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Discerning new books: 7-19-13

Fans of the late Henri Nouwen (and they are legion) will be delighted to know that his editors and friends have compiled another posthumous volume of his mostly unpublished writing.

DiscernmentThis latest one is called, simply, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, and instead of critiquing it I want simply to give you a few examples of the kind of insights you'll find in the thinking of this prolific Catholic priest who became the senior pastor of L'Arche Daybreak in Toronto.

* "The way of discernment begins with prayer. Praying means breaking through the veil of existence and allowing youself to be led by the vision that has become real to you, whatever you call that vision. . ."

* "Discernment is a spiritual understanding and an experiential knowledge of how God is active in daily life that is acquired through disciplined spiritual practice."

* "Discernment is expressed concisely by the apostle Paul in the Letter to the Colossians: 'We ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord' (Col.1:9-10 NRSV). By 'spiritual understanding,' Saint Paul means discerning, intuitive and perceptive knowledge, usually found in solitude, the fruit of which is a profound insight into the interconnectedness of all things, through which we can situate ourselves in time and space to know God's will and do God's work in the world."

* "The purpose of discernment is to know God's will, that is, to find, accept and affirm the unique way in which God's love is manifest in our life."

* "While discernment begins in solitude, individual seekers of God always come together in community, for the Spirit gathers all believers into one body for accountability and mutual support."

* "How do we know when to act, when to wait? How will we know when it is our time to lead rather than our time to follow? Discernment calls us to spiritual understanding but also to action."

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Now I want to add to your possible summer reading list several other books that I won't be reviewing in detail but will link you to sites at which you can read in some depth about them to see whether they might interest you.

* Shaking Hands with the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology, by William J. Abraham. The author is a professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. I will be returning to this intriguing book in a later post to begin to explore the connection between terrorism and religion.

* Dynamics of Catholic Education: Letting the Catholic School Be School, by Louis DeThomasis. The author is the former president of St. Mary's University of Minnesota.

* There Is No God And He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Places, by Brad Warner. The author is a Soto Zen monk.

* Hidden in Christ: Living as God's Beloved, by James Bryan Smith. The author teaches theology at Friends University in Wichita.

*Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, by Stephen C. Meyer. The author works at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a prime advocate for the concept of intelligent design.

* The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, by John Shelby Spong. This is the latest in Bishop Spong's remarkably long list of challenging books.

* Yoga Wisdom at Work: Finding Sanity Off the Mat and On the Job, by Maren Showkeir and Jamie Showkeir.

* Walking the Disciple's Path: Eight Steps That Will Change Your Life and the World, by Linda Perrone Rooney. The author is a hospital chaplain and spiritual director.

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A new poll shows Americans are about equally divided on the question of whether capitalism and the free market economy are consistent with or at odds with Christianity. I'm surprised. I would have guessed capitalism had a lot more backing than that. Surprised but pleased. In May I wrote this National Catholic Reporter column about capitalism and Christianity.

A city full of sacred music: 7-18-13

One reason I love living in a major metropolitan area is the breadth and variety of live music and stage offerings available, including free concerts of sacred, classical and other kinds of quality music.

Sacred musicThis past Sunday for instance, my wife and I and one of our children attended an organ recital at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral downtown given by Tate Addis, the soon-to-depart organist at our church, Second Presbyterian.

Tate did five numbers on the wonderful organ in that great old Episcopal sanctuary before a choral evensong service.

Tate, who recently received his master's degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, leaves soon for doctoral studies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

We're going to miss him like crazy, but wish him well and were thrilled that he offered a farewell recital.

But these kinds of offerings go on regularly in venues all over the city, from free recitals by UMKC students and faculty to subscription concerts of various kinds in such places as Visitation Catholic Church.

All you have to do is follow announcements in such places as The Kansas City Star, say, this events calendar of the UMKC Conservatory or this calendar on the website of Grace & Holy.

Of course, another option is to sit in front of TV sit-coms or reality shows and turn your brain to oatmeal. Just sayin'. . .

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A disturbing new survey shows that about one-third of Americans think the First Amendment goes too far in its guarantees of freedom of religion, speech, press, petition and assembly. Oh, my. There's lots of civic education work to be done.

Zimmerman-Martin lessons: 7-17-13

Some years ago I served as the foreman of a jury in a murder trial. I was shocked, too. Journalists, after all, seem routinely to get tossed out of jury pools.

GoodSamaritan-fullIn this case I knew the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney, though none of them well. And still they kept me on the jury.

What I learned from the experience is that no one can judge the guilt or innocense of someone who does not sit through every minute of the trial itself in the courtroom -- not by just watching it on TV. And even then there can be difficulty in rendering a judgment.

I kept trying to remind myself of all this as the Florida trial of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin continued until this past weekend, when a jury of six women found Zimmerman not guilty.

One reason it was relatively easy for me to remember the lesson of my jury service is that I watched almost none of the daily coverage of the Zimmerman trial. I decided early on that though the case was interesting in what it might reveal to us about racism, our penchant for arms and the nature of our criminal justice system, this was a trial that had very little to do with me personally.

In some ways it would have been like paying hourly attention to the pregnancy of Princess Kate or the incessant news about such alleged celebrities as the Kardashians. If I watched an hour-long show about the Kardashians I'd simply be an hour closer to my death.

As it turned out the scripture reading for the sermon I heard in church the day after the Zimmerman verdict was the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10. The woman who preached that day naturally -- but effecitvely -- raised the question not just of who was a neighbor to the man im the story robbed and beaten by the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho but which of us was willing to be a good neighbor to others.

And what her sermon told me -- without her even mentioning the Zimmerman case -- was that we are called to be good neighbors where we can make a difference. Expending all our energy on a trial in Florida that we cannot affect one way or the other is not being good stewards of our precious time.

There are African-American teen-agers in our own community who need our help. There are people in love with guns in our own neighborhoods who need to be challenged about whether and when such weapons should be used. Nothing I can do can bring life back to Trayvon Martin or undo the actions -- justified or not -- that George Zimmerman did.

But I can join my congregation in its support of the work of Community Linc, which seeks to move people from homelessness to stability, and The Children's Place, which works with abused and neglected youngsters. I can -- and do -- volunteer at Hope Care Center, a 24-hour skilled nursing facility my church helped to start to treat people with HIV/AIDS. And I can serve on a jury, if called, without trying in phony ways to get out of it.

I cannot snap my fingers and bring world peace. But, as they hymn says, I can let peace begin with me. I can be the peace today.And so can you -- even if we can do nothing about Zimmerman or Martin.

And we also can work hard to remind the world that people of faith are called on to welcome -- not suspect -- the stranger and not arm ourselves to confront strangers. I'm not suggesting there's never a need for self-defense. But if our attitude is that strangers always and inevitably mean danger, it's much more likely that we'll react to them badly and even violently than if we remember that strangers also are children of God.

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Will the Catholic Church eventually drop the requirement for miracles for someone to be named a saint? It now looks possible. Are such changes in such a slow-moving institution miracles? Hmmm.

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P.S.: This past May I spoke to a Kansas City regional leadership conference of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The next such conference will be Sept. 21, and Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, will be speaking on rethinking ministry for a changing church. To attend, all the information you need is in this pdf flier: Download GKCLeadershipSeminarFlyerSept2013Half.

Marking the 'Great Schism': 7-16-13

As we approach the 500th anniversary (Oct. 31, 1517) of the start of the Protestant Reformation, let's remember that 500 years before that there was another major break in Christianity.

SchismOn this date in 1054, the so-called "Great Schism" separated Roman Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy. In was on July 16, 1054, that the leaders of what were known then as the Roman and Greek Catholic churches excommunicated each other.

This bitter schism -- a terrible model for the rest of the religious world -- lasted officially until Dec. 7, 1965, when Pope Paul VI and Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Athenagorus I met to declare an end and express the hope for eventual reunification. Since then some steps toward that have been taken but the Roman and Eastern churches still are separate.

But at least those two churches haven't atomized in the way that the Protestant world has, with hundreds of different churches, some friendly with one another, some quite hostile.

For me, July 16 is a happier historical date in that my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church, was founded on this date in 1865, meaning we're just two years away from celebrating our 150th anniversary.

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Good for Fuller Theological Seminary in California for sanctioning an LGBT student group as part of the family of that evangelical institution. Fuller is an intriguing multi-denominational place that over the years has surprised people now and then with its broader views of things while keeping its reputation for evangelicalism.

Changing roles for clergy spouses: 7-15-13

Over the years the role of the Christian clergy spouse has evolved. Decades ago the spouse was almost certainly a female and it was expected that she would be an obedient appendage of her husband.

MARGHAGEToday more and more pastors are female and -- whether male or female -- they tend to be much more independent of their spouse, and churches less and less expect them to be an extra and unpaid employee.

In many ways, Margaret Hage (pictured here), whose memorial service I attended Friday, was a transitional and important figure among clergy spouses.

She supported and helped her late husband, Dr. William J. Hage, when he was active in the ministry, including his 19-year pastorate at my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church. But she also had an active life not just as a mother of three but also as a social worker and counselor.

And she did all of this while being confined to a wheelchair after having developed polio in the 1950s.

Margaret was truly a work of art. And an innovator. She helped to create an active grief ministry at Second Church, for instance, infusing the congregation with a spirit of caring for the bereaved in ways that still finds resonance there today.

Clergy spouses today range from the old model of being a behind-the-scenes but always-present supporter of the pastor to not even being a member of the congregation the pastor serves. The wife of our senior pastor, for instance, is an attorney who works outside the home and gets engaged in church life when she can. The wife of our associate pastor, beyond being active in various church ministries, is employed outside the home in the Parents as Teachers program.

No longer can churches calling new pastors simply assume that in addition to the pastor they'll get an unpaid spouse who will teach Sunday school or play the piano or organ. And it's better for congregations this way. Thanks to Margaret Hage and others like her who helped to lead this transition.

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Here's an interesting question: Is Pope Francis the Catholic Princess Diana? Hmmm. Well, she was followed by paparazzi and he's followed by poperazzi, so I'm thinking close but no.

'Religiosity' badly rules Pakistan: 7-13/14-13

Among the many astonishingly frank admissions in the recently released Pakistani government report on the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, this one especially stood out to me:

"In the premier intelligence institutions, religiosity replaced accountability at the expense of professional competency."


The commission that issued that 337-page report has uncovered a key problem not only in the government of Pakistan but also a potential problem for any government that seeks to promote a particular religious doctrine or tradition over and above providing competent governance.

It is, of course, no secret that Pakistan's military and intelligence service, to say nothing of much of the rest of its government, is in intentional harmony with the radical and violent version of Islam that bin Laden supported but that flies in the face of traditional Islam.

The report, which was made public recently by Al-Jazeera, is full of criticism of Pakistan's leadership and its culture of corruption and incompetence.

I thought this Christian Science Monitor piece captured its essence pretty well. Here, for a second source, is the Al-Jazeera news story. And three paragraphs above here I've given you a link to the pirated copy on the Al-Jazeera site.

There are, no doubt, various gradations between government that is utterly secular and government that is a theocracy. But people of faith always should be wary of turning over responsibility for promoting and defending the faith to government. I would not call Pakistan a theocracy in the way that Iran is, but the extremist elements of political Islam are so deeply entrenched in the Pakistani government and culture that in some ways Pakistan might well be thought of as theocratically governed.

And the result is what almost always happens in such cases -- "religiosity," in the words of the new report, replaces "accountability at the expense of professional competency." And the people are badly served.

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If, as now, the sun never sets over far northern Sweden, when do Muslims living there (yes, there are some) fast during Ramadan (now), when they are supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset? This story offers some options. Rules are rules, right?

Remembering a pre-Reformer: 7-12-13

When people think of the Protestant Reformation, the first name that usually comes to mind, quite naturally, is Martin Luther.

ErasmusIt was he, after all, who nailed his 95 theses to the cathedral door and whose challenge to Roman Catholic authorities led directly to Protestantism in the early 1500s.

But surely Luther's thinking did not arise ex nihilo. Indeed, it did not.

And today is a good day to remember that, for it was on this date in 1536 that Desiderius Erasmus (depicted here), perhaps the most important of the so-called pre-reformers, died.

Erasmus, the Dutch humanist born in 1466, published several critical works plus a Greek translation of the Bible that helped to pave the way for the Reformation.

But because Erasmus himself seemed unwilling to take the kind of courageous action that Luther and other reformers did in challenging the Catholic Church, he wound up being disliked by both the Catholics and the Protestants.

Still, any serious student of the Reformation has to grasp the importance of Erasmus and a few others like him.

At the time, the so-called Scholastics discovered truth by taking differing interpretations of church fathers and others and coming to new understandings through that juxtaposition. They used the dialectic method. Humanism, however, with which Erasmus was connected, suggested not engaging in all of that. Humanism, rather, wasn’t just going back to the sources, it was approaching them with a certain freer spirit.

All of this was happening at a time of major geographical discovery. But it also was a period of scientific and medical discovery. So when the late 15th and early 16th century readers read Virgil, they discovered fascinating things. Greeks were read in a new light – the light of someone who has something for this new age.

Eventually scholars like Erasmus wanted to do the same thing biblically that others were doing in other fields. He and others wanted to go back to the New Testament. Reading the text in the original languages would make it possible for contemporary readers to experience what listeners in Jesus time heard, thet thought.

So, new methods were developed to accomplish this. Textual criticisms and study came out of all of this. This opened up new theological possibilities – giving contemporary Christians the same experience as New Testament church members. The primitive church thus became the ideal. Erasmus and others found the New Testament church was much simpler without all the add-ons of their day. And that helped to create the spirit that leds to the Reformation.

So a tip of the hat today to Erasmus.

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Choir music, such as that offered each Sunday in many churches, has a calming effect on the hearts of the singers, a new study finds. Yes, and it can serve as a wake-up call after the sermon, too.

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What's on God's Sin List for Today?, by Tom Hobson. The author is a Presbyterian pastor and chair of biblical studies at Morthland College in West Frankfort, Ill. He makes here a rather detailed argument for how to tease out of the whole of the Bible those various lists of sins that might still be on God's list today versus those that were of concern simply for a particular people at a particular time in biblical history. It's interesting and thoughtful stuff and provokes the reader to think about sinfulness, repentance and forgiveness. You can, of course, agree or disagree with his analysis, but it's worth the time to learn how sincere people with whom you may disagree come to their conclusions about all of this. Hobson lost me, however, when he used some oddly offensive language that compared homosexuals to black widow spiders and praying mantises: "To argue that same-sex desire is part of God's good creation is a tragic mistake. Same-sex relations are a part of nature. But so are black widows and praying mantises who kill and eat their mates, and mackerel who kill purely for sport." That kind of comparison offends me deeply and I'm not even gay. Hobson first came to my attention when he wrote this response to one of my recent columns in The Presbyterian Outlook.

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P.S.: The Rev. R. Glen Miles, senior minister of Country Club Christian Church of KC, will preach Saturday evening at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, Fla. Nice to have one of our excellent local preachers get some more national exposure.

Debt-free seminarians: 7-11-13

It's no secret that many members of the clergy don't get big salaries.

Student_debt_Poverty may be seen as a chosen virtue for some, but for many pastors, rabbis and others low pay creates difficult career choices and can lead to various problems.

Part of this stems from the debt they incur when attending seminary. If they are unable to support themselves and their families after graduation while paying back student debt, it means trouble all around.

City Seminary of Sacramento has recognized this problem and sought to find ways to reduce student debt. In fact, now it has adopted an official policy that forbids students from seeking or accepting student loans to pay for tuition.

"We strongly believe that loading up a new minister with an onerous debt burden places a limit on the kind of ministry in which they can engage," explained that seminary's board chairman, Kurt Snow.

The school says its board tries to provide enough scholarship money to let in students who might otherwise not be able to attend seminary.

This is attacking the problem at one end. A way to attack it at the other end is for members of congregations to give more generously so they can afford to pay their clergy living wages. Which might mean cutting down on member spending on large-screen TVs, luxury cars, gambling and other choices. Oh, the pain.

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The assault on the concept of separation of church and state goes on, as this report describes. Why would any adherent of any religion want a state or country to declare that faith the established religion? Such a move inevitably weakens the religion, to say nothing of abusing the religious freedom of those outside that faith.

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

“We strongly believe that loading up a new minister with an onerous debt burden places a limit on the kind of ministry in which they can engage. - See more at:
forbidding students to seek or accept student loans to pay for tuition. - See more at:
forbidding students to seek or accept student loans to pay for tuition. - See more at:
forbidding students to seek or accept student loans to pay for tuition. - See more at:

Century-old faith news: 7-10-13

For Father's Day this year one of our kids found for me a bound volume containing two months' worth of 1913 Kansas City Journal newspapers.

KC-JournalThe Journal, started in 1854, later became the Journal-Post and still later just the Journal again before dying in 1942, leaving The Kansas City Star as the city's only newspaper (with the morning KC Times, which The Star owned. The Times was folded into The Star in 1990 and The Star became a morning paper only).

Because I write about religion, I was curious to see how that newspaper covered faith matters 100 years ago -- indeed exactly 100 years ago. The two months in the collection start in early July 1913.

It did not surprise me to find that the long history of newspapers providing inadequate religion coverage could be found in the Journal 100 years ago.

On Saturdays, when The Star now publishes a truncated Faith section, the Journal offered only a column or column and a half labeled "News of Pulpit and Pew."

The July 5, 1913, edition carried 14 items under that title while the July 12 issue contained 27 items, all brief notes, mostly about who was speaking at which church or what special event was happening in which parish.

But digging a bit deeper, I found a little religion coverage -- well, religion coverage when it related to some dispute or other sensation.

For instance, on the first page of the second section of the July 6 Journal there's a story about a dispute within the local Mormon community.

And under the headline "Church row ends fatally" there is a story from Tahlequah, Okla., about an argument over management of a Sunday school there that ended in the shooting of a man and the stabbing of another.

Perhaps the most fascinating bit of alleged religion reporting I saw was part of a long series about the Philippines. As you may know, U.S. troops were in the Philippines starting in 1899 to suppress a terrible guerrilla uprising.

At any rate, here is how the piece about the Catholic Church in the Philippines begins:

"The Catholic Church gave the Filipinos the inestimable boon of Christianity. It lifted them from idolatry and rescued them from Mohammedanism."

I'm thinking that breath-takingly witless lead today would have a tough time getting by an editor. At least I hope so.

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Ramadan, an important Islamic month of fasting and praying, can be lonely for new converts, it's reported. Integrating newcomers into any faith community can be challenging, and in my experience most groups do it poorly.

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

Improving religious literacy: 7-9-13

For some months now I've been part of a small task force connected to the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council trying to create the outlines of a program to increase the religious literacy of Kansas Citians.

InterfaithThere is much work left to be done to see if this idea is even feasible, but on Sunday I spoke to the Community of Reason about it to see what ideas I might stir up from its members, who tend to identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists, free-thinkers and other similar labels.

First, I gave them a few of the ideas that our task force has been kicking around:

* Offer tours of sacred structures all over town — churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc.

* Put on a film festival featuring movies with religious themes. Maybe representatives of each faith could pick out one or two films from that tradition.

* Put on a sacred music festival. Again, let’s have music from every religious tradition be part of this.

* Create a Kansas City Religious Literacy Facebook page where a moderator could raise a new question every day or two and seek responses.

* Have the whole metro area read Stephen Prothero’s book, Religious Literacy, and create discussion groups about it. Another choice: The Faith Club, written by three women, a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim. The Christian woman is originally from KC.

* Put on a faith food festival featuring foods from many religious traditions.

* Create a combination service project-learning experience, such as working in interfaith teams at Harvesters or Habitat for Humanity.

* Create a temporary museum of religious icons and objects at, say, Union Station, to include crosses; Stars of David; mihrabs; Communion cups; limited edition Torahs, Bibles and Qur’ans, etc. Have representatives of each religion available to explain what people are seeing.

Some of the ideas that came from COR members:

* Begin any film festival with "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," about St. Francis of Assisi.

* On a website, offer brief explanations of the differences between and among faiths.

* Make sure there is educational material appropriate for all age groups, including young children.

* Create a system for inviting people of other faiths and no faith to experience worship services in different traditions.

All worthwhile ideas.

What's your thought? E-mail me at and I'll pass along your thoughts to the task force.

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A new study from the Pew Research Center says that restrictions on religions around the world have increased -- not descreased -- since the Arab Spring. Turmoil inevitably makes those in charge more fearful, whether that's reasonable or not.