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Short-circuiting fear in faith: 9-29/30-12

COREA, Maine --With several notable exceptions -- such as the time of partition in 1947 after India achieved its independence -- Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India have lived together in relative harmony.

Jana-bIt has not, of course, been a perfectly harmonious relationship throughout the country all the time, but as a general rule adherents of the major religions represented in the Indian population have not been at constant war with one another.

I experienced that when I lived for two years in India when I was a boy. One of my classmates at boarding school there, Betsy Woodman, now has recreated that sense of relative religious harmony in a new novel, Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes.

The story is set in 1960 a fictional hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, quite similar to Landour-Mussoorie, where Betsy and I attended Woodstock School.

In fact, my wife and I are here in Maine this weekend with Betsy to attend a reunion of some of our Woodstock classmates, so I saved my blog comments about Betsy's lovely novel for this weekend.

The story of a British-born Indian citizen, formally Mrs. William Laird but now called Jana Bibi, involves Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even the occasional Buddhist.

And although sometimes as the story progresses an adherent of one of those religious traditions will express some exasperation or frustration about another tradition, the people of various faiths find ways to respect one another and even depend on one another to help their town survive.

At one point in the story a primary Muslim character, named Feroze, tries to help a young American boarding school student up from a steep hillside at dusk but the two of them become trapped together for the night. The difficult situation gives readers a chance to see into the mind of a Muslim as he ponders the fragility and purpose of life in response to the girl's question of whether he is afraid on this mountain cliff in the dark:

"No, he was not. Tonight he was on a small ledge, talking to another human being. That's what human life was: a brief stay on a narrow ledge before a plunge down the precipice into the unknown. All you could do was share your thoughts with the person sitting next to you, whoever that might be. What good was fear, thought Feroze. Fear. . .was a result of inadequate faith -- and did it ever change anything?"

Feroze is right about fear. But ignorance, which can grow out of isolation, often produces fear and fear produces prejudice and hate. And then all bets are off. As the people of India have taught us -- imperfectly, to be sure -- when people of different faiths live together as neighbors, that whole ignorance-to-hatred path can be short-circuited.

And when it is we have a chance to live in peace. (And have a chance to read delicious fiction.)

(By the way, the current religious make-up of the population of India is approximately this: 80.5 percent Hindu, 13.4 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Christian, 1.9 percent Sikh, 0.8 percent Buddhist and0.4 percent Jain.)

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Why 'spirituality' is so hard: 9-28-12

WILLMAR, Minn. -- In one of the break-out sessions at a congregational training event here this past Saturday for the Minnesota Valleys Presbytery, the Rev. Sarah Butler was urging members of the small group in attendance to pay attention not so much to what they do but to how they simply can "just be."

Being in the presence of God intentionally, she said, is what constitutes spirituality. But she added this:

"We're afraid of spirituality. The American work ethic has ruined us."

(To which I might add that something of the opposite -- our relentless desire to be entertained to death -- has ruined us, too.)

Sarah had invited me here to give the keynote address for this training event, and I did, but as usually happens when one is asked to give, one gets more than one gives.

And Sarah's admonition to take time simply to "be" is one I need to hear more often and one I need to put into practice more often. I'm much better at doing than I am at being.

Sarah serves two small congregations in Minnesota and her sermon for them last Sunday unpacked her idea that the work ethic (usually called the Protestant Work Ethic, and often blamed on the Puritans or John Calvin or both) has made us unreceptive to the idea of simply being and enjoying the presence of God.

Have a look at the sermon. Sarah might have been preaching not just to me but to you, too.

(Why the picture here of clouds? Well, while I was waiting to board my plane in Minneapolis, I was just "being" by watching clouds. So I "did" something to prove that I was just "being" and took this photo of them.)

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NORTH SPRINGFIELD, Vt. -- Just FYI: I'm now in New England for a few days for some family and personal time and, thus, won't have time to be adding my usual second item at the bottom of each blog until I return next week.

A guide to interfaith relations: 9-27-12

Thank God for Brian McLaren (pictured below).

Mclaren_jesusmosesbuddhaHe's a pastor who is one of the leaders of the Emergent Church Movement and recent years his ministry has been writing books and speaking to groups. I've written about Brian several times, most recently here when he gave a presentation in the Kansas City area.

His latest book is what all people of faith in the U.S. need right now, though it's aimed mostly at McLaren's fellow Christians. It's called Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?

It is to be released today.

As I've said over and over, the call to Americans of the 20th Century was to get racial harmony right, while the call of the 21st Century is to get religious harmony right.

And that's exactly the point of McLaren's book.

McLaren's concern is how Christians can retain a strong religious identity and still be respectful of other religions and their adherents. He argues persuasively that one need not compromise one's religious beliefs to be able to relate constructively and respectfully with people of other faiths.

He calls this "a Christian identity that is both strong and kind. By strong I mean vigorous, vital, durable, motivating, faithful, attractive, and defining -- an authentic Christian identity that matters. By kind I mean something far more robust than mere tolerance, political correctness, or coexistence. I mean benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interested, and loving, so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show toward those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view."

McLaren-2People familiar with McLaren knows he comes out of what he has identified as a conservative, evangelical background, so often he seems to be writing to that branch of Christianity, which still is the source of much intolerance and even denigration of other faiths.

Because that approach to other faiths is out of sync with Mainline Protestantism's current general approach, every time McLaren writes something about how lots of Christians damn this or that religion, I have to remember that he's not talking to me or most of my branch of Protestantism (though certainly in Mainline history there's a record of intolerance and much worse).

In the end, McLaren challenges all Christians with this question: "How do we, as Christians, faithfully affirm the uniqueness and universality of Christ without turning that belief into an insult or a weapon?"

One of the special values of this book is that it takes the long view, going back into early Christian history to trace the ways in which Christians over time have bumped up against adherents of other religions. Its helpful to have this long view and context, and McLaren does it well.

For instance, after reviewing Christianity's ties with the Roman Empire, he concludes that "what we call Christianity today has a history, and that history reveals it as a Roman, imperial version of Christianity." Indeed, he even proposes talking not just about Roman Catholic Christianity but also Roman Protestant Christianity.

In a time of terrible religious illiteracy (even about the faith people claim to follow) there is a huge need to acquaint ourselves with other faiths and think about how we're going to get along with the adherents of those other faiths in our increasingly pluralistic American religious landscape. This book is a great place to start.

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NORTH SPRINGFIELD, Vt. -- I'm in New England for a week for family and other matters, so for a few days you won't find me offering you a second item here from the news. But you're good at making up your own reality, so have at it.

Are we making moral progress? 9-26-12

The other day in a Bible study group I help to lead, the reading of chapter 4 of Ephesians led us into a discussion of whether we think human beings have progressed any -- in terms of morals, ethics and sinlessness -- in the last 4,000 or so years.

Chalk-outlineExhibit A for the side that believes we've made little or no progress was the murder story then being recounted in this well-written and well-researched series in The Kansas City Star, "Killer Love." Briefly, it's about a Baptist pastor from Independence, Mo., who had a 10-year affair with a woman in his church and who, eventually, murdered that woman's husband.

I know. It whiplashes your spirit, doesn't it. The affair, of course, was bad enough and a clear indication that the man was morally unfit for the gospel ministry.

But murder? Oh, and did I mention that the pastor -- before he was arrested -- also led the funeral service for the man he killed? (For some reason the insane image of Lee Harvey Osward presiding over JFK's funeral enters my cranium.)

Well, the answer to the question of human moral progress is not a simple yes or no. Is it not a good moral thing and evidence of progress that we abolished slavery? Is it not an immoral thing that modern slavery, often called human trafficking, is still with us?

Is it not a good moral thing that women in the U.S. increasingly are liberated from the bonds of oppression (including being forbidden from voting)? Is it not an immoral thing that women continue to be raped (please avoid Rep. Todd Akin's take on this) and that they continue to be exploited sexually in many ways?

But the "Killer Love" series, describing a pastor's murderous affair (the pastor, by the way, has the unlikely name of David Love), is a reminder of why, in Christianity, we have a doctrine called the Total Depravity of Humankind. The doctrine doesn't contend that humans are completely incapable of good works but it does suggest we are entangled in a web of sin from which we are unable to extricate ourselves without help.

I found particularly revealing a section in part 2 of the newspaper series that reported this about Love and his mistress, Teresa Stone:

As they sought to understand their love, David Love reminded Teresa Stone of the biblical King David, Israel’s warrior king who demonstrated that no man’s depravity was beyond God’s forgiveness.

He was not even above murder, the pastor observed. King David, for example, orchestrated the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, so he could take her as his wife.

“And God still blessed him,” David told Teresa.

Read more here:

Oh, my. Talk about terrible theology. Well, it's what we might expect from someone who is, after all, human -- as are we all and, thus, equally capable of such twisted thinking.

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Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner, Pope Benedict XVI, who says traditional male-female marriage must be defended. And in this corner, uh, well, Lady Gaga, who says same-sex marriage is a "must" and that what the pope thinks doesn't much matter. In the long run, I'm betting not on the one with the most power but the one with the cans as rollers in her hair. Go figure.

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P.S.: Dr. Nancy Claire Pittman, who teaches at Phillips Theological Seminary, will speak on "Revelation for the Rest of Us" at 7 p.m. Friday as part of a two-day "Faith Life Connections" event at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main, Kansas City. For reservations (including a $15 lunch Saturday) and details go to the website I've given you here or call the church at 816-561-6531.

An atonement day for all? 9-25-12

One of the many things I admire about Judaism is its emphasis on repentence, forgiveness and atonement, as evidenced by its annual High Holy Days, which conclude with Yom Kippur, or day of atonement. Yom Kippur begins at sundown this evening.

StarofDavid-1Other religions, of course, also place emphasis on repentence, forgiveness and atonement, but I see an intensity to Judaism's High Holy Days that seems either missing or perhaps naturally diminished a bit in Christianity's season of Lent, which lasts 40 days, or Islam's month of Ramadan.

Instead of stretching it out for weeks, Jews pack it all into 10 days.

In Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide, my friend and writing colleague Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn offers this definition of Yom Kippur: "Day of Atonement. A 25-hour fast period which is the culmination of the 10 Days of Repentance. It is the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar and the day is spent in prayer. The themes of the prayers are mainly the failings of man and the majesty of God. Forgiveness for sins against God is asked and we pray for a healthy and happy new year."

At any rate, the idea of atonement (at-one-ment) seems especially pertinent to our time, when people of various religions are going around insulting one another -- and worse.

So I was glad to see this formal proposal for a day of atonement for all the world's religions. I recognize that it's unlikely to happen, at least on a large scale, but these things can be built from the ground up. We can't apologize and seek forgiveness for things other people did, of course, but we can extend an olive branch to people of faiths beyond our own by telling them that we are aware of their pain when their faith is denigrated.

What would you do to further the idea of a day of atonement for all faiths?

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While Americans debate religious freedom, it turns out that things in many other countries are terrible in this regard, a new study finds. If people don't have freedom of religion they have no freedom at all.

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P.S.: In yesterday's blog I told you I was linking you to a Baptist Press column, but then I failed to do so until I realized my failure last evening. The link is there now if you want to return to that.

Introducing Mr. and Mrs. Jesus? 9-24-12

By now, no doubt, many of you have read or heard the news about an ancient papyrus fragment (pictured here) that seems to refer to Jesus having a wife.

Jesus-wifeIt's intriguing, and it looks as if the scholars who have been evaluating this tiny old scrap of a document are doing due diligence to make sure of its age and place of origin -- in other words, to make sure it is what it seems to be.

But, of course, because it's smaller than a standard business card and torn from a piece of a larger, now-missing whole, it is not yet clear (and may never be) what it is telling us.

But the words that have captured everyone's attention say: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …'”

Then it's cut off and we don't know how the sentence (if, in fact, it refers to Jesus of Nazareth) ends. Perhaps it ends something like ". . .if I had one, wouldn't say that." Or ". . .would love God first if I ever decide to get married."

We simply don't know. What we do know is that news of this finding has caused renewed defensiveness among Christians who would identify themselves as fundamentalist or theologically conservative. For instance, Baptist Press put out this column giving advice to pastors on how to deal with this "Jesus wife" story. Among the advice is to warn followers of a "feminist agenda" among scholars such as the one who released the information about the "Jesus wife" fragment.

So here's my thought, especially for Christians: Why don't we spend our time thinking about what the Bible says Jesus did do and did say (even if scholars sometimes question whether some of the biblical quotes are accurate)?

Such an approach would have us remembering, for instance, that he said that all of the law hangs on the admonition to love God and love neighbor. Pretty simple, whether he was married or single. Well, simple to recite but hard to live out.

I suspect that if Jesus had a wife, he'd ask her to focus on those two types of love and not worry so much about where he left his sandals lying around.

(The photo here today is from the same New York Times site as the story and is an NTY picture.)

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I recently read and reviewed here a book by a disaffected Catholic priest, but in my review I didn't have time to get into the priest's dismissal of the idea of Satan and hell. It's a long-running argument in religion, especially in Christianity. And so CNN's Belief blog recently offered these two pieces about this -- by Christians who disagree about hell. I think if you're Christian, as I am, you have to take the idea of hell seriously because it's mentioned so often in the Bible. But I think you have to take even more seriously the idea that God is love, God is sovereign and wants an eternal relationship with everyone. In my limited earthly experiences, what sovereigns want sovereigns usually get.

Remembering 'The Good Pope': 9-22/23-12

As the 50th anniversary of the Oct. 11, 1962, opening of the Second Vatican Council approaches, you will find lots of books, articles, blog postings and more analyzing what Vatican II meant for the Catholic Church and for the world.

Good-popeMy first blog posting on the subject appeared here a few weeks ago. Today I want to look more closely at the pope who called that historic session into being, John XXIII (pictured below). To do that, I recommend to you a new book by Vatican observer Greg Tobin, The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church. The book will be published on Tuesday.

It is a compelling read about a widely beloved and compelling man, an Italian born Angelo Roncalli.

Yes, there are now are -- and even at the time were -- critics of Vatican II, people who didn't want the church to change to be more accommodating of its millions of members who did not understand the language of the Mass as it was celebrated in Latin. In the end, such people -- who had and still have other objections -- oppose modernity, but modernity has run them over on its way to post-modernity.

Even popes -- such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI -- who have reputations as theological conservatives have had to accept and even affirm much of what came out of Vatican II, even if they have done what they could to de-emphasize and roll back the Vatican II reforms (and they have tried to do exactly that at times).

John xxiiiThe driving force behind Vatican II, the man who embodied its spirit even before he ordered it to convene, was a winsome heart who loved the church deeply but loved God even more.

Tobin's admiring portrait of Roncalli's life shows us a true son of the church who understood that the institution he loved was in danger of becoming so rigid and irrelevant that its power to help transform lives would have been sapped had it stayed on that path.

Tobin puts it this way:

. . .it was not at all clear that the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican would ever really happen. It was seen as a historical gamble, and bets were still being placed on the table. Nonetheless, John had forged ahead and required of his brother bishops and his curial mandarins that they come along with him. He moved the Church in ways still felt today, five decades later -- and if he had not, it is impossible to know what the state of that Church and our world might be, nor how a billion souls would be nourished with a Word that claims eternal potency and absolute truth.

What was behind John's success? Again, Tobin:

In a role unique to the modern papacy, though he never led a parish church nor was he renowned for his academic prowess, John melded the temperament of a true pastor with the intellectual activity of a natural theologian. . .In his manners, which reflected the temper of his soul, this pontiff of 1,680 days inspired others to dream, to talk, to act, to be Catholic in whatever state of life they might find themselves. . .If John had not acted. . .the Catholic Church might have become calcified.

Partly because I lived through it, I was much more aware of Roncalli's time as pope than of boyhood or his early career as a diplomat for the church. So I found Tobin's recounting of that part of his life intriguing. And it didn't surprise me to learn that Roncalli did whatever he could to save Jews in the Holocaust and, thus, his reputation on that score is much different from that of Pope Pius XII, who reigned during World War II and who has received much criticism (some of it undeserved) for not doing nearly enough to help rescue the Jews from the Nazis' murderous machinery.

To many of us outside the Catholic Church it seems as if the church could use a pope with the temperament, instincts and warm-heartedness of John XXIII. Whatever their assets, JP-II and B-16 were not and have not been such popes. For the sake of the church universal, all Christians would do well to pray that Catholicism finds its next Roncalli.

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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has done this interesting piece about Mormonism and its past and present in Missouri. It offers some good perspective and helps us understand how this most American of religions is playing out today in one of the states central to its creation. But it makes me wonder whether Mormonism will continue to get this much play in the media if Mitt Romney loses.


Westport church recovering: 9-21-12

Almost nine months ago, a terribly destructive fire devastated Westport Presbyterian Church in Midtown Kansas City.

Westport-presWestport is a small congregation with, nonetheless, a big heart and a large outreach to its community. And it is determined to rebuild and stay working in Midtown. In fact, this week the congregation has been meeting with potential architects to choose one to move its rebuilding project forward.

(The photo here today shows what the back of the building looked like after the fire. I found the photo at

As he does now and then, the pastor, Scott Myers, asked me if I'd fill in there as preacher on a Sunday when he'd be gone, and so that's what I did this past Sunday at the congregation's temporary location, The Villa, an event space just a few blocks from the church building.

Because lots of Kansas Citians have been impressed with Westport's spirit and have expressed concern about its future, I thought I might share with you today the sermon I preached Sunday in that I tried to encourage the congregation to move ahead with its mission.

Using Ezra 3:8-12 and I Corinthians 1:18-25 as my biblical texts, here's what I said:

I have a confession to make. I envy Westport Presbyterian Church. Oh, not for the disaster you've been through in the fire. I wouldn't wish that on Satan's minions.

Rather, what I envy is the opportunity you now have to reinvent yourself as you recover from the fire and its aftermath. It can be a time of astonishing grace and a lesson to all who watch what you do.

My congregation, Second Presbyterian, did not have such a compelling event to move us to rethink our past, our present and our future. Rather, our event was the installation of our new pastor, Paul Rock, two years ago.

That moved us to create a visioning task force that I chaired. We called it the GPS task force, and in our case GPS stood not for Global Positioning System but God's Purposes for Second. We were nothing if not clever. Or something.

The result of our work was a 51-page report full of some 150 recommendations for how we become the church we need to be to move into the future. You can read it all at Second's website if you want to.

One of the passages of scripture we used to guide us in that work is the one we heard this morning from the wildly popular book of Ezra. (When last did anyone preach here from Ezra?)

I chose that passage for today to tell you a bit about what we have learned at Second through our GPS process in the hope that some of it may be useful to you here at Westport.

In the Ezra story, the people of Israel return to Jerusalem after an exile of several decades and they begin to rebuild the temple.

What's the result of this effort to create a foundation for a new life together as the people of God? The result was both shouts of joy and bitter tears.

Some people shouted with exultation at the new possibilities as they began to create the new temple. Others wept because they were old enough to remember the old temple and what was being rebuilt was not what they remembered.

Friends at Westport, you will face this same division, and may be facing it already. However you rebuild, some will shout for joy at what it represents for the future and some will weep because your new space will not exactly be the old space they remember with love.

Listen to those who shout for joy and help them remember that not everything about the future is guaranteed to be bright and untarnished. Listen to those who weep and help them remember that not everything about the past was bright and untarnished.

Help both groups remember that what is important is what God is calling you to do and to be in the future — a future that will be in harmony with your wonderful history.

And what can you say about the future toward which God is drawing Westport?

You can say with the Apostle Paul in our reading from Corinthians today that it is foolishness, God's foolishness. That's the future God has in mind for you. And for Second Church. Heck, we can be fools together.

Some people will ask: What? That little Midtown congregation that could barely scare up 100 people to show up on a Sunday morning for worship is going to rebuild and try to continue to do ministry?

And you will say: Yes. Exactly. That's what we think God is calling us to. And we are committed to God's foolishness.

Others will ask: Why don't you just fold up your tent and merge with another congregation?

And you will say: No. That's not what we think our Midtown neighborhood needs. That's not what we think God is calling us to do.

Rather, you will say, God is calling us to be fools for Christ. God is calling us to be faithful to the mission of the church in our time and our place.

And just what is the mission of the church? Ah, a really good question.

I very much like the way missional church leader Michael Frost of Australia put it last year at a conference I attended.

Frost said the mission of the church is not to grow the church. Rather, he said, the mission of the church is this: To alert the world to the universal reign of God in Christ. And we do that both by proclamation and by demonstration. (repeat)

That is, we preach the gospel — meaning the in-breaking of the reign of God, the idea that, as Jesus said, the kingdom of God is at hand — to all who will hear, but we also demonstrate what the reign, or kingdom, of God will look like when it comes in full flower.

So, for example, if we believe that in the kingdom of God there will be no poverty, we work now on small demonstration projects to show what the world will look like without poverty. And if we can't help the whole world, we can start with just one family.

And if, for example, we think that when God's reign finally comes there will be peace, we work for peace now. And if we can't bring peace to the whole world, we can work to bring peace to our own neighborhood, our own family, our own congregation, even our own family.

And if we think that in the kingdom of God no one will be homeless, we work to provide homes for people now to demonstrate that coming kingdom when all will be at home in the Lord.

We don't imagine, of course, that we can bring about the final kingdom of God on Earth through our demonstration projects. That's the mistake the so-called post-millennialists make. And why they are forever disappointed.

But we do believe that by our work we can draw in people who catch the vision and want to experience now what Jesus himself said we could experience now, which is a taste of the kingdom of God.

That, after all, is what Jesus meant by the gospel. Turn, he said, for the kingdom of God is at hand. And you can experience that now.

And speaking of Jesus, you surely know that it’s not a wise thing for us be separated from him for so long that we no longer recognize him. When we do come face to face with Christ, we want to be able to recognize him.

For instance: It was a quiet day in heaven, and St. Peter had hardly any business at the Pearly Gates. As it got to be around noon, Peter saw Jesus walking by and called him over.

Could you watch the gates for awhile? Peter asked. I need to take a lunch break.

No problem, said Jesus. Take your time.

So Jesus sat down and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, off the in the distance, he saw what appeared to be an old man walking slowly toward the Pearly Gates. Jesus watched with great interest as he got closer. And as he did, there was something about the old man that caught Jesus’ attention, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was.

Eventually the man got all the way up to the gates, and Jesus, by now quite intrigued by him, said to him, “Sir: I want to welcome you to the Pearly Gates. But before I can tell you where you will spend eternity, I need to know a little about you. Can you tell me about your life?”

The old man replied, “In my life, I was a carpenter.” And Jesus’ eyes got bigger as he stared at the old man, seeming to recognize something in him.

“What else?” Jesus asked.

The man said, “I had a son. And the son died and then came back to life.”

And Jesus stared at the old man in disbelief.

“Dad?” he asked. “Dad? Is that you?”

And the old man replied, “Pinocchio?”

That’s the sort of joyful twist you will be giving to doubters who think Westport Presbyterian Church died in the fire.

For today Westport Presbyterian has the opportunity to create a new future, one in which you will be committed anew to demonstrating in small ways what the kingdom of God might look like when it finally comes to Midtown Kansas City and to the whole cosmos.

You will show this to everyone through the work you do to promote the arts, the work you do to care for children and for the elderly, the work you and Scott do to promote interfaith understanding (speaking of which, by the way, do not forget to wish your Jewish friends well as the High Holy Days begin at sundown this evening, and if you have no Jewish friends, it’s not too late to get some; they will enrich your life).

You also will show what the kingdom of God will look like through the work you do to provide a home for agencies in our community that are themselves working in harmony with the idea that one day, as Julian of Norwich put it, "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Since my work on the GPS task force, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the future of the church. In fact, this coming Saturday I will speak to a Minnesota Valleys Presbytery gathering near the Twin Cities about this subject, and I intend to tell them to watch the progress Westport Presbyterian makes as it literally rises from the ashes.

Indeed, both Westport and Second have an opportunity to show that Mainline churches do in fact have a bright future.

It will be a future in which we show again that Christianity isn't easy, that church is not just a service or social club. Rather, Christianity means preaching the cross, which Paul told us will strike many people as foolishness. And it means being an advocate for people who are not important enough by society's warped standards to be taken seriously.

As some of you know, I write a biweekly column for the National Catholic Reporter. In a column in July I suggested that what I called the current hierarchical, institutional expression of the Catholic Church is dying in America and might be gone in a few generations, though it was unclear to me what might replace it.

I was overwhelmed with responses from readers. Many shouted for joy that the old church would go by the wayside, a church they felt had outlived its usefulness and become a detriment to the gospel.

Others wept and defended the status quo, while they quoted over and over the idea that Jesus appointed Peter the first pope and said that on this rock Jesus would build his church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

There it was once again, joy and weeping at change — or at least suggested, predicted change.

It's inevitable, this combination of both joy and weeping. And I hope that as you work your way through all the plans you must make, all the decisions you'll face, all the tough calls, you will remember that it will not happen without both joy and weeping.

Your task is not to let the joyful people become unrealistic about what you can really accomplish and not to let the weepers prevent you from accomplishing anything.

Just remember what we heard God say through Paul's letter to the church at Corinth:

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts."

The world outside the doors of Westport Presbyterian Church is full of spiritually hungry people, to say nothing of people who are literally hungry.

They may think it's completely wacky for this congregation to be preaching the gospel of the in-breaking kingdom of God when much of what they see around them argues against that — the crime, the poverty, the ignorance, the economic injustice and on and on.

But I'll tell you what I think can draw them in so they can hear the transformative gospel of Jesus Christ, who came to start a revolution of love and grace. It's your willingness to engage in the primary mission of the church.

And, again, what is that? It is what Michael Frost said it was, to alert the world to the universal reign of God in Christ by both proclamation and demonstration.

Your foolish job is to recommit yourself to preaching the gospel of the coming reign of God and to demonstrating what the kingdom of God will look like when it finally arrives. It will look like mercy and compassion. It will look like justice and peace. It will look like respect — and most of all it will look like love because it will be love.

So, friends of Westport, the road ahead of you is full of challenges but also full of the promise that God will be with you every step of the way, encouraging you, loving you, celebrating with your joy and mourning with your weeping.

As I say, I envy you this journey and will be praying for you and wishing you success, even as I hope you will be praying for us at Second as we reinvent ourselves once more so that we can be, like you, fools for Christ in a world that needs to know the one who loves us enough to save us.

May it be so. Amen.

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As everyone knows, this is a difficult time for relations between the United States and Muslims around the world -- given terrorist attacks from people identifying themselves as Islamic and that hateful "movie" mocking and denouncing the Prophet Muhammad, produced in the U.S. by creeps. Still, as this well-reasoned New York Times editorial suggests, the U.S. must stay engaged with Muslims wherever they live, in part because they make up about 1.5 billion of the Earth's population. It's important, however, not to conflate the "Muslim world" with the "Arab world." The most populous Muslim nation is, after all, Indonesia. And not all of the Arab world is Muslim.

A chronological New Testament: 9-20-12

When I was a boy in Sunday school I memorized, as was the custom then, the books of the Bible in order. At least the New Testament -- maybe the whole thing. It's been awhile.

Evolution-borgWhat no one told me then was that the order of books is different in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Jews have it than it is in what Christians call (offensively, is you ask me) the Old Testament. Also, I did not learn until quite a bit later that the books in the New Testament are not arranged chronologically. Rather, they begin with the gospels -- a good choice, actually -- and end with Revelation, also a good choice.

Well, there's a lot more I've learned about the Bible since I was a boy, including the fact that the people whose names got attached to certain of the books -- like the gospels -- almost certainly did not write them.

But now Bible scholar Marcus Borg has published Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, as a way of helping us understand the early history of the church more easily. And I'm glad he's done so.

It's still the same New Testament (in the New Revised Standard Version). And each book has a brief but excellent introduction by Borg, easily the best of the Jesus Seminar scholars, not all of whom I like.

The obvious question is why bother to read the New Testament in chronological order (or as close as scholars have come to that order). Here's how Borg answers that question:

* "Starting with seven of Paul's letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities (a term he elsewhere correctly explains is a bit anachronistic, given that all these communities understood themselves to be Jewish) spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written gospels. These seven letters provide a 'window' into the life of very early Christian communities.

* "Placing the gospels after Paul's letters makes it clear that, as written documents, they are not the source of early Christianity, but its product. The gospel -- the good news -- of and about Jesus existed before the gospels. They were produced by early Christian communities several decades after Jesus's historical life.

* "Reading the gospels in chronological order beginning with Mark demonstrates that early Christian understandings of Jesus and his significance developed over time. When Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, they not only added to the Markan material, but often modified it.

* "Seeing John separated from the other gospels and relatively late in the New Testament makes it clear how different from them John's gospel is. (Tammeus note: Yes, but anyone should know at first reading how different it is.)

* "Realizing that many of the documents are from the 90s and later allows us to glimplse developments in early Christianity in the late first and early second centuries."

Borg's introductory material -- both to the book and to each book of the New Testament -- is quite helpful and on target, especially because it reflects a lot of the most recent scholarship. Perhaps it will help alleviate a problem Borg identifies: religious illiteracy. As he notes, "About half of American Christians cannot name the four gospels."

Beyond that, Borg's take on Paul, as I indicated earlier, is up to speed and reflective of the best new scholarship there, too.

I can see this book an an excellent choice for church adult study groups.

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Tom Friedman, the wise New York Times columnist, is right when he says many of the protesters against that stupid anti-Islamic "movie" need also to protest the kind of hatred some of their own leaders publicly express toward Christianity, Judaism and even Sufism. Vitriol is vitriol, whether it's directed against Islam or any other religion.

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

A new sector of the economy: 9-19-12

I am going to step slightly outside the normal topic boundaries of this blog today -- but only slightly -- to introduce you to something that's becoming known as the "Fourth Sector" of the economy.

MAX-logoThe three sectors you know -- private, social (or non-profit) and government -- are being joined by a sort of blend of the first two as private enterprise has begun adopting some features of charitable or not-for-profit entities and integrating all of that into a model that allows the profit-making section of the business to support an activity usually seen as charitable or non-profit.

You can learn much more about this concept at this link. At that website, if you go to the directory of companies within industries that now have been formally recognized as Fourth Sector firms and then look under insurance you will find listed only one company, the MAX (for MutualAid eXchange) Insurance Company.

And if you've ever hunted around on my blog site and discovered the page where I list the boards on which I serve, you'll find that I'm a MAX board member. So what's going on?

Well, MAX came out of the Anabaptist (mostly meaning Mennonite) community. Small insurance exchanges from that community eventually combined to become MAX several years ago, with headquarters in suburban Kansas City and in Canada, the latter called, surprisingly enough, MAX Canada.

You had to be a member of an Anabaptist (broadly including Quaker and Brethren) church to be a member of MAX and thus be eligible to buy its property and casualty insurance. A few years ago, MAX decided to open up its membership to people of any faith (or none) who would be willing to sign a statement of shared values, which emphasizes wholeness and peaceful resolution of disputes.

I, a Presbyterian and a journalist who writes a lot about interfaith relations, was brought onto the board to help with the task of thinking through how to reach out to an interfaith (though, frankly, still mostly Christian and still predominantly Mennonite) community. (Being a board member is not quite a $1-a-year job, but almost.)

One of the things that makes MAX unique -- and that qualifies it as a Fourth Sector company -- is that in addition to selling homeowners, auto and other types of insurance, it also operates what it calls a "Share Fund" under its Mutual Aid Ministries (MAM) division. MAM provides financial and other kinds of help to families in need -- even to families who are not MAX policy holders. (Heck, every few weeks I even get an e-mail that lists people who need to be lifted up in prayer.)

Much of that charitable work is done by cooperating with local Mennonite (and now other) congregations to help restore families who may have lost a home in a fire or experienced some other kind of disaster that no insurance policy alone could cover. To do its work, the Share Fund receives the first 1 percent of premiums paid by MAX policy holders as well as a tithe of MAX profits along with private donations.

So, in the end, we have a faith-based insurance company that sells traditional policies but also does ministry -- a natural for Fourth Sector designation. And what both MAX and the whole emerging Fourth Sector say to me is that capitalism is evolving, however slowly, moving from strictly a profit motive to something more complicated as well as more humane. It's impossible to tell where this trend might lead, but I'm pleased to be at least tangentially connected to it.

Take a look around the Fourth Sector site to which I've linked you above and you'll find some intriguing companies. But only one (so far, at least) in the insurance business.

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Yes, lots of attention recently has been paid to so-called "Muslim Rage," including on the cover of Newsweek magazine. But what about Muslim humor? Religion News Service has collected some great Tweets that use the hashtag #MuslimRage and that display anything but. It's good to remember how to laugh.

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