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Remembering the Waco fire: 3-31-14

In early 1994, about a year after dozens of people died in a fire in Mount Carmel, home of the Branch Davidians outside of Waco, Texas, I went there and wrote a long series of articles for The Kansas City Star about what went wrong.

Journey-WacoIn short, what went wrong was that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to understand much of anything about the theology driving this small religious sect with roots in Seventh Day Adventism. That failure led federal authorities to do exactly the wrong thing -- use force -- to try to resolve the problem.

Worse, as I reported, if the ATF or FBI had spent no more than an hour talking with members of the religious studies department at nearby Baylor University -- people who had studied the Branch Davidians for the decades that the sect had lived near Waco -- they would have known their approach was all wrong.

You can read my articles in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.

I am glad now to have my 20-year-old analysis confirmed in this fascinating New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell. He does that as he reviews a new book by one of the Branch Davidian survivors, Clive Doyle, A Journey to Waco, which I haven't had a chance to read.

As Gladwell writes, "The F.B.I. . . .expected that the Davidians, like a fragile cult, would turn paranoid and defensive in the presence of a threat. He didn’t grasp that he was dealing with a very different kind of group—the sort whose idea of a good evening’s fun was a six-hour Bible study wrestling with a tricky passage of Revelation. It was a crucial misunderstanding, and would feed directly into the tragedy that was to come."

As I reported in 1994, two religious scholars eventually began acting as go-betweens so the FBI and and the Branch Davidians' odd leader, David Koresh, might understand each other better. And these scholars were convinced -- indeed, they later obtained physical evidence that they were right -- that Koresh would have given himself up within two weeks once he finished writing his interpretation of a key passage of the book of Revelation so the world could read it.

But a couple of days into those two weeks, the FBI lost patience and sent in tanks on April 19.

Gladwell confirms that account of the scholars, too.

The lesson here needs to be remembered: When dealing with people who seem outside the main streams of religion, it's important first to try to grasp their understanding of the world. Without that, trouble is certain.

After the fatal Davidian fire, changes were made in the training of FBI agents so they would become more sensitive to how to deal with people who had deep religious convictions. My hope is that, 20-plus years on, that training continues and has been expanded to people all the way from local sheriffs to the president of the United States -- who was Bill Clinton in 1993 and who, sadly, didn't challenge the way his attorney general, Janet Reno, authorized force at Mount Carmel.

It was a grave error and must not be repeated.

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A church in Florida now is offering drive-through prayer for motorists. With my luck I'd get behind someone with 143,098 prayer requests.

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P.S.: It's time to sign up for one or both writing workshops I'm offering about getting from pain to hope through writing. The first will be April 29-30 at Heartland Presbyterian Center in Parkville, Mo. For that one you can find all the details you need right here. The second one will be the week of Aug. 11 at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. For details of that class, click here. Come join us.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Do you have my new book yet? It's Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, and I think you'll find it engaging. You can read about it here. If you want an autographed copy, e-mail me at and I'll tell you how we can make that happen.

A Jewish mind for all seasons: 3-29/30-14

As I watched the first segments of Simon Schama's five-part PBS series "The Story of the Jews" this past Tuesday evening, I thought a bit about the many incredible minds that have come out of Judaism over the centuries.

MaimonidesFew are quite as remarkable as Moses Maimonides (depicted here), who was born on this date in 1135 in Spain, though he wound up living in Egypt.

As the Jewish Virtual Library to which I've linked you notes, "The writings and achievements of this twelfth-­century Jewish sage seem to cover an impossibly large number of activities."

Maimonides is not alone in being astonishingly productive, of course, but people like Maimonides (Albert Schweitzer comes to mind) are as rare as hen's false teeth -- and are getting even more rare today as the base of knowledge is expanding so quickly and people are specializing more narrowly in this or that field.

It's just about impossible today to be an expert in half a dozen different fields. Indeed, it's tough enough simply to be a family physician and keep up with medical developments, just as it's hard to be a  journalist and be able to use all the high-tech communications tools that seem to change every week or two.

But in the 12th Century it was at least theoretically easier to be a well-rounded person who could speak intelligently and in considerable depth about both medicine and religion. Which is what Maimonides did.

His own description of being the on-call physician for the sultan of Egypt in Cairo (contained in the Jewish Virtual Library piece) wears me out, so no doubt it took as much time and energy as it does today to be a multi-tasker. But at least back then there was less to know. The human storehouse of knowledge wasn't as crowdy.

At any rate, if you don't know about Maimonides, today's a good day to learn. After all, a guy turns 879 only once.

(I found the picture of Maimonides here.)

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Pope Francis seems to be reaching out to almost everyone to create better relations. Now it's the Pentecostals. And who can blame him? Many Catholics in South America have been moving into the Pentecostal camp.

Does religion hurt women? 3-28-14

Does our society treat women as second-class citizens in many ways? Sadly, yes. Can you trace the root of that prejudice back to religion?

CarterJimmy Carter (pictured herethinks so.

Unequal treatment, he said in an interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell about his new book, A Call to Action, "is really derived, I would say, indirectly from the fact that religious leaders say that women are inferior in the eyes of God, which is a false interpretation” of Scriptures.

Just as the Bible was misused to justify slavery for a long time, so it also has been misused to keep women down. (Well, gays, too, but that's another terrible story.)

Especially troublesome in regard to women is some of the writing attributed to the Apostle Paul, who in some of his letters to the congregations he helped to start says things about the role of women that need to be interpreted carefully so that readers don't immediately assume that women should shut up in worship services or that women are in all ways subservient to men, especially in marriage.

That's how Paul is misread as speaking to all congregations and people in all ages.

A pretty good rule of thumb is to be profoundly cautious of any interpretation of scripture that results in pain or subjugation of people instead of in love and fairness.

I think Carter is mostly right about this matter. And it's up to religious leaders to help members of their congregations understand the primary lessons of the Bible, which, as I say, are about the responsibility to love and not about power position arrangments.

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Erhman-Jesus Non-Ehrman-JesusThe publisher HarperCollins is offering intentionally competing books, one by the famous skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, and one by a collection of Christian scholars, How God Became Jesus. They represent, as you might imagine, 180-degrees different theologies. The first contends that the son of Mary became the son of God. The second takes the orthodox Christian position that the son of God became the son of Mary. Both can't be right. The problem is that neither position is amenable to scientific proof or rigorous historical confirmation. So the discussion and debate will continue without resolution this side of heaven. By the way, the only thing really new in Ehrman's thinking found in his new book is that he now believes the deification of Jesus happened soon after the crucifixion and not decades later. I find Ehrman interesting but ultimately tedious. He writes with the kind of unnecessary edge to his argument typical of people who have rejected their earlier fundamentalist approach to Christianity, which accurately describes Erhman.

Disputing the Big Bang theory: 3-27-14

If you were one of my regular Kansas City Star readers back in the 1980s, '90s and beyond, you know that I wrote a fair amount about science, especially cosmology and subatomic physics, the big and little ends of the scientific enterprise.

CosmosMy interest in these matters had -- and still has -- a theological basis in that I've wanted to understand the amazingly intricate patterns of the creation. But I've tried not to let science limit what religion has to say nor to let religion limit what science is discovering.

Which is why I've found the reaction to the recent confirmation of the Big Bang theory so interesting. As this Daily Beast piece notes, Christian evangelicals seem confused and confounded by the news.

Once again, this is evidence of the complications that result when the Bible is read literalistically. The folks who think that Earth is just a few thousand years ago and was created in six 24-hour days keep finding themselves in awkward corners.

On the other hand, there are Christians (and maybe others) who now think that the Big Bang confirmation news is evidence that the Bible is right, if you read the Bible in a certain way.

It seems to me that everyone would be better off to let science be science and let its discoveries work themselves out in its step-by-step way while we also recognize that the two creation stories (yes, there are two) in the book of Genesis are there not to tell us precisely how the physical world came into being but, rather, to tell us something about God as creator.

Sometimes scientific theories and the biblical witness will be in harmony, but that's mostly coincidence and not because the Bible is a science textbook. If we pledge allegiance to a literal reading of the Bible, inevitably that reading will smack up against scientific evidence that will dispute such a reading. Time and again literalistic faith loses the debate to test-the-results science.

But, then, you'd have thought people might have learned that centuries ago when the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for insisting that Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. You'd have thought.

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I often tell people to go to funerals. It's a wonderful way not just to honor the dead but also to inspire the living. Next best is reading obituaries. And actor James Rebhorn, who just died at age 65, wrote his own. It's excellent. You can read it here. Read it and weep, perhaps.

These are the jokes, folks: 3-26-14

We have been far too serious here for too long, so let's take a humor break today.

LaughfaceI remind you that the jokes I'm sharing with you here today are not original. And I remind you that if they were original they'd be funnier.

If you have funnier ones than these that are fresh, e-mail them to me and I might use them in a future humor collection.

* A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin 5, and Ryan 3. 

The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. 

Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson: “If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, 'Let my brother have the first pancake, I can wait.'”

Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, “Ryan, you be Jesus.”

* A little boy was overheard praying: “Lord, if you can't make me a better boy, don't worry about it. I'm having a real good time like I am.”

* A man goes to see his rabbi. "Rabbi, something terrible is happening and I have to talk to you about it."

The rabbi asked, "What's wrong?"

The man replied, "My wife is going to poison me."

The rabbi, very surprised by this, asks, "How can that be?"

The man then pleads, "I'm telling you, I'm certain she's going to poison me. What should I do?"

The rabbi then offers, "Tell you what. Let me talk to her, I'll see what I can find out and I'll let you know."

A week later the rabbi calls the man and says, "I spoke to your wife on the phone for three hours. You want my advice?"

The man said, "Yes" and the Rabbi replied, "Take the poison."

* A Sunday school teacher asked, "Johnny, do you think Noah did a lot of fishing when he was on the Ark?"

"No," replied Johnny. "How could he with just two worms?”

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Who sends cocaine to the Vatican inside condoms? Somebody did. But when Germans intercepted the package on the way, it ruined a Vatican sting operation. Cocaine in condoms? To the Vatican? Well, Lent is sort of the Christian high holy days.

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* Keeping the Faith Without a Religion, by Roger Housden. This book is a response to the growing population of folks who are the so-called "spiritual but not religious." It's an attempt to appeal to that group by telling them that they may well be on to something. And, indeed, some of them may be, but the author, a spirituality and writing workshop leader from the Bay Area, seems to lump much of traditional or formal religions together as institutions offering black and white answers in a gray world. He tends to deride both religion and atheism as having a "mania for conclusions. Religion is full of definitive answers about the meaning and purpose of life meant to guide you safely from the cradle to the grave." Well, for sure some religion is that way, but not healthy religion. Good faith, he writes, is "the fruit of intuition or interior experience, not of received beliefs." This deep reliance on experience and the ability to make sense of it places a lot of faith in people's aptitude for making sense of the world by going inside their heads and hearts. But ultimately religion is a team game, a community-based way of living that supports the individual but does not place ultimate faith in that individual's ability to discern and choose the good without help. So although there are some helpful insights in this book, in the end it seems like a stretch that is designed to appeal to people who have walked away from traditional religion.

Adyashanti* Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, by Adyashanti, a single-named California spiritual teacher whose name means "primordial peace." In the end, this really isn't an exploration of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and what that might mean for people. Rather, it's something of a plea to see Jesus as a "spiritual revolutionary" and to use that insight "to wake us up from our own individual dream of separation and isolation." In this approach Jesus becomes not the fully human, fully divine person preached by traditional Christianity but, rather, just an inspiring spiritual teacher -- a guru for the ages, in a way. The author wants us to "interpret the Jesus story mythologically," which doesn't mean dismissing it as a made-up story but, rather, appreciating the metaphors inherent in the story. And there is much to be said for this. But the author seems to say in various ways that the goal of all this is for us somehow to become divine. There are ways in which traditional Christianity -- at least some branches of it -- may be in harmony with this goal, but it's a terribly complicated matter that easily can degenerate into silly arrogance. Adyashanti seems to gloss over those difficulties. One thing I did like about the book was the author's recognition that the last section of the book of Mark was a late edition that, in some ways, detracts from the power of the original ending. Indeed, that added-on ending does change the sense of shock and fear experienced by the first women to encounter the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. But he uses this information to turn to the resurrection not so much as a historical event but as an inspiration to people "to be a benevolent presence in the world." So whatever the author's seeming intent to explore the resurrection, the result is mostly one more spiritual self-help book that seems to be about Christianity but finally doesn't have a lot to do with it.

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P.S.: You have an opportunity this weekend to think anew about nonviolence. J. Denny Weaver, author of the new book The Nonviolent God, will be speaking at Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kansas. For details, click on this link to a pdf about it:  Download Weaver-events Feel free to pass along the pdf.

Obama's Catholic connections: 3-25-14

Although Reinhold Niebuhr is said to be Barack Obama's favorite theologian, the fact is that in the president's background is deep grounding in Catholic social teaching.

ObamaPope-FrancisThis New York Times piece looks at that history in preparation for Obama's meeting this week with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

It's worth a read to understand some of the influences that have led Obama to adopt some of the priorities of Catholic social teaching that this pope is emphasizing.

Much of what's called Catholic social teaching focuses on the poor and how they should be treated. That's what makes Pope Francis something of an ally with Obama, who in the early 1980s went to work in Chicago in a program funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Even Obama acknowledges he didn't know much about Catholicism then, but as The Times notes in the piece to which I've linked you, he was a quick study. He never became a Catholic, but his thinking continues to resonate with large parts, though not all, of Catholic social teaching.

What's intriguing to me is the way in which Obama has fallen out of favor with some Catholic leaders over such culture war issues as abortion (leading to the Hobby Lobby case being heard by the Supreme Court this week).

The new pope has asked for a de-emphasis on such hot-button matters and a renewed focus on serving the needy.

That's where Francis and Obama may well find common ground. What that might lead to remains to be seen, however.

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Speaking of the Hobby Lobby case, what difference will it make that the current members of the Supreme Court have many of their own faith connections and positions? That's the difficult question this Washington Post piece raises. I don't know the answer, either, but my hope is that the justices will rule on the merits of the case according to the law and not according to individual religious beliefs.

Just who are the Jews? 3-24-14

What promises to be a remarkable five-part documentary, historian Simon Schama's "The Story of the Jews" begins airing tomorrow evening on PBS. Check your local listings. In Kansas City, check here. (Schama is pictured here.)

Simon-SchamaThe Jewish online magazine, The Tablet, has done this lengthy and fascinating piece about the documentary and its creator.

The film is based on Schama's book of the same title.

I will be particularly interested to see how the documentary matches up with the long and endlessly interesting book I've just started reading on my Kindle: Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg.

Nirenberg, like Schama, quickly takes us back to ancient Egypt and that country's experience with early followers of Judaism.

I want to leave you time to read The Tablet piece today, so I won't say much more -- except that these kinds of histories are expecially helpful in giving a context to the Jewish community of today that is broader and deeper than the Holocaust.

That's one of the things that struck me about Poland when I was there a few years ago doing interviews for They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Which is to say that for most visitors to Poland the focus is on the murdering of Jews done there in World War II by the Germans under Hitler's Nazis. But the truth is that Jewish culture in Poland goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, and there is much more to the story than the Shoah, as central as that story is.

So I hope you'll have a chance to see this new PBS series.

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Fred Phelps is dead, but as the author of this piece notes, Christian fundamentalism of various sorts lives on. And no doubt will continue to as long as people want black-and-white answers instead of gray and want anything but metaphor.

Unplug a bit, golf legend says: 3-22/23-14

I have long been a fan of Kansas City-based golfer Tom Watson (pictured here), one of the best players in the history of the game.

Tom-WatsonAnd I've liked him not just for his skill on the links but for his integrity, shown in countless ways on and off the course. I've seen Tom in person several times and a year or two ago got to follow him around to watch him play in a tournament for a few holes but I've never met him.

That said, it didn't surprise me the other morning to discover Tom being interviewed on CNBC because of a new commercial he's done on behalf of MasterCard.

What I especially liked was Tom's warning that our mobile devices -- smart phones, iPads, etc. -- are taking up so much of our time nowadays that we don't have enough time for interpersonal relations.

I regret that when CNBC posted the interview with Tom to which I've linked you above, it cut out Tom's wise words about this matter.

In the original interview, Tom removed his own cell phone from his jacket pocket and said that one reason more people aren't playing golf today or joining in similar activities that build community is that they are spending too much time on mobile devices.

Tom was, of course, pointing to an old problem of technology that others have raised many times, but it was good to see someone like Tom raise a red flag for people who watch this business channel. Get off your devices sometimes, he was saying, and look people in the eye for some human contact.

It's a lesson that faith communities also should be preaching.

Unplugging -- at least for a little while -- can rejuvenate us and give us a clearer perspective about life among real human beings. Let's remember what's real and what's virtual.

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Billy Graham's daughter wonders if the disappearance of that Malaysian airliner with 239 people aboard is a foretaste of the "rapture" of the church. This strikes me as a category error -- comparing something that really happened with something that won't.

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P.S.: Some folks at Christian Universities Online have put together an interesting graphic about the first year in office for Pope Francis. You can find it here.

Our reaction to the missing flight: 3-21-14

The speculation about what happened to Malaysian Airlines flight 370 to Beijing has covered almost all possibilities, some plausible, some straight out of the jostled heads of conspiracy theorists.

Malaysia-flightI have no answer to the puzzle.

I know only that much of our unease about this mystery is not about the 200-plus passengers (though at least this blogger has thought about them). To most of us, those people are essentially stick figures, numbers, nobodies. Rather, our unease is about us.

We the living are the ones who so often are uncomfortable with mystery, with ambiguity, with uncertainty.

When the 227 passengers (not counting crew) who boarded an international flight with every intention of being set down at their destination simply disappear, we begin to imagine what disappearing might be like for us. And how vulnerable we are. And how we must once again face our own mortality, over which we have precious little control.

In the end, it turns out, it matters to us how we die even if we are loathe to think about it -- and, oh, brother, are many Americans loathe to think about it. We prefer, of course, to imagine that we will not end at all, not suffer the indignity of ceasing to be, whether by natural causes (whatever that might mean) or violence of one kind or another. And even people of faith who believe in an afterlife, will die and cease to be -- at least in the only way we the living can understand by experience.

But it makes us nervous, queasy to think of getting on an airplane and simply vanishing, extinguished like some weak flame atop a candle in the wind.

We wonder where, if anywhere, we would go when we go pffftt. We speculate about whether we would be missed or mourned. And sometimes we dislike the conclusions we come to.

The families of the missing care deeply about those passengers who've never returned, of course. And we can have both sympathy and empathy for those left behind. Indeed, I hope we do.

But the truth is that the discomfort in our bellies, our hearts, our spirits isn't really about the missing. It's narcissistically about us. And we would do well simply to confess it and seek to forgive ourselves.

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The missing Malaysian plane has spurred interfaith cooperation in the country, this report says. Good. But how sad that it took a disaster of this magnitude for that to happen.

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The Long Road Home: And Other Short Stories from the Silences in the Gospel of Mark, by James S. Lowry. In Christian history there is an honored tradition, approached with caution, of making up enlightning and entertaining stories about Jesus. Sometimes it's done for fun. The best book in this category that I've ever read is Jesus Tales, by Romulus Linney. That book is an inventive, creative, fabulous read. But sometimes the creative writing about Jesus has a more serious purpose -- to understand the biblical witness more deeply. That's a fair description of why Lowry, a retired Presbyterian pastor, wrote this book. He's using his lively imagination to fill in some of the empty spaces in Mark's gospel -- and there are plenty of them there. Mark, indeed, is the clipped, to-the-point, no-frills gospel. Lowry believes that "Mark deliberately left strategically placed silences so his readers would have to wonder what was in them. In the act of wondering, we just might discover ultimate truth. . ." In the spirit of inventiveness you will find in this book about Jesus a 1950 Chevrolet, St. Peter telling Jesus he felt "mad as hell," a Methobapterian and more. This book is fun and insightful. It may not be as engaging as Linney's but it's still worth a read.

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P.S.: I had my say about Fred Phelps earlier this week here. In light of his death yesterday, I'll say no more, but, rather, share with you this well-put blog entry by Caleb Wilde at his "Confessions of a Funeral Director" site.

Cross-faith renewal efforts: 3-20-14

The other day here on the blog, I mentioned the story of a New York synagogue that was in effect reinventing itself and I made the suggestion that perhaps people doing such reinvention in various religions might want to get together and share ideas.

ReligionsTurns out I was behind the times.

It's already happening.

My friend Barry Speert, a Kansas Citian who teaches about Judaism in an interfaith context, pointed out this story to me. It describes a recent gathering of so-called "emergent" Christians and Jews to talk about how to move their various traditions forward in the 21st Century.

As the story notes, "There's a sense in the Jewish community that traditional synagogue services are simply not moving people, particularly young people."

(You could pretty much write that about many worship services in many religions.)

The Emergent Church Movement in Christianity began more than a decade ago and came out of the evangelical branch of the faith. Such folks as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Phyllis Tickle, Tim Keel (of Kansas City) and others helped to lead the way toward a rethinking of what church should be all about. I like to poke a bit of fun at them by saying that their growing concern about social justice issues means they are becoming more like us Mainliners.

The effort to be relevant and even post-modern is not limited to Christianity, obviously. There are renewal movements of various kinds going on in many traditions. But faith communities move slowly, as a rule. And although that's often a good thing, it also means a lot of needless foot-dragging in a time when change is happening rapidly, leaving faith communities behind.

If you haven't investigated renewal movements in your own tradition, you're probably only a decade or two behind the times. So I'll let you go here for today to give you time to catch up.

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Speaking of interfaith connections, here's an interesting question: Should a rabbi take the job of being the spiritual leader of a Unitarian-Universalist congregation? It's happening. Theologically, though not culturally and not in terms of historic tradition, UU folks are pretty close to Jewish folks, after all. I'm not in favor of syncretism -- the blending of religions into a puree of meaninglessness -- but I certainly am in favor of cooperation and understanding.

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P.S.: My latest


National Catholic Reporter

column now is online



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ANOTHER P.S.: Reports morning say that Fred Phelps, about whom I wrote here yesterday, has died.