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A sort of church for the 'nones': 2-17-14

Perhaps you, too, have read or heard about a regular church-like gathering for non-religious people. Started just over a year ago, it's called Sunday Assembly, and my friend Russ Saltzman, a Lutheran pastor and writer, focused on it in this piece written for First Things.

Sunday-assemblyThe Sunday Assembly organization seek to, well, organize the "nones," those religiously unaffiliated persons who, when asked what religion they belong to, check "none of the above."

As Russ notes in his piece, "Nones are an untapped market on the anti-organized religion scene and, sure enough, someone is marketing un-religion."

Even the idea of assembling on Sunday strikes me as something of a longing for part of what Christianity has offered for a long time -- a regular, dependable gathering of community to support and love its members.

It's not clear to me whether some of the nones weren't getting that from Christianity or whether, once they rejected the religion's theological claims, they realized that something vital was missing from their lives that church used to provide.

In any case, Sunday Assembly seems to me to be an affirmation that humans are social animals, built for relationship. That, in fact, is one of the primary claims of religion: We are built for both relationship with other people and for relationship with the force in the cosmos that religion names God.

Sunday Assembly aims to provide part of that necessary relationship opportunity. But the other part -- the desire for a vertical relationship -- will go unmet there, and willfully so because at least some of the nones do not sense such a desire or need.

The other question I have about Sunday Assembly is whether its leaders get special training and eventually go through some kind of ceremony in which they are dedicated to the task of leadership. If that happens -- a "nordination"? -- do they put, say, an "UnRev." in front of their names?

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How far apart are the views of scientists and evangelicals on science and religion? Not very, a new survey finds. The study done at Rice University is one more bit of evidence that there really is common ground to stand on and appreciate what both science and religion bring to the conversation.

Dumb laws protecting faith: 2-15/16-14

It will come as no surprise to anyone older than about age six that here and there you can find politicians who take public stances on issues not because they are matters of great note or urgency but because those public stances may result in people thinking well of them and perhaps voting for them or contributing money to their campaigns in the future.

Merry-cThis is what our current political system encourages.

One problem with such a system is that it leads to asinine public law at times -- asinine, unnecessary, silly, boneheaded, chuckleheaded mush.

Where in the world could I find such an example?

Oh, let's start with Oklahoma, a state that has produced plenty of airheaded legislation. (I was going to start with that stupid anti-gay legislation in Kansas that's received a lot of attention in recent days, but that's shooting fish in a barrel.)

Just the other day a committee of the Oklahoma House squeezed out a piece of fatuousness referred to as the Merry Christmas Bill. It passed 15-1, though I haven't looked into who the one person was who somehow got knocked conscious and voted against it.

The bill, as the Associated Press story reports, says that "public school students, teachers and other staff members can greet each other with such traditional phrases as merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah and happy holidays. The committee passed the measure in spite of federal court rulings and U.S. Department of Education guidelines that say public schools already have the right to erect holiday displays with religious themes under certain circumstances and that students and teachers can greet each other with 'Merry Christmas.'"

In other words, the bill was a repetitious waste of time and energy and, to quote myself from above here, asinine, unnecessary, silly, boneheaded, chuckleheaded mush.

It seems easy to get members of legislative bodies to curry the favor of various religious groups -- especially groups that seem to form a majority of voters. Much of this stupid legislation has to do with trying to protect and defend an entire religion, as if the religion is so weak that it could not survive without the full-throated support of government. And this happens not just in places like Oklahoma. You also find it a lot in predominantly Muslim countries, where governments adopt things like blasphemy laws to protect Islam from free speech on the apparent but false theory that Islam is so threatened that it might fall apart if someone spoke critical words about Allah.

Any religion that needs such government intervention to survive and thrive may be damaged goods anyway. But the truth is none of the major religions, including Islam and Christianity needs this sort of help. This sort of help is offered simply as a means of gaining political points.

Christians and other people of faith in Oklahoma should tell their legislators just to stop it. If those lawmakers would quit wasting their time with such silliness, perhaps they might find ways to tackle the real problems. Perhaps.

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Have you forgiven your parents for not being perfect? A Christian author joins with a psychologist to describe why that's important, and Religion News Service writes about that here. I hope my children will forgive me for sharing this piece with them, too.

Related articles

Saving Iraq's Jewish treasures: 2-14-14

You'll have to get your Valentine's Day blogging insight and love elsewhere today. For public consumption, I'm more interested in this fascinating story about old Jewish documents rescued in Iraq in 2003 and what should become of them now.

Iraq-Jewish-treasuresThe story brings to mind the recently released movie, "Monuments Men," and their work at rescuing artr the Nazis had stolen in World War II. And it brings to mind one more thing the United States didn't do right when it invaded Iraq in 2003 -- it didn't have people assigned to protect, save or rescue priceless cultural treasures in Iraq.

Instead, we saw museums and other cultural centers looted and lots of priceless material disappear into the ether.

It was a shameful failing -- one more among many in that terrible time.

In the Daily Beast story to which I've linked you above, we learn that inside Saddam Hussein's intelligence ministry headquarters troops found "the stolen treasures of Iraq’s Jews—including a 16th century Bible, torah scroll fragments, Hebrew school books and handwritten sermons."

The documents were rescued and have wound up on display in the United States under an agreement that calls for them to be returned to Iraq. The time for that return is coming soon, but there are almost no Jews left in Iraq and sending them back there now almost certainly would put them in further danger of destruction, given the fragile security situation in Iraq.

Some efforts are being made to work out some reasonable future for these princeless treasures, and last week the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution seeking to throw the government's weight behind the salvation efforts. We can only hope that the worldwide Jewish community, the U.S. and Iraqi governments and others who care about preserving history will find a solution.

The U.S. has done enough damage in Iraq (along with the good of driving Saddam from power). We don't need another black mark on our record regarding the salvation of these documents.

(The photo here today of one of the documents in question is by Alex Brandon of the Associated Press. I borrowed it from the Daily Beast story site to which I've linked you above.)

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A Religion News Service blogger, responding insightfully to a morally bankrupt Cadillac commercial, says the failure of Christians to object to it is "another sign that the much of the Western church has Americanized the Christian gospel." That criticism hurts, but it hurts because it's true.

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P.S.: A few weeks ago I told you here about a Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel later this year being led by my friends Fr. Gar Demo and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. It turns out two other people I know are also leading a tour to Israel, David May of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Mike Graves of St. Paul School of Theology. That tour starts in late May and the deadline for signing up is nearly here. For details, click here. By the way, I'm having David and Mike as speakers at my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church, in May in the Witherspoon class.

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ANOTHER P.S.: For Valentine's Day today I changed out my profile picture here to include one of me and my sweet Valentine.

History's devilish lessons: 2-13-14

Almost certainly, 100 or 200 or 500 years from now it will be extraordinarily difficult for people of that age to have a comprehensive understanding of people of our own era. This despite the evidence they may still have in the way of writings, video and other forms of documentation.

Cotton MatherSimilarly, it is almost impossible for us today to get into the heads of people who were around at the earliest stages of the formation of the United States. I'm thinking about the 1600s and early 1700s, the time of the Puritans (and Pilgrims).

One reason the Puritans come to mind today is that this is the anniversary of the death in 1728 of the famous Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather (depicted here). For much of his life he was a rigid Calvinist, though there's some evidence that late in his life he began to soften his hold on hyper-Calvinism a bit.

But what we mostly remember about Mather today was his connection to the odious Salem Witch Trials.

Mather, a famous New England preacher at the time, was convinced that witchcraft was real and a tool of Satan.

As I say, it's easy today for us to snicker at that and to bemoan the fact that young women lost their lives because of that belief. But because we have not had the opportunity to live in that time and culture we really aren't able to say how we ourselves might have thought about such things -- or acted.

This is not to excuse such thinking and behavior, but it is to say that future generations may well have difficulty knowing how in the lifetimes of many of us alive today the Holocaust could have happened, the Cold War, the spread of nuclear weapons, terrorism based on religious claims, racism and on and on.

It behooves us to study history so we can avoid a repetition of the worst of it, but even that is no guarantee that we'll be able to or that, centuries later, we'll be capable of getting inside the head of a Cotton Mather or the Puritan culture that helped to shape him.

All of which should move us toward some humility, though of all the Benedictine virtues that one seems to be the one in the thinnest supply.

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Some Republicans dismiss other Republicans as RINOs -- Republican in Name Only. Something similar may be happening in religion in Russia -- Religious in Name Only. New analysis of survey data suggests that although lots more Russians now identify with the Russian Orthodox faith than in recent decades, hardly any of them attends worship services regularly. On the other hand, as someone else once noted, just because you're in a garage doesn't mean you're a car.

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P.S.: It's time to sign up for a writing workshop I'm offering April 29-30 at Heartland Presbyterian Center in Parkville, Mo. It's called "From Pain to Hope Through Writing," and you can find all the details you need right here. Hope to see you there.

Finally, 'The Book Thief': 2-12-14

As regular readers here know, I sometimes review or at least introduce new books to you, books that have something to do with faith, religion, spirituality, ethics, morality, whatever along those lines you'd like to call it.

Book-thiefGiven the fact that publishers are churning out a hundredyskillion books a day in both print and electronic form, I can't get to them all.

And sometimes I'm almost a decade behind even talking about books.

Which is why I'm just now going to say a few words about The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which was published in 2005 and since has been made into a film that I haven't yet seen but plan to.

Why am I just getting around to reading this novel set in Germany in the time of World War II and the Holocaust? Because the book club I'm helping with at Kansas City's Southwest Early College Campus is just reading it now. When we get done, we hope to arrange for the club members to see the film.

Because my last book was about the Holocaust  -- and specifically about non-Jews in Poland who helped to save Jews -- The Book Thief has fascinated me. It tells the story of a small German family that, for a time, hid a Jew named Max in their basement. There is, of course, much more to the story, including its focus on a teen-age girl named Leisel Meminger and the foster family she's staying with.

The narrator of the entire book is the Grim Reaper, Mr. Death himself. And through his eyes we get a new and disturbing vision of the human race. It's not unlike the dark vision I'm finding in the second volume of Mark Twain's posthumous autobiography, just released a few months ago.

What The Book Thief does is cause readers to think about the human condition, about the questions of the sources of evil, about the sources of human kindness.

And the writing is simply magnificent, if a little quirky.

So put this one on your list if you've not already done so. It's OK to be a decade late to a book. Heck, almost 13 years after my first book, A Gift of Meaning, came out, you still can find a few copies hither and yon. In fact, I found one just the other day on a shelf at our great KC-area independent book store, Rainy Day Books.

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Oh, the hassles ancient gods have to put up with. Take, for instance, the Greek god Apollo, cast in bronze. A fisherman found him underwater not long ago. Since then he's been hauled off in a cart pulled by a donkey, laid out on a a Smurf blanket, put on eBay, seized by Hamas and hidden from archeologists, as this story reports. So if anyone offers to turn you into a god, you might want to think twice about saying yes.

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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.: From my photo here today you should be able to tell that it's the birthday of one of my fellow illinoisans, Abe Lincoln.

Contributions by Muslim-Americans: 2-11-14

I still hear angry anti-Muslim voices from both the U.S. and the rest of the world -- voices that tend to lump all Muslims into the violent extremist bin-Laden branch of Islam (though Islam rejects that branch) and that tend to say harsh and unwelcoming things to and about American Muslims.

IslamcrescentMost of this claptrap is driven by fear that is fueled by ignorance.

Sometimes -- though not often enough -- Muslims respond to these criticisms not with defensive criticism of the faith of the accusers but with facts that simply kneecap the arguments of the critics.

A good recent example is this piece by Hesham Hassaballa, a Chicago doctor and writer who has written for Beliefnet and for Religion News Service.

Hassaballa quotes a piece asking why Muslims have done so little for the U.S. over the years and then he shares a response to that ignorant question from a Georgetown University researcher. It's well worth a read.

Every faith group, of course, contains people who embarrass their own tradition -- the bin Laden followers in Islam, the Ku Klux Klan and Fred Phelpses in Christianity and on and on.

But anytime you discover someone smearing a whole group and not noting how diverse each group is you can be pretty sure it's not just wrong but meant to inflict damage.

As a member of a 9/11 family, am I angry at certain Muslims? Of course. Those bastards killed my nephew. But would I therefore be justified in lumping all Muslims together with the 9/11 hijackers? Of course not.

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It turns out things also aren't easy for Muslims in and around Sochi, Russia, site of the Winter Olympics. There are 20,000 of them there, but no mosque, it's reported. And don't hold your breath about Sochi getting such an Islamic worship center -- at least not under the current regime.

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

A useless creationism debate: 2-10-14

I was loathe to write about the recent creationism-science debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye (though I sort of like the fact that we're dealing in monosyllabic names here) before it happened because I thought it was a waste of everyone's time.

Creationism-vs.-EvolutionI still think that. And I'm a little reluctant to wade into it today, but I think it's worth the time to make a point or two.

First, serious journalism outlets paid at least some attention to it. Here, for instance, is the post-game analysis by someone at the Christian Science Monitor. If you don't already know, the CSM piece also will tell you more about who Ham and Nye are and the scope of the debate.

Nye, known for his "Bill Nye the Science Guy" show on TV, has been properly criticized for doing the debate at all. His participation was a way of telling people that biblical literalism that leads to young-Earth creationism is somehow a serious threat to real science and must be contested.

Well, look, I know there are lots of people who believe a lot of impossible things but when you run into people who think the moon is made of green cheese or who are convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald conspired with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President James Garfield, you simply say, "How nice" and move on.

For heaven's sake, as I noted here the other day, even Pat Robertson, who thinks God sends natural disasters to punish whole cities for allowing gay residents to live there (or something like that), said he thinks it's time that biblical literalists give up the silly notion that the Earth is just a few thousand years old and was created in six 24-hour days.

Science and religion have much to say to one another and should respect the unique perspectives of each other. But if people of faith are going to reject almost-universally accepted science, they're going to be dismissed as kooks -- and should be.

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Yes, yes, we hear lots of nice things about Pope Francis. And I have lots of admiration for him. But what really has changed about the Catholic Church since his papacy started? New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who used to cover the Vatican, has a go at that question here. It raises the question of whether tone and style really are enough. Does tone really trump content, as Bruni writes, and is it, as he says, "everything"? Somehow I hope not.

Some faithful winter reading: 2-8/9-14

In our bleak midwinter, it's time to curl up in a comfortable chair, turn off the incessant television and read a decent book or three. Lucky for you I have several that may interest you to highlight.

All of them have some sort of faith connection. Big surprise on a blog called "Faith Matters," right?

Let's begin with: 

Faith-empire* Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes, by Mitri Raheb. The author is a Christian pastor, born in Bethlehem and still living there as senior pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church. If we hope to understand Middle Eastern history and the current status and shape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must listen carefully and deeply to both Jewish and Arab/Palestinian voices, whether Muslim or Christian. In this book we have a chance to pay attention to a Palestinian point of view that finds its roots in the reality that over the centuries the Holy Land has been ruled by a series of outside empires. Indeed, a lot of New Testament scholarship in recent years has focused on the ways in which Roman rule of ancient Israel affected the lives of Jesus and the people to whom he ministered. This book moves that scholarship forward. Jesus stood against the oppressive power of empire in countless ways and, in the end, his opposition contributed to his death. One of the inevitable questions raised by this book is whether modern Israel today should be thought of as a kind of foreign and occupying empire. On one side we find Israelis who would object strongly to any such suggestion. On the other, we have Palestinians who make something like that very charge. This small book helps us understand the latter point of view and whether it's possible, given those differences, to create a movement toward reconciliation that will allow everyone to live in peace and prosperity. Such an outcome will not be possible if we don't first acknowledge the differing and contrasting views on the question of empire.

United-America* United America, by Wayne Baker. The long subtitle is: "The surprising truth about American values, American identity and the 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear." Besides being the chair of the management and organization area at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, Wayne Baker is part of the family. His job there is to oversee the "Our Values" section there. Here's an interview with him in which he talks about the 10 beliefs Americans hold dear, values he thinks can help reunite the country. Is he right? I don't know but I'm pretty sure that whatever we're doing now isn't working, so let's give Wayne's ideas a try, starting with "Respect for Others." Oh, I know that's a radical concept in today's culture wars, but it's worth a shot.

* Frames: Season One, from the Barna Group. This is a different approach. It's a series of 10 small booklets, each written by people with religious connections and each tackling some current trend, from schools in crisis to wonder women to fighting for peace. These booklets could be a great tool for a small-group study through a church. Have a look at the website. Glad to see Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt as one of the authors. The plan is to turn out 10 more such booklets annually.

And now, briefly, a few others.

* Mercy in the City, by Kerry Weber. This is a young Catholic's account of her attempt to act out the works of mercy listed in Matthew 25. It's a good, inspiring read that has the benefit of a sense of humor and perspective.

* Christ in Conflict: Lessons from Jesus and His Controversies, by John Stott. This popular author died in 2011, and now Intervarsity Press is offering a revised version of his 1970 book, Christ the Controversialist, under this new title. Stott was long recognized as a leader among evangelical Christians both in the U.K., where he was rector of a London church, and in the U.S.

Buddhist-bio* Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science, by David P. Barash. This Buddhist attempt to reconcile science and religion receives, on the back cover, a half-hearted endorsement from the famous atheist Richard Dawkins. Had he made a full-throated endorsement I'd have thought twice about even mentioning the book to you.

* Pick Your Yoga Practice, by Meagan McCrary. Here's a book that describes about 20 different kinds of yoga. Who knew? Well, more and more Americans know, and this introduction lets them know how one type of practice differs from another and which ones are more connected to yoga's Hindu source in India.

* Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews, by Mary Poppin. The author, an education professor at Claremont Graduate University, analyzes "material naturalism," "secular humanism," "pantheism" and "Judeo-Christian theism." And comes out in favor of the latter as a worldview that most helps us understand reality even though much of the culture would choose another worldview. It's sort of Christian apologetics in a different dress.

Bonnet-Strings* Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman's Ties to Two Worlds, by Saloma Miller Furlong, with David Furlong. I reviewed this woman's first book about leaving the Amish life here. This book moves her story along from her efforts to leave the Amish world in which she grew up to her eventual marriage to a non-Amish man and what she considers her freedom from the strictures of the faith of her childhood.

* Hopeful, by Shelley Shepard Gray. Speaking of the Amish, this is another novel about Amish life from a writer who has made something of a career out of telling stories from that tradition. This is the first book in a planned trilogy called "Return to Sugarcreek."

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The latest demographic figures about America's religious landscape don't look good for the Republican Party. Religion scholar Mark Silk explains. Of course, often such projections turn out wrong because of events and developments no one can see coming. Well, except God, and she's an indepenent, I hear.

Finding the lost Messiah: 2-7-14

The New Testament does not contain what can be considered a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. Clearly there are stories in that part of the Bible about his life -- his birth, his ministry, his death, his resurrection. But there's nothing that 21st Century people would consider anything close to even a Wikipedia-standard biographical sketch of the god-man many consider a member of the Holy Trinity.

Three-daysIndeed, between Jesus birth and the beginning of his ministry we have only one New Testament story -- briefly told -- of when he was 12 years old and went to Jerusalem with his parents for Passover, only to be lost there for three days. His parents, the gospels say, were headed back to Nazareth when they finally realized he wasn't with them. So they returned to search for him.

Regular readers of this blog know that although I review, mention and talk about a lot of books I rarely review fiction.

I'm going to make an exception today to introduce you to Chris Stepien's new novel, Three Days: The Search for the Boy Messiah.

As the title clearly indicates, it tells the story, in fiction, of that fascinating tale of the 12-year-old Jesus being lost and being finally found in the temple in Jerusalem as he was impressing everyone -- including religious leaders -- with his theological knowledge and wisdom.

Stepien's book is a good read, an intriguing read, a helpful read. It doesn't qualify as great literature but I think readers (especially Christians familiar with the biblical accounts) will find it engaging and will get a much better sense of Jesus' Jewish context than most Christians now have. (To help with that Jewish context, Stepien uses the name Yeshua for Jesus and other spellings to refer to the original Hebrew names.) (Second interruption here: If you want a great book to help you understand Jesus' Jewish context, read The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine.)

I say it's not great literature for several reasons, one being that at times Stepien drifts into telling us the obvious. For instance, when he describes King Herod's order to murder all male children in and near Bethlehem who are two years old or younger, he adds: "It was a horrible, evil command."

Well, of course it was. Nobody needed to be told that.

But the story that Stepien concocts is at once inventive (with various interesting made-up characters entering Jesus' life) and quite literal, with him returning to traditional Jewish and later biblical sources for the exact wording of certain prayers and quotations from scripture.

In some ways I wish the Bible itself had told this story in this way. But the Bible's purpose was not what we 21st Century folks think of as biographical. So Stepien, who, God bless him, spent much of his career as a journalist, offers this version of the story. It may not be factual, but it feels true. So one can imagine that it might well have happened this way.

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I almost never get the chance to give Pat Robertson some applause for saying something wise because he almost never does. But let me lead the applause for his remarks about young-Earth creationism after a recent (and rather silly) creationist-evolutionist debate. Here's the money quote: “To say that it all came about in 6,000 years is just nonsense and I think it’s time we come off of that stuff and say this isn’t possible.”

The sources of our rhythm: 2-6-14

Why are we so attracted to rhythm? We seek it in our music. We are drawn to it in good writing. We sense it in the cycles and patterns of our lives.

Sound_wave(Did you notice the we-we-we rhythm caused by repetition in the previous paragraph?)

The other night at a Kansas City Symphony performance my wife and I attended, conductor Michael Stern talked a bit about rhythm prior to percussionist Martin Grubinger's remarkable performance of John Corigliano's wildly breath-taking concerto "Conjurer."

Stern noted that the first rhythm we're ever aware of is the heartbeat of our mother while we're still in the womb.

That may well be true, but I think something even deeper is going on as we instinctively seek out and attach ourselves to the rhythms of the cosmos.

What I think is happening is that we are seeking to echo the primordial rhythm of the creation. We hear or sense that foundational movement of divine life and try to respond to it by offering our own attempts at rhythm back as a way of saying, "Hello. I'm here. Are you really there?"

It's what dance is about. It's what music is about. Poetry, good prose, aging, rearing children, the good repetitive habits of our lives.

We sense that somewhere there is the original rhythm maker and we want to harmonize with him/her/it. So we pray. We sing hymns. We organize our lives in ways that honor the source of that original rhythm and we seek to share our sense of that rhythm with others.

It's what helps to make us human.

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As some of you know, the pastors at my congregation are doing a sermon series now called "Jesus, the Pope and a Protestant Walk Into a Bar." It's really well done. You can find those sermons here, including last week's by our associate pastor, Don Fisher. Enjoy.

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