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How we triangulate into antisemitism: 4-30-15

There is no shortage of theories about why the world has been plagued by antisemitism for centuries. Nor is there a shortage of books about this subject.

GreenbergIf you haven't read much about this matter and want a few book ideas to start, let me recommend:

* Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg.

* Resurgent Antisemitism, edited by Alvin H. Rosenfeld.

* Holy Hatred, by Robert Michael.

However, in all of those -- and quite a few others I've read on this subject -- I had not run across the analysis I heard the other evening by Dr. Mary Greenberg, a former University of Kansas teacher and a member of the State of Kansas Holocaust Commission.

She spoke to a group from Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City, the rabbi of which is Jacques Cukierkorn, co-author of my book They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

Mary took what I would call a sociological and systems approach to the question. In effect, the Jews historically have become scapegoats, she said, because two groups in society could not or would not solve their real problem and decided to ignore that problem by finding a common enemy.

"This antagonism (antisemitism)," she said, "has its foundation. . .simply in human stress and tension and in people's responses to this stress."

When political, social and economic systems function poorly, she said, the result is stress in society and that's a clue "that real problems aren't being addressed. . .In a society that functions poorly, attention is focused on imagined problems, and these imagined problems are blamed on the vulnerable minority groups."

She used the example of Spain in the late 1400s. The rulers and commoners then often were at odds about things and seemed unable or unwilling to fix their problems. So they created a triangle by combining forces and focusing first on those Jews who, for various reasons, already had converted to Christianity. These converts were viewed with suspicion by both the rulers and the commoners. Eventually they began to broaden their focus to include the country's still-Jewish population, as if it were somehow to blame for their troubles.

The result was that in 1492, just as Columbus was landing in the New World, Spain ordered Jews within its borders either to convert to Christianity or to be expelled.

"Two groups in conflict," Greenberg said, "will avoid resolving their own conflict but join forces to force a third vulnerable group into first the scapegoat position and then they become the imagined problem."

Time after time in place after place, that third vulnerable group has been the Jewish community, with the result that antisemitism has become what author David Nirenberg calls "the Western tradition."

I thought Greenberg's triangle explanation, which is drawn from what she calls  Bowen family systems theory, was intriguing and worth additional scholarly attention to unpack it more thoroughly as it relates to antisemitism.

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Why has Baltimore been burning? A Baltimore Sun columnist says it plainly: It's about race. And this may be one more example of Mary Greenberg's triangulation theory, where a vulnerable minority group gets blamed for things instead of authorities focusing on the real problem.

A religious view of the disaster in Nepal: 4-29-15

Yesterday here on the blog, I wrote about the recent disastrous earthquake in Nepal and suggested that it would be good if the Pat Robertson crowd of theologians who see natural disasters as punishment from God would just be quiet and quit spouting such foolishness.

Nepal-mapToday I want to look at the question of divine agency in a bit more depth by sharing with you this piece from Dan Burke, CNN's religion editor and a former writer for Religion News Service.

In it, Dan focuses on Hinduism and Buddhism. About 80 percent of Nepal's population is Hindu, and about 9 percent is Buddhist.

Quoting Todd Lewis, an expert on Asian religions at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, Burke writes this:

"Buddhist and Hindu texts make it clear that there are all kinds of causal contingencies that just happen," with no cosmic rhyme or reason, Lewis said. In one famous Buddhist book, "The Questions of King Milinda," the Buddha teaches that the majority of things that happen to people, good or bad, are not related to karma at all. To put it very simply: Stuff happens. The morals and meaning of our lives depend on how we deal with that stuff.

Burke notes that some Buddhists might blame the earthquake on karma, which he describes as "human actions that result in future consequences." But, he writes, "many others just see earthquakes and tsunamis as amoral events, neither caused by angry deities nor visited on deserving sinners."

I've always found the notion of karma hard to grasp, though for sure some of our actions today result in things happening in the future, though it's often hard to detect any direct cause-and-effect relationship. But to extend that notion to the idea that God would punish people by bringing natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes is, in my view, simply bad theology that paints a picture of a vengeful God I certainly wouldn't be willing to worship.

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Religion scholar Mark Silk takes note here of the several ways in which Republicans are getting American religious history wrong. Experience shows that if you can rewrite history for political purposes you can manipulate voters. But, in the end, it leads to disaster.

Did God cause the earthquake in Nepal? 4-28-15

The recent earthquake in Nepal was devastating, and it has been hard to imagine what good or inspiring words might come out of such a calamity.

NepalSometimes when natural disasters like this strike, fool preachers like Pat Robertson will pontificate about why what happened should be seen as God's punishment for this or that.

That kind of hermeneutics makes me sick.

So I was pleased to find this engaging account of living through the quake written by Donatella Lorch, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who currently lives in Nepal.

"I love Nepal," she wrote. "People here help one another because they know the government often cannot. They reach out to one another, and they persevere. They open their shops, because what else can one do when the world is upside down?"

She notes that Nepal is full of Hindus and Buddhists seeking to live as neighbors who depend on one another. (The CIA Factbook entry on Nepal shows that as of 2011, the estimates of religious affiliation looked like this: Hindu 81.3 percent, Buddhist 9, Muslim 4.4, Kirant 3.1, Christian 1.4, other 0.5, unspecified 0.2. What is Kirant? Here's one explanation.)

"My heart aches for Nepal and what has been lost," Lorch writes. "But I am buoyed by the generous spirit of its people. My son and I know that life here will get worse in the days and weeks ahead as fuel and water run low. But we also know we are in this together."

International aid agencies are working to help the people of Nepal recover. Each of us can contribute, of course. But another way to contribute is to recognize that natural disasters happen for natural causes and not blame God for such calamities.

(The photo here today of a statue of Buddha buried in the earthquake came from The Guardian and can be found here.)

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“We are moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity,” says GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. No. What we're rapidly moving toward -- and may already be there, if Huckabee is any evidence -- is the wacko-fication of presidential politics.

Will this pope break or save the church? 4-27-15

One sure sign that someone is making an impact on the world is that people begin writing books about him or her.

Pope_FrancisTake Pope Francis (pictured here), for instance. Since his election a bit more than two years ago, a small stack of books about him, his background, his visions, his theology and his future has appeared.

Heck, even my pastor, Paul Rock, and I have written a book involving Francis. It's called Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk Into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church, and it will be published in September by Westminster John Knox Press. (The link on the title here will take you to the site where it can be pre-ordered.)

Recently, Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist whom I read with interest though sometimes without agreeing with him, wrote a review of three such pope books here in The Atlantic.

It's an intriguing piece that cautions so-called church liberals about pushing reforms so far that they destroy the church.

He writes:

Contemporary progressive Catholicism has been stamped by the experience of the Second Vatican Council, when what was then a vital American Catholicism could be invoked as evidence that the Church should make its peace with liberalism as it was understood in 1960. But liberalism in 2015 means something rather different, and attempts to accommodate Christianity to its tenets have rarely produced the expected flourishing and growth. Instead, liberal Christianity’s recent victories have very often been associated with the decline or dissolution of its institutional expressions.

As Douthat notes, Pope Francis is trying to occupy middle ground between so-called "traditionalist" Catholics and those who think of themselves as progressive, though so far he seems more in harmony with the progressives.

But I think we simply don't yet know how this papacy will develop and whether, in the end, Francis' different and welcome open style will mean anything in terms of reform. What is clear is that Francis very much wants to return to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and see what happens if the church actually commits itself to them. Those reforms got short-circuited in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Perhaps the lesson here for all faith communities is that such communities are always living, breathing bodies that -- however slowly they change -- are never stagnant. Even if the surface seems calm, something is always bubbling underneath.

At the moment, there's plenty of that bubbling going on in the Catholic Church and Douthat catches the reality of that in his article.

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As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments this week about same-sex marriage, here's a good summary of the ways in which the views of faith communities in the U.S. have changed on this issue and may change more in the future. The country has been rapidly adopting different views on marital equality. Let's hope the Supreme Court doesn't throw the nation a destructive curve that seeks to stop the current progress toward enlightenment.

How to avoid future Bishop Finns: 4-25/26-15

Back in the 1960s and '70s, which I lived through and survived, Americans grew considerably more used to challenging authority.

Hierarchy-of-the-Catholic-ChurchIt was a necessary skill, considering the way government authorities were lying to us about such matters as body counts in Vietnam and politically motivated break-ins.

Besides, questioning authority is not, in principle, a bad thing. In fact, in political terms it can show a level of patriotism much deeper than that represented by the "America: love it or leave it" attitude we often heard back then.

But what about challenging religious authorities? Are Americans as competent at that as they sometimes are at questioning government authorities?

The priest abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, highlighted by the resignation a few days ago of Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, suggests that people in the pews need to have the tools to confront such matters -- tools they seem not to have now.

The last thing I want to do here -- and I hope I'm avoiding it -- is to blame the victims. That would be wrong and far from my point.

Rather, what I want to suggest is that when religious leaders collect deep and profound power to affect the lives of adherents, and when they justify that power on the basis of theology (in other words, with the idea that they are God's deputies and whatever they do is therefore in harmony with the divine will), then there is room for all kinds of trouble. And followers of those leaders need to figure out how to counter that kind of leadership in constructive and effective ways.

In story after story of sexual abuse -- often stories told decades after the abuse happened -- we have heard that the victims feared accusing the guilty priests because they thought no one would believe them. Or, in some cases, they revealed the abuse but church authorities either did nothing or, worse, simply transferred the offender to another parish to continue the abuse elsewhere. Throughout much of this, the people in the pews often felt themselves powerless to confront the authorities successfully.

When ultimate power is in the hands of a few elite leaders and not in the hands of the whole body, that power almost inevitably gets misused and people get hurt.

If the Catholic Church has learned anything from this horrific scandal that has wounded so many people, including innocent children, I hope it's that lines of responsibility, power and accountability must be clear and must be grounded in church members, not solely in ordained leaders. And those church members must insist that they have such responsibility, power and accountability -- and not only have it but have the willingness to exercise it responsibly.

There must be systems of accountability that do not lock into place a miscreant bishop until the pope and only the pope finally makes a move. That was a major problem in the Finn case. No parishioners in churches in this diocese had any power or authority to remove Finn or even to begin an official process of inquiry. All they could do -- and many of them did this -- was to protest by withdrawing funding and attendance at Mass and by signing petitions. And yet Finn stayed in office for most of three years after his conviction on charges that he failed to report a suspected child abuser to law enforcement authorities.

That system of governance has proved itself a failure.

But change that is democratizing and power-sharing almost never happens from the top down. The Finn case -- and more broadly the whole abuse scandal -- shows why Catholics must figure out more ways that power-sharing can happen from the bottom up.

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Almost anyone could have predicted this: After Creflo Dollar, a Prosperity Gospel preacher, started catching criticism for his campaign to buy a new $65 million private jet, he has begun responding, blaming the devil for trying to discredit him. Doesn't sound like the devil needs to get involved. Dollar is good enough at the self-discrediting all alone.

What houses of worship also add: 4-24-15

Sometimes people with no religious affiliation dismiss the presence of faith communities as sources merely of useless or even harmful superstitions that add nothing to the common good. You hear this especially these days from some of the more aggressive so-called new atheists.

Rutter-SouthmWithout defending any religious doctrine today, I want to suggest another reason these critics are wrong about the churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship that we find scattered within our communities.

Such structures, in addition to being houses of worship, also often serve as community centers, as schools, as venues for artistic performances and as meeting places for organizations that don't have their own physical homes.

I was thinking about this on Sunday afternoon when I took my stepson to hear a free performance of John Rutter's phenomenal "Requiem," first performed 30 years ago. It was offered to the community by Southminster Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., (as this photo shows).

Most of 20 years ago, I was a temporary part of a choir at my own congregation that also offered a free performance of Rutter's work, and it has been one of my favorites ever since.

If you simply pick up this past Sunday's arts and entertainment section of The Kansas City Star, you will find listings for, among many other offerings, a music and dance showcase at a Disciples of Christ church, a contemporary chamber music concert at a Unitarian Universalist church, performances by UMKC Conservatory students at a United Methodist Church and a trumpet concert by a UMKC student at an Episcopal cathedral. Not to mention an oboe and clarinet performance by a UMKC student at my own Presbyterian congregation.

And that's just a sampling of arts offerings. One of my daughters teaches pre-school at a church. At my own church building classes regularly meet for people wanting to learn how to speak French. At a nearby Catholic church there's regular season series of musical performances. And on and on.

Our city's life would be deeply impoverished if there were no faith communities around to house all of these gatherings that help us be friends and neighbors together. It's not the primary reason for the existence of such houses of worship, but it's a wonderful side benefit to the whole community.

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Here's a good development: The World Bank is starting to work with an interfaith range of religious organizations in its effort to combat extreme poverty around the world. This should warm the heart of Pope Francis and many others. Let's hope it makes a difference.

God's alleged 'total control': 4-23-15

What do you notice about the date today, as I have it in the headline here?

Divine-ProvidenceHere's what I noticed:

It contains the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, though not in that order. Is God trying to tell us something? Was God trying to tell William Shakespeare something when April 23 turned out to be both the date of his birth and the date of his death?

How, in fact, do we tell mere coincidence from what some people call providence, meaning an act of God? Is there any sure way to tell or are we always guessing because our finite minds cannot grasp the infinite?

I ran across this blog posting about that very subject from a Christian woman who describes herself as a certified career management coach.

Here is her bold conclusion:

"My point in relating this word analysis in terms of your career from a faith point of view is that there are no chance encounters, lucky or unlucky draws, or accidents. I hope that you find comfort in the thought and belief that there is a loving God looking over you and making things line up in a way that will ultimately make things work out for good in the long run. I want you to realize that God is in total control of what is happening in your career and things will happen in His time."

In her view, then, God is some kind of career micro-manager, making sure that absolutely everything along your career path happens for a good and sufficient reason in the divine economy of things. I suspect that position would be tough to sell to a Ph.D. who lost her job in the Great Recession and only recently has managed to find temporary work in a field completely different from the one about which she wrote her doctoral dissertation -- and at one-third the salary.

One of my former associate pastors used to say he could never figure out God's will and plan when he was in the midst of things. It was only much later, when he looked back on his life that he saw patterns, some of which he was willing to say were divinely guided.

I suspect that's about the best most of us will ever be able to do. It's fine to believe that "God is in total control" of all work-related developments in our lives, I suppose. But if that's your position, please understand that you also, therefore, have to explain why God arranges for work-place injuries and fatalities, from coal mine explosions to commercial airline pilots dying in crashes because their co-pilots decided to commit suicide and mass murder. If I were God I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want that on my permanent record and would arrange not to be responsible for all that.

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I'm not sure it was divine providence, but earlier this week I heard about a crowdsource funding effort for a new film about a woman who grew up as a friend of Anne Frank. This looks like a worthy Holocaust education effort that I thought some of you might want to help with. Have a look.

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P.S.: I almost always like what religion scholar Mark Silk has to say about things, and it's no different for me with his reaction in this piece to the news that Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is out. Mark thinks it's a big deal, and so do I. I just wish the Vatican had said more plainly that it had finally forced Finn to quit because of his failures in the priest abuse scandal.

Our task now that Finn is gone: 4-22-15

The long-awaited resignation of Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese, announced yesterday, is welcome for several reasons:

Finn-11. It removes from a position of authority a man who failed to protect vulnerable children from a predator priest.

2. It provides an opportunity for a fresh start for the diocese, eventually with a different bishop more in tune with the majority of this diocese than Finn ever was.

3. It offers a chance for everyone in the diocese and in society generally to make a new commitment to protect children from abusers and to support those who already have become victims of abusers.

4. It allows a chance not just for Finn's own rehabilitation but for those who opposed him to pray for and work for exactly that, guided by the Christian teaching that we all are sinners who fall short of the glory of God and that we all can be redeemed.

This fourth point may be the most difficult to achieve because of the natural tendency of Finn's opponents to want to cheer his departure and to feel morally superior to this disgraced bishop. Cheering would be unseemly, as would anything more than expressing gratitude for the chance now to create a new future for the diocese. And expressing feelings of moral superiority would undermine Christian teaching about the value of humility.

This same understanding of humility and the endless possibilities for redemption also should have moved local Catholics and others to be praying for the rehabilitation of Shawn Ratigan, the former priest whose abusive actions Finn was convicted of not pointing out to law enforcement authorities.

Christianity teaches that no one -- including Finn and Ratigan -- is beyond the reach of divine redemption and love. Which is one of the ideas that makes Christianity so difficult to live out. Most of us prefer to divide the world into good and evil, and like to think that we ourselves are among the good. It's a false view of our broken world. The reality is that even so-called good people are capable of much evil but, nonetheless, can be forgiven and redeemed.

I have been among those calling for Finn to resign or for Pope Francis to replace him, and in fact this past Friday here on the blog I reported that Finn had been called to Rome earlier that week, and I wondered if that finally meant the end of his time as bishop was near. That end is now happening and I'm relieved. But my responsibility does not end there and neither does anyone else's. It's our task now to pray (and work, if possible) for Finn himself to find peace and a useful future, to pray that the diocese can move forward under good new leadership, to recommit ourselves to protect children and to make sure victims of abuse are supported in appropriate ways and receive the legal justice they deserve.

If we get to work on all that, we won't have time for gloating, which is always unbecoming anyway.

(The photo here today is one I took when Finn greeted the first visitors to the new diocesan headquarters in downtown Kansas City a few years ago. And for those of you who speak and read Italian, here's the Vatican's official notice of the pope's acceptance of Finn's resignation.)

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Earlier this week here on the blog, I linked you to a piece about Rachel Held Evans' new book, Searching for Sunday. That piece focused on whether Christianity has anything worthwhile to say to people living through dark times. Today I want to link you to an excerpt from Evans' same new book, only this time it's about how she learned what true Christianity is all about from a man who survived therapy to turn his sexual orientation from gay to straight. It's a good read.

How (not) to criticize the clergy: 4-21-15

In Christianity, the study of theories about how churches form and function is called ecclesiology. The word comes from the Greek word that gets translated "church," but that literally means "called out" or "called together."

Pastor-distressIn other words, a church is made up of people whom God calls together. In my experience, God calls together people I might not, including, sometimes, myself.

One of the problems with calling together people for a religious purpose is that people are flawed. In his wonderful book Unapologetic, (which I reviewed here) Francis Spufford accurately refers to any and all Christian congregations as communities of screw-ups.

One of the worst ways in which we Christians screw up is in how we sometimes treat the pastors who are called to lead us.

It can be simply appalling. In fact, of all the clergy of various faith traditions I know, I don't know of a single one who hasn't been wounded -- sometimes deeply so -- by members of his or her own flock.

In this Christianity Today piece, Peter W. Chin describes what this can be like. He writes:

"In conversation after conversation, fellow pastors told me their horror stories of how they too had faced poisonous and unwavering criticism from a single individual or, more commonly, a single faction of people. And this criticism had been so unrelenting that many of these pastors had left their congregations or the ministry altogether, sometimes both."

In some cases, something like a mob mentality develops based on what I call "parking lot conversations," those private little gossip-fests that take place in the parking lot after a church committee meeting among the purveyors of "poisonous and unwavering criticism."

What's the author's solution? It's the same one that has occurred to me: "I believe the answer lies with mature believers who recognize what is taking place in their circles and work to stop it."

When we hear poisonous criticism of our clergy, we can first recognize that we are, in fact, a community of screw-ups prone to such destructiveness. But then we can challenge what's being said and we can especially challenge the person making the criticism to make it in person to the target pastor. Cowards work in anonymity. We can short-circuit that.

Are there times clergy deserve criticism? Of course. But in a community of screw-ups, so do we all. And that's what worth remembering when we want merely to dish it out.

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Here's a pretty cool interfaith relations story: A synagogue has found a home in a largely unused Christian church in a town in Germany. And, as the story reports, even as antisemitism rises again in Europe, Jewish life is doing pretty well now in Germany.

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P.S.: I'll be participating in the annual AIDS Walk Kansas City on Saturday to benefit the AIDS Service Foundation. If you would like to help, click here to make a donation.

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ANOTHER P.S.: The Vatican has accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese. Now what? Come back here tomorrow for my thoughts about that.

Christian answers to the current darkness: 4-20-15

If you are 15 years old and American, so far in your life you have lived through the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq and the Great Recession -- plus the continuing ripple effects emanating from them.

DarknessYou can be forgiven for imagining that life is nasty, brutish and unpredictable.

It's not that plenty of good things haven't also happened in the public square in the last 15 years. But the predominant major world developments and trends have been pretty dark.

What does religion have to say about understanding all of this? How is religion preparing young people to deal with such ongoing darkness?

This article in The Atlantic gets at that question to some extent by interviewing Rachel Held Evans, author of a new book called Searching for Sunday.

“Christianity is losing a little bit of its death grip over the culture," Evans said in the interview. And as Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas and others have pointed out, that's a good thing. It means Christians don't always have to be in charge of everything any more, which frees them to be more publicly critical of those policies, actions and trends that need to be criticized. It frees them to be, in effect, court jesters, able from the sidelines to shine a spotlight on what needs to be fixed.

Most American Christians don't yet know how to disentangle themselves from their profound cultural influence to serve in that role, but it's time they learn. It can be quite liberating.

The Atlantic piece asks if Christianity is "dark enough" for young Americans today. Which I think means asking whether the religion has any answers, any assurances, any hope to offer those who know not just that the world can be a dark place but also know that they themselves can and do contribute to that darkness.

I think the answer is yes. But those answers, assurances and hopes may not be rooted in some of the old and increasingly discredited easy answers the faith sometimes has offered too readily -- answers about original sin and atonement theories that predicate a wrathful God who requires blood sacrifice before God can fully love us.

For Christianity to have a future among members of the youngest Americans, the old idea that God loves us because Christ died for us will have to be replaced with the better understanding that Christ died for us because God loves us. And even then what "died for us" means will require a lot of unpacking to make it understandable and credible and not something just about heaven in the sweet by and by.

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The world's tiniest Bible is going on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It's described as "a gold-coated silicon chip smaller than a pinhead." Well, fine. But why make a Bible that small? I suppose the answer is similar to the standard answer to the question of why people climb mountains -- because they're there. Only in the case of a minuscule Bible, it's because it's not yet there. But it still seems weird to me.

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P.S.: The annual AIDS Walk Kansas City is this Saturday and I plan to be walking to raise funds for the AIDS Service Foundation. I hope you can help a little. If you are willing to make a donation, click here. And thanks.