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Getting into the pope bracket: 2-28-13

One of the problems with so much of religion is that it's humorless -- or at least many of its adherents are that way.

Which is one reason I love it when serious journalistic outfits like Religion News Service produce wonderful humor, such as the pope bracket seen here today, The Sweet Sistine.

RNS Editor-in-Chief Kevin Eckstrom and his staff do a great job covering many aspects of religion, but they also understand that sometimes it helps to laugh a little.

So print out your Sweet Sistine bracket and fill in the blanks. I won't give away my guess, but I will tell you that I have American Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley both falling in the first round, which is funny in itself, given that RNS has them going against one another. (Another hint: Don't rule out Erdo and Scola -- or Turkson, for that matter.)

Also: Don't worry if, in the end, you prove to be not infallible. That's the human condition.

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In yesterday's blog entry, I gave you a link to a New York Times column by Frank Bruni suggesting that a major problem for the Catholic Church is its requirement that its priests be celibate. Today I want to give you this thoughtful challenge to Bruni by a Jesuit, Francis X. Clooney, who makes a point or two I tried to point to at least indirectly yesterday. So are you with Bruni or Clooney? Or, like me, both?

Faith in a shifting world: 2-27-13

12-11-2006 07;14;49PM
As I was working with my pastor, Paul Rock, to prepare for this week-long Ghost Ranch class we're to co-teach in early April on congregational transformation, I ran across personal photographic evidence of what has happened not just to the Presbyterian Church (USA) but also to our culture in the last 50 or 60 years.

So first look at the top photo of my family when I was maybe six or seven years old. You see six Presbyterians there. Well, my father grew up a Methodist but became a Presbyterian when he married my mother in 1937.

And we're not just all Presbyterians, we're also entirely Euro-American. My father was full German and my mother full Swedish. (The group also includes Sitka, our Siberian husky, and Golddust, a cat filling my lap. That's as much diversity as we had.)

OK. Now slide down to the photo at the bottom here, taken last summer at a family reunion that included me and my three sisters and nearly all of our children and grandchildren.

The only Euro-American grandchildren pictured here are mine. Nearly all of my sisters' grandchildren (as well as my youngest sister's two children) are of mixed racial or ethnic heritage -- Japanese-American, Korean-American, Chinese-American, Filipino-American and African-American. To me, this beautiful photo looks like a family picnic attended by members of the U.N. Security Council.

And how many Presbyterians are in the bottom photo? Well, I suppose it depends on how you count. Only my youngest sister and I from the original four siblings in the top photo still are active Presbyterians. One of my older sister's children has been active in a Presbyterian Church. Add in my wife as another Presbyterian, though given her attachment to the Episcopal Church she sometimes calls herself an Episcoterian. But mostly the people in this photo are either among the "nones," meaning religiously unaffiliated, or they're still officially members of a faith community but inactive or they are attached to a different faith community, such as the Unitarian-Universalist Church.

Faced with this religious and ethnic reality -- well-reflected in my own family -- how do Mainline churches transform themselves now so they are doing useful and necessary ministry in a wounded world?

That's what Paul Rock and I will be talking about at Ghost Ranch. You certainly don't need to be Presbyterian to join us. But whatever your religious affiliation, if any, I hope you will sign up and spend a week in the beautiful red rock hills of northern New Mexico with us.


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New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argues in this piece that the Catholic Church's insistence that its priests be celebate is foolish and reckless. Do you agree? Or do you see celibacy as a spiritual discipline that commits priests to be married, in effect, to the church? My view is that for some people celibacy is exactly the latter, but because, as Bruni argues, it demands too much, I would make it voluntary if I were in charge of the church (which, of course, I'm not). And neither are you. (And, yes, I see the evidence in the lower picture here today that no adult in my family chose celibacy.)

The spirit of 'Groundhog Day': 2-26-13

On Groundhog Day earlier this month, the 1993 film "Groundhog Day" again got lots of play not just from broadcast outfits but also through private viewings.

Groundhog-dayWe didn't watch our copy of it this year in my house but we've done that in some years past.

One reason is that the film was shot in my hometown of Woodstock, Ill., which dressed up like Punxsutawney, Pa. So us former or present Woodstockians (or whatever you call us) have a special connection to the movie, which stars comic genius Bill Murray and actress Andie MacDowell.

I happened to be visiting Woodstock to see my mother when the film was being shot, and it was fun to see my little town pretending to be Punxsutawney.

When the movie was released, I was surprised at how good it was, how engaging. And my guess was that it would stand the test of time. Which it has.

So much so, in fact, that the March edition of The Atlantic has this intriguing piece in which James Parker argues, as the subheadline says, that the film should be recognized "as a profound work of contemporary metaphysics."

The film is, he argues, for the "seeker, spiritually curious, mystically a-tremble."

I suspect the author would not put the film in the top 10 of history's greatest religious movies, but something about it does, indeed, speak to our spirits, our sense of self -- often a sense of wounded self.

Sometimes the religious or spiritual themes in art aren't glaringly obvious. "Groundhog Day" is a good example. And sometimes when the themes are more subtle, the messages they carry are deeper and more prophetic. I see that in this film. And, just for the record, Woodstock was the perfect place to make a movie like this. It, too, has its religious themes, but they are less obvious than in, say, Mecca or Jerusalem.

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It turns out that religious zealots around the world are threatening people who are competing in versions of "American idol." The mistake these zealots are making is that they take these shows seriously. Hmmm. They must be crypto-Americans.

A Christian-Jewish Opportunity: 2-25-13

If you've read my essay here on the blog about anti-Judaism in Christian history, you know about the long, shameful way Christianity has treated Jews.

WelbyAnd if you've followed my writing over the years you know I've been a consistent adovcate for better interfaith relations, not only between Christians and Jews but among adherents of all faiths.

So it won't surprise you that I tend to stay alert to stories that touch on these subjects.

One such recent story has to do with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, (pictured here) who has become the leader of the Worldwide Anglican Communion -- well, as much as anyone can lead such a widely spread and diverse group.

Welby, it turns out, has some Jewish ancestry, as this report notes. The story says that "Welby's father came from a German Jewish immigrant family named Weiler."

The Jewish tradition is that Jewishness is passed to children through their mother, not their father, so for Welby to be considered Jewish his mother -- not his paternal grandfather -- would have to be Jewish.

But that's not what's important here, at least to me.

Rather, Welby's connection to Judaism should be looked upon as an opportunity for deeper dialogue and better relations initially between Anglicans and Jews but, more broadly, between Christians and Jews.

An excellent chance for good interfaith dialogue and understanding has sort of inadvertently fallen into the hands of the Church of England. And I hope good use is made of the opportunity.

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Is journalist Robert Fisk right when he writes that the war on terrorism is "the new religion of the West"? Sometimes I wonder. Has the U.S., unjustly attacked on 9/11 and before, fallen into al-Qaida's trap? See what you think.

The next pope's to-do list: 2-23/24-12

On Facebook, in columns and on blogs in recent weeks I've seen various folks list what they would do if they were chosen the next pope.

Pope-symbolIn some ways it's a useful exercise and in some ways it's simply silly, given that none of the people whose words I've read has any chance at all at being chosen to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, the first pope in about 600 years to resign.

One list of good goals and actions he would adopt as pope came in an e-mail from a Catholic priest who is, frankly, pretty fed up with the Catholic Church. He's Emmett Coyne, author of A Theology of Fear, which I wrote about last September here. Coyne passed along an excerpt from a book called No Ordinary Time: The Rise of Spiritual Intelligence and Evolutionary Creativity, by Jan Phillips. In that book, Phillips writes (among other things) this:

"If I were pope I'd proclaim the end of my infallibility and banish the word sin from the doctrines of faith. I'd ask half the bishops and cardinals to replace themselves with a thoughtful woman and complete their ministries in a prison or homeless shelter."

Well, the spirit behind such words is admirable, of course, but whoever becomes pope next will face the immediate prospect of having to oversee a large hierarchical structure that may well have outlived much of its usefulness. To undo that will take a great deal of time and effort -- if the next pope even wants to try. So to do things like "banish the word sin from doctrines of faith" (a bad idea, incidently) and replacing a bunch of bishops and cardinals "with a thoughtful woman" is dreamy stuff, but not at all what anyone can expect to happen.

And yet all this If-I-were-pope stuff does raise the interesting question of what Catholics and non-Catholics alike might want to put into a Vatican suggestion box for the next pope to think about.

Though not an exhaustive list, here's what I might toss into such a box:

* Invite people of all faiths -- and none -- to my first official event as pope.

* Change the rules on vestments so no ordained person wears anything fancier than a black robe, with tee shirts and jeans optional at all times.

* Apologize for the church being wrong about its historical treatment of Jews and women and especially children abused by priests. The apology would include a roadmap toward ordaining women as priests.

* Flatten the church hierarchy in all kinds of ways.

* Remove any bishop with any taint of the sexual abuse scandal, starting with Cardinal Bernard Law and including Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City.

* Provide a fully transparent accounting of Vatican assets and appoint a worldwide board to make sure the assets stay transparent.

* Gather together the church's best minds to think anew about what the church universal would look like and act like if the church really took Jesus seriously.

There would be much more on my list, but as a non-Catholic I understand that my suggestions would carry zero weight. So my final suggestion would be this:

* Give serious weight to suggestions from non-Catholics.

(By the way, who is competent to be pope? Our friends over at "Sightings" from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago have these thoughts on that subject.)

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Fr. James Martin, a pretty funny Catholic priest, writes that he should be the next pope, and he gives his reasons right here. A sense of humor in the Vatican? I like the concept.

Ministering to children: 2-22-13

CC-headerI am often intrigued by the ways in which secular work relates to religious work.

Cc-book-coverA good recent example is the global policy analyses done by the UCLA World Policy Analysis Center. It's work that helps people, governments and agencies around the world have a better understanding of how to protect and minister to the needs of children.

And every major religion tells its adherents to love and protect children -- even if the execution of that mandate often falls short.

As the press release about this work says, a new report "presents never-before-available comparative data on nearly every country in the world, revealing how millions of children across the globe face conditions that limit their opportunities to thrive and reach their full potential."

The thrust of this work is to point out various public policies that, because they're family friendly, wind up helping children achieve their potential. Thus, there is focus on child labor laws, maternity and paternity leave, education and more, as you can read.

And there's a related website, Children's Chances, that puts this information into understandable forms.

As I say, every major religion teaches its adherents to love and care for children. In the Christian tradition, perhaps the quote most often used to illustrate that point comes from these words of Jesus found in the 18th chapter of Matthew:

"Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

Even if faith communities don't always take such admonitions to heart, it's nice to see a secular agency do so.

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In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, Mormons are wondering whether a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also might be able to resign, even though the rules say presidents serve for life. A life term makes some sense in terms of the person serving not being subject to undue outside pressure, but a life term should be voluntary, as it is on the U.S. Supreme Court, not mandatory, which can lead to ridiculous situations.

How churches fail the divorced: 2-21-13

The record of the universal Christian church in handling divorce is, at best, terrible. Until fairly recent times the church looked upon divorce simply as evidence of personal moral failure on the part of the partners and essentially wanted nothing to do with either of them.

DivorceCatholic and Protestant churches have different rules about divorce, but only rarely in either case has the church dealt pastorally with divorcing couples.

My own 1995 divorce was complicated by the fact that the primary reason for the divorce was that my wife at the time had an affair with our pastor. Individuals in the church -- and especially one of our associate pastors -- were a great help and support to me at the time. But even so the church had no liturgy of healing to bless me and send me on my way into my new life.

I raise all this today because of this excellent column written recently by a Lutheran clergy friend, Russell E. Saltzman. Russ also has experienced divorce and, as a pastor, has had to help others through the process.

So he knows what he's talking about when he writes that "what churches are offering to the divorced is indifference. The failure is pastoral, dismissing the attendant sense of deep regret and grief of failure without offering any remedy through the gospel. Divorce among Christians isn’t so much tolerated today as it is merely ignored."

I suppose none of that should surprise us. The church's record of dealing with any matter in which sexual relations play a part is, overall, miserable. A don't-ask, don't-tell approach is common and leads simply to more pain and not to healing.

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Pope Benedict XVI may change some Vatican rules to allow the conclave that will choose his successor to gather earlier. The change many of us would like to see would be to have the whole selection process be in the open. But that's not going to happen at least this time.

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

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ANOTHER P.S.: Care of Poor People (COPP), Inc., could use your help to prepare for its March 30 event in Kansas City that will provide clothing and other help to people in need. For details, click here.

Reimagining a seminary: 2-20-13

As many of you know, St. Paul School of Theology later this year will move from its Truman Road campus in Kansas City, Mo., to facilities at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in suburban Leawood, Kan.

Adam-HamiltonThis decision has not come without controversy. I wrote a bit about that in this recent column for The Presbyterian Outlook. Beyond that, this "Save St. Paul School of Theology" Facebook page has generated some useful discussion and raised many good questions.

In the midst of all this, the founding pastor of COR, Adam Hamilton (pictured here), invited St. Paul graduates and others with questions about the move to come to COR last week and get a tour of where SPST will be located. The invitation was offered in the spirit of a gracious host and it was my impression from being there myself that the 20 or so people who came left with a better feeling about the move and the possibilities it raises for a different kind of experience for St. Paul's students.

As Hamilton explained at the start of the two-hour session, he hoped those present would offer ideas for "how the Church of the Resurrection can be a good host for the seminary."

The plan is for SPST to take over completely what is now the east education wing on COR's large campus. COR will replace that wing with a similar building and also build a permanent sanctuary. All that construction will take two or three years, so there will be some sharing of classroom space for a time and the SPST faculty and staff will be temporarily located in another nearby facility when classes begin for the fall semester this year.

"We really want this to succeed," Hamilton told the gathering, which included the seminary's dean, Harold Washington, as well as other SPST staff. "We want to be great hosts."

COR has nearly 20,000 members, and there has been some fear among SPST folks that the seminary would be just another small program of the church, with the church's needs being the main focus. Hamilton, who serves on the SPST board and is its former chairman, did his best to assure SPST graduates that the seminary would remain autonomous and that the seminary would decide whether and how to interact with COR, not the other way around.

Beyond that, Hamilton said, he knows that most of the churches SPST graduates will serve will not be mega-churches like COR, "but we do think we do some things pretty well that translate into other settings. We also have multiple models for ministry here (including Resurrection Blue Springs and Resurrection Downtown). . .We say we're one congregation in multiple locations, and each one has its own feel."

It's clear that some people still aren't happy with SPST's decision to move and will continue to have questions about how it will work. My impression from both Hamilton and the SPST leadership, however, is that they are anxious to hear constructive ideas about how to make this new arrangement work well.

What continues to remain unanswered, however, is what will happen to the current SPST campus east of downtown. SPST has a group working on that issue, but toward the end of the session at COR I asked Hamilton whether COR has offered to make available to SPST any COR members with experience that might help solve that problem. Hamilton said SPST hasn't asked for that directly but COR would be willing to find among its members people willing and able to help.

This SPST-COR relationship will be well worth watching for what it says about the future of seminary training. My guess is that though some things will be lost in the move, other things will be gained and that, in the end, students will have a broader and more useful seminary experience because of the move. But that's just my guess. Whether that happens depends on the wisdom of people in charge of the move and the new relationship.

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New York Times columnist Frank Bruni pretty accurately captures the reality of the estrangement that exists between American Catholics and the Vatican -- an important point to remember as the church gets ready to select a new pope, who will mostly be ignored by American Catholics. The flip side of that is that American Catholics now make up no more than 6 percent of Catholics worldwide, so the church often feels free to ignore them in turn.

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

Crosses, crosses everywhere: 2-19-13

DILLON, Colo. -- In Christianity, the cross holds central prominence.

Cross-lutheranBut to use the term "the cross," is misleading in the sense that it sounds as if there is only one. Well, there was only one cross on which Jesus was crucified. And enough pieces of the True Cross have been found, as Mark Twain once noted, to build several good-size buildings.

But since then the cross has emerged in countless T-shapes and sizes.

I was struck by this reality the other evening when I attended an Ash Wednesday service here at Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in the Rockies.

This church's main cross at the front of its sanctuary, as you can see, was formed out of pieces of stained glass and then given a stylized cross-bar in harmony, it seemed to me, with Celtic crosses, though Celtic crosses used a circle to connect the two bars. (Like the cross on the right side of the main photo here today.)

What it's important to remember is that the cross was an instrument of death. And as others have wondered, if Jesus had been electrocuted in the more-modern fashion of today, would we Christians be wearing little electric chairs on chains around our necks?


But if you go into a variety of Christian churches today (not a bad Lenton discipline) you'll inevitably see a variety of crosses. In the sanctuary of my own Presbyterian congregation you'll see a simple (meaning completely plain) gold-colored cross. This past Sunday I attended Mass and spoke to a group at St. James Catholic Church of Kansas City. In that sanctuary you'll see a large crucifix at the front of the sanctuary -- quite tall and quite realistic.

I'll show you here a few pictures of crosses from other Kansas City area churches, just to give you a sense of the variety. But the central message is the same: God loved us enough to die for us. Sometimes Christians get it wrong and say that God loves us because Christ died for us. But that's backwards. It's that Christ died for us because God loves us.


Stour3-6 Stour3-13

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How many Jews are there in the U.S.? Oh, my, what a difficult question to answer, The Forward reports. Indeed, counting Muslims in the U.S. is perhaps even more difficult. Heck, counting people of any faith is fraught with difficulty. And yet we continue to want to know numbers.

The religions of our presidents: 2-18-13

Here's a Presidents Day matter to ponder: Twenty-three of our first 44 American presidents were either Episcopalians or Presbyterians. (In another way of counting, the figure is 20, not 23. Close enough, I guess, for government work.)

Pres-sealBut given the nation's shifting religious landscape, my guess is that of the next 44, maybe only half a dozen will come from one of those two denominations.

Already we're seeing Muslims, Buddhists and at least one Hindu among members of Congress, to say nothing of some folks who are openly unaffiliated. So it's reasonable to expect that the previous landslide for Christianity will taper off a bit.

Does religious affiliation of presidents matter?

Well, yes and no.

There is, as you know, no religious test for public office. So constitutionally it doesn't matter what religion, if any, presidents are.

Religious affiliation is worth paying attention to only in the way that it may affect public policy and an individual president's public behavior.

Some folks want the president to be our national pastor-in-chief. That's a really dumb idea, though for sure in times of crisis our presidents sometimes move into the role of pastoral counselor to the nation.

But as we become a more relgiously pluralistic society, let's do what we can to make this a religiously welcoming nation whose president can be an adherent of any religion or none. (When I say any religion, I exclude such groups as violent Satan worshipers or other groups a big majority of Americans would consider extremist. But chances of one of them being elected is nil anyway.)

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My friend Regina Brett of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has written this lovely column about what the pope's resignation decision might teach us about the call of the Lenten season to take quiet time to listen to God. So I offer it to you as a quiet Lenten gift.