Previous month:
October 2012
Next month:
December 2012

Finding their Jewish roots: 11-30-12

As you may know -- and as my co-author (Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn) and I report in They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust -- more than 90 percent of the almost 3.5 million Jews living in Poland at the outbreak of World War II perished in the Holocaust.

Polish_jewsMany of the Jews who survived the German-built death camps left the country or went underground when, on July 4, 1946, (well after the end of the war) a pogrom in Kielce, Poland, left dozens of Jews dead. And most of those still around when Poland's Communist government instituted antisemitic measures in the 1960s also left or disappeared.

Today, however, some Jewish life has returned to Poland. Estimates of the number of Jews in Poland today vary from a few thousand to 12,000 or 15,000, but I'm not sure anyone really knows.

And not only has Jewish life (restaurants, festivals) returned, but some people whose Jewish parents or grandparents felt forced to convert to Catholicism are rediscovering their Jewish roots and returning to the religion of their ancestors.

This story from Tablet magazine is the latest update on how that process is going.

Jews have been in Poland for some 500 years and at first were welcomed there by the ruling authorities. But Poland also has developed a deserved reputation for antisemitism, though that, too, is changing -- especially as more young people around the world recognize the reality that it was the Germans, not the Poles, who built the six death camps in Poland in World War II and that the Germans murdered not just Jews but also many members of the Polish intelligentsia.

(The illustration here today is by Ivy Tashlik; original photo from Shutterstock. I found it at the site of the story to which I've linked you.)

* * *

P.S.: Speaking of taking a trip, I'm on one for a few days and, thus, won't be posting a second item here as I usually do until I return.

Take a trip to Bethlehem: 11-29-12

Earlier this year I was privileged to help lead a Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel that included a visit to Bethlehem on the West Bank.

(Sing it with me, "O, little town of Bethlehem, on the Occupied West Bank. . .")

(For my blog entries from the trip, go to the archives found on the right side of this page and start about April 15.)

I can't offer you a free trip to the real Bethlehem this Christmas season, but I can point you to the "Journey to Bethlehem" dramatization pageant that my congregation has put on annually for decades. It will run from from 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow and from 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church at 55th and Brookside Boulevard.

We consider this a gift to our community, and each year something like 1,000 people go on the journey, which starts in our fellowship hall, which gets turned into an old marketplace in First Century Jerusalem, and winds up -- after several stops along the way -- at the holy manger in our sanctuary.

And although it is such a gift, the fact is that the people who participate in it often receive more than they give. They hear stories from strangers about what Christmas means to them. They meet children who are fascinated by the journey. And -- my favorite part -- after a long journey they enter into the sacred space where the manger is found.

Yes, of course, those who put this drama on are all amateur actors, but something important seems to happen when we immerse ourselves in the stories found in holy writ. As people in many different religious traditions can tell you, even as we read scripture, scripture reads us, finding our needs and speaking to them in many ways.

So if you have a bit of time tomorrow or Saturday evening, come on over the Second Church and enter into the sacred birth narrative -- which, as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us in his latest book on Jesus, may not involve singing angels or animals in a stall. But let's not mess up a good story by failing to leave a little room for imagination. (And why are some parts of the media getting all excited about what the pope said about Christmas in this book? Who didn't know this?)

Just so you know, some other congregations also put on journeys to Bethlehem. For instance, Southminster Presbyterian Church at 63rd and Roe has its pageant this weekend, too. For details, click here.

* * *

P.S.: Speaking of taking a trip, I'm on one for a few days and, thus, won't be posting a second item here as I usually do until I return.

Picking the right clergy: 11-28-12

One of the most stressful times for congregations of any faith is when a new pastor/priest/rabbi/imam/you-name-it is being chosen.

ClergyIn some cases -- such as Catholicism and United Methodism -- the congregation has little or no say in the pastor who gets assigned to be the spiritual leader (and administrative leader and chief cook and bottle washer).

But in other traditions, such as my Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination, the congregation has a large voice in the choice. In other traditions, the choice is completely up to the congregation.

In times of leadership transition, there is much that can go wrong and not much that is guaranteed to go right. So wise congregations enter this period with prayerful discernment. And they look for all the help they can get.

In the Christian tradition, such organizations as the Alban Institute can and do provide such help. But help also is often available from the national or international leadership of particular branches of faith.

A new book, Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What kind of Congregation, by Cynthia Wooever and Deborah Bruce, is aimed at Christian congregations but contains information and advice that may help others as well.

The book draws on the findings from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey (USCLS), which reveals the views of more than 500,000 people who participate regularly in worship. One of the authors, Cynthia Woolever, is research manager of the USCLS.

Leadership-fitsThere are lots of charts and graphics in the book, plus some helpful stories about choices facing congregations in this or that situation.

Any pastor search committee would benefit from a careful reading of this volume.

I have seen examples of congregations that ended up with clearly the wrong kind of leadership and I've seen some great fits. But great fits don't happen by magic. Thus, this book.

* * *


A new Saudi-sponsored interfaith center in Vienna has opened. It would be nice if its work led to Saudi Arabia opening up to religious freedom for all. That's far from the case now. You can read details of Saudi Arabia's suppression of non-Islamic religions on page 158 of the latest annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

* * *

P.S.: My latest column for The National Catholic Reporter is due to post today, but I'll be on the road and won't be able to give you a direct link to it when that happens. But if you click here you can read it when it posts.It got posted about 10 a.m. today. Check it out.

Recalling a religious disaster: 11-27-12

My experience tells me that many, if not most, Christians are ignorant of much of the history of their faith.

Oh, they may have heard, for instance, about anti-Judaism in Christian history (for my essay on the subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page), but mostly they cannot cite chapter and verse.

And though they are vaguely aware of something called "The Crusades," the details pretty much escape them.

Today is a good day to begin to rectify some of the ignorance about the Crusades, for it was on this date in 1095 that Pope Urban II, speaking at the Council of Claremont in France, declared the necessity of the First Crusade, meant to make the way safe for pilgrims between Europe and the Holy Land and, if possible, to wrest control of Jerusalem and the surrounding area from the Muslims.

As historian Steven Runciman reports in volume one of his three-volume A History of the Crusades, four contemporary chroniclers reported the pope's words, but they are a bit contradictory and it's unclear whether any of the four was really present.

Nonetheless, he urged Europeans, as Runciman says, "to march to the rescue of the East." And as he spoke, cries of "Deus le volt!" ("God wills it!") rose from the crowd.

Although Christians did manage, temporarily, to capture Jerusalem, the result of more than half a dozen crusades (it depends on how you count them) over a couple of hundred years was disaster. Christianity's relations with both Muslims and Jews were made many times worse, and it can be argued that there's not been a full recovery even today.

The Crusades, though quite understandable in the context of their medieval time, wound up as one more major piece of evidence in the case against religious zealotry and false certitude. That humanity has not either learned or retained that lesson is obvious today in many parts of the world, and it's one reason faith itself has so many serious detractors.

(By the way, the map here today came from

* * *


What in the world is a "faitheist"? The assistant humanist chaplain (you read that right) at Harvard University explains in this interview. I suppose this makes fans for the Missouri Tigers' men's basketball coach Haitheists.

Lifting children's dreams: 11-26-12

A couple of years ago I was privileged to see clips from a documentary-in-progress that involved the talented Kansas City area musician Barclay Martin.

That film now is out as "Rise and Dream," and features children in the southern Philippines (seen in the photo above) who, amid cultural and political upheaval, learn how to use local musical instruments to perform on what the movie promotional material calls the biggest stage of their lives.

The film is a project of the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA), which works with people in poverty around the world.

The film has had several screenings in recent weeks in the Kansas City area, though at the moment it appears none is scheduled here. (Sorry I didn't get to this topic a bit sooner.) But if you're in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., it will be shown there by the National Conference on Catholic Youth Ministry on Wednesday.

When I saw an early version of the film I found it fascinating and quite inspiring. And obviously others agree, because the movie just received the Reel Rose Best Documentary Film Award at the John Paul II International Film Festival earlier this month at Florida International University. (Here's a piece about the film's world premiere this past February.)

Writing about the film here today gives me a chance to invite you to explore CFCA at its website. It's quite a worthwhile agency. And it gives me a chance to introduce you to the Barclay Martin Ensemble, which produces great music.

Keep your eyes peeled for a showing of "Rise and Dream." You'll be glad you did.

* * *


I liked this BBC piece in which a woman argues that Christianity and feminism are not mutually exclusive. One good way to think about this is that there is the world into which Jesus came -- a patriarchal world of empire. Then there is the world toward which Jesus would move us -- a world of human dignity, equality and liberation.

A seminary changes course: 11-24/25-12

As the world of religion changes, so does the part of that world that educates people to be members of the clergy.

SaintPaulLogoNToday, for instance, a lot of people are taking online courses -- something the founders of seminaries never imagined possible. And most, if not all, of the growth in the seminary student population in the last is accounted for by racial minorities and women.

Such changes have affected the several seminaries (United Methodist, Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Nazarene, Unity and Community of Christ) found in the Kansas City area. The most recent -- and arguably one of the most interesting -- is a newly approved collaboration between St. Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Kansas City, and the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in surburban Leawood, Kan.

Under this new arrangement, SPST will move to COR next year. For the Nov. 2 Kansas City Star story describing this upcoming change, click here.

The move has raised many questions, especially about what will happen to the existing SPTS campus, located on Truman Road on the east side of Kansas City, part of the urban core. Beyond that, it has raised questions about the evolving relationship between seminaries and the congregations and denominations they serve.

I asked Myron McCoy, the SPST president, three questions about all of this. Here they are, with his responses:

* St. Paul, though United Methodist, has been pretty ecumenical in the students
it draws in and even the faculty it hires. Do you think that aspect of SPST will
change with this new move?

Saint Paul will continue to be very much ecumenical in terms of staff,
faculty, students, and focus. Ecumenicity is in the DNA of United
 * I know you've expressed a desire not to abandon the core of Kansas City, but
it frankly looks as if that's what's happening. Are there any in-the-works solid
plans for re-use of the current campus in a way that won't create a hole in the
urban landscape?
We presently have a Truman Road Campus Committee and we are
seeking to diligently facilitate a future for this site. We feel a need
to leave as well as we go, as the grounds are most sacred to us.
* In some ways this looks like a new future of seminaries connected to and
learning from the churches rather than the reverse. Is that a proper reading?
And what do you think it means for both seminaries and churches?

      I think it is fair to say that many of us see a need to walk with the church as a vital collaborator while recognizing the giftedness of each in educating persons for leadership in the church.

ResurrectionI also asked the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding (and senior) pastor of COR and, until recently, SPST board chairman, to tell me about how all of this may be a new model for the relationship between seminaries and churches.

Adam's response:

. . .the model the board was looking at was the medical
school-teaching hospital model where students are trained
in rigorous academic work, and then head to the hospital room
to both watch practitioners at work and to engage in the
practice of medicine themselves. The greatest criticism of theological schools across the country,
from the lay people served by their graduates, is that they wish
their pastors had better practical training for ministry. We're
hoping that this model strengthens the work of the seminary.

(By the way, Adam has posted several lengthy pieces on the "Save Saint Paul School of Theology" Facebook page. If this link doesn't work to get there, though it should, just search on the "Save Saint..." name on FB.)

Well, there is much more to think about not only with regard to the relationship between seminaries and denominations but also what will happen to the current SPST grounds that Myron McCoy calls "most sacred to us" and the future look of the seminary's student body and faculty.

So stay tuned.

* * *


With broadcaster Glenn Beck, it's not the fiscal cliff that worries me but, rather, another sort of cliff, over which I think Beck finally may have leaped. Now he's blaming God for developments that have led to Hurricane Sandy, Mitt Romney's defeat and other things, and he plans to march in protest against God in Oklahoma City. Is OK City God's corporate HQ these days? I've lost track.

'Pi' asks, 'What is truth?': 11-23-12

The question predates Pontius Pilate, of course, but he's the one many of us think of when we hear someone ask, "What is truth?"

Life-piPilate is quoted as asking Jesus that question in John 18:38.

The same question, in a way, is central to the "Life of Pi" movie I had a chance to see earlier this week in an advance showing before its current release.

The film no doubt would have great appeal without the underlying question of truth just because of the compelling story and the phenomenal production values (isn't that the term real movie reviewers use to talk about cinematography and special effects?).

But for me the most engaging part of the film had to do with the question of whether a story -- any story -- can be true even if it is not historically accurate, at least by the standards of how we do history in the 21st Century.

There are, in the film, two competing stories to explain how the 16-year-old boy Pi survived a shipwreck. In one, he shares his lifeboat with several wild animals from his father's zoo, including most prominently, a fierce Bengal tiger. In the other, he shares that same lifeboat with several desperate people.

In the end, in both stories, he's the only survivor, the only one to tell the tale.

The survival story is preceded by the story of Pi's younger boyhood, when he learns to appreciate the ways several different religious traditions describe truth. It's a wise setting to the later story and in fact is crucial to understanding the film's central message about truth, history and myth.

One of my clergy friends likes to say about certain passages in the Bible, "I don't know if that's historically accurate, but I know it's true."

That's the approach this film urges on us. And it's one that, were it widely adopted, would avoid much of the sectarian violence that occurs in the world between and among people who differ about how to read holy writ.

(One of today's truths is that it's the birthday of my oldest sister. My gift to her is this blog entry, which, for her, I'm calling her Birthday Pi.)

* * *


Our Buddhist friends remind us regularly to be "mindful." Which means, of course, to pay attention, to notice, not to miss the moment. It's hard to find mindfulness better expressed than in this lovely Thanksgiving Day essay published in yesterday's New York Times. So give yourself the gift of extending Thanksgiving by one day and read it.

A brief word of. . .: 11-22-12

Thanks. . .

. . .for being readers

Thanks(And if you get tired of football, turkey and family today, here's an essay to read about whether the treatment of Native Americans in our history should be classified as genocide. I'm not well enough read on the subject to know whether that's the right term to use, so I'll let you draw your own conclusions. And my friends over at offered this posting earlier this week on Native American topics.)

* * *


Want some good Christian reasons to avoid diving into Black Friday shopping with all your heart, mind and soul? This essay, in harmony with my personal revisions of scripture here yesterday, provides them. You're welcome.

Needed revisions of scripture: 11-21-12

As we approach America's biggest annual religious ritual -- Christmas shopping -- I think perhaps it's time to update some passages of the Bible so that they more accurately reflect the degraded values of our culture.

Not-bibleAfter all, the Jewish and Christian scriptures are increasingly reflective of values the American culture has rejected in favor of material possession, a worship of celebrity and an idolizing of the Middle Class.

So let's begin with Matthew 25:40 in the updated version: 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the Middle Class, you did it to me."

Sticking with Matthew, here's the revised 6:28: "And why are you not anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, which is why they're never on the cover of GQ or Vogue."

And one more from Matthew, a revision of one of the Beatitudes in 5:3: "Blessed are the Middle Class in spirit, for theirs is the attention of the candidates."

Moving to the Hebrew Scriptures, we turn to Exodus 22:25. The materially revised version now says:  "If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall bundle the loans into a marketable derivative that will allow the eventual owner to forclose within a year."

Finally, let's redo Deuteronomy 15:7: "If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, having dropped out of the Middle Class, you shall harden your heart and shut your hand against your poor brother, except that you might tell him how to sign up for food stamps."

Well, there are many more passages from various holy texts that need similar revision to reflect our culture's visceral disdain the poor, but now that I've started you on the process of change, perhaps some of you can take up the task.

* * *


While we're revising scripture for fun, satire and cultural commentary, Pope Benedict XVI would prefer we not mess with the story of Jesus' virgin birth. In his new book, being published today, The Infancy Narratives - Jesus of Nazareth, he argues that the story of the virgin birth is an "unequivocal" truth of faith. I haven't yet read the pope's new book, so I'll reserve judgment. But the best commentary on the infancy narratives I've ever read is by the great (and now late) Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah. In fact, I'd recommend you read Brown before you read B-16.

Abe Lincoln and Jerusalem: 11-20-12

I have not yet seen the new movie about Abraham Lincoln that is getting rave reviews, though I intend to.

Lincolns-battleBut as everyone talks anew about this fabulous, complex, magical man, I want to tell you about Lincoln's final words -- at least some believe they were his final words because they were reported to be that by Lincoln's wife, Mary, who sat next to him in Ford's Theater the night he was assassinated. has offered readers this excerpt from a just-released book about Lincoln by Stephen Mansfied, Lincoln's Battle with God (a book I've not had a chance to read).

Mansfield, based on words later reported by Mary Lincoln, reports that as the play was going on, the president was whispering to his wife about some ideas on how they would spend the future. After the war and his term, Lincoln said to Mary, according to this account, “We will not return immediately to Springfield. We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest.”

Where did Lincoln have in mind? Again Mansfield:

"'We will visit the Holy Land,' Lincoln continued, leaning toward Mary so as not to disturb the others."

Then Mansfield reports that Lincoln added these words: “We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior. There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.”

Mansfield acknowledges there are reasons to doubt the veracity of these final words, but he quotes several experts as saying they believe the words to be true.

I was privileged myself this past April to see Jerusalem again, and it is, indeed, a privilege. I'm glad not to be there just now in the midst of more military turmoil. But let's all hope that some kind of lasting peace can settle on Jerusalem -- and all of the Middle East with justice for all people there.

(Tuesday evening addition: Just saw the movie. Fabulous. But in the film Lincoln delivers something like the Jerusalem line not at the theater but in an afternoon carriage ride with his wife.)

* * *


Sikhs, in the aftermath of the terrible murders at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier this year, are trying to educate Americans about who they are, as this LA Times story shows. Good. Almost nothing good ever comes out of ignorance.