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A trip to the graveyard: 10-31-12

Woodstock, Ill. -- On this spooky holiday, I will take you to a grave yard, but not to scare you.

Carl-Jessen-2We're going to Oakland Cemetery here in my hometown, where my parents are buried. I was here on Saturday of this past week visiting their grave and looking around at the graves of many other people I know (including Chester Gould, who created the "Dick Tracy" comic strip; there's an image of Tracy on Chet's headstone).

As I slowly drove along one of the narrow gravel roads between sections of headstones I saw a man standing all alone in front of a tombstone. From my view, it looked as if the name on the stone said "Jensen," and I knew some Jensens from my childhood, so I stopped and walked over to the man to ask if the couple buried there were his kin.

But when I got up closer, the name turned out to be Jessen, not Jensen, and so far only the wife had died. The husband, Carl, born late in 1935, was still alive. And Carl was the man standing there.

I introduced myself by name and he asked if I had a brother. No, I said, just three sisters. Well, he said, he once had someone named Tammeus work for him.

Then it hit me. Carl Jessen was one of my first bosses. He owned the Early American Bakery in Woodstock, and Carl paid me $5 each Saturday morning to help clean the bakery. Well, as I reminded him at the cemetery, he paid me $5 but he took out 18 cents for Social Security. That was nearly 50 years ago, and here we were together again in a cemetery.

So Carl and I caught up. A native of Germany, he now splits his time between Woodstock and Germany, where -- since his wife Gerda's death in 2006 -- he has reconnected with his girlfriend from his teen-age years.

But when he's in Woodstock, he regularly comes to Gerda's grave.

"I'd give a million dollars to have her back," he told me.

So while much of the country today is making fun of old Mr. Death because, well, that's what we do on Halloween to keep from having to think about our own real deaths, some folks, like Carl, are continuing to mourn the death of someone vital in their lives.

Carl Jessen was (and is) a good, hard-working fellow who came to the U.S. as a young man and who made a life for himself here, a life I was a tiny part of for a time.

And had I not bothered to go visit the burial site of my parents, I'd never have reconnected with Carl. One more reason to treat death with respect.

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Was Hurricane Sandy God's will? Well, religion scholar Stephen Prothero has some good thoughts about that question that you can read here. By the way, if we think we fully understand God's will, we're almost certainly off the mark.

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P.S.: In yesterday's blog I wrote about faith communities finding their sea legs in downtown settings. For a really good lecture on that subject by a wise man, click here. You'll get to the Disciples of Christ Historical Society site.

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ANOTHER P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. this Thursday, Nov. 1, and on Thursday, Nov. 8, I'll be teaching an essay writing class at The Writers Place in Kansas City. Details are posted on the TWP website here (for non-members) and here (for members). Hope you can join us.

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THIRD AND FINAL P.S.: It now is possible to sign up for the weekend seminar, "Should We Risk Forgiveness?" that Doug Hundley and I will teach April 26-28 at the beautiful Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania. For details, click here. And come join us. It should be a profoundly moving weekend.

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OH, WHAT THE HECK, A FOURTH P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.

Finding faith in downtowns: 10-30-12

Back in the early 1970s, I did a series of articles for The Kansas City Star about the ways in which downtowns in various cities, including Kansas City, were trying to recover from years of decline.

Downtown-ManFor that series I (with a bit of help from a coworker) wrote about what was happening in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Denver and Oklahoma City.

Here and there we found some things that were working, but downtowns still hadn't found a path back to economic and social health.

In the last decade-plus, Kansas City's downtown has come roaring back to life, though parts of it still need help. And in other cities, too, downtowns have begun attracting all kinds of activities, including, it turns out, faith communities that are finding homes in the center of urban areas.

An editor-at-large of Christianity Today recently took note of all this religious focus on downtowns in this Wall Street Journal column. It's worth a read to see how especially Christians who identify themselves as evangelical are creating ministries in downtowns.

Indeed, some of this is happening in Kansas City now, too, with such relatively new congregations as Resurrection Downtown and revitalization of such historic congregations as Grand Avenue Temple.

Humanity begins in a garden, according to the account in Genesis, and will wind up in a city, the New Jerusalem, according to the account in Revelation.

So the movement of faith communities to downtowns also makes biblical sense.

(The photo here today shows Manhattan. I found it here.)

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P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. this Thursday, Nov. 1, and on Thursday, Nov. 8, I'll be teaching an essay writing class at The Writers Place in Kansas City. Details are posted on the TWP website here (for non-members) and here (for members). Hope you can join us.

Studying sex and religion: 10-29-12

When it comes to religion and how it affects the lives of its adherents, almost no subject is beyond study by scholars.

HandsFor example: A new study has found, in the words of a press release about it, that "Hindus and Muslims are less likely than Christians and Jews to have premarital sex, and Muslims are the least likely among people of these religious groups to have extramarital sex."

The study, not surprisingly called "Religion and Sexual Behaviors," was done by Amy Adamczyk, an associate professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Brittany Hayes, a Ph.D. student in John Jay’s Criminal Justice program.

Details about the study appear in the October issue of the American Sociological Review.

As anyone knows who has followed the long and often-bitter debate in Christianity about what the Bible says about homosexuality (see my essay on that subject under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page), when it comes to sex and marriage, religion has been all over the map over the centuries.

So when reading about a study like this new one, it's best to remember that whatever it finds represents simply a snapshot in time -- a snapshot likely to change next year, if not even next month.

That's not to say that the great religions don't have some useful guides for how we should be approaching the subject of human sexuality. But what constituted "family values" in the time of, say, King David or King Solomon 3,000 years ago can be rather different from what they are today. And what they are today often depends on who is defining them and for what purpose.

See? Life is complex and nuanced.

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Note: I'm in Chicagoland for a few days with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn giving talks about our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Until I return in a day or two I won't be adding a second item to these posts.

Books for holiday gifts: 10-27/28-12

Although I prefer to focus on no more than one or two books in any one blog entry, I recognize that some of you already are doing your holiday shopping and may be interested in some books with faith-related themes.

So I'm going to unload a pile of them on you today -- some with a bit of commentary about them, some with barely a mention, but all with links that will let you dig into them further if the titles interest you.

Bonhoeffer-sermons* The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Isabel Best. Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran martyr whom the Nazis murdered for plotting to get rid of Hitler, did not preach on a regular basis for much of his short (39 years) life. But he did leave a revealing legacy of sermons that give insight into his crisp theological mind and into the dark times in which he lived. For Bonhoeffer's many fans (I've long been one of them), this collection of 30-plus sermons is a treasure chest of wisdom. People who have read what is perhaps his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, will find find echoes here of the voice we find in that book, the one that reminds us that there is no such thing as cheap grace. If you've read biographical material about Bonhoeffer you won't need the brief introduction to his life offered by the editor, Isabel Best, but it's there for you and it's a good summary.

Path-prayer* The Path of Centering Prayer, by David Frenette. In my own Christian walk of faith I have learned through experience that I am not a contemplative, which is to say that the practices of meditation, centering prayer and such -- though I admire them as ways of practicising one's spirituality -- are not the practices that speak to me most deeply. That said, I know that many people of various faith traditions continue to return to contemplative practices. If you are one of them, this book is certain to be a helpful guide. The author has been a leader in the centering prayer movement for many years and studied under Fr. Thomas Keating, an early leader in this practice. Indeed, Keating has written the book's foreword. Frenette walks the reader through various approaches to the contemplative practice of centering prayer, though he wisely begins with the insight that the best advice about contemplation is "to practice the meaning of one word: amen." The word, of course, means "so be it" or "let it be," and Frenette says that "with amen, your words and actions yield to God's presence. . .Amen means trusting that you can't confront injustice on your own, that you need to let your own, self-initiated efforts and agenda be, in God." It's a lovely, focused way into a book that is sure to be appreciated by contemplatives of any faith tradition.

Five-pillars* The Five Pillars of Islam: Laying the Foundations of Divine Love and Service to Humanity, by Musharraf Hussain. (This book is due to be released Nov. 6, but can be preordered now.) This, in effect, is a how-to-be-a-faithful-Muslim book. It's a guidebook that walks people through Sunni Islam today. It's a valuable reference book not only for those who follow Islam but also for others who simply want to know more about the faith life of Muslims. You want to know how Muslims should pray while traveling on a plane? The book tells you. Do you want to know how the Prophet Muhammad fasted? Again, the book tells you. The author, by the way, is director of the Karimia Institute, a Muslim organization in England that you can learn about by clicking on that link.

Love-three*Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage, by Joe, Alina, Vicki and Valerie Darger. If your image of polygamous marriage is shaped by the horror stories coming out of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) church (for example, see this 2009 blog entry), this memoir may come as a pleasant surprise. A man and his three wives, who live in Utah and describe themselves as Independent Fundamentalist Mormons, have written this description of a big, loving family that seems to them (and may seem to readers) normal in nearly every way but the plural marriage. It's not unlike the HBO TV series "Big Love," which I didn't watch but that the authors talk about in admiring ways. As you may know, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, said plural marriages was part of God's plan for Mormons. But under great pressure, the church abandoned polygamy in the late 1800s and has excommunicated people who continue the practice. Still, many people with Mormon roots continue to practice polygamy. This book raises the question of why our culture shouldn't allow that -- especially if only one or none of the wives in a family is legally married to the husband under state law. Which seems to be the case in many plural marriage families. In such cases, why would plural marriage be any different from the countless unmarried couples who live together and have children without a state-sanctioned marriage? Those are the kinds of questions readers will ask themselves after reading this engaging story.

Free-guinness* A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, by Os Guinness. The prolific Christian writer Os Guinness is worried about the United States. He thinks we're in danger of losing our freedoms, of getting distracted from the commitment and hard work it takes to sustain freedom on a long-term basis. This book is his argument for why he says that and his plea for Americans to wake up and renew their efforts to make sure our country is the beacon of freedom for a long, long time to come. "Freedom," he writes, "never lasts forever, because it is harder to be free than not to be free. Freedom must therefore be sustained and not simply won, ordered and taken for granted." Guinness, a writer whose work I've generally admired, seems at times a little overwrought here, and yet he raises good questions. The real question, of course, is whether Americans can make anything like a renewed commitment to sustaining freedom given the 50-50 divided character of our politics today and with the almost-complete refusal of the far right wing of the Republican Party (there seem to be almost no moderates left) to entertain what used to be understood as the mother's milk of politics, compromise -- not of principal but of strategy or technique. I am less optimistic about all of this than I have ever been. But perhaps you'll find Guinness' argument cogent enough to get you to get back to work on a solution.

Christmas-Plains * The Christmas Plains, by Joseph Bottum. This essayist and poet has given us the gift of a lovely little book that helps us grasp the broader and deeper significance of Christmas. He sets much of this in his native South Dakota, and perhaps, like me, you will find echoes of one of my favorite contemporary writers, Kathleen Norris, whose early book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, so thoroughly captured that harsh and rocky land. Joseph Bottum writes with both humor and insight, and perhaps because he's also a poet his prose is lyrical and richly layered. He retreats into his South Dakota childhood, but this is not a book of nostalgia. Rather, it's a light on our path to guide us toward revelation. And it's a container of hard-won truths, such as: "But there's something deep in the architecture of children that seeks more of mothers and fathers than actual mothers and fathers can ever be." This is the book to give to someone this year who wants the gift of a slow afternoon in front of a fireplace, lost in the magic of words.

Saint-Santa* The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus, by Adam C. English. Many of us know that our modern version of Santa Claus has historical roots in St. Nicholas of Myra, a late-third, early-fourth century gift-giving Christian bishop who has been the subject of many myths and legends. But even the more recent accounts of this old bishop's lives, this author argues persuasively, confuse history and legend -- sometimes even conflating information about more than one person named Nicholas (the name of several different people canonized by the Catholic Church). Adam English, who teaches theology and philosophy at Campbell University Divinity School, aims to set the record as straight as available historical documents will allow it to be set, and the result is this quite-engaging book. There is, in the end, precious little connection between the old saint -- who almost certainly was present at the Earth-shaking Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. -- and the jolly man our children and grandchildren know today as Santa Claus. The latter is mostly the product of modern marketing aimed at selling Coca-Cola and other products. Still, it's intriguing to learn more about the life of the original St. Nicholas and to see how the values he lived out have found their way into the myth of Santa Claus today.

Now, before I get to a list of other books I'll do little more than mention with a link to their Amazon page, in most cases, let me tell you briefly about a new Christmas-related DVD you might want to own or give. It's "Love's Christmas Journey," the 11th and latest installment of the Hallmark Channel's saga, "Love Comes Softly." The story involves a beautiful young widow (her husband and daughter died in a tornado) somewhere in the Southwest in the 19th Century. She goes to visit her brother, a sheriff in another town, and his two children for Christmas and the story develops from there. I'm no movie critic (though I played one for my campus newspaper in college), but this is the sort of warm family movie that will appeal to people who like warm family stories and who can put up with mediocre acting and directing. The film is being promoted by Allied Faith and Family. Its mission is to encourage the entertainment industry to produce uplifting fare and to build bridges between the faith and entertainment worlds -- surely a worthy goal.

* How to Pray the Dominican Way: Ten Postures, Prayers and Practices that Lead Us to God, by Angelo Stagnaro.

* Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy, by Matt Litton.

Builders-community* Builders of Community: Rethinking Ecclesiastical Ministry, by José Ignacio Gonzalez Faus. A new book from Convivium Press by an influential Spanish theologian.

*Morality in Social Life, by Sergio Bastianel. Another Convivium Press offering. The author teaches moral theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

* Growing in Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation, by Susan J. Stabile. The author of this Oxford University Press offering teaches at the St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis and is a spiritual director.

* God: A Story of Revelation, by Deepak Chopra. Chopra, who teaches Eastern philosophy to the West, has written many books and has a large following.

* Hidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in Your Life Story, by Gangaji. The author changed her name from Antoinette Roberson Varner after studying with a guru.

* What Every Christian Ought to Know, by Adrian Rogers with Steve Rogers. This material is drawn from a 2005 book by the late radio pastor, Adrian Rogers. Know that his ideas include: "Scientific accuracy confirms that the Bible is the Word of God."

Following-footsteps* Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospels for Year C, by José A. Pagola. I wrote about the author's Year A lectionary book here.

* Green Leaves for Later Years: The Spiritual Path of Wisdom, by Emilie Griffin. Eastern religions are characterized by respect for the wisdom of the elderly. The author explores what it might mean in Western traditions -- and Christianity in particular -- to live wisely in our advanced years.

* The Magical Path: Creating the Life of Your Dreams and a World That Works for All, by Marc Allen. Is fear keeping you from achieving your dreams? If so, the author has some advice for you.

* From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, by Chris Haw. This is a memoir about a faith journey by the author of Jesus for President.

* Beauty Disrupted, by Carré Otis. This is a memoir, now in paperback, by a model who raises all kinds of ethical questions about the exploitation of women in the modeling industry.

* Christmas in Sugarcreek, by Shelley Shepard Gray. This is a novel in the "Seasons of Sugarcreek" series by an author who deals with Amish themes.

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Note: I'm in Chicagoland for a few days with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn giving talks about our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Until I return early next week I won't be adding a second item to these posts. But you've got more than enough to read here this weekend anyway.

Standing against human empires: 10-26-12

Over the last several decades, many biblical scholars and theologians have been focusing on the idea of empire and how that oppressive governing structure affects our understanding of God and the followers of religion.

Gods-ReignIt's been a rich vein to mine.

Among the scholars exploring the concept have been Richard Horsley ( read his: Jesus and the Power; Jesus and Empire; Paul and Empire) and Warren Carter, who used to teach at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City (read his: Matthew and Empire; The Roman Empire and the New Testament).

One of the consistent themes in this work is that human empires inevitably oppress and imprison people while the reign of God, or what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, liberates people.

The New Testament, especially, comes into much clearer focus when the reader remembers that at the time of Jesus the Jewish people were straining under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Nearly all of the teachings of Jesus in some way stand against the crushing and opposing values of that empire.

That theme is explored in illuminating depth in a new book from Convivium Press: God's Reign and the End of Empires, by Spanish scholar Antonio Gonzalez.

What I especially liked about this book is the willingness of the author to stare at the inherent structural defects of capitalism (yes, other economic systems have such defects, too, often in abundance compared with captialism). This is a stark reminder that the primary allegiance of people of faith cannot be to any economic system but, rather, must be to God and the world of justice, compassion, mercy and love that God wills for humanity.

Gonzalez, who has taught theology in Spain and Guatemala, is a member of a Mennonite community. His writing reflects some of the concerns of Liberation Theology, which tends to focus on what theologians call "God's preferential option for the poor."

He is particularly adept in describing what the Christ event means in all of this:

"God's identification with Christ implies God's solidarity with all the victims of history. God has, in Christ, personally experienced their fate. Any intervention by God to save the Messiah from death would certainly have been a declaration, over against his accusers, that Christ was just. But it would also have meant that all other outcasts of history were not worthy of such an intervention. . .God's identification with Jesus, however, involves a true and total rehabilitation of the victims before God."

It is, of course, possible to move from a religious critique of empires and economic systems, especially capitalism, toward equally or more destructive systems, such as Marxism. But that doesn't relieve people of faith from trying to understand what it means to have a primary allegiance to God's reign and not to any human empire. And this book can help with that task.

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Note: I'm in Chicagoland for a few days with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn giving talks about our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Until I return early next week I won't be adding a second item to these posts.

Islam's true enemies: 10-25-12

The very existence of the word Islamophobia suggests that Islam has enemies. And, for sure, there are bigots who claim that Islam is the religion of the devil and who make other and similar radical assertions.

Tom-michelBut the other night here in Kansas City, at the "Annual Dialog and Friendship Dinner" of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, a Catholic priest, quoting 20th Century Islamic scholar and spiritual leader Said Nursi, offered a different -- and better -- take on Islam's enemies.

Nursi, whom Fr. Thomas Michel (pictured here) of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, called one of "the greatest thinkers of modern Turkey," wrote a commentary on the Qur'an of more than 6,000 pages.

Nursi, Michel explained, asked, "Who are the enemies of Muslims? He said, Are they Jews or Christians? Not at all. The enemies of Muslims are basically three: ignorance, poverty and disunity."

Michel said Nursi believed that "Muslims and Christians together had a mission in this world to live out the values of our faiths in such a way that it showed the strength of those values in an increasingly non-religious world. He didn't see it as a matter of combatting or a matter of fighting but as a matter of living our religions deeply."

Clearly there are both Muslims and Christians who, to the detriment of all of us, reject that advice and prefer to demonize the other. But that's a road that leads not to peace but to anything but peace.

By the way, this annual dinner was sponsored not just by the Raindrop Turkish House, which is affiliated with the Gülen Movement in Turkey, but also the Division of Diversity, Acces and Equity of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and The Fountain magazine.

A related event takes place at 6 p.m. tomorrow in the UMKC Student Union. Turkish columnist and author Mustafa Akyol will speak on "Islam and Freedom: Destined to Clash?" The event is free, but RSVPs are requested to

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It has taken a long time, but it looks now as if there are concrete plans to rebuild the Greek Orthodox church that was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York made that announcement at a luncheon of the Archdiocesan Council of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the National Philoptochos Board. Construction of St. Nicholas Church won't begin for another year, however, because of work that must be completed first.

Some new religious movements: 10-24-12

A few weeks ago when I was in Maine having a reunion with some of the people with whom I went to boarding school in India for part of 1956, one of my classmates, in response to a question, described her involvement in a spiritual group called the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, or MSIA.

MsiaShe's been connected to this movement for quite a few years and was happy to describe what it meant to her.

I'll share a bit of that today, along with some more about MSIA I gleaned from a book MSIA that contains interviews with the movements founder plus a current leader because it gives me a chance to remind us that what scholars now refer to as New Religious Movements seem to crop up regularly in the U.S. And it's hard to get a complete picture of the American religious landscape if we ignore these various kinds of religious and spiritual groups that keep forming.

So, first, here's some of what my friend Esther said about MSIA: 

"I rarely explain my spiritual practice to anyone because it is sacred to me and something of a mystical tradition—thus highly personal—and also, very few ask about it. So here’s my point of view; someone else would probably describe MSIA differently:

"The primary teaching of MSIA is soul transcendence, which is awareness of oneself as being one with the Divine. All the teachings of John-Roger, or J-R, the MSIA founder, are directed toward awakening us to that. Our primary spiritual practice is called spiritual exercise, a form of mediation that involves inner (silent) chanting and listening.
"The main theological points. . .are:
            Out of God comes all things.
            God loves all of its creation.
            Not one soul will be lost.
"That being said, J-R promotes practical spirituality, which is about how to live in the world; the three guidelines I mentioned are remarkably comprehensive, when you think about them:

* Take care of yourself, so you can help take care of others.

* Don’t hurt yourself and don’t hurt others. 

* Use everything for your advancement (upliftment), learning, and growth.

"John-Roger describes himself as the Mystical Traveler, a term that I think he invented because it has no tradition surrounding it. I see him as a spiritual Way-shower who anchors the highest-level spiritual energy (characterized by loving, compassion, forgiveness, the Christ energy) on the planet; historically, there has always been at least one Traveler on the planet, often an individual who has made very significant contribution to human advancement.

"People who choose to participate in MSIA can become initiates of the Traveler (and there are, of course, levels of initiation) and ordained ministers. . .if they wish. Being a minister in the Church of Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness is quite different from being a Protestant minister (though legally one can perform the functions of a Protestant minister). I am an ordained minister in MSIA, though I often don’t share that with people because it’s such a loaded term.

"A few other miscellaneous points in no particular order:

"J-R started teaching in the late 1960s; he has published many books, tapes, CDs, etc., and taught us many ways/tools to clear the consciousness and align with Spirit. He is getting quite old now. The person who now holds the Mystical Traveler keys is John Morton.

"The MSIA community members around the country generally meet in homes or community places; there is a beautiful mansion in Los Angeles, called Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens (or its older name, Prana), that is the church headquarters (I lived there for six years. . .). There are small MSIA communities in many countries.

"Jesus Christ is regarded as head of the church, yet we “believe” in karma and re-embodiment, contrary to most Christian traditions.
"J-R says service is the highest form of consciousness on the planet; thus that’s an important emphasis. “Your work here is to serve and love your neighbor as yourself” (from the MSIA mission statement).

"The MSIA version of prayer is called sending the Light and asking for Spirit’s assistance. Judging oneself or others is off course.  Self-forgiveness is the antidote.

"People usually participate in MSIA by subscribing to Discourses (small booklets by J-R on spiritual topics, one a month for 12 years); taking classes prepared by Peace Theological Seminary in LA; attending 5 or 6 day Peace Awareness Trainings; attending home seminars. (But one doesn’t have to do any of those things, either; it’s one’s inward connection to Spirit that matters.)

"The University of Santa Monica, a private graduate school that offers a masters degree in Spiritual Psychology, is associated with MSIA—and I’ve taken their excellent program.
"Oh, gosh, there’s so much more to say, as I’m sure you understand."

Esther arranged for MSIA to send me a small book called Interviews with John Morton and John-Roger, which explains this movement further, or at least tries.

As a Christian rooted in the Reformed Tradition, I was able to grasp much of what J-R and Morton said but was mystified by some of it, too.

I especially appreciated J-R's insistence that God is so far beyond our ability to comprehend that if we do define God "in some way, then we're lying by definition, because He's so much bigger than that."

And I liked John Morton's comment that "We're not here to say, 'This is the way.' For my consciousness, it is the way, and I have a responsibility to that experience."

There are dozens of New Religious Movements, and what I've told you about MSIA will have to represent what could be said about others. If you're interested in a good rundown on such movements, the book to read is The Baker Pocket Guide to New Religions, by Nigel Scotland. The book covers 40 such movements, but not MSIA.

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The judges who recently convicted the pope's butler of swiping personal documents from the pontiff have slammed the thief in a new report. Good. The bum deserves it.

Ted Haggard favors gay marriage: 10-23-12

No doubt many of you remember the Rev. Ted Haggard (pictured here), former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, and the 2006 same-sex scandal that caused him to resign from his megachurch in Colorado Springs and from the NAE.

HaggardWell, Ted maintained that he was heterosexual throughout most of this ordeal but last year he said that if he were 21 years old in our culture he'd probably identify himself as bisexual.

When the scandal broke, I wrote a column for The Kansas City Star suggesting life would be much better for Haggard if he'd simply acknowledge who he is sexually and not try to jam his life into the rigid anti-gay culture found in many Christian churches that describe themselves as evangelical or conservative.

Naturally, he didn't take my advice. And yet. . .

It now turns out that Haggard is out in public arguing in favor of same-sex marriage. He has done this in an online debate or discussion with a rabbi. Clicking on the link in this paragraph will take you to that debate.

Well, he's in favor of same-sex civil marriage but he still thinks scripture condemns homosexuality and that it's God's plan for people to express their sexuality in heterosexual marriage. But he says it's not the state's role to worry about that or to bless any unions in a sacred way. Rather, blessing unions is the role of faith communities.

So, he says, the state's job is to protect the civil rights of everyone, and this includes allowing same-sex couples to enjoy the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as anyone else.

In other words, Ted Haggard and I agree about same-sex marriage -- except that I don't believe the Bible condemns what we're beginning to understand today as homosexual orientation. For my essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, click here.

If this whole same-sex marriage matter were settled the way I'd like it settled, any couple, gay or straight, would have the legal right to a civil marriage. If that couple then wanted a faith community to bless that union, that blessing decision would be up to the faith community. So a church still could say no to a legally married same-sex couple.

Maybe some day Haggard also will see that he's misreading what little scripture has to say about homosexuality.

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In the spirit of bipartisanship (a concept now all but obliterated in Washington, D.C.), Bob Dole writes this lovely tribute to George McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90. The two of them worked together to relieve world hunger. I had the privilege of knowing McGovern a little. I went to South Dakota in 1974 to cover his Senate race against the GOP candidate, former POW Leo Thorsness. And I did a lengthy interview with McGovern later that year at the Democratic mini-convention in Kansas City. One did not have to agree with all of McGovern's political positions to recognize that he was a thoroughly decent man who represented the best of public servants. I like to think that in some ways it reflected the theology he learned from his father, who was a Wesleyan Methodist pastor.

Failing impoverished Muslims: 10-22-12

If it wasn't clear before the 9/11 terrorist attacks it was certainly clear afterward that among the many reasons people resort to violent extremism is a sense of economic hopelessness.

Muslim-povertyThis doesn't account for all religiously rigid idealogues willing to murder innocent people in pursuit of radical goals. But poor people who are either uneducated or narrowly educated and who know they aren't part of an economic system that functions well for many others naturally are more prone to fall for solutions that may involve violence. They figure they have little to lose and maybe something to gain.

In response to this reality, the World Trade Organization organized what it called the Doha Development Agenda (DDA), commonly called the Doha Round, in November 2001.

More than a decade later, so little has happened as a result of the Doha Round that University of Kansas law professor Raj Bhala has offered a three-part analysis, or trilogy, of what went wrong.

As Bhala explained in a recent e-mail:

The thesis of the entire Trilogy is that the Doha Round is a failed counter-insurgency operation. That is, the Doha Round has lost nearly all links to its original purpose. That purpose was trade liberalization to spur development in a post-9/11 context in which extremism is wrongly perceived by some disaffected, impoverished, and thus marginalized Muslims as an alternative to stake-holding in the world trading system.

Why this failure? Because the WTO Members have succumbed utterly to the pursuit of commercial self-interest, so their Doha Round dealings have become a monstrous mishmash of minutiae. The Members have produced draft-negotiating texts that are so devoid of vision and so replete with exceptions that they are not fit for a dog’s breakfast. To use a different metaphor, Members have turned the Round into an exercise in Social Darwinism, forgetting the common good—to use multilateral trade liberalization to fight poverty and thereby Islamist extremism.

What we are given here is a vision of greedy economic and government leaders licking their lips before carving up the world some more. It's disgusting, and we can do better.

Bhala's work is important, though it's long and complicated. I don't expect many of you to read through it all, but I wanted you to have it in pdf format if you are interested in his analysis.

So here are links to the three parts of it:

Download Doha Round Trilogy (Part One - Saint Thomas) Final

Download Doha Round Trilogy (Part Two - Case Western) Final

Download Doha Round Trilogy (Part Three - Denver) Final

If people don't have some realistic stake (or hope for a stake) in a fair economic system that gives them a chance to live in something beyond grinding poverty, they will have incentives to want to protest in ways that can -- and often do -- turn violent.

If you want a good, realistic look at the condition of just the Arab part of the Muslim world soon after 9/11, I commend to you this 2002 report to the United Nations, which found that "the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings in the Arab instutional structure."

Bhala's work shows that the bleak state of affairs found in 2002 hasn't changed much.

By the way, if the name Raj Bhala sounds familiar to you regular blog readers, it's because I wrote about his large book explaining Shari'a, or Islamic law, last year here and here.

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Among the seven people the Catholic Church declared saints this past weekend was the first Native American to be so designated. After 1492, many Native Americans were cannonized, so it's nice to see one finally canonized. Big difference.

The novelty of mysticism: 10-20/21-12

The other day here on the blog I wrote about religious mysticism, focusing especially on the Jewish mystic path of Kabbalah because a rabbi with Kansas City connections has written two new books on the subject and will talk about them in presentations this week. (For details, click on the link in this paragraph.)

IlluminationsThe topic of mysticism (mystics seek a deeply personal and direct experience of God) returns here today partly because of publication of a new novel about one of the most famous Christian mystics, Hidegard von Bingen (1098-1179).

As my regular readers know, I don't often review or write much about fiction, feeling that it's generally outside my range of competence. So when I tell you that Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt, is a lovely read, you can trust me or not. (It really is. Trust me.)

But if you're not familiar with Hildegard, this new book not only will give you a good sense of this remarkable woman, a "doctor" of the church, but also let you imagine what life was like in the period of the First Crusade.

Hildegard, starting as quite a young child, saw visions and was convinced that God was communicating personally to her. Yes, I know that today we tend to want to institutionalize such people -- and often with good reason. But it's clear that Hildegard was tuned into the divine in some special way, and it led her to produce books, music and letters (even to popes) that survived and stood the test of time.

A few years ago I ran across a statement in Jacques Barzun's wonderful book, From Dawn to Decadence, in which the social historian said that there wasn't much of a tradition of mysticism in Roman Catholicism. That struck me as off base, so I asked Kansas City's Catholic bishop, Robert W. Finn, about it, and he confirmed my suspicion. Here's some of what Finn had to say about the subject:

"I believe your surprise at Barzun’s characterization is warranted. I do not know Barzun’s book, but Catholicism certainly embraces an authentic mysticism. It would be difficult to compile any list of saints that do not include mystics (both from contemplative and active life). Indeed the Universal call to holiness emphasized by the Second Vatican Council was a reminder that we are all called to a deep intimate prayer which urges us – by the action of God’s grace in us – to transforming union. . .Catholic Mysticism is not tied to 'techniques or ascetical practices' which somehow cause union, nor is it a kind of Gnosticism – reflected today in 'New Age' (movements) where the One Eternal Word of God is displaced by human words or representations."

Yes, Finn said this and more about mysticism before he got into recent legal trouble over not reporting a priest of suspected child sexual abuse, but that latter matter doesn't mean he didn't know what he was talking about on the subject of mysticism.

I suspect the reason mysticism has not perished as a religious movement but, rather, spread is that almost everyone deeply wishes to have some kind of personal or direct confirmation that there is a God and that God cares about what happens to each of us.

Often, instead, what even people of faith experience is silence from God. (The fabulous book to read is Hope in Time of Abandonment, by Jacques Ellul.)

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As the silly federal Defense of Marriage Act suffers another deserved blow in the courts, a new poll finds that one more group previously opposed to same-sex marriage -- Latinos -- has changed and a majority now supports it. Eventually the biblical misreading on homosexuality will become a marginalized, extremist view, and people will get on with their lives.

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P.S.: The major newspaper in that most Mormon of Mormon states, Utah, just endorsed, well, not the Mormon for president. I have no doubt Mitt Romney will carry Utah by a bunch, but this must be a bit painful and embarrassing for him.