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A Jewish-Christian gathering: 3-30/31-13

On this Easter weekend, I want to honor the Jewish roots of Christianity by telling you about a wonderful seder meal that took place this past Tuesday evening in the building that houses my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church.

Seder-3The leaders of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City asked if the synagogue could hold its annual Passover, or Pesach, meal in our building, and we were happy to oblige.

Indeed, the T.I. congregation invited members of our Session, or board of ruling elders, and eight or 10 of our folks showed up to share in the meal and liturgy (called the Haggadah), as did our pastor, Dr. Paul T. Rock.

The seder meal's symbolism and ritual recalls the story told in the book of Exodus about how God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. But it also focuses on the broader theme of freedom and takes note of the fact that there are many people on the planet even today who are not free.

The opening word, led by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn (seen standing in the top photo), put it this way:

"Tonight we celebrate their freedom (the ancient Israelites) and ours. But we also remember all those of our generation who are not yet free. May this seder kindle in us the zeal to work for the freedom of all. May this seder inspire us to light the torch of freedom for all the world."

No doubt some of us Christians in attendance thought then of the first verse of the fifth chapter of the Apostle Paul's letters to the Galatians: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

The yoke of slavery need not refer to being in the kind of slavery system that entrapped the Hebrew people in Egypt and black people in the United States. It also can refer to all the idols that worm their way into our lives -- from wealth to power to reputation.

And, in fact, the seder liturgy referred to that as well this way:

"Idolatry has taken a different form in every age. In our own time, we have witnessed the results of idolatry when people place complete, unquestioning faith in someone or something other than God."

So as those of us who are Christian celebrate Christ's resurrection this Easter weekend and the meaning of our declaration that Jesus is Lord, let us give thanks for our Jewish heritage and remember all the ways in which Christians and Jews stand on common ground.

(The photo on the right above shows some of the T.I. children singing part of the seder liturgy.)

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When Pope Francis I washed the feet of prisoners, including two women and two Muslims, the other day, much of the world expressed its admiration for his act of humility and love. But not all. As you can see at this traditionalist Catholic site, some people think the pope is breaking lots of good rules and running amok. As a non-Catholic, I'm with the pope on this one.

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ASF_logoP.S.: Again this year, through the AIDS Ministry of my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City, I'll be participating in the annual AIDSWalk KC. Please help me by making a pledge at this online site. Lots of folks are depending on your help for the AIDS Service Foundation of KC, which supports the work of several AIDS organizations in our region. In fact, after you pledge, make a note to come walk with us the morning of Saturday, April 27, starting at Theiss Memorial Park across from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Folks from my congregation this year will be joining up to walk with representatives of Hope Care Center, a 24-hour skilled nursing facility that my church helped start in 1996.

No chance for a Jewish pope? 3-29-13

I will seem to be writing about Jews today but, in fact, am mostly aiming my remarks at Christians because I think we Christians could learn something from our Jewish sisters and brothers.

StarofDavid-1From the beginning, Jews have been perfectly willing to argue with God, to call God to account, to question God, to challenge God.

Start, for instance, with Abraham seeking to prevent God from destroying Sodom in the 18th chapter of Genesis. Whoa, says Abraham. What if I find 50 righteous people in the city? Will you, the Lord, destroy the city and those 50 righteous with everyone else? Oh, OK, says God. I'll spare the whole town for the sake of the 50. Then Abraham bargains God down to 45, then 40, then 30, then 20 and finally 10.

That's guts, or chutzpah, as the Jews sometimes call it.

Or think of the story in Exodus 32, when Moses confronts God, who is angry that the people of Israel have turned to idols, specifically a golden calf.

What happens  is — get this — Moses ministers to God. Really. Moses ministers to God. Imagine that. This is, of course, preposterous. It’s outrageous. It’s ridiculous. It’s just plain nuts. And yet that is exactly what I think is really happening in this story. Moses ministers to God by confronting God's anger and challenging it.

In this spirit, what is Jesus, a Galillean Jew, reported to have said from the cross? "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Some interpreters want us to remember that Jesus was just quoting the beginning of Psalm 22 and to remember that it ends on an upbeat, hopeful note and that by quoting the start of the poem Jesus was invoking the whole thing. Yeah, well, maybe. But I prefer to think of the quote as a profoundly Jewish challenge to God. Somehow we Christians have mostly lost the ability or willingness to challenge God in this way.

I use these examples today to introduce you to this fascinating piece by the famous Israeli writer Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salsberger. It's about why the Jews could never stand to have a pope. Amos Oz argues that the Jewish tendency to challenge religious leaders would mean a Jewish pope would never have a moment's rest. It's a funny piece but also full of wisdom. Have a read.

And, of course, if you disagree with the piece, challenge the writers. They'll be expecting that.

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As the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week in two cases about marriage equality, retired Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in that denomination's history, got it right when he said this about gays and lesbians: ". . .we know how this is going to end, don’t we? This is going to end with our full acceptance and inclusion into the life and citizenship of this nation.” It's inevitable. The arc of history bends toward justice, no matter how long it takes to get there. And this is a matter of equal protection under the law, not a matter of requiring this or that religion to change its views on homosexuality.

Help with understanding Islam: 3-28-13

One reason I've written so much about Islam since 9/11 is that so many Americans are abysmally ignorant about that ancient religion.

Muslim-journeysThat ignorance at times has turned to bigotry and worse.

But I learned recently by reading this "Sightings" column from the Martin E. Marty Center that the National Endowment for the Humanities is doing its part to educate Americans about Islam using quality books, not hateful entries from the blogosphere.

NEH has put together a collection of 25 books, four DVDs and other resources that can help Americans understand Islam, its history and its values. And it is making that collection available to libraries around the nation. The collection is called the "Muslim Journeys Bookshelf" and is part of NEH's "Bridging Cultures" program. The first link in the previous sentence will give you the names of the books and DVDs in the collection.

A list of the libraries that have received books from the collection can be found here. The Kansas City Public Library is among the recipients in Missouri, while the libraries of Kansas State University and Emporia State University are among the four recipients in Kansas. Check the list to see if the books are available at a library near you.

Not long after 9/11 I began receiving hateful anti-Islamic e-mails, including a persistent and pernicious one that pretended to describe words found in verse 11 of chapter (or surah) 9 of the Qur'an. The verse, of course, was entirely made up, and each time I received it I sent it back to the person from whom I got it and asked that he or she send out a correction noting that what was sent previously was fraudulent.

Perhaps if people would take the time to read quality books about Islam found in this collection some of that bigotry would be short-circuited.

Among recommended books about Islam in my own collection not included in the Bookshelf list The Heart of Islam, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Understanding Islam: An Introduction, by C.T.R. Hewer, American Islam, by Paul M. Barrett, Allah: A Christian Response, by Miroslav Volf, and Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, by Asra Q. Nomani.

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I spent two years of my boyhood in India, and remember with fondness the colorful and fun Hindu Holi holiday celebration, when we threw colored water from the roof of our home onto people dancing in the street below. For a sense of this joyful celebration, here's a slideshow of Holi, which was celebrated this week. Who says religion can't be fun?

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ASF_logoP.S.: Again this year, through the AIDS Ministry of my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City, I'll be participating in the annual AIDSWalk KC. Please help me by making a pledge at this online site. Lots of folks are depending on your help for the AIDS Service Foundation of KC, which supports the work of several AIDS organizations in our region. In fact, after you pledge, make a note to come walk with us the morning of Saturday, April 27, starting at Theiss Memorial Park across from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Folks from my congregation this year will be joining up to walk with representatives of Hope Care Center, a 24-hour skilled nursing facility that my church helped start in 1996.

Confessing the right numbers: 3-27-13

If you surf around in what my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), calls The Book of Confessions, you'll find almost a dozen different statements of faith that various parts of the church universal have adopted over the centuries.

Boc_coverIt begins, in fact, with the Nicene Creed from the Fourth Century.

But there's a numerical oddity that eventually may strike you. One of the statements of faith is called the Second Helvetic Confession, but there's no First Helvetic Confession.

What happened to it? Or was it that the people who book together The Book of Order weren't very good at math?

Today is a good day to answer that pressing question because it was on this date in 1536 that Swiss Protestants signed the First Helvetic Confession. As you may be able to tell by the year, the Protestant Reformation, inadvertently started by Martin Luther, was by then in full swing.

Before long, however, people began to gripe that the confession was not only too short but also too Lutheran.

So in 1566 Swiss Protestants adopted a much longer -- 30 chapters -- statement of faith mostly written a few years earlier by theologian Heinrich Bullinger, a younger but close friend of the great Reformer Ulrich Zwingli.

And it was this Second Helvetic Confession that made it into The Book of Confessions when the book was first put together in the 1960s.

Which just proves that it pays to be curious when you see missing numbers.

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The Chinese government, it's reported, is working to eradicate all unofficial Protestant churches in the country. Government officials there must understand what even some adherents of religion don't -- the power of faith.

Seeing the small picture: 3-26-13

Christians are in the midst of Holy Week, even as Jews now are in the midst of Passover. It's a wonderful annual connection that should remind Christians of their Jewish roots and remind Jews that they remain a light to the nations.

Palm-SunThis past snowy Sunday, when many churches in Kansas City were closed because of the storm, my congregation managed to hold services, and it was one of the best worship experiences I've attended. There were only 50 or 60 of us present and the intimacy was quite touching (the photo here shows some of us).

Our pastor, Paul Rock, finishing a sermon series on Moses, reminded us that the Holy Land is not some distant goal we'll reach when we finish a particular job or take a dream trip or lose a certain amount of weight. Rather, the Holy Land can be found in present moments of our daily lives. Our task is to pay attention, to be mindful, as the Buddhists teach us, and recognize such holy moments and places each day.

Several years ago my wife and I began attending a 7 a.m. Stations of the Cross event at her former church, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church at 67th and Nall. Moving through a quiet sanctuary with a small group of people and reciting a liturgy appropriate for the day turned out to be a way of noticing the holy for me. I'm sure the folks at St. Michaels would be happy to have you join them this Friday.

Or, if you want, you may join us Friday at my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church at 55th and Brookside in Kansas City, for a self-guided Stations of the Cross from noon to 1 p.m. and from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the sanctuary. This, too, I've found to be a profound, worshipful and holy time in the past.

It seems that adherents of most faiths sometimes focus so much on what's ahead -- whether it's a big wedding or a longing for eternity -- that they miss the smaller, holy moments. In this bi-holy week, let's try not to do that.

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The new archbishop of Canterbury says his focus will be on "reconciliation." Which, of course, is a step or two beyond simple forgiveness, which is hard enough. Reconciliation requires rebuidling a broken relationship and not ignoring it. In this time of biting theological and ideological differences within the church universal, this is a big task.

When Nazis targeted gays: 3-25-13

In war in recent years the cruel term "collateral damage" has come to mean the deaths of people who were not the main target.

Nazi-homIf that ugly term had been in use in the Holocaust it would have referred not to European Jewry, whose 9 million members the Germans slated for murder but, rather, for the others who also died, including non-Jewish Poles, Roma (Gypsies), the physically and mentally disabled and homosexuals.

An exhibit currently on display in the second-floor Dean's Gallery of Miller Nichols Library on the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City focuses on one of those groups, homosexuals.

The free educational and moving exhibit is called "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals: 1933-1945," and is the work of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

But it will be on display only through April 10. So your time to see it is running out. And it's well worth a trip to the UMKC campus.

Gays and lesbians were among those whom Hitler's Nazi regime considered "enemies of the state." As exhibit material explains, "The Nazis did not seek to exterminate all German homosexuals but endeavored to change their 'erroneous' sexual behavior through forced 're-education' or, failing that, isolate their 'contagion' from society."

Of the roughly 100,000 people arrested for being homosexuals, about half served prison terms and thousands died in concentration camps.

Just as modern antisemitism has deep roots in the long history of anti-Judaism found in Christianity, so, too, is it inconceivable that Nazi disgust for homosexuals doesn't have roots in the long Christian tradition of misunderstanding what the Bible really says, if anything, about homosexuality. (For my essay on that subject, click here.)

The Nazi-style bigotry against homosexuals lives on today in such despicable places as Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and in the minds of some leaders of Uganda -- among many other places.

But it's worth spending time to see how this hatred played out in the 12 years when the existence of the Third Reich cursed the planet.

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A fake interview with the new pope? Oh, indeed. This blog describes the story. Why in the world do people bother faking such stuff? Now, I can see doing a fake interview as satire and telling readers that's what it is. But not trying to pull off this kind of fraud. Well, it won't be the worst thing this pope will encounter while in office.

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P.S.: I mentioned here over the weekend that the Jewish newspaper The Forward has named Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City as one of the country's most inspiring rabbis. Now another Kansas City area rabbi has been honored. Newsweek has named Shmuly Yanklowitz of Congregation Kehilath Israel of Overland Park, Kan., as one of the nation's top 50 rabbis. Mazal tov all around.

He's one inspiring rabbi: 3-23/24-13

Covering religion, I have met a lot of inspiring members of the clergy -- from priests to imams to pastors to rabbis.

CukierkornAt an event at Children's Mercy Hospital recently, for instance, I shook said hello to Rabbi Herbert Mandl. Then, shortly after that, I read this Kansas City Star story about how he's going to become the first rabbi "to be admitted to the Vatican Library to do research among its ancient manuscript," as the story reported.

Pretty cool.

But this weekend I want to offer a high-five to another Kansas City rabbi, my friend and co-author Jacques Cukierkorn, whom the Jewish newspaper The Forward has just named one of America's most inspiring rabbis.

There are many reasons people nominated Jacques for this honor -- including his work on the book he and I wrote together, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

But perhaps what the judges found most inspiring was his work to convert crypto (or hidden) Jews back to Judaism. Much of this work has taken place in Latin America, where Jacques has helped many people rediscover their Jewish background and commit themselves to being part of the global Jewish community.

He is doing this work now through an organization called Brit Braja.

Jacques is a dynamo. Full of energy and always seeking new ways to exercise his spiritual gifts. I'm glad to count him a friend. Indeed, an inspiring friend -- who now has the award to prove it.

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Score another one for Pope Francis I, who has announced that he wants to create better relations and deeper dialogue with Muslims. So far the new man is saying good things. Hope he keeps it up.

Read more here:

Church-sponsored bigotry: 3-22-13

Journalist Jeff Chu has written a courageous, insightful and profoundly sad book. Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, reveals once again the unloving nature that almost inevitably grows out of a literal reading of the Bible. (The book will be published this Tuesday.)

Jesus-lovesOne day years from now (don't ask me when, but it's coming) most Americans will look back on the widespread anti-gay prejudice emanating from certain branches of Christianity (and a few other faiths) today with the horror with which we now think about the ways in which some Christians used the Bible to justify slavery.

Chu is a gay man who grew up a Southern Baptist and continues to love the deep attachment to God that he learned and felt as a child. But he was mystified by the marrow-deep strain of anti-gay feelings expressed openly by many (not all) Christians who would identify themselves as conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist.

So he plunged into the heart and soul of the nation for a year to figure out why this continues to happen and to talk to some of the people who express this hatred and some of the people whose lives are made miserable by the hatred.

He even went to talk to Fred Phelps and members of his venomous Westboro B aptist Church in Topeka.

It will be clear to most readers of Chu's book that the people who condemn homosexuals to hell have locked themselves into a gross and destructive reading of the Bible. (For my own essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality, click here.) It's also clear that many people who spit out sexual hatred have little experience, if any, knowing gays and lesbians in any meaningful way.

The pain in the lives of gay people blecause of this hatred is often profound, and represents exactly the opposite of what Jesus told his disciples that they should bring to the world, love.

At one point in the book Chu is visiting a gay man in Maine. Together they attend the man's church and sing a hymn that contains these words: "No guilt in life, no fear in death/This is the power of Christ in me." Chu writes: "No guilt, no fear. What does that even feel like? I don't think I. . .could truly say we know. Any glimmer of guiltlessness, any sign of fearlessness, has been outside the walls of the church, not within it."

The church universal, in fact, comes in for lots of justified criticism from Chu. That's because when it comes to gay people the church often has been either silent or has adopted a stance of condemnation. He writes of the church:

"As a whole, it's an institution that has shown itself to be incapable of dealing with who we (gay people) are and where we are -- and a church that is ill-equipped for honesty is not a church worthy of the Jesus of the Bible. . . .If the church is supposed to be the body of Christ, then what I saw on my trip were our Lord's dismembered and terribly dishonored remains. Those who care at all about the concept of 'the church' should look at these ruins and weep."

One of the most difficult problems facing gay people within Christianity is that so many branches of the faith place such a distorted emphasis on hell. Listen to Chu on this:

Homosexuality"How many nights have I spent, sweaty and panicked and drained of tears, because I thought I would go to hell -- for being gay, for being me?"

Perhaps the most distressing part of the book is when Chu shares e-mail with another gay man who describes a session with a counselor who is trying to convince him that being gay goes against God's will and that he needs to choose to be straight.

It is clear abuse of a man in need of help to figure out how to live with a sexual orientation he cannot change. And it's again reflective of a literalistic and toxic misreading of holy writ.

As I said earlier, some day most of this rigid ideology rooted in bad theology and worse hermeneutics will disappear. But until it does, Chu's book is here to remind everyone of the extraordinarily high cost such a stance extracts not just from gay and lesbian people but also from those who hold to this prejudice. After all, as Jimmy Carter reminded us, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. freed not only many black people but also many whites. Living out hatred  can cost people nearly everthing.

And a church that encourages it should be ashamed of itself.

As a side note, one criticism I have of this book is its failure to include footnotes. The book contains some good quotes and interesting facts I'd love to trace back to their source, but without footnotes it's impossible, and that's frustrting.

(Just for the record: My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), now allows ordination to ministry of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians. But so far we have not allowed our pastors to conduct same-sex weddings or blessings of their unions. So my own church still is guilty of not fully welcoming gays and lesbians. And that, too, in time, will change.)

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Atheists and people of faith can be "precious allies," Pope Francis I says. Now there's another welcome change in tone from the previous pope. Style alone can't change substance, but it can help make discussions about substance mutually respectful.

A papal grab bag of goodies: 3-21-13

You may have heard that the executive search committee, otherwise known as the College of Cardinals, of the Catholic Church recently selected a new leader, who goes by the name of Pope Francis I. (He's pictured here.)

Pope-Francis-1It's been in the news. You could look it up.

As time has gone along, however, I've run across a series of intriguing pope-related items floating about the Internet that you may have missed.

So today is Pope Francis catch-up day, and we'll start with this interesting popes-through-the-years site that you can spend all day reading if you want.

Next, did you know there's already a published biography of the new pope? I've heard of speed reading, but this clearly is evidence of speed writing. You can read about the book in this press release.

The Daily Beast, aka Newsweek, has put together its choice of the best six pieces about the new pope. It's no surprise that one of the articles is by John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter. But here's an Allen piece not in that collection that should be.

Even fellow (to the pope) South American Leonardo Boff, a famous proponent of Liberation Theology, has written this hopeful piece about Francis I.

And my friends over at have done this work about the rise of the Global South and what it means for human development in the context of a new pope.

When you get done memorizing all of this material let me know and I'll give you some more. Oh, and don't miss this gallery of pope photos from Religion News Service.

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Can a Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage get the Republicans out of the corner into which they've painted themselves on this matter? This writer thinks so. For much more on how misguided church teaching has helped to create the current mess, come back here tomorrow.

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

What being in community means: 3-20-13

A congregation of any faith community is made up of and tied together by both faith and community, which may seem ridiculously obvious. But sometimes people miss the importance of each and how they're related.

2nd-sp13bThe faith part, of course, has to do with doctrine, with orthodoxy, or right belief, and what theologians call orthopraxy, or right actions based on those beliefs.

The community part? Well, it grows out of and is nurtured by the faith part. Which makes it a bit different from any traditional social group that also provides a sense of community to its members -- the local Harley club, say, or the Rotary.

Part of being in a faith community means being present to and reaching out to the community in which the congregation is located.

Which is one reason that members of my congregation (pictured here as we began to gather), Second Presbyterian Church, marched this past Saturday in our Brookside neighborhood's St. Patrick's Day parade (a day before the actual holiday and a day before a bigger parade downtown). I'm the one just to the left of the passenger door on that 1936 Chevrolet owned by a member of our congregation.

For us, being a faith community within a larger secular community means participating in that larger community in many ways. We march in parades. We invite our neighborhood to our block parties. We volunteer with agencies that serve our community. We bring in speakers from the community to help us understand local, national and international issues. We try to be good neighbors in countless ways, including providing meeting space for community groups. We invite our neighbors to join us for worship and to consider joining our community of faith.

And within our community we try hard to take care of our own, visiting them when their sick, helping them when they are grieving, teaching their children and loving each other the best ways we know how. We also fail at this every day but we recognize those failures and pledge to do our best not to repeat them.

And one of the other things we as a faith community do is simply to have a bit of fun within our larger community. We could have stayed home Saturday -- a bit of a raw, cloudy day in the 40s. Instead, some of us put on our green Second Church t-shirts and hit the streets -- the streets on which our neighbors live and work and shop.

Because that's what a faith community does in a larger secular community.

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President Obama's trip to Israel, which began today, has inevitable religious and political meaning, and the Jewish newspaper The Forward walks readers through some of that. It's a little disappointing to me that Obama wasn't there last year when I helped lead a Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel. He'd have been welcome to tag along. If you missed my coverage of that trip, go to the archives and start with April 15 or 16, 2012.

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P.S.: In this recent National Catholic Reporter column I wrote about Elijah P. Lovejoy, famous as a 19th Century defender of a free press but not so well known for his anti-Catholic views. In response, the author of this intriguing and award-winning paper about Lovejoy alerted me to it. So I alert you to it today. Give it a read. You'll be educated.

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