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November 2013
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Safely surviving Christmas: 12-19-13

Like hands inevitably injured by fireworks on the Fourth of July, some homes in the U.S. will suffer fire or other unnecessary catastrophes this Christmas season.

CHRISTMAS TREEWhether you are a devoted Christian deeply enmeshed in incarnational theology this time of year or just someone who likes to decorate the house with lighted trees and elves on shelves, there are things you can do to protect life and property.

I will share some of that with you in a minute. But why do I care about all of this? Well, at least two reasons. One is that I remember a Christmas when my kids were little and we were unwrapping presents in a room in our house with a fireplace. I foolishly balled up a big wad of wrapping paper and tossed it into the fire.

It almost immediately flamed up and threatened to set ablaze what was on the mantle, besides filling the room with smoke. It could have been disastrous, but fortunately wasn't.

Another reason is that I serve on the board of a property/casualty insurance company that finds its roots in the Anabaptist (Mennonite, Church of the Bretheren, Quaker) community. (For details, click here.) Insurance companies do better when their policyholders don't burn down their houses inadvertently on Christmas.

So because I'd prefer that you live safely through the holidays and return in January to read my blog regularly, I pass along this Christmas infographic, provided to me by a law firm, Wettermark & Keith, mentioned at the end of it:


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Prince Charles says he's deeply worried about the fate of Christians in the Middle East. As he should be. On the whole, things have not gone well there for Christians, despite some good efforts at interrelgious dialogue and understanding. Religious radicals have a different agenda.

Islam and the Boston bombing: 12-18-13

Yesterday here on the blog, I mentioned the five-month investigation that The Boston Globe undertook to try to get to the bottom of the men accused of the Boston Marathon bombing.

I want to return to that important work today because it says something vital about how easy it is to blame a religion, Islam, for terrorism when, in fact, the religion (or, more to the point, the misuse of the religion) may have little or nothing to do with it.

Tsarnaev-brothersHere's what the Boston newspaper concluded about what its reporters found:

"Taken together, these findings suggest that the motivation for the Tsarnaev brothers’ violent acts is more likely rooted in the turbulent collapse of their family and their escalating personal and collective failures than, as federal investigators have suggested, on the other side of the globe."

The reference to "the other side of the globe" has to do with the ways in which the Tsarnaev brothers (pictured here) may have fallen under the influence of extremists who promoted the use of violence by misrepresenting what Islam teaches.

None of this is to say that Islamism and its violence didn't play some role in the brothers' thinking. But it's pretty clear from the Globe's work that these brothers would have come to a bad ending anyway, partly because of severe mental and family dynamic issues.

Nor am I suggesting that there's not a continuing struggle under way for the soul of Islam, one in which the traditional faith is being challenged by what I've long called the bin Laden wing of Islam, which has dishonored Islam in countless ways by doing what people in Christianity like Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka do, which is to take one tiny piece of thought, twist it until it cannot be recognized and then make that the center of a bizarre theology.

It's careful, balanced reporting that helps the rest of us see the truth. And I worry that as the newspaper industry slips away, we won't have access to much of that reporting anymore.

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Well, Harold Camping, who kept predicting the end of the world, finally was right. The world ended Monday of this week, but just for him. He died at age 92. And some day(s) it will end for the rest of us, too. You can take that prediction to the bank.

Recalling gay Holocaust victims: 12-17-13


In something as massive, evil and complicated as the Holocaust there inevitably will be side stories to the main story, which in this case is about the Hitler regime's determination to wipe out the Jews of Europe.

One of those side stories -- non-Jews who tried to save Jews -- is the topic of the book I wrote with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

Another side story has to do with the ways in which the Nazis persecuted and murdered lots of people for reasons other than their being Jewish -- Gypsies, people with disabilities and homosexuals among them.

A memorial honoring the last group -- gay victims of the Nazis -- was just installed and unveiled in Tel Aviv. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports, it is Israel's first memorial to gays murdered by the Nazis.

It is important for accurate historical reasons to take note of the full sweep of the Nazi evil, and that's what things like the new Tel Aviv memorial help us do.

At the same time it's important not to lose sight of the fact that Hitler's "final solution" was aimed at murdering people merely because they were among Europe's 9 million Jews, two-thirds of whom perished in the Holocaust.

The question always is whether the act of remembering will lead to the act of prevention.

(By the way, if you've never been to Tel Aviv, the photo here I took from my hotel window there last year gives you a sense of the beauty you will find there.)

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Why do we still need newspapers? For in-depth and insightful reporting like this from The Boston Globe about the brothers implicated in the Boston Marathon bombing. Were they Muslim terrorists or something else? (And for another great newspaper series, I hope you're reading Eric Adler's current four-parter in The Kansas City Star about deciding whether and when to place a spouse with dementia in a nursing home. Great work.)

The whiteness of Christ: 12-16-13

I have spent several days thinking about the recent comments from Megyn Kelly, the boneheaded Fox "News" broadcaster, that both Jesus and Santa were and are white.

Blue-eyed-jesusMy first thought was about the first time I saw a black Santa Claus. It was about 1968 in Rochester, N.Y., where I was covering the poverty/race-relations beat for the now-defunct Times-Union. A wonderful black woman who ran a store-front community center in Rochester's inner city had arranged for a black man to play Santa for kids in her program.

It was, briefly, the talk of the town, given that almost no one then had heard of such a thing. But, I thought then, why not? Santa, after all (spoiler alert: Kids, stop reading), is a fictional character so why not make up whatever race, ethnicity or skin color you want?

As for Jesus, well, my thoughts first ran to Kelly's ignorant view of history (though she said later that she was just joking), which is a point made in this response piece.

But that seemed to take Kelly too seriously. I think you make a mistake when you take any Fox commentator too seriously.

Then I thought about the academic quest for the historical Jesus. It turns out that almost every scholar who has engaged in that quest has found not necessarily the historical Jesus but, rather, the historian's Jesus. So 19th Century German scholars tended to find a Jesus who seemed very much like a 19th Century German, for instance.

At which point I ran across this interview with author Reza Aslan, who has written a new book about Jesus. Aslan says Kelly was right in the sense that for her Christ is white (thus the blue eyes in the Jesus depicted here), whereas for someone else Christ may be a dark-skinned Palestinian or a black African. As Aslan says, "That is the entire point of the Christ."

Point taken.

OK. Now that we've settled that, we can agree to ignore Kelly's point that Jesus is "a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact, as is Santa."

Well, as glad as we are to have Kelly's affirmation that Jesus is "a historical figure," we're more thrilled to have her proof again, Virginia, that Santa is a verifiable fact, at least as Fox "News" uses facts.

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Speaking of off-the-wall media folks, Rush Limbaugh recently described Pope Francis's comments on economic matters as Marxism. Now the pope says, no, he's not a Marxist. Does it disturb you a little, as it does me, that Francis responds to the inane junk-talk of a man like Limbaugh? If a provocative fool speaks into a forest of radio waves and no one responds, has he really said anything?

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P.S.: It's now possible to sign up online for my Aug. 11-17 Ghost Ranch class, "Turning Our Pain Toward Hope Through Writing." Just click here and then join me for a relaxing week in the beautiful red rock hills of northern New Mexico that Georgia O'Keeffe made famous through her painting.

Christianity's Nero escape: 12-14/15-13

This weekend I want to take you back nearly 2,000 years to consider a subject that gets a fair amount of attention today, though perhaps out of proportion to what's really happening.

NeroWe return to Dec. 15 in the year 37 of the Common Era (or A.D., as folks used to say), when the Emperor Nero (the photo here shows his high school graduation picture) was born. Well, he wasn't emperor at his birth. Instead, he was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, but later became Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Or, to you and me, just Nero.

Nero has long -- and justifiably -- been associated with the persecution of Christians. As David Chidester writes in Christianity: A Global History:

"The earliest persecution of Christians, which occurred when Nero blamed them in 64 C.E. for causing the fires in Rome, exploited Christians as scapegoats.

"Due to their marginal position in Roman society -- living in society, but not being of society -- Christians were particularly vulnerable to accusations of antisocial conduct."

Similarly, in Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCullough writes of "persecution whipped up in Rome by the Emperor Nero."

Nero, by the way, became emperor at age 17 and at first was seen as a virtuous ruler. But before long he fell into evil ways and became a wasteful tyrant. Eventually even the Roman Senate declared him to be a public enemy and at age 31 he committed suicide. Such a life.

At any rate, the idea of Christians being persecuted for their faith has been around since then. Earlier this year, however, I reviewed here a new book called The Myth of Persecution, which makes a persuasive case that there hasn't been nearly as much persecution of Christians as most people think. Beyond that, Candida Moss, the author, argues, it's mostly silly to argue that Christians in the U.S., where they make up about three-quarters of the population, are persecuted, a charge you hear in such places as the culture wars by such "War on Christmas" culture warriors as Bill O'Reilly.

Nero's persecution of followers of Jesus? Yep, it happened. And it was bad. Today there is persecution of Christians in many lands. In the U.S.? Not so much.

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The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has condemned suicide bombing. You'd think some things would be so obvious that they wouldn't need saying. You'd think.

A sign of angelic hosts? 12-13-13

Well, well. What in the world are we to make of the South African signer/translator who now says he freaked out and was signing gibberish at Nelson Mandela's funeral because he saw "angels?"

AngelsWas this a simple case of a badly miscast person who used the "angels" excuse as a way out of being caught in a lie?

Was this a case of a man having a real religious vision? (And what, exactly, constitutes a real religious vision?)

Was this a matter of angels trying to drive the world nuts?

I have no idea. And neither do you.

But the question I want to raise today is this: Why does seeming insanity so often seem attached to religious matters?

Why do some people say they heard God tell them to murder someone?

Why do some people imagine that they are God's deputized servants on Earth called to straighten out the world and bring people into alignment with their individual interpretation of what God wants for the world?

And why do some followers of one religion imagine that the followers of any other religion but their own are simply crazy?

Why is "Fear not" the first thing angels learn to say at Angel School? And isn't "California Angels" an oxymoron?

Submit your answers to these questions in triplicate to Isn't that God's e-mail address? And if not, why not?

Why not? Ask your guardian angel. Almost certainly he or she speaks sign language.

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It's time to stop blaming religion for violence in the world, this HuffPo piece argues. Well, the writer has a point -- and not a bad one at that. I personally blame violence on angels (see above). Don't you?

A warm place to study: 12-12-13

As I write this I'm sitting in the fellowship hall of the building my church calls home, and I'm spending a few hours overseeing a study hall we've created for students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, our nearby neighbors.

UmkcWe've set out a Crockpot full of tasty soup, some drinks, apples, nut bars and other goodies. And we've told all the students our wifi password.

Studying is up to them.

There have been eight students in here so far this evening, and they're not here to hear us preach the gospel or to let us inquire about their eternal destiny. Rather, they're here experiencing the gospel of hospitality, which says to them that they're welcome here, that we care about them, that we want what's best for them.

It well may be that none of this effort draws in even a single student who wants to become a member of our church. If someone becomes interested in joining us, well and good. But that's not why we do it.

Rather, our purpose is first to meet their need for a quiet place to study for final exams and some nourishment to get them through the night. Beyond that, our purpose is to demonstrate to them what it starts to look like when a church cares about its neighbors and creates ways to meet the needs that are outside our front door.

We don't demand that they listen to a talk about Jesus. We don't insist that they let us pray with them. We don't hand them a Bible and tell them to read this or that passage. We do give them a gift bag of food and other goodies and there is a welcome folder available to them if they want to know more about our congregation.

But we are doing our best not to be manipulative or exploitive. We just want to love these young scholars.

I'm thinking that loving others probably is what church should be about. Don't you think?

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Pope Francis was such an obvious choice to be Time Magazine's "Person of the Year," that no one was fooled when Time said it had narrowed the field of finalists to 10, then five. These awards, by the way, are much more about selling magazines than they are about the honoree.

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

Antisemitism's pervasiveness: 12-11-13

I have long been fascinated with what some people call the world's oldest hatred, antisemitism. or bigotry against Jews.

AntisemitismIt may well predate the origins of Christianity, but clearly Christianity was the source of what I call anti-Judaism, which is theological in nature. It argues that Jews missed the boat by rejecting Jesus as Messiah and, thus, are doomed to suffer forever because of that.

By contrast, modern antisemitism arose about the same time as the industrial revolution and is much more racial or ethnic in nature. It dreams up crazy ideas about Jewish conspiracies to control the world and accuses Jews of being greedy vermin.

There certainly is a connection between anti-Judaism and antisemitism, and you can read about that in my essay about anti-Judaism in Christian history.

But what I find so astonishing about modern antisemitism is that it is not limited to uneducated people who simply don't know any better.

In fact, a new academic study of hate letters mailed to the Central Council of Jews in Germany shows that "More than 60% of the hate mail came from well-educated Germans, including university professors."

Hatred and bigotry is not necessarily kneecapped by education. If it were, would we have had country clubs all over the U.S., including in Kansas City, forbidding Jews to join as members? Would many of Germany's intelligentsia in World War II have bought into the anti-Jewish garbage that Adolf Hitler and his followers were selling?

Education is part of the answer to deconstructing people's prejudices, of course, but clearly it cannot be counted on to complete the job. What's also needed? Moral models as instructors, whose job, among much else, is to stop and challenge prejudice when they hear or see it.

When antisemitism or other prejudices go unchallenged, people begin to imagine they are respectable and acceptable positions. Apparently that's happening again in Germany and maybe elsewhere, too.

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The Vatican's efforts to clean up its bank and its related financial dealings are paying off with good reforms, it's reported. Good. Except for the sex abuse scandal in the church, it's hard to think of anything that makes the church look bad more than shady financial dealings.

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Blessed-lessBlessed by Less: Cleaning Your Life of Clutter by Living Lightly, by Susan V. Vogt. People who have longed to simplify their cluttered, too-busy lives will find nothing astonishingly new in this small book, but they will find a helpful roadmap to achieve their goals. And perhaps that's what they've been missing. The author has worked in family ministry in the Catholic Church for decades and brings a rich Catholic sensibility to her writing. Through her own experiences of ridding her life of what she doesn't need, she writes, "I've been able to see more clearly how much is enough and how much is more than enough." She also pays attention to how to achieve more simplicity for those in the first half and then the second half of life, recognizing that those groups will have different needs and approaches. But remember: For you personally one of these books is enough. Give away any others you buy.

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

The continuity of faith: 12-10-13

Less than two weeks ago, I attended a wedding of old friends in the sanctuary my congregation calls home.

2nd-AIDS-1The next day I was back there for regular Sunday worship.

And the afternoon after that I was back in that sanctuary yet again for the funeral of one of our long-time members.

Three days in a row, three different purposes, one church family.

Sometimes the connections within a community of faith astound me, and sometimes I don't know how people get along without such connections.

The man who got married was an old friend whose wife died more than two years ago. I taught some of their kids Sunday school years ago. His bride was also a long-time church friend. Her husband died years ago and had been part of a breakfast-prayer group I've been a member of for about 30 years.

The weekly worship service was full of friends, some of whom I've known since I joined the church more than 35 years ago.

The funeral was for the mother of a woman who served with me on our most recent (2010) pastor search committee.

Each of us has different approaches to theology, worship and other matters of a religious nature. But we allow each other the space for those differences and we do our best to remember that we are part of a larger family rooted in God's love for us and our always-inadequate response to that love.

As I left the funeral -- one at which the casket was present -- I said to another old friend that she just witnessed what the sanctuary will look like when it's time for my own funeral (years from now, I hope). I find comfort in knowing that when I need them, my church family will be there for me. As they have been for most of four decades.

(The photo here today shows the west side of our church building dressed up to commemorate World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.)

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As South Africans and world leaders gather today to say farewell to Nelson Mandela, here's a piece that will tell you a bit more about how religion influenced his remarkable life.

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

What Mandela understood: 12-9-13

Now that we've all had a few days to get used to the idea that Nelson Mandela (pictured here) is gone, I want first to share with you this great column about him written by my friend Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News.

MandelaStu got it right when he wrote: "Mandela's luminous greatness was in how he overcame his suffering and anger, and perhaps the hate that would have consumed any other mortal man."

Suffering and evil combine to become what I've previously called the open wound of religion. There is no exhaustive explanation for why they exist if God is good. Such explanations are called theodicies, and they all inevitably fail.

Other religions, too, seek to explain and offer ways to deal with suffering. Buddhism is especially known for that.

But Mandela was a Christian and in the end he turned to his faith tradition to move him from righteous anger and a desire for revenge to forgiveness and reconciliation.

What is important to say about forgiveness and reconciliation (two quite different matters) is that even when efforts to forgive and reconcile fail, it is right to try.

The other day I was helping with the after-school book club at Southwest Early College Campus in Kansas City, and we were reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.

Some previous reader of the copy of the book I was using had written this unattributed quote on a page: "He who seeks revenge, remember to dig two graves." A quick Internet search tells me it's attributed simply to "A Chinese proverb."

But the truth that it carries -- revenge injures both parties -- is something Nelson Mandela learned from his faith and embodied in his life. It is why we honor him today so lavishly but deservedly.

Not seeking revenge is an extraordinarily difficult concept to live out. When the 9/11 hijackers murdered my own nephew (among nearly 3,000 others), for instance, my first instinct was to think about how I wanted to murder those bastards, who were, of course, already dead.

Revenge may well be a survival instinct in an animal sense. But in the end it extracts much too high a price on everyone. As William Bole notes in this excellent posting about Mandela on his TheoPol blog, "As a politician as much as a person, he knew there was no future without forgiveness."

It was South Africa's great good fortune that Nelson Mandela understood that. The question is why more of our own political leaders seem not to get it. The tawdry desire for petty revenge is a big part of what keeps our federal government in tedious gridlock. We need a few Nelson Mandelas here.

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The Rev. Rick Warren tells Piers Morgan of CNN that when it comes to his (Warren's) opposition to same-sex marriage, “I fear the disapproval of God more than I fear your disapproval or the disapproval of society.” It's intriguing that so many people who misread what Scripture says about homosexuality carry with them an image of God as disapprover, judge, rules-enforcer, which is not the God I think Jesus came to reveal. For my own essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality, click here.

Mandela's luminous greatness was in how he overcame his suffering and anger, and perhaps the hate that would have consumed any other mortal man
Mandela's luminous greatness was in how he overcame his suffering and anger, and perhaps the hate that would have consumed any other mortal man
Mandela's luminous greatness was in how he overcame his suffering and anger, and perhaps the hate that would have consumed any other mortal man