delivered the homily, speaking of the friar's life and also of his work, although making no refence to Kolbe's anti-Semitic writings." (The Wikipedia piece about Kolbe to which I've linked you above says some people have sought to rebut the charges of antisemitism against him.)

Later, Kluger writes about the release in 1998 of a long-expected Vatican document on the Holocaust, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah."

As I indicated, this document was produced as a result of a request by JPII but it took many years to get done, and, in the end, the pope wrote only the preface to it, as Kluger reports it. The document was roundly -- and rightly -- criticized by Jews because although it criticized individual Catholics for certain anti-Jewish acts and beliefs, it let the collective church off the hook.

And after describing some of the reaction to the document, Kluger writes, ". . .it was easy to understand why so many Jews were disappointed by the comments of a document that they had anticipated for so long."

Kluger's ability to criticize his good friend is a wonderful lesson in interfaith dialogue, for unless participants are free to hold each other accountable and disagree without walking away, nothing good happens.

This book serves as an important addition to the picture we have of one of the most important popes of all time. Kluger has done all of us a favor by writing it. It's just too bad he was not still around to see its publication.

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Sticking with a Jewish theme today, I offer you this intriguing BBC News piece about descendants of top Nazis who have had to learn to live with the reality of what members of their family did in the Holocaust. It raises fascinating questions about appropriate and inappropriate guilt.

Which of 300 million gods? 5-23-12

Americans seem almost prideful at times about the fact that in poll after poll, huge majorities of citizens profess a belief in God.

Zippy-GodThe obvious question, of course, is: Which God? It's not an easy question.

Indeed, religious pollster George Barna says Americans have so many different ideas about God that, in effect, Americans worship 300 million gods.

I thought about that recently when I read this blog entry by my friends over at It had to do with new survey results showing that 61 percent of Americans say they have no doubt at all that God exists.

And only 3 percent of Americans, in this study, said they don't believe God exists at all.

I suppose it's useful to know general trends like this, but in the end I find such statistics close to meaningless because of the vast differences in what people mean when they use the term God.

Some mean the Triune deity of Christianity. Others mean Allah of Islam. (Are Allah and the God of Christianity the same? The book to read is Allah: A Christian Response, by Miroslav Volf.) Still others think of a bearded old man in the sky while others have in mind some kind of nameless, faceless force, which might be related to what the late theologian Paul Tillich described as "the ground of all being."

In fact, the next time someone says, "God bless you," you might reply, "My God or yours?" Or not.

(The art here today? That's God as depicted in the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead. I found that at

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This interesting column published in The New York Times suggests that although Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, has made progress in creating a democracy, it still has a long way to go. It's a wise cautionary tale about holding up models.


A Mormon missionary's work: 5-22-12

Because Mitt Romney, a Mormon who once served for 30 months in France as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be the GOP presidential nominee this year, lots of people have been curious about what it means to be a Mormon missionary.

Mormon-Army-bookFor several understandable reasons, Romney, on the campaign trail,  has been reluctant to focus intently on either his Mormon faith or his experiences as a young man seeking converts in France.

And although every Mormon missionary has unique experiences, I think a new book, Two Years in God's Mormon Army, by Ross H. Palfreyman, may give all of us at least a glance at what being a Mormon missionary might be like.

Now, it certainly is true that Palfreyman's two years in and around Bangkok, Thailand, in the 1970s were quite different from Romney's assignment a few years earlier, when he spent much time in Paris. I've been both to Bangkok and to Paris -- and, trust me, there's a big difference.

That said, Palfreyman -- after a terrible opening sentence -- writes in enlightening ways about Mormonism and the task of missionaries. Indeed, I came to like him because of his sense of humor, his sense of curiosity and his willingness to ask questions about aspects of official church teaching.

Early on in the book, Palfreyman acknowledges his shortcomings as a 19-year-old missionary:

"With just a year of college completed. . .and no idea who I really was, I was being asked to tell the Thai people that I knew the way and the truth, and had the light. Somehow that did not invoke fear and trembling in my being, though I suppose it should have."

He also writes about ways in which rigid conformity ran against the grain for him:

"One of the mental impediments was that I could never resign myself to believe that conformity was equal to spirituality. I could believe only that conformity provided order. Order and spirituality were not necessarily the same thing. This mission, then, became a real test of my own belief system."

He expresses a similar attitude about church leaders who would try to whip up enthusiasm for the missionary enterprise:

"I have always had an aversion to meetings that were meant to psyche you up to perform a task I felt I was already working pretty hard at."

And although Palfreyman was then and remains today a committed Mormon, he's not unwilling to poke a bit of fun at the faith:

"One thing I will say about Mormon testimony meetings -- you will rarely be in a setting where platitudes and accolades are more predictable."

He adopts a similar attitude about the Mormon teaching that adherents should avoid alcohol, coffee or tea and tobacco:

". . .so long as you don't smoke or drink alcohol, coffee or tea, members are declared to be followers of the Word of Wisdom and are invited to participate in the temple ceremonies. It does not really matter what other horrible things you might do to your body, as is evidenced by the number of people attending the temple who would no doubt benefit from some time at a gym instead."

And although Palfreyman doesn't purport to speak for the Mormon Church or other Mormons, I wonder how many other Mormons agree with him when he writes this about the church's long-ago rejection of the practice of polygamy:

"The practice of polygamy that Joseph Smith (Mormonism's founder) declared was ordained of God had been cut off by decree for political expediency. To this day, the principle of polygamy remains a viable tenet in the doctrine of the church. However, its practice is punishable by excommunication."

Well, as I say, it's probably unfair to try to get a sense of Romney's experience by reading Palfreyman's account, though surely there were some common aspects of their experiences.

The writing in this book (published through Book Printing Revolution) will not win any prizes for originality or creativity. But it does have the virtue of clarity, which readers sometimes would sell their souls to get.

And it offers a window into a religious practice about which lots of people wonder today, in part because a man who wants to be president once participated in it.

(I mentioned a terrible opening sentence, but I'll let you be the judge. Here it is: "I watched the lubricating oil slowly trickle down the pale green wall as my index drill first drilled, then threaded, and finally countersunk aluminum protractor part after aluminum protractor part." Trust me: The path from there is up.)

By the way, as a bit of an extra today, here's an interesting piece about how Mitt Romney's presidential race is, in effect, furthering the effort to bring Mormonism into the mainstream of Christianity. I'm not sure that this merger ever will be complete as long as Mormons insist that the Book of Mormon (and other writing) is equal in stature as scripture to the Bible, but we'll see.

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A national network of Internet sites offering religious news is being created through Religion News Service, which now has its headquarters at my alma mater, the University of Missouri. RNS does great work, and one can only hope that this new effort will improve the media's coverage of religion around the country. It needs plenty of improvement.

Seed fell on fertile ground: 5-21-12

When my church helped to create Hope Care Center, a 24-hour skilled nursing facility for patients with HIV/AIDS, 16 years ago, I knew that we would be helping people in ways we could not possibly foresee.

Hope-careBoy, was I right.

Time and again I've seen how the center has been a loving, caring place for people who were suffering the ravages of this terrible disease, including some people I've known personally.

But the other day a fellow church member who once served on Hope Care's board sent out a note about the role Hope Care played in yet another person's life. And it touched me so much I want to share it with you, though I've changed all the names and any other identifying marks:

(Sophia), our 26-year-old administrative assistant,and her boyfriend, Tim, befriended a man named Jack. He is older and down on his luck as the former custodian of (an area school). Five years ago Tim (at the age of 21) agreed to be Jack's power of attorney since Jack had no engaged family.

Then Jack disappeared for three years until this week when a hospital in (a nearby city) called Tim. Jack was in their hospital and dying of liver failure, but he would be released Tuesday. He was also HIV-positive with complications.
So, I end up with two wide-eyed twenty something's in my office Monday afternoon. They learned first-hand that no nursing home or facility in the entire state would accept Jack. So what should they do?
You know the rest of the story. I picked up the phone right there in front of them, called the Hope Care Center and Jack was immediately transported to HCC from the hospital. I drove Tim to HCC to show him the place and they stood there waiting for us with Jack's impeccably clean room ready, fresh flowers by the bed that Trapp's provides weekly -- AND an introduction to a resident who has been there NINE years.
They lost Jack this afternoon with Sophia and Tim beside him. Jack passed surrounded by caring compassionate people who gave him his last warm meal and a bed.

I know it sounds corny, but the seeds we sew often take years to come to fruition.

Well, the fact is those seeds that my congregation helped plant have been producing excellent crops of compassion and care since 1996, and Kansas City is blessed to have this unique facility available.

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The Rev. Bruce Reys-Chow, former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), is a wise voice in my denomination, and proves it again in this piece. He suggests that we adopt an attitude of graciousness as some individuals and congregations leave the Presbyterian Church because of their disagreement over our decision to allow the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians. It is, of course, exactly the model those of us who agree with the ordination change should adopt. Indeed, gracious acceptance of differences among people of faith would be a good model for everyone.