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Clergy as bottlenecks: 1-31-13

Anyone who has been part of a faith community for more than a week knows that they can be slow to change. In some ways, that's a good characteristic. It prevents wild shifts in any theological or cultural wind that comes along.

Reyes-ChowBut this resistance to change also can prevent a congregation or an entire religion from adjusting in ways that make sense so that its message can be heard in a different time and setting.

The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow (pictured here) was talking about this a bit the other day at a gathering sponsored by Heartland Presbytery, to which my congregation belongs. Bruce, a former parish minister in San Francisco and former moderator of the General Assembly (national governing body) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was the keynoter at the "Embrace Hope" event at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan.

He was asking us where, in our own churches, we find the bottlenecks.

His own answer was, I think, a bit surprising to folks.

"There were so many times as the pastor of a church where I had to say to myself, 'Where's the real bottleneck in what's going on in this congregation?' Pastors love to blame elders. And elders love to blame pastors. There's plenty of blame to go around.

"But I actually do think that in most congregations the pastor is the one who is the bottleneck."

Again, there are times when a pastor being a bottleneck is good for the congregation. He or she sometimes can prevent bad ideas from getting implemented.

But I've certainly seen instances in which pastors stopped good and reasonable progress because they feared losing control. And that's an arrogance that churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship cannot afford.

We Christians believe that in the long run the Holy Spirit will break through all such barriers, but if pastors are working in harmony with the spirit of God instead of worrying about their own career moves or whether they'll be liked by everyone, the Spirit doesn't have to work so hard.

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More than a quarter of Americans believe God will determine who wins the upcoming Super Bowl. Are these the same people who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim or do we have more wingnuts than we like to imagine?

The value of skeptics: 1-30-13

Now and then over the years I've taught a series of classes I call "Theology Even the Clergy Can Understand."

DiderotTo set the tone for this layman's look at the essentials of Reformed Tradition theology, I hand out some material with a quote from French philosopher Denis Diderot (depicted here) at the top. It goes like this:

I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest. Up comes a theologian and blows it out.

Diderot, a brilliant skeptic, was born 300 years ago this year, and, as this New York Times piece indicates, that anniversary is calling forth some celebrations of his life.

Diderot suffered various punishments in his fascinating life because he was willing to swim against the current. He was deeply suspicious about religious faith and willing to challenge it in public.

Faith needs such skeptics. Without them, religion can much too easily turn into rigid formulas for living that suck the life out of life itself. Skeptics force people of faith to defend the hope that is in them, as the New Testament says.

Too often people of faith simply dismiss skeptics as irreligious cranks. And sometimes what the skeptics say is simply nonsense and quite worthy of being ignored. Still, they often ask good questions. And any faith that can't stand up to good questions probably should collapse.

So if you don't know about Denis Diderot and the 18th Century era in which he wrote, today's a good day to fill in that gap. Then you'll know some of those things Diderot wrote about which it's right to be skeptical.

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If the Boy Scouts open up to gay leaders and scouts, there's concern that it would be the end of Catholic sponsorship of scout troops. Well, no one said doing the right thing would always be without pain and change.

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Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner, by Ellen Kanner. This is a kicky little book by someone who has walked away from Reform Judaism much as her husband has walked away from Lutheranism. Still, she understands what community is and should be and she loves to cook. OK, full disclosure: She's a vegan. Really vegan. I'm not. Really not. And yet in the midst of her stories about herself, her friends and life itself, she offers various recipes for dishes I would actually consider eating. Heck, I'm betting I'd even like some of them. She confides that "I'm not entirely sure I believe in God," though she doesn't say exactly which God she doesn't believe in. "I understand he/she believes in me, which I find most cheering." Well, that's a lot to cheer about, really. Oh, the title? It has Taoist roots, as she describes it in the book. Kanner, by the way, writes the Meatless Monday blog for the Huffington Post.

Jews and Orthodox Christians: 1-29-13

The other day as I was reading a yet-to-be-published book about the resurgence of antisemitism (I plan to review the book later for The National Catholic Reporter), I was struck by something I'd not given a lot of thought to.

Orthodox ChurchIn one of the essays in the book, a professor of Judaic studies at a Big Ten university says that though the Catholic Church, through its 1965 document called Nostra Aetate, has "lifted the burden of guilt of deicide from the Jews," the Orthodox church has not done so.

As most of you know, the charge of deicide historically has meant that the church has thought of Jews -- and sometimes publically pronounced them Jews to be -- "Christ killers." (For my own essay on anti-Judaism in Christian history, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

Although I've long been aware of the fact that the Nostra Aetate document changed the Catholic church's position on this matter, I hadn't paid much attention to what the Orthodox world has had to say about this.

I use the term Orthodox world as a reminder that there is much less central authority among Orthodox Christians than there is among Catholics. So although the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox (and other Orthodox) churches are related theologically, each mostly speaks for itself.

So as I began to look into anti-Judaism and the Orthodox Church, I discovered this recent piece in which the Russian Orthodox Church is being investigated for -- what else? -- antisemitism.

(Just to be clear, anti-Judaism is theological in nature. It charges the Jews with such things as failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Modern antisemitism, by contrast, is more racial in nature, though it has some of its roots in traditional Christian anti-Judaism. Modern antisemitism repeats such calumnies as Jewish greed and their alleged plot to rule the world.)

In the story to which I've linked you, the Russian Orthodox Church is charged with such antisemitic acts as promoting some of thinking in the long-ag0-proven-fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which, 100 years after its publication, still gets used and sold as a legitimate piece of work about a made-up Jewish world conspiracy.

Well, if the Russian Orthodox Church is allowing followers to think that the Protocols is a legitimate piece of research and reportage, clearly something antisemitic is going on there. But I hope to find the time to dig deeper into the question of whether the Orthodox have ever issued a statement similar to Nostra Aetate or whether something has prevented that. Let me know what you know about this.

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Speaking of The National Catholic Reporter, as I was at the top of today's blog entry, did you see that Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese disagrees so much with some of NCR's editorials that he thinks the paper should not use the word "Catholic" in its name. See? That's one more reason Finn, convicted in court of failing to report suspected child abuse, should no longer be bishop. No matter what the subject -- even if he's expressing a legitimate opinion about a legitimate matter -- people's reaction will be something like: Why didn't you devote this much attention to protecting children from abusers? The man has lost credibility and his continued presence damages the church. In a recent column I wrote for NCR, I took Finn's fellow bishops to task for not publicly urging him to step down.

Faith themes in films: 1-28-13

For reasons plentious but mysterious, I broke my traditional pattern at the end of 2012 and early this year and saw half a dozen or so films in theaters in the span of a few weeks.

FilmUsually I don't see half a dozen in a year. Or, anyway, not many more than that.

But as I watched such films as "Lincoln," "Anna Karenina," "Les Miserables" and "The Other Son," I was struck by how clearly they had religious and/or moral threads all through them. I have you a link to the last film mentioned because it's more likely that you haven't heard of it than that you haven't heard of the rest.

Sometimes it was obvious, such as Lincoln's push to liberate slaves, at least on paper -- in spite of some twisted faith-based opposition. And sometimes it was more subtle, such as the fact that the movie makers understood that in Leo Tolstoy's great novel, Anna Karenina, which I read for the first time last year, about the only two moral characters anywhere in sight are Levin and Kitty, who eventually becomes Levin's wife.

As I pondered all this, I thought about a piece I wrote years ago for New Letters about what I called "moral fiction," using Gabriel Garcia Marquez' fabulous book Love in the Time of Cholera as a prime example.

There has been considerable (and justified) criticism about the moral aridity of much of our entertainment industry and, indeed, our entire culture. One need only look at the nightly offerings on network TV for examples of such time-gobbling trash. But that doesn't mean there isn't fine art with solid moral character out there -- and I'm not talking about prissy books or movies with sappy and predictable endings and characters afraid to say damn.

A group that agrees with me about that is Allied Faith and Family, which recently published this newsletter listing some of the best recent films with religious themes or overtones. See what you think of that list.

And e-mail me at [email protected] if you think there's a must-see movie of this type that I, well, must see.

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When religions seek to get state protection for positions of privilege, nothing good happens. So it's probably a good thing that Russia is thinking of undoing a law that sets jail terms for people who offend religious sensibilities.

Remembering Mahalia Jackson: 1-26/27-13

When I was a boy my parents one year (1954?) took my sisters and me to the Chicagoland Music Festival at Soldier Field.

Mahalia-JacksonIn addition to hearing such pop singers as Eddie Fisher (once Mr. Elizabeth Taylor), we heard the astonishingly powerful voice of Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972).

I think about her this time of year because she died on Jan. 27, 1972. She was one more example -- indeed a prime and darn good one -- of the link between American jazz and religion. She was at home in both worlds and managed to weave them together in strong and moving ways.

I'm on a bit of a retreat this weekend, so I'm not going to write a lot here. But I wanted to connect you to this great site where someone has collected a bunch of Jackson video on YouTube.

It will give you a good sense of her range and abilities and how she connects faith and music.

Who, if anyone, is today's Mahalia Jackson? Do you have a favorite?

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A new survey finds seven of the 10 least "Bible-minded" cities in the country are in the East, with a concentration in New England. No. 1? Providence, R.I. Isn't Providence just another name for God? So does this mean even God doesn't read God's word?

The future of secularism: 1-25-13

Over the last decade or two a great deal of attention has been paid to the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as secularists, humanists, free-thinkers, atheists and similar labels.

No-religionSome of this attention has been because of interesting books by such folks as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who have been among the more aggressive atheists.

And some of the attention has come from responses to polls showing that more and more people who respond to surveys about religion identify themselves as among the "nones," meaning religiously unaffiliated. When asked what religion they belong to they say, "None of the above."

The long-term question in the United States -- which traditionally has had the most or one of the most religious populations of any country in the world -- is whether these secularists will continue to be a big part of the American religious landscape or whether they'll fade away -- perhaps because they have regular lapses of disbelief.

A current Psychology Today piece argues that the secularist movement is here to stay. I think the author is right about that, but I don't see any impending collapse of the number of Americans who say they believe in God (still above 90 percent in most polls) or who claim to be adherents of this or that religion.

In many ways -- most good, some awful -- religion is at the core of the American soul. Yes, its influence has waned and/or changed over time and some of that change has been for the better. (Tossing out prayer in public schools led by people whose salaries come from tax payers is an example of a good change.)

But America is a landslide for religion, and it's going to take a long, long time to undo that. My guess is that if it ever happens (doubtful) it won't happen in the next several generations.

That said, it would behoove people of faith to listen to and learn from the secularists and to respect them as a legitimate subgroup of Americans.

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There's a new Catholic social networking tool and site called Awestruck. As far as I can tell, none of the postings there claim to be infallible, but you can check it out for yourself.

More American exceptionalism? 1-24-13

I want to back up a couple of days to the sermon at the National Prayer Service preached by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.

City-Upon-a-HillIt was no surprise to me or to anyone else who knows Adam that he did an excellent job. In some sense he was representing mainline Protestant churches, which have suffered significant declines in membership numbers in the last several decades. Because Adam's church now attracts some 18,000 people, COR is seen as an example of how mainline churches can be successful, at least in terms of size and programs.

And a worship service was exactly the right place -- even if there was an interfaith atmosphere to that service -- for Adam to have called for a renewal of religious faith. Here's a bit of what he said, though I'm ignoring here the great way he drew on the image of Moses as a leader:

“The theme of this year’s inauguration was ‘Faith in the Future of America.’ But in this service, we come together to acknowledge that in order for America to have a future, we’ll first need to find a deep and abiding faith in God. ... It is this faith that helps us discover the kinds of visions that are worthy of our great nation, worthy of the sacrifices we make. It is this faith that sustains us when we feel like giving up – a faith that comes from trusting in the words of Jesus, who said, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

At the end, he spoke directly to President Obama:

“There’s a lot of darkness in the world. Lead us to be a compassionate people, to be concerned for the marginalized. Help us rediscover a vision for America that is so compelling that it unites us and calls us to realize the full potential of this country to be a ‘shining city upon a hill.'"

At that last phrase I was a bit distracted and even disappointed that Adam would return to it. And I'll briefly tell you why.

It finds its initial origins in the Beatitudes, part of the Sermon on the Mount found in the fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew. But its more recent usage stems from a 1630 sermon preached by a Puritan, John Winthrop.

This vision offered by Winthrop was not just theocratic in nature but also carried with it the idea that God had specifically chosen what would become the United States to be a model for the world. I would argue that in some ways, it even entails a usurpation of the task given to Israel to be a "model to the nations."

Over the years, politicians of nearly every party have used this phrase as a way of suggesting that somehow God has uniquely chosen America to be holy, to be God's own country.

And whenever I've heard such theological claptrap, whether from Ronald Reagan or Al Gore, both of whom, with many others, were guilty of it, I've complained in public about it. (Reagan seemed to drag out the phrase for every other speech.)

Yes, one can imagine a benign and even inspiring use of the phrase to indicate a nation that would lead the world in defending human freedom and foundational human rights. And I have no doubt that's what Adam meant. But use of that particular phrase inevitably calls up something less innocent, less edifying. For those aware of the Puritan origin of the phrase and its misuse over the years by politicians arguing for an American exceptionism awarded by God, the phrase is inevitably off-putting.

And because Adam is a wise man with a generous heart, I am confident he will forgive me for pointing this out. But go back and read the sermon. It's one worth paying attention to, for sure. (Or, here's a link to a YouTube video of Adam delivering the sermon.)

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When people of faith give money to organizations doing work either in this country or overseas, they have an obligation to know at least in general how their money is spent. In Uganda, as this documentary makes clear, some money from Americans who would identify themselves as evangelical Christians is going to help spread hatred of gay and lesbian people. It's a shameful use of money and needs to stop.

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

Ripples from religious violence: 1-23-13

Because Americans move through time with such speed, we seem rarely to reflect on the wreckage in the wake of history's jack-booted thugs (as an NRA official once described ATF agents).

Punjab SinghOh, for major national and interntional events we'll sometimes take note of an anniversary -- the ending of World War I and II and 9/11, for instance. But for many reasons, some of them quite understandable, we often fail to think about people who have suffered in slightly less prominent events, even though when they happened they may have been front-page headlines.

For instance, let's return to last Aug. 5, when a gunman opened fire at a Sikh Temple in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. Remember?

Whether you do or not, Raghuvinder and Jaspreet Singh surely do. They have stayed by the bed of their almost-murdered father, Punjab Singh, (pictured here) almost constantly since that day -- stayed by him and sought to draw him back toward life.

It has been a terrifically difficult journey, as described in the Associated Press story to which I've linked you. As the story notes, the two Singh children have "repeated a single word — a word their dad probably spoke more than any other in his lifetime: 'Waheguru.' The Punjabi word is a term Sikhs use to refer to God."

So even though we no longer talk much about the Oak Creek shooting, the reality is that America's growing Sikh community bears an eternal wound because of it. And a famous Sikh priest still lies in a bed barely able to speak or move. Now think of victims of other religiously motivated violence, from antisemitic attacks to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As someone once noted in another context, the past sometimes isn't even past.

(USA Today says the photo here today is a family picture through the Associated Press.)

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Perhaps it's also fair to call sexual abuse of youth by Catholic priests violence. In any case, The Los Angeles Times this week published a revealing look at the ways in which Archbishop Roger Mahony and other leaders there failed the children being abused. It also published this letter of explanation and apology from Mahony. This is the kind of truth that must be opened before both the church and the public before anything like forgiveness and reconciliation -- not to mention a necessary change in approach -- can occur.

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

Blessing a same-sex couple: 1-22-13

Dean Wolfe, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, and Gail Greenwell, rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in suburban Mission, Kan., had just completed a rehearsal for the very first "Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant" ceremony to be done in the diocese.

At that moment, Kirk, one of the partners to be blessed, said, "The only thing that feels weird. . .", at which point his partner Doug interrupted to say, "The whole thing doesn't feel weird?"

Greenwell_Gail Dean WolfeAnd we all laughed. (The top photo here shows Kirk and Doug at the rehearsal facing, from left to right, Gail Greenwell, Dean Wolfe, Archdeacon Monte Giddings and the Rev. Lisa Senuta, all of whom participated in the service. The photo at left shows Gail Greenwell and the one at right shows Bishop Wolfe.)

Sometimes, indeed, it does feel a bit weird when you are blessed to be present for a moment when history turns on an axis, when something shifts in the universe, when what could not happen before now can happen, when we cross a line in the sand that no longer exists.

Doug and Kirk are part of a long-time church-based study group that includes my wife and me. When last year the Episcopal Church finally approved a liturgy of blessing for same-sex couples, they knew their long wait (they've been a couple for more than 22 years) finally was over.

So they arranged to be the first couple in their diocese to experience this new ritual. In the ceremony there is a role for people called "presenters." Doug and Kirk chose members of our study group to be presenters, along with their mothers and siblings.

We presenters had to say two words -- "we do" -- in response to these questions:

* Who presents Doug and Kirk, who seek the blessing of God and the Church on their love and life together?

* Do you promise to love, respect and pray for Doug and Kirk and to do all in your power to stand with them in the life they will share?

Saying "we do" was easy. Doug and Kirk are fabulous people. And they were willing to remain in the Episcopal Church struggling for justice and equality even when the church refused to bless their union. Yes, they had allies, especially people like Larry Bingham, another member (with his wife) of our study group who has pushed the church to come to this decision for years.

It was a joyful ceremony, full of applause and laughter and tears and all that such rituals should be. At the same time, I felt a sense of sadness that my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has not yet created a similar liturgy that would allow our clergy to lead such blessings on behalf of the church.

Oh, we Presbyterians now can ordain otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to ministry, but we cannot formally bless same-sex unions. It's my belief -- always subject to revision -- that my church thus still is on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the Bible. (For my essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

In her sermon, Gail Greenwell said what one day some Presbyterian pastors will need to say at similar ceremonies: "I apologize on the church's behalf that we have come so late to this party." And she properly called it "a day of dreams come true for those who love the church itself."

The ceremony was rich with beautiful liturgical language that placed what we were doing in the context of Christian faith. And it was full of gorgeous music, some especially written for this occasion.

In the end, it was exactly what the church should be doing to honor love, promote commitment and bless the lives of its members.  It's what our civil authorities should be doing, too, as President Obama said in this inaugural address yesterday: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

My prayer is that not too many years from now such ceremonies will be common across the Christian church (and, indeed, all communities of faith), as we recognize that for reasons none of us may understand very well, not all of God's children are heterosexual but they all are, nonetheless, God's children and, thus, worthy of equal dignity and respect. In the Christian tradition, we would say that they also are people for whom Christ died. You may call that weird if you like; I call it a blessing.

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Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, found a good way to end her inaugural prayer yesterday by praying "in Jesus' name and the name of all who are holy and right." It can be tricky to pray at a public event. When I'm asked to do it I usually end by praying "in all the names by which we know you" or, closer to Evers-Williams, by using this language, "I pray this in Jesus name but we pray this in all the names by which we know you." That lets me be true to my own tradition while respecting the tradition of others. Seems simple enough.

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P.S.: I hope you'll consider coming to a weekend seminar on the risks of forgiveness that I'll co-lead with Doug Hundley April 26-28 at Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania. For all the details, click here. And pass it along to folks you think might be interested.

Roe v. Wade's mixed results: 1-21-13

On this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (and inaugural hoopla day), I want to talk about liberation, but not of a racial sort. Rather, I want to talk about the Roe vs. Wade abortion rights decision of 40 years ago tomorrow that, in the end, liberated women to make their own legal decisions about whether to carry a pregnancy to term.

It was both a good U.S. Supreme Court decision and a bad one.

It was good in that it legalized what should not have been a crime in the first place. (I'm looking at you, Texas.) But it was bad in that it occurred before society could, on its own, come to any kind of consensus about the matter. The result is that the court decision has left the country almost permanently split with no hope that I can see of any reasonable compromise on any side.

And just for the record, let me repeat my own position, which is that abortion, in Bill Clinton's words, should be legal but rare. It should be legal because there are times when it's the least evil of a series of evil choices. It should be more rare than it is because everyone knows there are times when abortion is used as a matter of convenience and as a birth control tool. I think such uses of abortion are morally indefensible. How often is abortion used this way? I don't know. Once is once too many times.

The problem the Supreme Court faced, however, is that it agreed to decide whether abortion should be legal at a time when there had been no intentional and extended national conversation about the matter. Something a little like that is happening now with the court's agreement to decide the legal standing of same-sex marriage. (Though it's clear that society is moving rather quickly toward acceptance of such unions. And we can hope the court will understand that movement and the increasingly clear will of the people.)

In the best of all possible worlds, such devisive matters should be given time and space so that our society can move toward a consensus without having to have the courts intervene. But that is rarely an option. The U.S. came to a social consensus about slavery, for instance, only as the result of the Civil War.

So 40 years after the Roe vs. Wade decision, we continue to have harsh legislative battles over abortion. We continue to have wingnuts proposing and using violence to stop women from getting abortions. (Click here to read about plans to reopen the clinic in Wichita once operated by Dr. George Tiller, murdered by an anti-abortion extremist.) We continue to have politicians who on most other issues would describe themselves as proponents of small government but who on this issue want the government not only in people's bedrooms but also in women's vaginas.

And we continue to have too many abortions. Still, I don't want Roe vs. Wade reversed. But it would be nice to have some calm, well-informed discussion about how to make abortions both legal and rare.

(Oh, and the Religion Newswriters Association put together this collection of resources for journalists covering the 40th anniversary of Roe. Surf around there. You might learn something.)

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If you watch presidential inaugural events closely today, will they give you at least a broad picture of the religious landscape of the nation? You bet. But you have to pay attention to details.