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September 2014
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Finding a 'bootiful' identity: 10-31-14

Here we are at a holiday -- with faith roots -- that I am not crazy about but that seems to be growing more popular each year.

HalloweenHalloween teaches kids extortion. Isn't that the point of it?

Well, maybe it also is an opportunity to think about who we really are. If we dress up like Batman or a cowboy or a ghost, are we imagining that somewhere deep inside us we can find the characteristics of those, well, characters?

I ran across this fun little piece about Halloween and identity crises that raises just that question in a playful way.

And yet it seems to me that we need opportunities to identify ourselves. Who and whose are we? Asked in the context of faith, that question is: Who and Whose are we?

At the end of the piece to which I've linked you, which is a conversation between a guy named Sam and his wife Sylvia, the wife says: "You're supposed to lose your identity, Sam, it's Halloween."

Not so much, Sylvia. I think maybe Halloween is an opportunity to find our identity. And to promise ourselves that we'll be more careful in the future and not lose it so often.

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While I was out of town in recent days, many of you saw the news about Pope Francis and his comfort with the Big Bang and science theories. But I didn't want anyone to miss the story. So have a look. How nice it is to have a major religious leader who is not petrified of modernity.

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.

Faith news while I'm gone: 10-30-14

NEW ORLEANS -- I've been here visiting friends for a few days and won't get back to regular blogging until tomorrow.

NewsSo until then, if you're looking for updates about religion news, I suggest you check in with Religion News Service here and at the Pew Research Religion & Public Life "Religion in the News" page.

Enjoy a pretty much Tammeus-less day. Or go to the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page and have a look at the various offerings I put up there.

Or while you're just hanging around, think about ordering my new book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. E-mail me at [email protected] and I'll tell you how you can get an autographed copy of the print edition. And not just one. Think about giving it as a gift this upcoming holiday season. Just not to me. I already have several. The e-version of the book is almost free at

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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.

Why anti-gay arguments lose: 10-29-14

Maybe you, too, have noticed that the movement toward marriage equality in the U.S. has been sweeping across the country, almost unimpeded. How could you not notice?

HomosexualityMore and more states are allowing same-sex marriage.

I'm delighted by this change because I think forbidding same-sex marriage is a violation of our cherished principle of equal protection under the law.

But the question to ponder is why opponents of same-sex marriage keep losing in court. What causes their arguments to fail time after time?

Newsweek asks that very question in this piece and concludes that it's because those opponents cannot offer their real reasons for their opposition -- religious reasons -- in a secular, or civil, court. So, as an alternative, they make up goofy other reasons. (Goofy is a technical legal term. Unless it's not.)

Kurt Eichenwald, author of the Newsweek article, concludes this: "Once gay marriage critics get in front of a judge, they advance arguments that amount to little more than self-contradictory mumbo jumbo."

(Mumbo jumbo is, like goofy, also a technical legal term. I think.)

Outside of our courts, people also are free, of course, to advance any religious objection to same-sex marriage or even to homosexuality itself. But even there, I believe, their arguments fail. For my essay on this subject, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. In the end, if you ask me, the Bible has nothing useful to say about what today we are beginning to understand as homosexual orientation and, thus, should not be used as a weapon in this debate.

At the end of the Newsweek piece, you will find several comments from readers about the piece, but once again we find an opponent (who calls himself Johnny Crapshoot from Omaha) making a goofy, mumbo jumbo argument: "you have mental problems. No man should lay with man."

Is that the best you've got, Johnny? No doubt. Or you'd have made a cogent argument, instead.

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COVINGTON, La. -- My wife and I are here in the New Orleans area for a few days with friends. So until Friday, you won't find the usual second item here on the blog. Because I'm on the road today the chances of letting you know when my latest National Catholic Reporter goes live online this morning is limited. But after about 10 a.m. central time, look for it here.

Finding innovations for churches: 10-28-14

Over and over those of us in Christian churches have heard this phrase: "The church is dying."

SFTS-logoIt's the kind of hyperbole I wrote about here over the weekend. And yet there is enough truth in it to make hearts sink and palms sweat (or, here and there, voices cheer).

A blogger for, Mark Sandlin, a Presbyterian pastor, recently considered this problem and wrote this piece about what the church really needs today. It's worth a read -- and worth giving a look at the embedded TED talk.

"What the Church needs now is an innovative spirit," he writes. "More importantly, what we need is the right tools for doing innovative ministry and leaders who are trained in how to do use them and can help the rest of us do the same."

In the piece, Sandlin introduces us to the San Francisco Theological Seminary's new Center for Innovation in Ministry.

The press release announcing the hiring of that center's first director says the center "represents SFTS’ commitment to forward-looking, effective, relevant and responsive ministry that is vital for the church of the 21st century."

Will this new center somehow revive the church? Will it stir up ideas that will merely slow the downward trend in membership experienced by most denominations -- especially mainline Protestant ones --  today?

Or will it be too little too late?

I wish I knew the answer to that. What I do know is that I'm glad to see efforts like this and I wish them well.

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COVINGTON, La. -- My wife and I are here in the New Orleans area for a few days with friends. So until Friday, you won't find the usual second item here on the blog.

Belief in both God and ghosts? 10-27-14

We (I'm using the editorial we, which really means I but no one is to know that) speak here today about ghosts.

GhostsNot the Holy Ghost of the Christian Trinity but just of ghosts, those spirits of dead people who hang around trying to reduce their credit card interest rates after they're no longer responsible for their debts. What's wrong with these people, being so responsible and all?

We (read: I) have no experience of ghosts. When I (enough of this we stuff) was about 10 and my great-aunt died, I was afraid, after attending her funeral that day and watching her casket being lowered into the ground, that her ghost would show up in my bedroom that night. Well, it wasn't my bedroom. It was a bedroom in my grandparents' house I was sleeping in, but let it go.

She didn't appear.

I appreciated that.

But with that great Christian holiday Halloween (I hope I don't have to explain satire to you) coming soon, I thought I would link you to this story on a website operated by several Alabama newspapers. It asks if you can believe both in God and in ghosts. You get a chance to vote. (I'm not even sure I believe in Alabama.)

When I voted on that website the other day the "yes" votes were running at 55-plus percent, the "no" votes at 30 and the "not sure" votes at 14-plus. I voted "not sure."

Why? Because I'm not sure.

Nor am I sure what I'm going to wear to go trick-or-treating this years. Maybe I'll be an Alabaman (Alabamite?) and knock on doors as a pollster asking silly questions. Again, I'm not sure. (I sense a pattern here.)

(Why does that art here today look sort of like ghosts of bowling balls? We're not sure.)

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Is Islam the religion with the most acutely development environmental conscience? That's the argument that Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a famous Islamic scholar, makes here. And, by the way, if you want an excellent book about Islam, read Nasr's The Heart of Islam.

The obligations of truth: 10-25/26-14

People engage in hyperbole all the time. An example would be me in the previous sentence.

HyperboleSeriously, one of the things that plagues not just American society but cultures around the world is the tendency to exaggerate in ways that inflame others, who then respond with their own inflammatory rhetoric.

A good example happened the other day when Saudi Arabia's top cleric took on Twitter, which he said is "the source of all evil and devastation."

Well, it was a radically foolish thing to say, especially coming from Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the religious leader of the kingdom and a man who only occasionally engages in crazy talk. Well, he once talked to me briefly when I was in Saudi Arabia in 2002, but I don't count that as a major mistake on his part.

He actually also said things about Twitter that were more temperate, such as "If it were used correctly, it could be of real benefit." But the money phrase about it being "the source of all evil and devasation" is what sparked debate.

Language is a powerful tool. In Jewish and Christian tradition, in fact, it was what God used to create the world. But it's so easy to misuse -- and nowadays that seems to happen more and more as a way of gaining an audience.

People of faith are obliged not to fall into the trap of hyperbole. They are to speak truth, but they must call something true only when they know it to be so. Language that uses "all" and "never" should be avoided because it so rarely bares up under scrutiny. Perhaps the Saudi cleric was wrong. Perhaps it's hyperbole that is the source of all evil and destruction. But I'd never say that. Though I did just say all of it. (You still with me?)

(If you like the image here today, you can get a T-shirt with it on here.)

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You may identify yourself as a Christian, but are you perhaps a post-Christian? Pollster George Barna has devised this little quiz to test yourself on that. I don't like parts of the quiz because it doesn't give enough options in some of the answers. (Barna can be like that.) But my score was 67 percent, which fell within the 41-100 percent range of "More Christian than secular."

When science, religion clash: 10-24-14

When are we obliged to allow religious beliefs of certain people to impede open scientific explorations that can help us understand our world?

Religion-and-scienceThis is the poignant question raised in this piece by George Johnson, who writes about science for The New York Times and other publications.

He notes that Native Hawaiians have been protesting the installation of a big telescope and observatory on the top of Mauna Kea, a volcano, and asks why their literalistic adherence to a certain creation myth should block scientists from doing their work.

Johnson argues that environmental activists have figured out how to use native peoples to block science projects. Biblical creationists, he says, have lost in case after case, but native people have been able to use their own religious beliefs and a federal law to block scientific progress.

This can be a hard call.

Religious freedom, after all, is a deeply cherished right in America. So is academic freedom. Sometimes the two conflict. When science loses one of these battles, Johnson calls it a "turn back toward the dark ages."

And, he asks, "how is letting Indian creationism interfere with scientific research any different from Christian creationism interfering with public education. . .?

You can see how this can lead to bitter feelings on all sides.

In cases like this, I tend to see arrogance on both sides. Religious people who take metaphorical, but deeply significant, myths literally can be as arrogant as scientists who dismiss all religious belief as superstitious poppycock.

These battles are fascinating, but they need some adult supervision.

(I found the artwork you see here today at this link.)

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The question of what to do about people from North America who get sucked into joining Islamist terrorist groups overseas (and then wind up back where they started) got a lot more urgent this week because of the shootings in Canada's capitol of Ottawa. More than 100 Canadians have joined foreign fights in recent months, it's reported. This, of course, points up the continuing need for excellent intelligence services. Which costs money. And which at times, if not handled right, can jeopardize the rights and privacies of Americans and Canadians.

If fandom becomes idolatry: 10-23-14

It's my contention that there are no atheists in the world. That's because I believe that whatever is most important in your life at any given moment is your god, even if you deny the existence of what the major world religions call God.

RoyalsWe are free, of course, to make the choice of what we will worship. And that freedom of choice is a major part of what makes us human.

But for adherents of the major religions, the choice of a god-for-the-day or a god-of-the-month means that you have chosen idolatry. And, in the end, all sin comes down to idolatry -- putting something else ahead of God.

I raise this point today to invite you to think about what we Kansas Citians are going through this week -- a World Series. No, I'm not saying that paying attention to the improbable Royals, now 1-1 in the World Series, this fall and cheering on the boys in blue is idolatry. I'm just saying that in some cases it might well be exactly that.

You will have to answer that question for yourself. And as a lifelong baseball fan (my Chicago Cubs just finished their 116th year of rebuilding), I will have to answer that question for myself.

Think about the choices you've made about the World Series. Did you decide to invest $1,000 or more for a ticket? Have you maxed out a credit card buying Royals gear -- shirts, hats, mugs and more? Will all that money spent mean you have less to give to your faith community or to help those in need? Did you skip a Wednesday evening gathering at your place of worship so you wouldn't miss the first pitch of last night's game? (And what a great game it was to win.)

On the other hand, did you use the World Series to do something good and helpful for others? That's what happened in the case of 6-year-old Noah Wilson, who has cancer but who, through the generosity of others, got to attend the World Series, along with others.

As I say, I love baseball. And I'm a big Royals fan. (I was even at Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.) I will do my best to watch every minute of this World Series, though I have chosen not to buy tickets to be at The K for the games this year. But I also will try to remember what comes first in my life, what I worship. I hope you'll think about that, too. Go, Royals.

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When you think about the spectrum of world leaders at the moment, do you, like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, put Pope Francis at the good end of the spectrum and Vladimir Putin of Russia at the other end? Seems like a fair assessment -- one that would not have been made were Benedict XVI still pontiff.

When religious leaders don't lead: 10-22-14

I have made the point many times before that religious institutions often are slow to change. Sometimes that's a good thing, but frequently it isn't.

Follow-leaderOne of the things that happens when religious leaders fail to keep up with current trends is that they stand for good, solid, old truths.

But sometimes failing to stay current can keep them pledging allegiance to ideas and practices that should have been abandoned long ago. It takes discernment to know which is which.

The Catholic Church currently is in the process of discerning whether some of its long-held positions (about divorce, gays, married priests and other matters) need to be adjusted.

I thought this Guardian piece, written from Chicago, captured that struggle quite well. 

One of the author's conclusions: ". . .the Church needs to do something, on the ground and not just at St Peter’s, about closing the oceanic gap on so many modern issues between its leadership and its congregation."

This dissonance between members and the governance structures of religious institutions is not just a Catholic problem. And sometimes it works the other way around. Which is to say that sometimes parts of the leadership of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), get ahead of the members and take positions a majority of the folks in the pews feel is out of sync with their thinking.

In our denomination, however, there is a better chance of fixing that because of the representative way we choose our leaders. Catholics and members of other more hierarchical religions often don't have the voice that we Presbyterians and others have.

In any case, when it comes to matters of liberation -- such as equal rights for LGBT people, women and others -- religion should lead. Too often it follows. And when it follows too far behind its own members there is the kind of internal upheaval that Catholics have experienced in recent years.

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Churches in a financial pinch may be able to survive by following the example of churches in Brooklyn, which, this report says, are selling some of their land as well as air rights to developers. I suppose churches will try this, but surely not until after they've sold all the old sermons they can on eBay.

Doing ministry through words: 10-21-14

Earlier this year in this blog post I told you about my friend and fellow columnist Lindor Reynolds of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Lindor-NeilIn that post I gave you a link to what I supposed (correctly) would be her final column -- not because she was quitting or getting fired but because she was nearing the end of trying to defeat brain cancer. I hope you will go back to that entry and read Lindor's remarkably honest words.

Today I must tell you that Lindor died early Friday. Her funeral is tomorrow. Her death has rocked not just Winnipeg but also all of her friends in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC), of which she was an honored member. We in the NSNC understood that she was a remarkable talent with a big heart.

We loved her and wished we could write as well as she could.

What I came to understand about Lindor -- and the reason I'm writing about her today -- is that she was a woman of faith who chose to do her ministry through her writing. Oh, she had thought about becoming a pastor but decided instead to serve the world through words, which carried ideas about how to make the world a better, more peaceful place to live.

She could write with a fierce directness that was both beautiful and moving, but she also could speak the same way. In this video, you hear her talking this past summer about her disease.

I recall an NSNC gathering soon after she met (and brought along to the conference), the man who was to be her husband, Neil Dempsey, who walked gently with her toward what author Christian Wiman called the "bright abyss."

Ministry comes in many forms. And one does not need a "Rev." "Rabbi," "Imam" or "Lama" in front of one's name for that ministry to be authentic. Lindor was a pastor to people through her words. I just wish they hadn't ended so damn soon.

(The Winnipeg Free Press photo here today shows Neil and Lindor earlier this year.)

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And because I know Lindor would appreciate this, here's a bit of humor to end the day: Someone has put together these brief prayers for everyone on the Myers-Briggs personality types chart. Last time I was tested I was an ISTJ, though only my J was strong.

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P.S.: My latest Presbyterian Outlook column now is online here.