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The holy family's escape: 4-30-13

The New Testament's account of Mary and Joseph fleeing with the infant Jesus to Egypt to avoid Herod slaughtering the child is brief and without much in the way of detail.

Fleeing-HerodFor instance, Matthew 2:13-15 says this:

13  Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord *appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him."

14    So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.

15    He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called My Son."

Not much to go on.

But it turns out that around the year 400, the patriarch of Alexandria had a vision. It's called the Vision of Theophilus, and as James Cowan reports in his new book Fleeing Herod: A Journey Through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family, the Christian Coptic Church in Egypt reveres this document and places great stock in it.

Cown, author and novelist, draws heavily on that ancient document -- related to Theophilus by Mary -- along with more modern sources to try to travel the road from Bethlehem to Egypt that the holy family might have traveled nearly 2,000 years ago.

It's an intriguing journey that begins with a blessing from the Coptic pope (the one who died last year). And it's a journey in which the author struggles with how much of the story is myth, how much real history and how much a mix of the two.

I won't go into detail about the journey Cowan takes, but here is what he says of such a pilgrimage:

"All of the elements of this story are steeped in our struggle for freedom and t;he incomprehensible privilege of encountering the divine. It is we who make this journey each and every day of our lives, even if we pretend otherwise. It is we who travel into exile as soon as we begin to acknowledge the limitations of the material world, and of our capacity to transform it."

This book is an intriguing combination of history, geography, meditation and faith. It would be a wonderful choice for a church book club in the next Advent season.

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In thinking about how the Internet helps to enable violent extremism that grows out of a misguided version of Islam, let's also remember, the author of this piece tells us, that the web also can liberate Muslims from "the dark, stinking and suffocating dungeons of religious dogmatism and intolerance." Good advice.

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

On having lapses of disbelief: 4-29-13

An interesting -- if strange -- new study suggests that atheists may believe in their brains that there is no god but their hearts aren't nearly as certain.

NogodThe Finnish study concludes that some atheists may believe in God secretly -- and sometimes that secret is kept even from the atheists holding it.

All this for me raises the old question of the nature of belief and of what we really can know. I suspect that if you gathered up a group of people who say they have deep faith in God and somehow could find a way to test that, you'd find that there is uncertainty there just as the Finnish study found uncertainty among people who say there is no God.

But in a healthy faith community one is encouraged to express doubts and to ask hard questions so that, together, the community can wrestle with the questions. In toxic faith communities, by contrast, questioning and doubts are not welcome.

And where there is only one truth to be expressed in one particular way, there is trouble.

I'm intrigued by people who define themselves as atheists because I've often found among them a level of certainty that, were it found among people of faith, is unhealthy. But maybe, as the Finnish study suggests, there isn't as much certainty there as they lead others to believe.

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And speaking of new studies, one from Harvard suggests that people who believe in God have better outcomes when they receive treatment for psychiatric ailments. I think I may have to pray about what this means.

Spring's display of miracles: 4-27/28-13

A Jewish prayer book with which I'm familiar says this: "We walk sightless among miracles." I try not to do that, but often fail.

IMG_1658And Albert Einstein is credited with this quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

IMG_1662I'm not sure I'm consistent in seeing everything as a miracle. But especially in the spring I love to wander the area in which I live and look for what I think of as small miracles of nature.

So this weekend I'm going to share a few of them with you. You'll have to decide whether you're seeing photos of miracles or just the average work of nature.


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The ancient Coptic Christian church in Egypt has had a bad time of it for a long time, and was regularly either persecuted or barely tolerated in the late an unlamented Mubarak administration. But now the Coptic pope says things aren't any better under the current rulers who came from the Muslim Brotherhood. Why in the world would this small minority faith community pose any threat to Egypt or to Islam in Egypt that would require such treatment? Baffling.

Closer to same-sex marriage: 4-26-13

The move toward acceptance of same-sex unions -- whether called marriage or something else -- proceeded with such slowness for so long that it hardly could be called movement at all.

HomosexualityBut in recent years the pace has picked up dramatically. Public opinion has done a rather remarkable shift, and although the old religious voices that have misused scripture to condemn gays and lesbians have not been silenced they at least have been finding it harder to gain an audience.

(For my own essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.)

Another small advance toward right and rational thinking about same-sex marriage was reported a few days about by John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter. In this piece, he wrote of how another Vatican official has spoken favorably about the need to respectand recognize civil unions of same-sex couples. That, of course, is different from same-sex marriage, but at least it would give equal protection under the law to same-sex couples.

My argument is that all couples -- gay or straight -- who want to be married should go to an agent of the state for a civil ceremony. Then, if they want their union blessed by a faith community, they should go there next. Each faith community then could decide the issue for itself. That way you no longer would have clergy serving in the dual role of being agents of the state and representatives of religion.

My guess is that 20 or 40 years from now people will look back on the white-hot debate over homosexuality and be baffled about why it took so long to do the right thing -- just as we now are baffled when we look back at the debates over slavery and women's suffrage.

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Back to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings: The idea that American mosques are creating radicalized Muslims willing to attack other Americans is demonstrably false, the writers of this piece argue. And they make a good point. In fact, the evidence of centuries of Islamic presence in the U.S. suggests that Muslims here seek to be both good Muslims and good American citizens in at least the same percentage that Christians here seek to be good Christians and good American citiziens.

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Idolatry of god

The Idolatry of God: Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, by Peter Rollins. The author, founder of Ikon, a Christian faith group based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is convinced that Christian leaders have made God an idol they're trying to sell like a cure-all. Try a month's prescription of God and your troubles will be gone, is the message. That, says Rollins, is cheap theological bunk. In his words: "What we see taking place in the church today is the reduction of God to an Idol, that is, to a thing that will satisfy us and fill the gap we feel in our hearts." Our desire to attain ultimate satisfaction, he says, leads us to such idolatrous hucksterism with its false certitude. What we need, he says, is not an idol that "can fulfill our desire" but "that which evokes a transformation in the very way that we desire." In an addendum interview with Rollins at the back of the book, he says his purpose in The Idolatry of God is to find that "point from which we can overturn the mammoth structure that propgates a reactionary and idolatrous form of life in the false guise of Christian faith." There's plenty in this book to talk about and argue about. And doing so would be time well spent.

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P.S.: This is your last chance to donate to the annual AIDSWalk KC event, which happens tomorrow. It supports the AIDS Service Foundation of Kansas City, and I'll be walking with the folks from Hope Care Center, where I volunteer. To contribute, click here.

Differences a pope can make: 4-25-13

National Catholic Reporter editor Dennis Coday and NCR staff writer Josh McElwee have been giving some talks recently about their recent coverage from Rome of the election of a new pope.

BishopFinnThe other evening I was at Visitation Catholic Church to hear them describe their experiences at the Vatican.

In the Q&A time, I asked them to tell us what difference the election of Pope Francis I might make to Visitation Parish or to any parish in the Kansas City area. I also noted that Dennis had said he thinks the new pope wants to take some kind of decisive action to show he's serious about cleaning up the sexual abuse scandal in the church, so I asked whether it's conceivable that one way to do that might be to remove Bishop Robert W. Finn (pictured here) of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese. Finn, after all, has been convicted in court of failing to report suspected child abuse.

I thought they gave interesting answers and I want to share those with you here today.

Josh took the first question:

"I think what we've seen in the first couple of weeks is that style is important. From the first moments we've seen a very different style from this pope. He comes with remarks off the cuff. He speaks mostly in Italian. He hugs people. He kisses them on the cheek. . .If we believe that style matters, then at the parish level that style might translate. I think that's very easy to see. . .You can also imagine that at the priestly level. If priests are seeing the pope act a certan way, bishops know that if they want to get appointed they need to kind of emulate what is going on on high. . .You might see a different atmosphere, I think."

Then Dennis took a stab at the second question about Finn:

"From what he know about his (Francis') governing style, what we know from people who've told us about this, what we know from the book he wrote with his rabbi friend (On Heaven and Earth, co-authored with Rabbi Abraham Skorka), he is a listener. And he's also in favor of listening to national bishops conferences. I think he's going to take his cue from the national bishops conferences. The good thing that does is it puts the power of appointments of bishops closer to the source. . .The responsibility is back on the national bishops conferences."

Josh added:

"There are two official advisers to the pope on appointment of bishops. The prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and the apostolic nuncio in the country, or the Vatican ambassdor to the U.S.. . .But there also a lot of unofficial advisers -- people whom the pope might trust in a certain country, who he thinks knows the flavor of a country. . .What you can expect is that those advisers who had been advising Pope Benedict may not have the ear of the current pope. So you might see a shift in that, but it's so early it's very hard to tell."

In the end, Finn may well survive and be in Kansas City a long time. But if this pope wants to make a strong statement about how the church intends to proceed now to protect children from abuse, he could do so by removing Finn from office. We'll see.

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Once again Buddhist treasures are in jeopardy in Afghanistan, this report by a documentary filmmaker says. Ah, yes, but Buddhism is someone else's religion, so who cares? That's clearly the attitude of the Afghan leaders. How sad.

When theological words fail: 4-24-13

There can be -- and often is -- a profound difference between an intellectual understanding of theological doctrines and an ability to live faithfully, especially through trauma, loss and disaster.

Stations-heartFor instance, we can be perfectly capable of articulating one or more theories of atonement and yet when one of our children dies we may be at a complete loss for any logical explanation, at first being able to express only anger at God.

This is what Richard Lischer discovered when his son Adam, in his early 30s, called him one day to tell him his cancer had returned and that it would be fatal. In a matter of a few months, Adam was dead and Rick Lischer -- father, pastor, holder of a Ph.D. in theology and faculty member at the Duke Divinity School -- was flailing around trying to make theological or even just plain human sense of it all.

His new book, Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son, is his effort, eight years after Adam's death, to walk himself and others through that journey toward death and what it has come to mean to him.

I'm not going to tell you lots of details about how Rick and his wife Tracy and their daughter Sarah lost Adam to cancer. But I will say that Rick Lischer is a lovely writer who understands not just the power of words but also what words to leave out of a story so that what we have here, in the end, is a spare but rich account humming with insight and electric emotion tamed by the written word.

We come away from this book with a new appreciation for the way in which we grieve, for what death means and, even more, for what life means.

And we come away with an affirmation that, in the end, a life of faith is not about neat packages of doctrine that explain everything. Rather, it's about trusting that we're part of God's story even if we can't explain why some things happen the way they do.

Lischer, as he writes, becomes an interpreter of his son's death. But more than that, he becomes an interpreter of what parental love looks like and of the many ways in which, finally, theological words fail us and we must somehow retreat in silence into the loving arms of a God whose ways are not our ways.

Lischer says that after Adam's death, life "continues to be a standoff between two implacable realities: love, which makes a dead man achingly present in the midst of an ordinary day, and time, which renders the same man irrelevant. No wonder the psalmist complained, 'I have passed out of mind like one who is dead.'"

This is a profoundly honest book and unsentimental in the extraordinary way that Ben Jonson's poem about the death of his boy, "On My First Son," is both unsentimental and poignant beyond words.

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In the past few days here I've written about Islam and terrorism in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. In that spirit, I want to connect you to religion scholar Mark Silk's idea that Muslims would do well not to deny that this or that terrorist is a Muslim. He writes: "To own the worst as well as the best is to put your enemies in a position of having to recognize the best as well as the worst." I like that idea. Do you? Speaking of Islam, that theological wild man Pat Robertson now is comparing Muslims to Nazis. Robertson is like a train wreck. You don't want to look but it's hard not to.

Roots of religious violence: 4-23-13

There still is much we don't know about the Boston Marathon bombings and the perpetrators. But once again the story raises the question of the relationship between religion and violence.

TerrorismAnd before any of us offers simplistic answers, we would do well to face up to the fact that in many ways the history of religion is the history of violence. Yes, of course, it's also the history of transformation, of good will, of redemption, of compassion, mercy, justice, love.

But religion misused is often religion that promotes violence.

Misused in what way? In ways that make us falsely certain that we hold the truth with a capital T, that we know all the answers, often even before we hear the questions. When we imagine that we understand the mind of God on all matters, we are well on our way down the path that begins with arrogance and ignorance and leads eventually to hatred and violence.

One of the first signs that we've let our finite minds imagine that they are capable of grasping infinite truths in an exhaustive way is our choice of how we read scripture. If we are literalists who imagine that we can understand the richly layered meanings of holy writ in a complete way, we are on the wrong road.

And when we think we know exactly what God wants at all times and in all circumstances of our lives and in the affairs of the world, we're so far from the right path that it may not be possible to find our way back.

The late theologian Shirley C. Guthrie has said that each of us is called to be a theologian, whether we want to be or not, but each of us is called to be a "modest" theologian. It's the lack of modesty that leads one toward religious violence. It's false certitude. It's a lack of humility, one of the Benedictine virtues.

II Corinthians 4:7 talks about holding the truth of the gospel in "earthen vessels," or clay jars. It's a way of saying that even what we're convinced is truth must be held gently, recognizing that we may not possess it in full.

As I say, there's a lot we don't yet know about the Boston bombers. But it will not surprise me to discover evidence that in at least one of their heads there was false religious certitude, a profound plague on humankind.

Faith does not mean having all the answers. Rather, it means being able to live with the questions and trusting that, in the end, God knows and we don't need to.

(By the way, the Religion Newswriters Association has put together this collection of resources to help journalists writing about religious violence. Perhaps there are some things there that may interest you.)

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My wife and I were having dinner with friends Friday evening when one of them asked me why she almost never hears Muslims condemn terrorism. A bit surprised, I told her lots of Muslims condemn terrorism whenever an incident happens, though often the press doesn't give such condemnation much play. But here is an example of a story about Muslims condemning the Boston bombing. I hope our friend sees this. But the question of Muslim condemnation of violence is a complicated story. In some countries such condemnation can result in the condemner being a target of radicals. And sometimes Muslim leaders (there's no Muslim equivalent of a pope, say, so Muslim voices are more scattered) seem to Western ears to be speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

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P.S.: There will be an interfaith healting service to remember the victims of the Boston bombings at 6:30 tonight at Unity on the Plaza, coordinated by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

A New New Testament? 4-22-13

One of the mysteries (and clarities) of Christianity is the New Testament, those writings from the early Jesus Movement within Judaism that in the 4th Century were declared to be holy scripture and part of an unchangeable canon.

New-new-testamentThe New Testament consists of 27 books, including the four gospels. Many of the 21 epistles in the New Testament are attributed to the Apostle Paul, though today many scholars say that probably only seven were actually written by him.

But these 27 chapters were not the only early writings about Jesus and what eventually became Christianity around at the time. Some were lost, only to be rediscovered in recent times. Some were put on a shelf and forgotten about. Some were rejected as part of the official canon because they proposed or reflected theology that was inconsistent with what church leaders thought Jesus taught and were inconsistent with his life, death and resurrection.

But in recent years many of these writings have attracted the attention of scholars, including members of the controversial Jesus Seminar. And as interest in them has grown, so has the idea of collecting them in a book that includes the New Testament to see how, if at all, they match up and what new light they might shed on the origins of the faith.

That idea now has been realized in a book provocatively calledw A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts, edited by Hal Taussig, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York as well as at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

It is a useful book that will give readers a broader sense of the wildly dynamic religious atmosphere of the First Century, when instead of speaking just of Judaism it's more accurate to speak of Judaisms.

Jon Dominic Crossan seeks in his foreward to justify using the title A New New Testament instead of, say, Early Christian Writings. But the fact that he raises the question at all indicates he and Taussig expect some Christians (mostly those who would identify themselves as fundamentalist or conservative) to object to the idea that the New Testament needs changing or updating.

Well, no doubt there will be such objections to this book. But if it is understood that the book is merely offering some additional writings from the time that much of the New Testament was written, then no one should think that this book is the nose of the camel under the tent and, thus, a first step toward opening the canon.

The full New Testament is in this book, by the way. It uses the Open English Bible version, "with permitted revisions by Hal Taussig."

The origins of Christianity are fascinating. This volume should help all of us understand the variety of thought that was part of that formative process.

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I've long admired people who do prison ministry. So I was intrigued to read this New York Times Magazine piece Sunday about such ministry among imprisoned drug cartel members in Mexico. Although I have visited prisoners  and have even spoken to a group of prisoners by invitation, I'm not sure I'd have the long-term stamina to do prison ministry. You?

Fires from a Holocaust film: 4-20/21-13

Trying to understand Poland's relationship to the Holocaust can be extraordinarily difficult, frustrating and complex.

Polish-filmThe essential facts are well known: About 90 percent of the almost 3.5 million Jews living in Poland when Germany invaded in September 1939 were murdered as part of Hitler's "Final Solution," the object of which was to rid Europe of all Jews. Germany built six death camps in Poland to help accomplish this evil.

But after that pretty much everything is disputed or up for grabs.

Did non-Jewish Poles contribute to the effort to murder Jews? Some surely did. Did non-Jewish Poles try to protect and save Jews from death? Absolutely some did, and my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and I recount some of the stories of such rescue in our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

But did the Germans also murder millions of non-Jewish Poles, including many of the intelligentsia, some of whom were also prisoners at Auschwitz? Indeed, yes.

Was there a long history of anti-Judaism (a theological position) and antisemitism (more of a racial stance) in Poland? Yes, and some of that still can be found today, bu0t it's also true that for a time in the 16th Century Poland was known as a paradice for Jews, and Jewish life and culture thrived in Poland as nowhere else.

You see? Nothing is simple about this matter. In our book, we tell of Jews who survived the war in large part thanks to non-Jewish Poles only to have other non-Jewish Poles spit at them for having survived.

Today Poland is wrestling with its history, and a new film is causing intense discussion and division, as recounted in this fascinating story from Tablet magazine. (The image from the new film you see here today is borrowed from the Tablet website.)

I invite you to give the story a read this weekend and to thereby gain a renewed appreciation for how tangled and complicated Holocaust history is in Poland.

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Pope Francis I's co-author rabbi friend (I have someone like that in my life; see above) says he believes the pontiff will open up the Vatican archives to determine with more certainty what Pope Pius XII did or did not do in World War II to save Jews. It's an important question with (currently) many different and conflicting answers. I hope it happens, and soon.

Easy thoughts and prayers: 4-19-13

The reactions to the bombings in Boston have helped me to articulate something I hinted at here on the blog the other day -- the idea that somehow we've responded to disaster by telling victims that "my thoughts and prayers" are with you.

Martin-RichardWell, it's a decent and civil response, however shallow and inadequate it might be. It's certainly better than wishing more evil on the victims.

But the words seem too easy, too rote, too empty of examined meaning, even if the people who are the object of our thoughts and prayers appreciate them, as expressed in a statement from the father of Martin Richard (pictured here), the 8-year-old boy killed by one of the Boston blasts this week.

What does it really mean to offer someone our thoughts and prayers?

It certainly can mean that we actively empathize with people, share their pain, imagine what they're going through. And perhaps in that process we might be led to think of other ways we might be of help.

But do our kind and generous thoughts someone reach across time and space and make a difference in the lives of people hurt by catastrophe? That's hard to know. Science so far hasn't come up with much that's either definitive or convincing about thought travel. And what religion would say is that the thoughts are ways to change us and our behavior, not to alter the lives of the people about whom we're thinking.

Much the same can be said of prayer. Many religious leaders will tell us that although prayer is a means of communication with God, the end result often is to change the one who is praying. Most people of faith believe that prayer can be an effective way to opening up our hearts to God and to seek a particular outcome. But often we may find ourselves praying for something that, in the end, would not be good for us and, thus, something God would not want for us.

My point is that we should be wary of hearing ourselves offer simply an easy "My thoughts and prayers are with you" response. Like bringing a casserole to the home of a family grieving a death, it's a place to start. And in some cases it may be all we can do. But a year or two years or 10 after 8-year-old Martin Richard died in the Boston bombing, who will be somehow present with that family to be a continuing healing presence?

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Pope Francis I continues to hit lots of right notes. In a message to his fellow bishops from Argentina he says this: "A Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms." That's partly why the great pontiff John XXIII insisted on Vatican II, which, as they say, opened the windows of the church to let in fresh air. But it's not enough to let air in. The people must also go out and serve the wounded world.

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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.