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Should we risk forgiveness? 11-19-12

In these circumstances, when, if ever, would you offer forgiveness?

Kirkridge* Your pastor, whom you helped to bring to your church, has an affair with your wife.

* Young men, driven by religious zealotry, murder your nephew.

I have faced both circumstances. The latter had to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which the son of one of my sisters perished as a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center.

What would forgiveness in such circumstances look like? What would it mean? Would it even be possible in the latter case, when the hijackers who committed the crime also died?

These are some of the difficult questions about forgiveness that my friend Doug Hundley and I plan to talk about in a weekend seminar in April at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania. If you ever have struggled with either giving or receiving forgiveness, I hope you'll join us for "Should We Risk Forgiveness?". For details, including how to register, click here.

There are many, many easy answers when it comes to forgiveness, starting with the impossible and silly "Forgive and forget."

Serious religion requires more and offers more. We'll explore some of what religious traditions suggest (and maybe even require) we do about forgiveness and we'll look at the destructive consequences of carrying bitterness around with us.

If you know in your heart that you need time and space to wrestle with all this but you don't come join us, I may have trouble forgiving you.

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Wouldn't you know? Already many of the folks involved in the current shooting and bombing between Israel and the Gaza Strip are talking as if God is on their side. If you ask me, one of the few legitimate ways of dragging God into the picture in war is to seek divine forgiveness.

The powerful allure of sex: 11-17/18-12

Once more we have seen a powerful male leader brought to ruin because of an inability to resist sexual temptation.

SexyEyesDavid Petraeus, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, is in a long line of men -- many famous, many not -- who have been unable to stop themselves from adultery.


One explanation, of course, is the old joke that when God created males the arrangement was that they could have blood in their brains or in their penises, but not in both at the same time. Maybe, but it's way too cute to stand the weight of eternal truth.

What is striking about all of this is that adultery is even covered in the Ten Commandments. And, just for the record, God is against it.

Countless books have been written about the sex drive -- in both males and females -- and you may find your favorite theory among the many proposed there. I do think that at a basic level the sex drive has to do with survival of the species. We are somehow driven to reproduce.

But can that foundational instinct account for why presidents (I'm looking at you, Bill Clinton, JFK and several others) and others in a position of power cave in to out-of-marriage sex?

And especially in today's sex-saturated culture, when every thought you put into an e-mail or a comment on Facebook is ultimately available to the entire cosmos, why do presumably smart people drop themselves almost willingly into the mud?

The only answer I have to explain any of this comes from the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity, in which I locate myself. There you find a doctrine called "The Total Depravity of Humankind." It's not as bad as it sounds, but it does suggest that all of us, as the Apostle Paul wrote, sin and fall short of the glory of God. Not one of us is purely righteous.

This doctrine needs lots of commentary and explanations, but I do think it acknowledges that human nature includes the capacity for evil as well as for good. And if we forget that, we will be forever disappointed in one another (as we may well be anyway).

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The nation's shifting religious landscape is showing up in Congress. A new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows the newly elected Congress contains the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate, the first Hindu to serve in either house and the first "none" to serve. This trend toward pluralism will only increase.

Bringing hidden Jews home: 11-16-12

Many of you know that Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn is co-author of my latest book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

WDT-JC-AHAnd you may know he's the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City.

But did you know that he's becoming internationally known for helping members of crypto-Jewish families (meaning either hidden Jews or people whose families once were Jewish) return to Judaism?

This work, primarily centered in Central and South America, was documented in a film a few years ago called "The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America."

But now the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has done this engaging feature story about Jacques' conversion work. (To read the whole thing, you may have to register, but that's free.)

As the story's author, Judy Maltz, reports, "In the 18 years since his ordination, Cukierkorn has overseen roughly 500 conversions, mostly of individuals in Latin America who maintain they are the descendants of 'anusim,' or 'forced converts.'"

Jacques described all of this a couple of weekends ago to a Jewish congregation in Evanston, Ill., when he and I were in the Chicago area to give talks about our book. He called his remarks at the Shabbat service "Cowboys and Indians, Priests and Prostitutes," because such people have been among those he has converted to (or back to) Judaism.

Jacques has created an organization called Brit Braja through which to do this work. This is pretty a remarkable undertaking, helping people find their spiritual home, one that in many cases was ripped away from their family in previous generations in times of profound anti-Judaism and antisemitism.

(The photo here today shows Jacques and me giving a recent presentation on our book at First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Ill.)

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Jesus_on_a_Mac[1] (2)If one of your regular password for computers and such is "Jesus," you might want to think again. It turns out that's one of the most commonly used passwords around and it's easy to guess, exposing you to identity theft. Wonder what password Jesus might us. "Me"?

* * *



Exploring Advent with Luke, by Thomas Clayton. It's a common spiritual discipline for Christians to read daily or weekly devotional writings in both Advent and Lent. It's a way of focusing on what each liturgical season is about and reconnecting with the core of one's faith. The author of this book of weekly readings for Advent, which Christians are about to enter as they move toward Christmas, is the rector of an Anglican church. He pays attention here to the story of Jesus' birth as it's told in the Gospel of Luke, focusing particularly on the questions that some of the main characters in the story ask. He then proposes questions for readers to ask about their own life of faith. This is the kind of engaging book that lends itself to small group reading and conversation.

A Muslim on environmentalism: 11-15-12

At last week's annual Table of Faiths luncheon in suburban Kansas City, the theme was what religions say and do about protecting Earth's environment.

HasanOne of the main speakers was Dr. Syed E. Hasan (pictured here), who teaches environmental science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It was good to hear a Muslim's perspective on this subject, especially one with academic training in the field.

Here is what Hasan said about the theme of the luncheon: Spirituality and the Environment, with the sub-theme of Caring for the Earth, Our Legacy.

What could be a better time and venue to discuss this critical issue? Increasing (the) level of carbon dioxide over the past 200 years has raised earth’s temperature that has triggered global climate change. The Superstorm Sandy that hit the eastern seaboard during the last days of October is a stark reminder of what lies ahead. This disruption of earth’s water cycle is bound to result in extreme weather events that will occur more frequently and with greater severity.

I am convinced that the current state of earth’s environment is a direct result of the large-scale and careless exploitation of the earth and its resources that are used to run the industries owned by large corporations. And despite the fact that they utilize the resources of the earth, they consider themselves to be more accountable to their shareholders than to the environment. The horrible stories of how industrial pollution has destroyed the ecosystem and adversely impacted people’s life all over the planet are too well known.

All religions require (their) followers to treat earth with respect and care. Our scriptures remind us time and time again that we are not the owner or master of the earth, but only its guardian and caretaker.

In my view, human civilization has now arrived at a juncture where we find our precious earth threatened with serious degradation of its environment to the point that we, the most privileged among God’s creations, have to make some hard decisions in order to assure not only our own survival but of all living and non-living components of the earth, to which we are inextricably connected. 

Earth is the only suitable habitat we have and there is no other place to go if it becomes unsustainable. So, how can we assure a healthy, livable planet for our future generations? It won’t be easy; certainly, doing business as usual will not work. What we need to do is to introduce the missing elements of ethics and spirituality in the existing socio-economic order, which is based solely on profit and growth and has sadly permeated every aspect of our society, be it the corporation, business, finance, media, or the government. 

Of all creations of God, humans have been endowed with the unique faculty of intellect and reason and it is our moral obligation to use this God-given gift to devise a new philosophy of life based on spirituality and ethical values that will allow us to leave behind the legacy of a sustainable planet for our future generations.

After the luncheon we all got in our private cars and drove home or back to work because there is essentially no public transportation to and from the Marriott Hotel in Overland Park, Kan. Sigh.

Sly-3(By the way, I'm glad Kansas City has a mayor committed to good interfaith relations. Sly James (pictured here) also spoke at the Table of Faiths luncheon after receiving the Steve Jeffers Interfaith Leadership Award for all the work he does in this area. And his message, as usual, was simple and on target: "We've been too focused on the differences. Somehow that's plain old stupid, and we need to stop being stupid.")

* * *


OK, I admit I'm often tempted -- and sometimes I even succumb -- to quote televangelist Pat Robertson because he's so, well, bizarre. Perhaps I'm tempted as often as our top military generals are tempted by pretty women. At any rate, here's Robertson excusing Gen. David Patraeus for having an affair: He encountered "an extremely good looking woman" and "he's a man." Oh, Pat Robertson, I wish I could quit you.

* * *

P.S.: Given the fact that some people of faith are convinced that Earth is only a few thousand years old, their view of the universe gets equally bizarre, along with their predictions about the impending end of the world. Here's a corrective: How about attending the next general meeting (free and open to the public) of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, to be held at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24, at UMKC. Details can be found here. The speaker that evening will be Dr. Charles Don Geilker, emeritus professor of physics at William Jewell College. He'll be talking about the now-famous Mayan calendars, one of which some people think predicts the end of the world next month. And while you're on the society's website, take a look at the spring-to-fall opportunities (you'll have to wait until next year) to visit the Powell Observatory south of Kansas City to learn more about the makeup of the cosmos.

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

Attacking biblical literalism: 11-14-12

In my experience, some of the more aggressive atheists, though they rarely will admit it, are biblical literalists.

You-got-to-be-kidding-coverWhich is to say that when they critique the Bible they act as if -- or pretend to act as if -- there is nothing close to metaphor or poetry in Scripture. By adopting such a stance, they align themselves, even if inadvertently, with the real literalists and, therefore, with people who don't take Scripture seriously.

For you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can't do both.

Now there's a new book out making fun of the Bible through the same old conceit of pretending to take it literally. It's You Got To Be Kidding: The Cultural Arsonist's Literal Reading of The Bible, by humorist and event marketing company owner Joe Wenke.

The problem with the book is that it is not very funny, nor very insightful. In that way it differs from such previous books as Not The Bible by Sean Kelly and Tony Hendra, who really are pretty funny when they make fun of the biblical literalists.

Wenke reads -- or pretends to read -- some of the famous Bible stories as if they were literal history. So after he recounts the story of Adam and Eve, the Noah flood and so on, he acts outraged and concludes that God is crazy and irrationally unpredictable. Which is pretty much what you'd have to conclude if you took these stories literally.

The book may appeal to other atheists who are looking for additional ammunition to fire at religion. But people (like me) who understand that the Bible is a collection of books written by many authors over hundreds and hundreds of years and that its purpose is not primarily to recount history need not bother with this book.

If it were wickedly funnier, I might have a different take. But funny it's not. It's sophomoric at best -- even if it's point is correct that reading the Bible literally is silly.

* * *


Does Mitt Romney have a future as a leader in the Mormon church? Well, maybe, this Salt Lake City journalist says. But the options aren't as wide open as you might think.

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P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online. To read it, click here. (If you got an annoying request to log in earlier, that has been fixed. Now the link should take you straight to my column.)

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

Some funny faith stories: 11-13-12

On a slightly mixed-up day like 11-13-12 and after a brutal election season, we need a break from all this seriousness.

LaughingfaceSo, friends, it's religious joke day again here on the blog. A reminder: These jokes are not original with me. If they had been, they'd have been funnier.

1. A single guy decided life would be more fun if he had a pet. So he went to the pet store and told the owner that he wanted to buy an unusual pet.

After some discussion, he finally bought a talking centipede, (100-legged bug), which came in a little white box to use for his house. He took the box back home, found a good spot for the box, and decided he would start off by taking his new pet to church with him.

So he asked the centipede in the box, "Would you like to go to church with me today? We will have a good time."

But there was no answer from his new pet. This bothered him a bit, but he waited a few minutes and then asked again, "How about going to church with me and receive blessings?"

But again, there was no answer from his new friend and pet. So he waited a
few minutes more, thinking about the situation. The guy decided to invite the centipede one last time.

This time he put his face up against the centipede's house and shouted,
"Hey, in there! Would you like to go to church with me and learn about God?"

This time, a little voice came out of the box, "I heard you the first damn time! I'm putting my shoes on!"

2. Just this morning I opened up a tub of margarine, and what do I see but the face of Jesus.

I was so astounded, I took it over to show my next door neighbor, Mr. Ngyuen. I said, "Look, here's the face of the savior in a tub of margarine!"

He took one look at it, and said, "I can't believe it's not Buddha!"

3. Three guys die and go to heaven. At the Pearly Gates, St. Peter says to them "whatever you do, don't step on a pink cloud".

The first guy goes off wandering. when he comes back, he's accompanied by one of the ugliest women you've ever seen.

"What happened to you?" asked the other two. "I stepped on a pink cloud" he replied. The second guy goes off wandering and comes back with an even uglier girl. "What happened to you?" they asked. "I stepped on a pink cloud."

The last guy goes off wandering and comes back with the most beautiful woman any of them have ever seen. "What happened?" they asked. The woman responded "I stepped on a pink cloud."

4. We’ve been letting our six-year-old go to sleep listening to the radio, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a good idea. Last night he said his prayers and wound up with: “And God bless Mommy and Daddy and Sister. Amen—and FM!”

* * *


Need more evidence that Islam, like most religions, is not monolithic (though, indeed, it is monotheist)? A prominent Muslim reformer in Egypt has called Islamists there pushing for a strictly regulated Islamic government "the clowns of religion." (Sort of goes with today's humor theme.) It's the sort of division within Islam that gives hope to much of the non-Islamic world.

* * *

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

Downing the Mormon barrier: 11-12-12

Nearly a week after the presidential election, I want to return to something I mentioned soon after the votes were counted.

LdsWhich is that Christians who call themselves evangelical appear not to have withheld their votes for Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith.

I think that's progress. There has been, after all, a lot of anti-Mormon prejudice among such Christians for a long time. Even Billy Graham's website once labeled Mormonism a "cult," though that reference was removed as the election neared and Graham essentially endorsed Romney, even if not by name.

For many, many reasons, I did not vote for Romney, but my choice had nothing to do with his being a Mormon. As a Presbyterian, I certainly have many theological differences with Mormons, but I know -- and respect the fact -- that there is no religious test for public office in our country. And, more than that, I respect most of the values Mormons hold.

Any Mormons I've known have been decent, honest, trustworthy people. I think Romney can be described that way, too, though I came to distrust his ability to be reasonably consistent when he changed his positions on so many issues so many times.

That said, I'm glad a major political party nominated him and that he ran a close race for president. It knocks down one more silly barrier in this country, and from now on Mormons who run for office should not have to explain their religion or apologize for it.

The next barrier that needs to fall, of course, is the one that so far has prevented us from having a female president. But now that we're past the Catholic, Mormon and African-American barriers, I hope that's next.

So take a Mormon to lunch today. Or a woman. Or both.

* * *


The Vatican says the Catholic Church will continue to fight hard against gay marriage. Doesn't the church get tired of being on the wrong side of history on various issues?

Working toward love: 11-10/11-12

HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. -- The religious landscape in the United States has changed substantially since Lyndon B. Johnson signed immigration reform into law in 1965.

2010-1Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians as well as Christians with traditions not previously found in the U.S. have come to our shores and we find mosques, temples and other houses of worship springing up in neighborhoods that previously were home just to Christian churches and the occasional Jewish synagogue.

It's been a good, but challenging, change. It is requiring us to work toward religious harmony so we can become a model for the rest of the world. We're far from there yet, but we're making progress.

I'm thinking about all that here in Arkansas this weekend as my wife and I gather with our potluck group at the home of one of the couples in our group who now split time between here and Kansas City.

What's ecumenical or interfaith about our potluck group?

Well, couple No. 1: He's Catholic, she's Methodist. No. 2: He's Jewish, she's a convert from Christianity to Judaism. No. 3: Us. I grew up Presbyterian and, after an absence from the church of 12 or so years, have come back to be a Presbyterian again. My wife grew up in the Congregational church (now United Church of Christ) in Vermont, later became and Episcopalian and now jokes that she's an Episcoterian, having joined my Presbyterian congregation but still with close ties to her old congregation.

So how does a group like this avoid fighting about religion? Pretty easily, it turns out. We do our best to respect the religious choices each of us has made. We do our best to learn a bit about the faith of others in our group. We share many moral and ethical values that provide common ground for us. And we don't spend a lot of time talking directly about matters of faith.

Rather, we talk about our children, our work, our travels, our friends, the books we've read, the films we've seen, the developments in our city, national politics, food and on and on.

I think that's a pretty good model for how to live in religious harmony. Yes, it requires that we not insist that others see things our way. But it turns out there is greater wisdom in the group than there is in any single one of us.

And, besides, this is a long-term commitment. Our group has been together going on 40 years. And interfaith dialogue takes at least as long. You've got to get to the point where you know each other in profound ways and, in the end, love one another.

As we do.

(And while we're here we'll also look at nature's beauty, such as these flowers on our friends' deck that I photographed on a previous trip.)

* * *


The worldwide Anglican Communion has a new leader. Justin Welby has been named archbishop of Canterbury, and he says he's "overwhelmed and surprised." No doubt that's how he'll feel a year from now when it sinks in that the Anglicans, like many faith communities, are deeply divided over many issues and, thus, almost ungovernable. The late French president, Charles de Gaulle, is reported once to have said that no country with so many kinds of cheeses can be governed. The Anglicans have cheeses galore.

An abolitionist martyr: 11-9-12

This is one of those days when people take note of at least two matters of history important to religion.

LovejoyThe most recent of the two is Kristallnacht, or Night of Glass, in 1938, when Nazi Germany's leaders organized a night of terror against Jews. Hundreds of synagogues were plundered, thousands of shops were destroyed and nearly 100 Jews were killed.

The earlier event in religious history -- an event I want to focus on a bit today -- happened in 1802 in Albion, Maine. It was the birth of Elijah Parish Lovejoy (pictured here), a remarkable Presbyterian journalist (three words you don't often find in the same sentence), whose name today is preserved in the name of the presbytery (regional governing body) in the St. Louis area -- Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery.

As for Giddings, that's for another time.

A Presbyterian pastor, Lovejoy became editor of the St. Louis Observer in 1833 and turned it into an abolitionist voice.

In 1836, anti-abolitionists forced him to move his presses east across the Mississippi River to Alton, Ill. The next year these forces destroyed his printing facilities twice and eventually shot him to death as they sought to destroy his presses for a third time.

Talk about clergy burnout (my subject here yesterday).

Anyway, Elijah Lovejoy today is an honored man among both Presbyterians and journalists, but it was a terribly hard road to get there.

* * *


Almost every candidate and cause supported by Christians who call themselves conservative went down to defeat in this week's election. David Gibson of Religion News Services describes what happened. I know it may take a long time for such voters to be willing to do this, but now is the time to analyze whether they may well be on the wrong side of history's right side -- on abortion, on gay marriage, on a host of other issues. Sometimes faith communities must stand against the tide of history because history is heading in the wrong direction. But when it comes to issues of liberation, of freedom, of respect for every single individual, the arc of history, as has been said, bends toward justice. And if you're bending the other way, eventually you're going to be broken. (See the history of those who supported slavery and preventing women from voting -- often on phony biblical grounds.)

A crisis of clergy burnout: 11-8-12

Almost as soon as Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast recently, my thoughts turned to the clergy from the various religious traditions who would not only have to get through the trauma themselves but also would be called upon immediately to help others face what had to be faced.

ClergyburnoutI consider clergy to be among the folks the politicians now call first responders.

Like other first responders, clergy pay a high price for the often-tense and demanding work they do. The old joke about working one hour a week for worship is not only wrong, it's insulting.

As The New York Times reported in August 2010, "Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could." The quote is found on this website, completely dedicated to the problem of clergy burnout.

The Religion Newswriters Association's "Religion Link" service recently put together all these resources to aid journalists who want to write about clergy burnout.

I commend it to you. It will give you a pretty good handle on the scope of the problem and what can be done to alleviate it. (The artwork here today is from the Religion Link site.)

If you are among the many people of faith who tend to take clergy for granted and think they have soft jobs, I especially urge you to have a close look at what's offered on the site. Then you might want to go check up on the ordained folks in your life.

* * *


Maybe the astute religion observer Mark Silk has found a bit of good news in his analysis of the way people of different faith traditions voted in the presidential election. It was that Christians who identify themselves as evangelical did not withhold their votes from Mitt Romney because he's a Mormon. Maybe they're getting over their prejudice about Mormonism. That would be progress.

* * *



My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, by Colleen Carroll Campbell. The author is a journalist who begins by taking us back to a turning point in her college years, when she discovered that she was empty inside despite doing well in school and being a popular party girl. From there she takes us on a journey to discover what she was missing. She had grown up as a Catholic but that aspect of her life began to mean less and less as she grew to adulthood. And yet it was in Catholic history and tradition that she found how to live as a modern woman. It was by drawing on the lives and inspiration of females whom the Catholic Church had declared to be saints. So as we learn Campbell's story, we learn (more importantly) the stories of Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein of Germany, Mothere Teres of Calcutta and Mary of Nazareth. Campbell, who writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is a careful crafter of words. And although this book may appeal primarily to women, there's lots here for men, too.