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Time for peace with Iran? 9-30-13

The hopeful news about a possible diplomatic thaw in relations between the U.S. and Iran raises many questions, including ones about religion.

Hassan-RouhaniBut first let's be grateful that Iran finally got rid of its Holocaust-denying, moonstruck, feral president, Mahmoud Amadinejad, and has elected Hassan Rouhani (pictured here), who seems much more in tune with the Iranian people. Will this change lead to better diplomatic relations with the U.S.? It already has. Will it mean a non-nuclear Iran? We must wait for that answer, but this is where we adopt Ronald Reagan's idea (one of his few good ones), trust but verify. And, I would add, verify again. Then again.

As for religion, Iran is predominantly Muslim, and the official Iranian count is that about 90 percent of the Muslims are in the Shi'a branch, leaving the remaining 10 percent as Sunni, with a few Sufis thrown in. Sufism, as you may know, is  Islam's mystical path. (For another report on religion in Iran, click here.)

As in many Middle Eastern, mostly Muslim countries, there really is no church-state separation in Iran. Muslim clerics, in the end, call the shots. It's not a system we can change, certainly not in the short term and maybe never. So we simply have to recognize the reality of it.

What I think we also have to recognize is that Iran has been in an unsafe neighborhood for many years and perhaps finally is tired of all the bloodshed and chaos. Although there still are radical Islamists there whose anger at the United States knows no bounds, much of the population could be classified as pro-Western in many ways and in search of something like peace, which traditional Islam promotes.

So at the moment the possibility for peace seems on the rise in Iran, in Syria and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And by "on the rise" I mean in tiny upticks but still up, not down.

So let's pray that wise heads prevail and that the impulse for peace that throbs from all the great religions begins to issue in reality in Iran and elsewhere in that region.

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, who used to lead the Union of Reform Judaism, writes here that he's really optimistic about the future of what he calls "liberal" religions in the U.S. I'm reluctant to use that word to describe any religion because labels always hide more than they reveal and because this term has political overtones that are hard to avoid. That said, I think Yoffie is on to something important. See what you think.

In the land of (Amos) Oz: 9-28/29-13

Because my interest in Israel is not new, it won't surprise you to learn that quite a few years ago I read In the Land of Israel by Israel's best-known living author, Amos Oz (pictured here in a photo I borrowed from Tablet magazine).

Amos-OzI found it profoundly enlightening and it was even helpful to me last year when I helped to lead a Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel.

Oz is a careful observer and a clear thinker. And he is unafraid both to love Israel and to criticize its leaders when, as they sometimes do, they make bad decisions, especially in relation to the on-going conflict with the Palestinians.

You will get a good sense of Oz and his thinking in this engaging interview with him just published by the Tablet online magazine.

Now that peace negotiations are resuming between Israel and the Palestinians, I find it encouraging to know that Oz believes peace, though it may not be at hand, is inevitable. Here's what he says:

"I believe that peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is unavoidable. How soon it will happen, I don’t know. It’s difficult to be a prophet in the land of the prophets. It’s too much competition in the prophecy business around here. But it’s unavoidable, and it will come."

So have a look at the Oz interview, and if you haven't read any of his work, put it on your list.

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So what's the religious makeup of American college students? Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., asked that very question in a national survey, and although I don't find the results surprising, those results should give traditional faith communities pause. Lots of college students seem to be moving away from traditional religions. The question those religions should be asking themselves is why and what might they do about it.

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P.S.: The Mainstream Coalition, a nonpartisan Johnson County, Kansas, group that promotes separation of church and state, will be celebrating its 20th anniversary with a free event that includes a sermon at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at Village Presbyterian Church. For details, download this pdf flyer: Download Sermon Flyer8-1

Discerning the pope's meaning: 9-27-13

Yesterday here on the blog I played a bit of catch-up with the remarkable interview Pope Francis (pictured here) gave recently to a Jesuit priest for publication.

Pope-Francis-1I say catch-up because the interview was made public late last week just as I was heading to northern Illinois for my high school reunion, and I didn't have a chance to unpack it on the blog.

Today I want to focus on another aspect of the interview -- the pope's discussion of what I think of as a gift, discernment. It's an ability to think wisely, and even the psalmist (in 119:66) prayed for it: "Teach me good discernment and knowledge. . ."

Pope Francis, a Jesuit, is steeped in Ignatian spirituality, which encourages people to think and think and think about where they are, who they are, whose they are, where they're headed and why.

The result, one hopes, is discernment.

Here's a bit of what the pope said:

". . .discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment."

It may seem as if this pope is moving quickly to make significant changes in the Catholic Church, but so far what has changed is style and attitude, not doctrine or practice. I suspect it's about those matters that the pontiff is taking his time to discern the future. Those matters are key and they require care in making anything like significant changes.

But being in a process of discernment doesn't mean he cannot be his open, warm self, and it's that inviting self that is making the church seem different when compared to the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, now retired.

Indeed, Pope Francis seemed to point to the difference between style and substance when he said this in the interview:

“But I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”

Notice, please, the pope's helpful phrase,"the necessary ambiguity of life." His use of that is an acknowledgement that life is complicated, complex, full of mystery. If we insist always on sharp, rigid answers we violate "the necessary ambiguity of life," which at times can be uncomfortable.

To me, discernment is a spiritual practice that must be learned and kept in good working order. Sometimes it can be employed in a hurry and be useful, but more often it requires the kind of time and care that so many of us are unwilling to give it in a culture that sees time as literal money.

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Speaking of discernment and changes, the forces of justice slowly are moving the United Methodist Church away from its open hostility toward homosexuality, and an upcoming meeting may be the site of the next steps in that good direction. I've been deeply disappointed in the way Methodists have clung to a position that misuses scripture and that flies in the face of their historic commitment to justice -- just as I was disappointed for decades in my own Presbyterian denomination's similar stance. Methodists should be leading this fight, not resisting. For my essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.

Is Pope Francis a sinner? Infallibly: 9-26-13

Pope Francis (pictured here) is a sinner.


He said so himself.

In the recent interview with Jesuit priest Antonio Spardaro the pope was asked:

“'Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?' He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: 'I ​​do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.'”

This answer was published near the beginning of the now-famous interview, and I applauded the pontiff not just for his modesty and honesty but also for his willingness to describe essential Christian theology.

Perhaps the most quoted passage from the New Testament that describes the reality that all humans are sinners is found in verse 23 of chapter 3 of St. Paul's letter to the Romans. There he says, simply, "All have sinned and fall short of God's glory," as translated by the Common English Bible.

But the idea that no human is fully righteous, save Jesus Christ, is deeply embedded in traditional Christian theology, though it gets different emphasis from tradition to tradition. In some the idea of sinfulness gets so much play that it's hard for people to feel redeemed, while in others it gets so little play that people are likely to forget that they require redemption.

After acknowledging himself a sinner, the pope added this:

“Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

In a time, especially in American culture, when we are encouraged to look out for No. 1, embellish our resumes and seek our 15 minutes of fame, it's refreshing to see a world leader begin with the foundational truth that somehow we are broken people with a propensity for committing acts that break other people.

But notice that the pope doesn't leave it there. He acknowledges that he's "a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon." Another way Christians often describe themselves is as "a sinner of Christ's own redeeming."

When this way of acknowledging our sinfulness while balancing that with the faith in our redemption is maintained, the result is someone who can afford to be humble but also confident. And is there a better description of Pope Francis than that?

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I doubt that it's directly related to Pope Francis' brief ponticate, but the pipeline that produces Catholic priests for American churches is filling up for the first time in a long time, this Religion News Service report by Cathy Lynn Grossman says.

Finding faith news online: 9-25-13

As you know if you've read posts here in recent days, I've been on the road, attending my high school reunion and seeing some family in northern Illinois.

NewspapersI expect to resume regular blog postings tomorrow, but in the meantime if you want to catch up on what's happening in the field of religion, I recommend Religion News Service as the place to start. By the way, RNS has just snared a great religion reporter to be part of the regular RNS team, and that's my friend Cathy Lynn Grossman, who covered religion for USA Today for many years.

Another great site that collects links to exactly that kind of news and information. It's called "The Revealer: A daily review of religion & media," and you can reach it by clicking here.

The fact that "The Revealer" includes a link to my blog just shows how discerning its operators are, don't you think?

Another great source for what's happening in the field of religion is Real Clear Religion, which you can reach by clicking here.

Thanks for being a reader here, too.

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P.S.: While I'm gone I probably won't have time to post the usual second item here each day. I'll get back to that tomorrow.

Sticking up for doctrine: 9-24-13

Sometimes I hear Christians offering harsh condemnations of the sometimes-extreme ways in which certain predominantly Islamic countries interpret and administer Shar'ia, or Islamic law.

StMaximConfessNo doubt we've all heard of thieves in Saudi Arabia who wind up with their hands cut off as both punishment and deterrent.

Indeed, such punishment should be condemned as not fitting the crime. But before we Christians get all arrogant about that it helps to remember our own history.

And today is a good day to do that, for it was on this date in 656 that a man now considered a saint, Maximus the Confessor (depicted here), was charged with the crime of pride by a representative of the Byzantine emperor. In harmony with previous ecumenical councils of the church, Maximus maintained that Jesus Christ had two separate natures, human and divine.

But Emperor Constans II, worried about political and religious division, wanted Maximus to quit teaching that doctrine and to compromise.

Maximus said no. And eventually it cost him big time. In 662, Maximus was brought up for trial and, as the Christian History magazine site to which I've linked you above reports, "Church and state cut out his tongue, lopped off his right hand,  and sent him to prison in a northern province of the eastern empire, where he died a few months later."

Eventuially, of course, the two-natures position Maximus advocated was the one that won out in traditional Christianity. So let's be more mindful of Christianity's sometimes violent history and let's today give Maximus, well, a hand.

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P.S.: While I'm gone I probably won't have time to post the usual second item here each day. I'll get back to that in a few days.

A film about finding home: 9-23-13

WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- As some of you know, I spent two years of my boyhood in India. My parents were not missionaries, but for part of the first year there I attended Woodstock School, a boarding school in Landour-Mussoorie in the foothills of the Himalayas that was mostly full of children of Christian missionaries.

03-01-2006 04;45;17PM(Yes, I have Woodstocks all over my life. I've been here in my hometown of Woodstock for a high school reunion this past weekend, my wife is from near Woodstock, Vt., and I attended Woodstock School in India, to say nothing of the several other Woodstocks I've been in over the years.)

My parents were stationed at the Allahabad Agriculture Institute in north-central India. Dad was part of a University of Illinois ag team.

In many ways, I felt like an alien boy in an alien culture, for that's exactly what I was, even though many of my classmates were Americans.

It has taken many years to process my experiences there but, in the end, those experiences have given me a broader insight into the diversity of human in the world and into our commonalities.

All of which is an introduction to letting you know about a short film set at Woodstock School. It's called "The Road Home," and is directed by Rahul Gandotra, who attended Woodstock School for eight years, though well after I was there.

I invite you to explore the film's website and get a copy of this relatively short film (under 25 minutes). It's charming and raises universal questions about how we live with one another and what our obligations are to one another, whether we're of different races or different religions. If you want to get e-mailed a free sampler of the movie, click here.

(The photo here today shows me and my sister Mary in New Delhi speaking to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In the back is U.S. Ambassador to India Ellsworth Bunker.)

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P.S.: While I'm gone I probably won't have time to post the usual second item here each day. I'll get back to that in a few days.

Those special calendar dates: 9-21/22-13

WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- As we make our way through life, I've discovered, our calendars are land-mined by various events that return to us each year. And if we're not sensitive to that in ourselves and other people, we can run roughshod over our own feelings and those of others.

The great religions teach us, of course, to be empathetic, which means to take into account the feelings and beliefs of those we encounter. Being conscious of the calendar is one way to do that.

Take, for instance, Sept. 21. I was married on that date in 1968. That marriage ended in 1995, but I cannot pass by a Sept. 21 without remembering that wedding. Exactly two years later, in 1970, on my second wedding anniversary, I went to work for The Kansas City Star.

So Sept. 21 then had two meanings for me, both celebratory, at least initially. My work at The Star lasted longer than my marriage. I was a full-time employee there for nearly 36 years, and I still write this daily blog that is on The Star's website and from time to time still do some freelance work for the paper.

Later, it turned out, Sept. 21 got celebrated in my family as the birthday of my older daughter's husband. Still later, it began to be celebrated as the birthday of one of my grandsons, now turning 9.

And as fate (or something) would have it, this weekend I'm commemorating 50 years since graduating from high school by attending a class reunion here in my hometown northwest of Chicago. (That's the front of my old school in the photo here today.)

So what's the point of raising all this on a blog about religion?

Just a reminder to consider the possibility that today may be an important anniversary in the life of someone you meet -- of something either good or bad. And we can minister to each other's needs more fully and carefully if we remember that and maybe even ask whether today's date is an especially meaningful one in someone else's life.

That will allow us to laugh with those who laugh and mourn with those who mourn. And surely that's some of what we're called to do.

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P.S.: While I'm gone I probably won't have time to post the usual second item here each day. I'll get back to that in a few days.


When ministering to veterans: 9-20-13

Several times in recent years I've written about the importance of military chaplains and why they should continue to be provided and paid for through the regular defense budget.

VetsRelated to all of that is this article I found in the most recent edition of Presbyterians Today, "Top Nine Things to Remember When Ministering to Veterans," by Steven Voris, a Presbyerian chaplain in the U.S. Navy.

I'm pretty sure that you have to be a paid subscriber to the magazine to read the piece to which I've given you a link (at least until it posts for free later), so before you get frustrated trying to connect to it, let me give you a summary of the nine points and see if you agree with them or think the author has missed something:

* For many veterans, worship practice trumps denominational loyalty.

* Tolerance and diversity are important values.

* Listen without judgment when veterans choose to share their experiences.

* Patriotic symbols are important to veterans.

* Veterans are security experts.

* Active duty personnel and veterans are likely to have odd attendance (at worship) patterns.

* Veterans know how to work hard and they thrive in serving others.

* Veterans come from a culture of blunt honesty.

Well, as I say, the headline to the piece noted that those are just the top nine things to remember. My guess is you could make a list of dozens more. And I'm wondering what you might add to the list or subtract from this one.

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Is it time to discard the term "Mainline Protestant," which refers to Presbyterians, Methodists and several other denominations? This piece suggests exactly that. It's worth some conversation for sure.

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

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ANOTHER P.S.: WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- I'm on the road for a few days and won't have time to write here about this interesting interview with Pope Francis, but I didn't want you to miss it.

God's random acts? 9-19-13

Sometimes the ideas people have about how God works astound me -- and often not in a good way. I found another example this week.

Birmingham-churchI'm a little reluctant to point this out because the woman who said it is such an admired and sympathetic person, but I still think her idea is worth talking about.

Sarah Collins Rudolph was the one survivor among five little girls 50 years ago when Ku Klux Klan members bombed her church in Birmingham, Ala. There was an event there the other day to recall the horror of that day on its 50th anniversary, and the Associated Press story about that event quoted Collins Rudolph this way:

"God spared me to live and tell just what happened on that day."


Her statement contains both truth and off-putting implications. Yes, she survived. Yes, she's been talking about what happened that day. Good to both.

But did God spare her? And if God did so, what does that say about the four other little girls who died? Did God decide they needed to die? If, as some theology suggests, God is in charge of every aspect of everything that happens in the world, why did God kill (or allow the death of) four girls while sparing the life of a fifth?

With this kind of theology, we end up with a whimsical, manipulative, cold-hearted, calculating God, not a God of love, care and compassion. We end up with a God who is the source of all or most evil in the world.

In my understanding of God, God was not responsible for the death of the four girls nor for the survival of the fifth. The Klan bombers killed those children and it was evil. The fifth girl survived because the explosion happened not to be fatal for her, though she ended up with a lost eye and other injuries. If God wanted her to survive, why did she have to sustain those injuries?

And because she survived she is able to speak out about what happened that day. I just wish she would blame the evil on the evil perpetrators and not implicate God in randomly picking one of the girls to live to tell the story.

Having said all that, I want to acknowledge that it's arrogant to say much of anything about God and that I could be as wrong about my ideas of God as I think Collins Randolph was wrong about hers.

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What role, if any, did the religion of Aaron Alexis, which turns out to be Buddhism, have anything to do with his murderous rampage in Washington, D.C., earlier this week? It's a touchy question, but this thoughtful piece says that whatever role his spiritual path played was much less important than evidence of his mental instability. In fact, we always need to be cautious when attributing any religious motive to someone who breaks the law, though we all know there are, of course, examples of violent extremists who point to their religions as a reason for what they did. Perhaps the Ku Klux Klan perpetrators of the Birmingham bombing 50 years ago thought they were just being good Christians. Perhaps.

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