Previous month:
April 2012
Next month:
June 2012

Why we remember Nicea: 5-19/20-12

With Pentecost coming next Sunday, this is a good time for Christians to think again about what happened and why 1,687 years ago at the Council of Nicea, which opened on May 20, 325.

ConstantineFrom time to time I hear people -- even some who should know better -- say that it was at the Council of Nicea that the Christian church decided  to dream up and adopt the idea that Jesus somehow was both human and divine. They describe this as a radical break from whatever Christianity was before.

This is a bad misreading of history, with just enough of a small whiff of truth that it attracts followers.

The reality was, as historians and theologians have pieced it together, that the Council of Nicea was both a theological and a political gathering.

It was theological in the sense that leaders of the church came together to deal with the so-called Arian controversy, which arose because a priest from Alexander, Arius, "proposed that if the Father begat the Son, the latter must have had a beginning, that there was a time when he was not, and that his substance was from nothing like the rest of creation." (That's a quote from the Columbia University link about the council I gave you in the first paragraph.)

No, no, said most of the church, affirming what most of the church had said, if unofficially and perhaps unclearly, for several centuries. In fact, the church said at Nicea, there has always been Christ as part of the Holy Trinity, and God thus was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, who was both fully human and fully divine.

This was all affirmed in what became the Nicean Creed, a product of the 325 council.

I suppose it's possible that the church would have wrestled around with this matter of whether Christ had one nature or two for a lot longer had it not been for the Emperor Constantine (depicted here).

Constantine, who had come to singular power as the Roman emperor in 322 (and ruled as sole emperor until 337), was not happy with the divisions between the eastern and western branches of the church. So he asked (well, told) the bishops of both to come together in Nicea in 325 to work out their differences -- not so much because Constantine cared deeply about theological nuances (he wasn't even baptized as a Christian until just before he died) but so that he could have a politically unified empire.

Constantine first changed Christianity's status so that it became a tolerated religion in the empire, and he often gets credit for making it the official religion of the empire, but many scholars say that didn't formally happen until Theodosius became emperor in the last part of the 4th Century.

Well, there is much more to know about Nicea, including how what it said in the Nicean Creed matches with what the Council of Chalcedon said when it gathered in 451. Like Nicea, Chalcedon also declared Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine -- a rich mystery that simply cannot every be exhaustively explained.

But for my purposes this weekend, it's enough to raise the profile of the Council of Nicea here and to suggest that Christians would do well to understand past theological controversies because they continue to have resonance today, especially when such scholars as (some) members of the Jesus Seminar now suggest that the Nicene Creed has it all wrong.

* * *


A new survey says almost half of Americans using the Internet go online for religious purposes. Does that count the people looking online for, uh, heavenly bodies?

* * *

P.S.: Our friends at KC's Westport Presbyterian Church, which suffered a major fire this past December, are recovering and working on plans to rebuild. As they do that, they're raising money and having fun. And both of those things come together at 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 17, at The Villa, 4120 Baltimore, at a benefit performance called "Poems that Soar, Laugh and Sing." Hope you can interrupt your Watergate Break-in Anniversary commemorations that day long enough to be present.

Teaching youth peacemaking: 5-18-12

No doubt all of us have noticed this about little kids, especially boys: They like to play war. Or at least some kind of battle, like a gun fight at high noon on the main street of an old western town.

Peace_signThey make guns out of sticks. Or even just their hands and fingers.

They never say to their friends, "Let's play U.N. peacekeeper. I'll bring the treaties."

It's almost enough to make one believe in Original Sin.

And yet as young people grow up, they sometimes have opportunities to grasp peacemaking concepts and practices. They learn about peace in their faith communities. They read about peacemaking efforts by diplomats. And so forth.

And sometimes they even get to participate in programs that teach peace. Some of the peace churches -- especially the Quakers, the Mennonites and the Community of Christ -- are good at teaching peace and the techniques needed to achieve it.

In honor of such peacemaking efforts by young people, today I'm linking you to this essay written more than a year ago by a seventh grader.

It talks about two organizations, Seeds of Peace and Face to Face/Faith to Faith, that seek to teach peacemaking techniques to young people, especially those from troubled regions.

These kinds of efforts are inspiring, though they're too few and too far between. Still, if their tribes increase maybe one day a mother will hear here small boy say to her, "Mom, can Jacob come over and play Middle East Peace Talks with me?"


(Like this peace sign made out of hands here today? I found it at

* * *


Pope Benedict XVI has defrocked a bishop for bringing child porn into Canada. This is exactly the sort of no-nonsense, proper response that the church should have been using decades agao. Imagine the human costs for the delay in doing the right thing.

Those imperfect moralizers: 5-17-12

Some months ago, with my asking for it, I received a hardback review copy of Bristol Palin's memoir (can you really write a memoir when so young?), Not Afraid of Life.

BruniI immediately put it in a stack of books I'd never bother to review just as I'd never bother to read them because, if I did, when I finished I'd just be several hours closer to my death.

Then the other day the publisher's representative sent me the paperback version of the book. Into the same stack it went.

My choice was reaffirmed this week when I read this Frank Bruni column in The New York Times. He describes a blog entry Sarah Palin's in-your-face daughter Bristol wrote about President Obama's (laudable) decision to announce that he favors same-sex marriage.

Here's Bruni (pictured at right) quoting Bristol on Obama and then Bruni's comment about what she said:

“It would’ve been helpful for him to explain to Malia and Sasha that while her friends (sic) parents are no doubt lovely people, that’s not a reason to change thousands of years of thinking about marriage,” wrote Bristol, making her heady debut as the new Dr. Spock for a nascent millennium. She added that “in general kids do better growing up in a mother/father home. Ideally, fathers help shape their kids’ worldview.”

Fathers like...Levi Johnston? It’s with him that she conceived her child — out of wedlock, at the age of 17 — and by most accounts, his relationship with her and the Palin family isn’t any warmer than Juneau in January. A mother/father home is not what he and Bristol have succeeded in creating.

Bruni went on to make a point about how many morally compromised people seem to be in the business of offering moral advice today, Bristol Palin among them.

And, of course, he's right.

The problem, however, is that if all columnists, bloggers, radio talk show hosts and other public commentary folks had to have a clean moral record to say anything, the world would be silent. Utterly silent. And I would be among those silenced.

I wish Bruni had mentioned that. Still, among the noisy world of commentary available today, we need not stoop to hearing sermons from Bristol Palin.

And just like Elvis took all those drugs so the rest of the world wouldn't have to, I may hang on to my copies of Bristol's book so they won't fall into the hands of people tempted to read them.

* * *


Some Baptist churches over near St. Louis have refused to let their softball teams play against a congregation that has a bisexual pastor. This is the sort of bigotry that results when you misread scripture. For my own essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

* * *

P.S.: Join me at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library as I speak about my family's 9/11 experience of losing my nephew. This event is the monthly meeting of Anger Alternatives.

* * *

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

Church is about pretending: 5-16-12

Toward the end of his sermon this past Sunday, our pastor, Paul Rock, asked what in the world all of us thought we were doing for this hour in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church.

Easter-sanctHis answer was something I'd never put into the words he used: "Friends, this is pretend. We're pretending," he said. "That's what we do here."

He did not mean that we're pretending there is a God when we know there isn't. Nor did he mean we aren't sincere in wanting to worship God or wanting to be in a supportive faith community.

Rather, what he meant was that we were practicing (pre-tending) for when we'll all be gathered around the throne of grace and will be praising God.

"There will be one day," he said, "when all of us are gathered together like this, from every nation and every land, every tongue under heaven, and there will be none of us missing our mothers, none of us will be standing there longing that we were never able to be be a mother. There will be no tears, no heartache. We'll be singing beautiful songs together with all the heavenly host. (But for now) we're pretending. And it's a good thing."

When that time eventually comes we'll be tending (no longer pre-tending) to that privilege, tending to that task. For now we pre-tend to it.

In some ways, he was asking the old question of whether we can believe our way into a new way of acting or act ourselves into a new way of believing. I think he was leaning toward the latter idea, and offering us examples of how some Christians practice listening for the voice of God (voice not in a literal sense heard with our ears but heard with our hearts).

These Christians, he said, talk with God the way we sometimes talk to our dead loved ones at cemeteries. They pull up an extra chair, pour an extra cup of coffee and both talk to God and listen for God's voice.

They pre-tend to the privilege of speaking to and listening to God, something they trust they'll get to do in eternity.

Some of the more aggressive atheists these days say people of faith are delusional, full of make belief. No. That's not it, though we can't offer scientific proof that the God we worship exists.

Rather, what we're doing is pre-tending to the joyful task of living in the presence of the living God.

Imagine that. Well, imagine that if you know how to use your imagination.

(The photo here today is of an Easter service at my church.)

* * *


We have failed here to mention that the Dalai Lama recently received this year's Templeton Prize in religion, but now's a good time to catch up on that because he's just announced that he's giving away most of that $1.7 million to help needy children in India. Thus maybe doing something that will win him another award.

* * *

P.S.: A reminder: From 2:30 to 4 p.m. this Sunday I'll be speaking about my family's 9/11 experiences and acceptance and understanding of anger for Anger Alternatives at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Library. All are welcome to this free event, but because space is limited, get reservations by calling 816-753-5118 or by e-mailing

* * *

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

Read more here:

Muslim pilgrims to Jerusalem: 5-15-12

As regular readers of this blog know, I recently helped to lead a 10-day Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel (catch up on posts from the trip by going to the archives on the right side of this page and starting with the April 16 entry).

While we were traveling all around that fascinating country we saw lots of big tour buses carrying mostly Jewish and Christian tourists -- pilgrims in some sense.

But it turns out that Muslims are beginning to make the pilgrimage to Israel -- specifically to Jerusalem -- in increasing numbers. This AP story about this phenomenon gives me hope that the result will be reduced tension between Muslims who live outside the Israel/Palestinian Authority region and the state of Israel itself.

But as the AP story notes, these Islamic pilgrims "find themselves caught in a disagreement between some leading Muslim clerics, who oppose such pilgrimages, and Palestinian leaders who encourage them as evidence of the city's Muslim credentials."

I understand why some Muslim leaders discourage such trips, given that there's no solution yet to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I think their reluctance to bless this kind of contact is counterproductive.

It's much easier to demonize people if you never have to look them in the eye. Once you meet them in their own context, hatred and divisiveness become much more difficult.

So cheers for the Muslims who are going to Jerusalem to see sites that are holy to them, even while they inevitably will be in contact with Jews and Christians for whom the city is also sacred.

One of the most moving moments I experienced in Jerusalem a few weeks ago was to be at the Western Wall at the start of Shabbat on a Friday evening and watch Jews praying and welcoming in the sabbath. Then, a short time after Shabbat began, we could hear from a Temple Mount tower adjacent to the Western Wall site an enticing voice calling Muslims to prayer. The sense of connectedness required silence. Words were inadequate to describe it.

(You see in my photo here today the gold Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.)

* * *


Speaking of Muslims, now the state of Kansas, my neighbor to the west, is on the verge of becoming another bastion of prejudice by passing a law to protect Kansans from Shari'a, or Islamic law. This is inexcusable, given that the best, most comprehensive and reasonable book explaining Shari'a is by a University of Kansas professor, Raj Bhala. Yes, the book is long, but it's not complicated, and anyone who bothered to educate himself (are you listening Gov. Sam Brownback?) on this issue would never vote for or sign such a ridiculous bill. It's against Kansas' own interests. To read what I wrote last September about Bhala's book, click here and here.

New books for the spirit: 5-14-12

Partly because I have spent 10 days in Israel and then on a long weekend trip to Georgia, I'm way behind in introducing you to new books with religious or spiritual themes.

The-SignI'm going to rectify that today all at once -- a practice I've tried to avoid in the last year or so. But if I don't do it this way now some of these books may never get mentioned here.

I'll be doing mini-reviews on a few of them and then micro-mini mentions of some others. But I'll give you links to each so you may check them out further if just their titles sound interesting to you.

* The Sign: The Shroud of Turn and the Secret of the Resurrection, by Thomas de Wesselow. I have been fascinated by the Shroud of Turin -- believed by some to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus -- at least since I read Ian Wilson's 1978 book on the subject. Thus I followed the story of the 1988 carbon dating, on the basis of which some researchers declared the cloth to have been of medieval origin and not from the 1st Century. And since then I've followed further research that cast grave doubts on that 1988 conclusion.

Now comes an art historian who believes not only that the shroud is the true burial cloth of Jesus and, thus, bears the image of the crucified Christ, but that it also explains the resurrection.

How? What he proposes is that the disciples and followers of Jesus who are described in the gospels as seeing the resurrected Jesus really were simply seeing the shroud. This may strike you as absurd, and I'm mostly with you on that. But the author makes the case as best he can for his conclusion, and it's certainly worth reading about.

". . .the Shroud," he writes, "would have been perceived by its discoverers as a celestial messenger -- as an angel." In premodern terms, he argues, the shroud would have been seen "as a living person. . . .In other words, if the Shroud originated in first-century Judaea, it would have been interpreted as a kind of resurrection."

Well, this breaking-new-ground conclusion is a lot to swallow, especially when the promoter of it begins with the assumption (against the evidence in the gospels) that no one ever saw the resurrected Jesus. But the book nonetheless does make a persuasive case for the authenticity of the shroud as the burial cloth of Jesus. And the possibility that it was, indeed, exactly that has added richness to my recent experience of being in Jerusalem and seeing the two sites said to be where Jesus was crucified and buried.

Whether you will find the author's theory about shroud-as-resurrected-person credible I will leave to you.

India* India: A Sacred Geography, by Diana L. Eck. The author, a Harvard professor and director of the Pluralism Project, has written a sprawling masterpiece. And as someone who lived in India for two years as a boy, I will be keeping this book around to delve into again and again as I prepare to return to India for a visit next year (I hope).

What makes this subject both fascinating and difficult is that essentially all of India, given its long and rich history, is sacred landscape. So it's hard to leave out much of the country and do even an adequate job of describing why this or that location is important to the story of religion on the sub-continent.

Eck understands that and thus offers (with notes) more than 500 pages of engaging material. For people who haven't quite kept up with the many name changes for Indian locations that have occurred since independence in 1947 -- but especially in more recent years -- there will be a few bumps in the road because Eck uses the most recent names or at least the names associated with some sacred story attached to the location.

For instance, Allahabad, where my family lived for two years, is found in the index, but readers are directed to look, instead, under "Prayaga." Allahabad, by the way, is the location of the confluence of the Jumna and Ganges (now Yamuna and Ganga) rivers and those two, in turn, join at Allahabad with a mystical river in Hindu tradition, the Sarasvati.

Anyone seeking to understand not just Hinduism but the sacred heart of India itself will want to read Eck's book. And, just for the record, understanding Hinduism is increasingly important for Americans because Hindus make up a growing (though still small) percentage of the American population. But if you've been following the important work of the Pluralism Project, you already know that.

Chittister-book* Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy, by Joan Chittister. Fans of Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister -- and they are, for good reason, legion -- will not be disappointed in her latest offering. This is a guide for people struggling either to find their passion in life or to give themselves permission to follow that passion. As she writes, ". . .every one of us has a life to live that is right for us and a light to others at the same time." It's the latter part of that observation that has been Chittister's passion, and this book offers ways to find that path for ourselves and, more, stay on that path because, as she notes, "We are all called, in some form and fashion, to give ourselves away so that tomorrow can be better than yesterday for many." (Like me, Chittister is a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter. You can read her NCR work here and mine here.)

God-love* God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, by Mirabai Starr. Emerging from a secular Jewish family that condemned the many misuses of religion, the author struggled to make sense of the call she felt to the loving center of the three Abrahamic faiths. Eventually, she writes, she discovered that for all the differences between and among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, "each faith tradition was singing the same song in a deliciously different voice: God is love." This book, then, is an exploration of how those faiths offer that message and how that message might help to bridge the often-serious gaps between and among them -- not to create a syncretistic puree of the three but to lift up their different insights about what matters most to all of them.

Cup-Life* The Cup of Our Life: A Guide to Spiritual Growth, by Joyce Rupp. Not unlike Sister Joan Chittister, Joyce Rupp, a Christian spiritual guide, has many admirers and followers -- some of them because they first read this book when it came out 20 years ago. It now has a new preface and design. Rupp, in harmony with the Celtic approach to spirituality, finds deep meaning in the everyday things of life, including a simple cup. And she turns that cup into a broad metaphor for humanity's search for meaning as she offers daily meditations and prayers for the seeker-readers.

Club-Modernity* Club Modernity for Reluctant Christians, by Leonard Swidler. The author, a Temple University teacher, rightly suggests that the characteristics of modernity -- including a love of freedom and critical thinking -- can seem to clash with a commitment to Christianity. So in this book he helps readers to understand ways in which the reality of living within the demands and constraints of modernity need not prevent one from being a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. Yes, you might ask, but aren't we now in the post-modern era, having left modernity behind? Well, Swidler says he finds the term post-modern to be "vacuous." Any movement, he says, that "cannot articulate what it is about, but can only say what it is not about strikes me as intellectually adolescent. . ." Take that, post-modernity.

* * *

And now I'm just going to list some new books that might interest you while giving you a link to a page where you can explore them more deeply and order them.

* Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt, a paraphrase by Albert Haase. This is a new effort to tell Athanasius' story of the desert father St. Antony. The book is part of the Classics in Spiritual Formation series from Intervarsity Press.

* A Heart on Fire: Rediscovering Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Fr. James Kubicki. The author, a Jesuit, is national director of the Apostleship of Prayer ministry.

* God Wants You Happy: From Self-Help to God's Help, by Fr. Jonathan Morris. This one has a foreward by Rick Warren and blurb endorsements from Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly.

* Love Has Wings: Free Yourself from Limiting Beliefs and Fall in Love with Life, by Isha Judd. You can read about this woman's spiritual teachings at

* The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life, by Thomas M. Sterner. The author is a musician (and more) who draws on that experience to guide readers.

* The Fire Starer Sessions: A Soulful and Practice Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms, by Danielle LaPorte. She's into getting you to rethink your assumptions so you can free yourself.

* Clutter Busting Your Life: Clering Physical and Emotional Clutter to Reconnect with Yourself and Others, by Brooks Palmer. Among other things, the author is a stand-up comedian (who probably doesn't want you to think of this book as clutter in your house).

* The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity: by Bruce Hood. The author is director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the Univeristy of Bristol, and he aruges that the "solf" is an illusion. Rather, he argues in this Oxford University Press book, we are a story of our self.

* * *


There's a big debate about whether Eurozone countries can solve their economic problems with an approach that emphasizes austerity. Maybe what that idea misses is the related idea of sharing. If so, Pope Benedict XVI may have got it right in what he said over the weekend about economic matters. But sharing is such an un-capitalistic idea that it may have no future.

New look at religion in U.S.: 5-12/13-12

A recently released report, "U.S. Religion Census 2010," is giving us an updated picture of America's religious landscape and confirming that the picture is becoming more complicated. (Not sure why it takes two years to publish 2010 data, but there you go.)

ReligiousCensusFor instance, a Baylor University professor who helped compile the data points out that Hindu and Buddhist groups are becoming increasingly numerous.

To quote from a Baylor press release about this:

"Both Buddhists and Hindus, though still relatively small compared to the large Christian groups, have grown to the point that they are beginning to exert significant influence on the key issues that most affect their lives," said J. Gordon Melton, Ph.D., distinguished professor of American religious history with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor. Melton was in charge of assembling the data on both groups.

The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies does this census, which includes statistics from the 2,000-plus religious groups active in the U.S., every 10 years.

These kinds of studies are useful in tracking what religion in America looks like, of course, but it's wise not to become too attached to specific numbers within them or to try to compare the results of one study with another because each study tends to use a slightly different approach.

For instance, this particular study finds there are 58.9 million Catholics in the U.S. now. A much more common figure used by Catholics and others is 65 million, give or take.

On the other hand, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), reported that at the end of 2010 its membership was 2,016,091, whereas this new study counts 2,451,980 of us.

At any rate, what this study and others similar to it help us see is that America is becoming increasingly diverse when it comes to religious affiliation. And this gives us a unique opportunity to learn how to live in religious harmony with our neighbors, thus showing the world that it can be done. Indeed, I think that's one of our primary tasks in the 21st Century.

* * *


The Pentagon has just killed off a course for American military leaders that has been teaching them that all of Islam is the enemy. This kind of teaching is not just outrageous, it goes absolutely against what the military has been telling us it's been teaching its leaders. Heads should roll. And soon. And let's find out what other garbage the military has been teaching. If it's teaching this junk, it's probably teaching other trash.

* * *


Billy Graham's hard-edged son Franklin says that President Obama, by coming out in favor of same-sex marriage, is shaking his fist at God. I disagree, but I also wonder why Graham thinks it's a bad idea to shake one's fist at God. Sometimes that's exactly what we humans need to do -- and God can take it.

* * *

P.S.: The two classes I'm co-teaching at Ghost Ranch in July are beginning to fill up, so don't wait to sign up. 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.

Read more here:

That Guantanamo trial: 5-11-12

As a member of a 9/11 family (my nephew died as a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center), I was offered the opportunity to join with members of other 9/11 families to watch closed-circuit TV coverage of the current trial at Guantanamo of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (pictured here) and his al-Qaida associates.

Khalid_Sheikh_MohammedBut my schedule wouldn't allow it, so I'm having to follow it in other ways, including reading commentary about it.

For instance, this piece by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman raises some important concerns about trying enemy combatants before a military tribunal rather than bringing them to a regular courtroom.

I think Feldman is right about much of what he says, but in the end he doesn't really address my own primary concern -- the same concern I've had since 9/11 itself. And that is this: What can we do to undermine religious fanatacism and, at the very least, ensure that it doesn't turn violent?

I suspect that bringing KSM and other al-Qaida operatives to trial before a military tribunal -- which is inherently distrusted even by those who argue for its use -- will simply add opportunities for the bin Laden followers of the world (which is to say the people who radicalize Islam and turn it into something it was never meant to be) to do further recruiting.

Perhaps in this particular case -- and by this time -- there was no reasonable alternative to a trial before a military commission. But you can bet that people who hold to -- or are at least marginally attracted to -- the extremism of bin Ladenism will find this an easy target to exploit.

At one point a few years ago we were hearing about various ways in which Western nations and followers of traditional Islam were working to isolate the extremists misuing Islam and turn them toward something constructive. Even Saudi Arabia's ruling House of Saud was at work in that area.

But I've heard precious little about that recently, and it makes me wonder whether we've given up the battle for the hearts and minds of people who might be susceptible to recruitment efforts by al-Qaida and similar violent extremists. Oh, I know that in this country the work of such good groups as the Interfaith Youth Core continues.

But I wonder whether enough other efforts are being made here and abroad to counter what is likely to be a goldmine in the KSM trial for extremists.

(I found the photo of KSM here today at

* * *


President Obama's now-direct support for gay marriage is a welcome, if late, development and, with one exception, puts him on the right side of history -- and religion. The one exception is pointed out in this New York Times editorial. It's that Obama wants to leave the marriage decision up to states. Bad idea. (Obama's position also earned editorial plaudits from The Kansas City Star.) The president has been overly cautious about this matter. It's good that he's now out of the closet and in favor of equal rights for all, a civic virtue, and treating everyone with respect, a religious virtue. And just in case you missed Obama's words in an interview, here they are:

I've always believed that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally. I was reluctant to use the term marriage because of the very powerful traditions it evokes. And I thought civil union laws that conferred legal rights upon gay and lesbian couples were a solution.

But over the course of several years I've talked to friends and family about this. I've thought about members of my staff in long-term, committed, same-sex relationships who are raising kids together. Through our efforts to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, I've gotten to know some of the gay and lesbian troops who are serving our country with honor and distinction.

What I've come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens.

Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn't dawn on them that their friends' parents should be treated differently.

So I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.

Our debt to Karl Barth: 5-10-12

Because I think most of us know much less history than is good for us, I like to use the blog from time to time to remind all of us of important figures in the history of religion.

Karl-barthAnd few in the 20th Century made a mark deeper than Karl Barth, (pictured here) who was born on this date in 1886 in Basel, Switzerland.

For good reason, it's been said that Barth was to 20th Century theology what Albert Einstein was to 20th Century science. Nothing in either field has been the same since both men lived.

Over the years, two things have most impressed me about Barth. First, he was the primary author of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, a 1934 confession of faith that stood against Hitler and all that Nazism eventually became.

Second was the fact that when he felt that his theological world had crumbled around him he did what so many others have done over the years (like Martin Luther) -- he returned to the New Testament book of Romans and there found his bearings so he could find a way forward.

The result was his commentary on Romans published about 1920. It pushed the whole church as well as the theological enterprise sponsored by the church back toward orthodoxy from what was known as liberalism -- a necessary correction even if those terms today carry different meanings than they did then.

As Karl Adam, a Roman Catholic theologian, wrote in 1926, Barth’s work on Romans fell like “a bomb on the playground of the theologians.”

Since Barth's death in 1968, many other movements within the Christian theological world have garnered attention, from Liberation Theology to the Emergent Church Movement. But almost without exception all of them owe something to Barth and his careful, nuanced thinking as well as his personal bravery to stand up for what he was convinced was right.

(I found the photo of Barth seen here today at

* * *


A young man who describes himself as the only openly gay student at a small Catholic college has won a scholarship that honors Matthew Shepard, a young gay student tortured and killed in Wyoming in 1998. But the college says the organization giving the award can't present it at graduation because its views conflict with official church teaching. Here is one more example of the kinds of twists and turns churches put themselves through by being not just on the wrong side of history on the issue of homosexuality but on the wrong side of religion itself. And nearly every denomination at one time or another, including my own, has done this to itself. How sad.

* * *

P.S.: A reminder of something I told you about in late February: The Greater Kansas City Disciples of Christ Regional Ministry of Leader Development and Leadership Training for Church Leaders has scheduled two excellent seminars coming up. One will feature my friend Glenn Carson, the other Malinda Spencer, who works for Heartland Presbytery. Glenn is president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society and will lead a seminar on Saturday, June 2, called “Calling All Disciples: Leadership Lessons from the Lord’s Table." For a pdf describing that, click on this link: Download GKCLeadershipSeminarFlyerJune2012. Malinda is our presbytery's resource director for Christian education. She'll lead a seminar on Sept. 29 called “Best Practices for Christian Education” and “Support for the nearly childless church.” For a pdf describing that, click on this link:  Download GKCLeadershipSeminarFlyerSept2012.

Read more here:

A Catholic gem in Georgia: 5-9-12

MACON, Ga. -- It was about 3:30 this past Saturday afternoon when I wandered into the archtecturally stunning St. Joseph Catholic Church here.

Macon-3Finding a huge, double-towered gem like this in a city of just over 91,000 people is like finding a Tony-winning live theater company in my late father's hometown of Delavan, Ill., population 1,689 in 2010. You won't, by the way, find such a theater company in Delavan, though some decades ago someone opened a temporarily successful adult movie theater there, which attracted (the locals said) lots of people from such decadent places as Peoria.

Macon, religiously, is a landslide for the Baptists and the Methodists, but Catholics have been here since the bishop of Charleston visited in 1829, and Irish Catholics migrated to Macon starting in the 1830s. Their first pastor arrived in 1841, and construction of the edifice you see pictured here today began in 1889 and was completed in 1903.

Macon-4In some ways -- at least to me -- this building has the feel of a cross between Kansas City's gold-domed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown and the stunning Redemptorist church at Linwood and Broadway in KC.

While I was in this Macon church, someone was playing the organ and a dozen or two dozen people were praying, simply looking around or participating in the scheduled hour of the Sacrament of Penance, confession, held from 3 to 4 p.m. each Saturday.

Folks in Macon like to brag that they have more churches per capita than any other city -- a claim hard to prove, but with 300-some churches for 90,000-plus people, Macon probably is in the running. And that doesn't count a synagogue or two I saw here.

And yet nowhere -- including in Macon -- is Christianity immune from the cycles of change that are affecting the religious landscape in America, where -- especially since immigration reform was signed in to law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 -- millions of immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Southern Hemisphere have come, bringing with them their Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and alternative forms of Christianity.

My guess is that today it would be impossible -- to say nothing of folly -- for the Catholic diocese here to try to build such a monumental cathedral. And yet here this one stands, still actively used and beautiful, as a reminder of a time when such things were possible.

* * *


Venezuela's now-not-so-strong-man Hugo Chavez, fighting cancer, has taken to much more public expressions of the Christian faith, and one is left to wonder whether this is simply a desperate foxhole conversion experience or something more. I suspect no one -- including Chavez -- will know until much later, assuming he lives. If, once healed, he begins to live like a disciple of Jesus, that will tell the tale. As it does for all who profess Christianity.

* * *



Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families, edited by Robert H. Albers, William H. Meller and Steven D. Thurber. As the step-father of a man with special needs, I'm well aware of the role that faith communities can -- but often don't -- play in the lives of people with disabilities, including mental illness. And thus I'm delighted to discover a book that takes seriously the call to faith communities to minister to that population. This is an enormously helpful and carefully crafted book by people who know what they're talking about. It can guide any congregation of almost any faith to doing the right thing. "As with other unsanctioned illnesses such as HIV-AIDS, addiction, and dementia," the authors write, "it is imperative that the shroud of secrecy, shame, and silence be shattered so that the millions of people adversely afflicted with and affected by these illnesses may find a source of hope, acceptance, and new life within varying communities of society. This includes religious communities. . ." The advice offered in this book is wise, including "Caregivers are not trained as diagnosticians and so should refrain from acting in a diagnostic capacity" and "Depression should not be thought of as resulting from a lack of faith." Another skill that gets promoted a lot here is listening. And properly so, for listening is the first task of love. If your congregation has a program of caring for the mentally ill or developmentally disabled -- and especially if it doesn't -- buy this book so your faith community can do this ministry better.