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A pope who acknowledges mysteries: 10-31/11-1-15

One of the signs of a mature religious faith is that the person holding it is comfortable with ambiguity. That is, he or she doesn't need scientifically exact answers to all theological questions. In such a person's mind and heart there is room for mystery, for metaphor, for myth, for allegory.

Pope_FrancisThis piece in The Economist concludes that Pope Francis himself is just such a person: "In his own words and gestures, Francis has shown an impressive ability to embrace paradox," it says.

Pope-coverIt's one of the things that my pastor, Paul Rock, and I love about Francis and it's part of what moved us to write our new book, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

But let's be clear: To say that one is comfortable with ambiguity, with mystery, with paradox is not to say that he or she has no firm beliefs in -- or convictions about -- anything. It's not to charge that person with having a completely relativistic faith with no core beliefs that are worth defending. Not at all.

And this pope certainly can be located in the broad middle of Catholic theology and tradition.

But in Francis there is a refreshing element of humility, an almost-unexpected willingness to acknowledge that he may not have all the answers. That goes a long way toward making faith attractive and appealing to people who are wary of slick and rock-solid answers to every possible question of faith.

People who are often wrong but never in doubt give religion a bad name. Which is why I'm grateful to find a Christian leader who is comfortable with his faith without needing to be a literalist. It's a good model -- for people of any faith and of none.

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A Saudi blogger who had advocated for religious freedom in the kingdom but has been jailed and lashed for it, has won the European Union’s prize for human rights and freedom of thought. Good. Saudi Arabia's rigid stance against any religion except the strict Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam is an insult to religious freedom.

Religion's slow pace of change: 10-30-15

I am returning today to the recent Synod of Bishops on the family gathering at the Vatican -- not to describe its final report in detail or to talk about what I think that report got right and wrong.

Lake07-23Rather, I want to take note of the fact that this synod illustrated once again the often slow-moving ways in which religions change. In many, if not most, long-standing faith traditions, change happens at a pace that, from the inside, can seem like no movement at all. One reason is that there is value and tradition to defend. So it isn't easy to make doctrinal or even, sometimes, polity changes inside a faith community.

Another reason, of course, is that every single proposed change will find opponents. Think of it this way: If today someone proposed adoption of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, my guess is that those first 10 amendments would have a difficult time garnering anything close to unanimous public approval and that each one would stir up at least 25 percent of the electorate to be in opposition to adoption.

So when the bishops voted on a section of their synod's final report that seeks to integrate divorced and civilly remarried Catholics more into the life of the church (without yet letting them receive Communion), the vote was 187-72. I can't prove this, but I'm guessing that 10 or 20 years ago this section would not have passed at all.

It remains to be seen what steps now will be taken to be more welcoming to the Catholics spoken of in this section of the report, but inch by inch the door is opening to them.

Any change in the way the church deals with gays and lesbians will come at a much slower pace than in how it deals with divorced and remarried members.

The vote in favor of a section that strongly rejected the notion of same-sex marriages was a lopsided 221-37. The American culture, of course, has galloped far ahead of the Catholic Church on this matter and, as you know, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage now is legal in all 50 states. But if those 37 dissenting votes in any way represent openness to marriage equality in Catholicism, then you should watch for that number to grow -- very slowly -- through the upcoming years. I am not predicting it ever will grow into a majority, but if there is to be an eventual majority, it will take considerable time to get there.

The slow pace of change in religion can be frustrating. Often I am frustrated by it within my congregation and my denomination. But there are good reasons to favor evolution over revolution when it comes to the way institutional religion reshapes itself to meet new challenges. The problem, of course, is that if it moves too slowly it becomes largely irrelevant. But if it moves too quickly, it leads boldly into a future with no followers.

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In Rep. Paul Ryan's gracious opening speech after being elected Speaker of the House yesterday, he asked Democrats to pray for Republicans and Republicans to pray for Democrats. But not, he said, for "conversion" of each other. It's the right approach to prayer and to respect for people with whom we may differ on various issues. What a lovely thing it will be if all members of the House now adopt a similar approach. I wish I could say I'm optimistic. I'm not. But that will be my prayer, nonetheless. (Is that a prayer for conversion? Uh, maybe.) 

What if Hitler returned to Germany today? 10-29-15

One excellent reason to study history is to know what boneheaded mistakes and destructive attitudes it might be good to avoid. And to know which disastrous political leaders made such a mess of things that they never should be accorded honor.

Hitler_look_whos_backAnd yet. . .

We now discover anew that there really are people in the world who either admire or are not particularly upset with Adolf Hitler, who engineered the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews and millions of others, and who threw Europe into darkness, terror and destruction, all in pursuit of a radical agenda that rated whole categories of human beings as unworthy of life.

As this Washington Post story reports, a new film is out that seeks to know how people would react if Hitler somehow returned to Germany today. Oh, my.

Here's part of what the story reports:

The cast and crew drove across the country, having Hitler interact with ordinary people. Most of these people react to the sight of one of the 20th century’s vilest leaders with excitement and amusement. They pose for selfies with the feared Nazi leader and perform the famous Hitler salute for him. Even non-European immigrants seemed to be happy to see the Nazi leader, Wnendt said, because “they probably learned about history a little differently.”

As the Post piece notes, the movie, "Look Who’s Back," "blurs the line between reality and fiction — with real people interacting with a fictional portrayal of Hitler."

And most of those real people seem much more intrigued than repulsed by Hitler. Yes, yes, I know this film is a completely made up story of Hitler returning and taking up a career as a stand-up comedian. But, in fact, the film contains scenes in which this fake returned Hitler interacts with real people unscripted. And these real people react in ways that should horrify us.

It's one more example of why it's so important to teach accurate history and to know what drives people to attach themselves to radicals and other fanatics.

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A former Episcopal bishop was just sentenced to seven years in prison for killing a bicyclist with her car while she was driving drunk. The story to which I've linked you contains this revealing part about the mother of the dead man: She "told the court that she had asked God many times why he let her son die — until she had a revelation. 'God didn't do this,' she said. 'Heather Cook killed Tom.'" Exactly. The God described by the major world religions doesn't go around arranging the death of people for sport.

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

When sports becomes a religion: 10-28-15

The World Series, as surely everybody knows, opened last night in Kansas City as the charming and all-that-is-good Royals took game one 5-4 in 14 innings from the repulsive and all-that-is-evil New York Mets.

Kansas_city_royalsIt may take seven battles to determine the outcome of this confrontation, but eventually the Royals, blessed by God to represent the divine will, will crush the sinister East Coasters and there will be joy in Mudville.

If what I've just written sounds a little far-fetched and full of crazy religious symbolism, you're right. And the only reason I have written it that way is that it behooves us to remember what constitutes religion and what constitutes idolatry.

Over the years, various writers have tried to find ways in which religion and sports overlap and even turn into one another. Here, for instance, is an Atlantic piece from 2013 asking how much sports fandom is like religion.

And here is a 2009 Psychology Today piece asking if sport is itself a religion.

I am not here making the argument that being a sports fan automatically makes one an idolater. Sports, after all, can teach important and useful moral and social lessons. But let's also be honest about the reality that sports can become an idol, that sometimes sports leaders engage in behavior that is morally appalling and that it's easy for both sports and religion to be corrupted by money.

As I describe in my book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans, being a Cubs fan from early in my childhood on has taught me a lot about humility and the benefits of losing. An appreciation of such matters can keep us from diving headlong into a worship of sports that any person of faith would recognize as idolatry. And all God's people said: "Go, Royals."

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I mentioned here yesterday that today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Nostra Aetate, a Vatican II document that removed blame from Jews for the death of Jesus. Rabbi A. James Rudin, who once worked in Kansas City, has written this essay about that document and why it's so important in the tumultuous history of Jewish-Christian relations. The problem with such a document is that as the years go by, new generations are not introduced to it and why it was necessary. So sometimes they fall back into the exact kind of prejudicial behavior and views that the document was written to begin to correct. We have an obligation not to let that happen.

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

New research on Shroud of Turin: 10-27-15

Shroud-TurinAs I've written before (here, for instance), I've long been intrigued by the Shroud of Turin (seen here), which some Christians believe may be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

I have no idea -- nor does anyone else -- whether it is or isn't that authentic burial cloth. And I find that it says more about those who wish it were than it does about the cloth itself that it has received so much attention over the years.

Still, I try to keep up on news related to the shroud, and was interested to see this story the other day. It says that new scientific research into it has found that the pollen and dust it contains have come from plants across the globe -- from the Mediterranean, to Asia, the Middle East and even the Americas.

We really don't know what this might mean in terms of the shroud's authenticity. That's in part because we don't fully know where the shroud has been all its life or how it got there. There is, after all, no small tag on the end of the shroud that says, "Made in Honduras" or "Product of Vietnam" or "Proudly Made in Jerusalem, A.D. 30." The new findings, in fact, suggest the shroud may have been "Made in India."
Still, it's interesting that we seem to be asking science to verify faith. That can be a fascinating matter, but it's always risky. Faith, after all, depends not on what can be scientifically proven. Indeed, it involves trust especially when something can't be proven according to the standards of 21st Century science.
As the old King James translation of chapter 11 of the New Testament book of Hebrews puts it: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
People of faith are, in some ways, required to live in two worlds. That is, they cling to "the substance of things hoped for" even when there is no modern proof that such a substance exists. At the same time, they must be reasonable and rational so that they don't believe in weird, magical things that all the scientific evidence argues against -- such as an Earth only 10,000 or so years old.
It is when people of faith mess all that up that they get into much trouble that causes people outside of faith to laugh and be glad they're not on the inside.
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Tomorrow marks 50 years since publication of the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, which finally put the Catholic Church on record as saying it's wrong to blame the Jews for killing Jesus. What else do you need to know about this important, if still somewhat problematic, document? This piece from Religion News Service will explain. 

Jesus was Jewish -- on his mother's side: 10-26-15

AJ-Levine-6As many of you know (because you showed up), the incomparable and funny Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine (seen in the photos here) was in Kansas City last week for several appearances. Her trip here was sponsored by the Interfaith Religious Literacy Center, a special project of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, and made possible by the Oppenstein Brothers UMKC Judaic Studies Outreach Program Fund.

AJ-Levine-5Focusing on three of her most popular books, The Misunderstood Jew, Short Stories by Jesus and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, she helped us all understand more fully the Jewish context out of which Christianity arose.

I can't replay in printed words here everything she said in various venues, but I thought it would be helpful to give you some highlights of the insights she shared. So here's a brief compendium of Levine's greatest hits from her time in KC.

* "First Century Jews knew that parables were not children's stories." They are not spoken to comfort people but to afflict them in some way so they can see themselves and their vulnerabilities and faults more clearly.

* "It should not be news that Jesus was Jewish. At least on his mother's side."

* "The word 'parable' is from the Greek." It's a poetic way of comparing and contrasting two things or ideas. "Therefore, with a parable it's better to ask 'What does this parable do? How does it affect me? What does it remind me of? How does it make me feel?' than to say, 'What does the parable mean?' because the parable can mean a variety of different things, depending on the person who looks at it."

* "Matthew (meaning the writer of the first gospel) has written a driver's ed manual for the early church."

* "How can I say I know my neighbor as myself if I don't know what's the most important thing in his life?"

* "The Bible for most people is a book of answers or a book of doctrine or a book of history. And it's none of that. The Bible is best read as a book that helps us ask the right questions."

* "We all have different lenses through which we understand our (sacred) texts. So Judaism is closer to Catholicism and to Islam than it is to standard Protestantism in the sense of this on-going revelation. . .So reading the Bible for Judaism is necessarily an act of interpretation. . .We are encouraged by our tradition to open up multiple readings, (so) the scripture is not only a site of revelation, it's a site of argumentation."

*  "(Scripture) is God's word, but that doesn't mean that's the end of it. It's God's word and now I'm going to engage it -- and you know what? -- I might not like it. And I may decide I want to wrestle with it . . .It can be the divine word, but that doesn't take humanity out of the picture. So the text remains a living text."

AJ-Levine-1"We're all reading (scripture) metaphorically when we choose to read metaphorically. We're all reading literally when we choose to read literally. . .Literalists aren't literalists, and sometimes people on the more liberal side are a whole more literal with certain verses than they are with others."

* "One of the benefits of the Protestant Reformation is that it put the Bible into the hands of the laity and put it into the vernacular so they could read it. . .Part of biblical literacy, scriptural literacy, is to figure out how to use the Bible as a rock on which to stand -- and pardon this cliche -- rather than a rock with which to do damage."

The books of Chronicles "manage to tell the story of King David and miss Bathsheba. It's like telling the story of President Clinton and missing Miss Lewinsky."

* "No one tradition has a lock on the truth."

* Jews "don't have to earn God's love. We've already got that. . .God chose us out of love. The reason we follow the law is to respond to the love that God showed us."

* "According to Judaism, God is the God of the world. . .If everybody converted to Judaism, God would only be the God of the Jews."

* "Anti-Jewish teaching and preaching is also on the rise today in liberal Protestant churches."

* "If we think about Jewish law, what Jewish law did was to allow Jews to maintain their own identity despite pressures to assimilate. . .When Jesus talks about the law he does not make it less rigorous, he makes it more rigorous. The law says don't commit adultery; he says don't think about it."

* "It's the Sabbath in part that keeps us (Jews) going. It's a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven."

* "By the end of the first century the dominant church is gentile rather than Jewish. . .It's not that Jews rejected Jesus. For most of them he's not on the radar in the first place. But if you were to say to them, 'Is he the Messiah?' most of them would say, 'No.' Why? Because the messianic age has not come yet."

Well, that's a taste of some of Levine's thinking that she shared with Kansas City over recent days. The hope of those of us working with the Interfaith Religious Literacy Center is that through her appearance here and through other upcoming programs, especially in partnership with the American Public Square at UMKC, Kansas Citians will want to become more religiously literate and even want to join small interfaith groups to learn about not only other faiths but their own in more depth as well. (The next American Public Square event on this topic is Dec. 10. Details are here.)

(The top photo shows Levine speaking Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church. The photo on the left shows her at Temple Israel, which meets at Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church, on Friday evening. And the photo on the right shows her at the Central Library on Wednesday evening.)

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Pope Francis, closing the synod on families, tells church leaders not to be so closed-hearted. The obvious question is why would you have to tell church leaders that? Isn't part of their job to be welcoming and open-hearted? Hmmm.

When actions repudiate religious teachings: 10-24/25-15

The other day I attended a picnic for Kansas City Star retirees and, as a small door prize, won a copy of a new book called After Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe, by Michael Jones.

After-hitlerIt's a compelling and enlightening read that I have yet to finish as I write this. But some early parts of it got me thinking again about the matter of how religion often calls us to do terribly difficult things -- like forgive others. I wrote about this general subject here not long ago.

And, of course, the example that most quickly comes to mind for Christians are these astonishing words of Jesus from the cross, spoken about the people killing him, as reported in Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing."

As World War II ended, allied soldiers from the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union began to discover -- and react to -- the unspeakable atrocities that Hitler's machinery of death had committed.

To quote from the new Jones book: "The war in the east (meaning Eastern Europe) had indeed been a race war. Hitler believed the Slav to be subhuman and so did many of his followers. These views had filtered down to the German population as a whole. Countless atrocities were committed against the Russian people, and as Red Army soldiers advanced through the Ukraine and Belorussia they uncovered ghastly evidence of the Holocaust and genocide."

The natural human instinct in response to such discoveries would be to retaliate. Indeed, there was much retaliation, including rape of German women, by allied troops. As Jones reports, Australian war correspondent Omar White described various aspects of this response, including this: "In one sector a report went round that a certain very distinguished army commander had made the wisecrack: 'Copulation without conversation does not constitute fraternization.'"

Jones quotes a British officer on the idea of retaliating against a beaten people: "I was stunned at the totality of it all and, despite my anger, horrified at the suffering which it brought in its wake. Whatever the German people had done, I couldn't gloat over their anguish or get satisfaction from a feeling of revenge." Another British soldier said, "Stories of SS atrocities made our men angry -- but when you see a person face-to-face and he is helpless, unarmed and wants to surrender, you lose that wildness."

Then Jones reports this: "Others felt that desire for revenge and acted upon it. In mid-April 1945 three German women were raped by British troops in the town of Neustadt-am-Rübenberge."

So some allied troops engaged in this kind of brutal retaliation on the theory that the German population deserved it. But some refused to be drawn into the same kind of behavior of which so many Germans in uniform were guilty.

What was the difference? And let's remember that, in essence, these were allied troops of mostly a Christian background who had been fighting German troops mostly of Christian background.

I don't have any easy answers for why some individual soldiers behaved in a gruesome, retaliatory way that stood against what their religion taught them while others remained honorable, understanding the Christian teaching that every human being is a child of God. I just know that the Christian mandate to see Christ in every -- every -- person is perhaps the most difficult requirement of faith that I know. And I also know that every Christian -- me included -- fails at it regularly.

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Speaking about different reactions to religious teachings, RNS blogger David Gushee says in this interesting piece that when it comes to "the spectrum of moral views among (American) Christians on just about every subject," what he finds is that "it's chaos out there." So perhaps the many differing responses to being faithful and moral in World War II were no different from the moral pluralism of today. The question to ask, I think, is whether the various positions on morality are the result of true study, prayer and discernment or just personal whim or habit. I suspect lots fall into the latter category. 

Movements in death penalty fight: 10-23-15

As most of my regular readers know, I have opposed the death penalty in all cases for a long time for a long list of reasons -- moral, economic and humane.

Anti-death-penaltySo earlier this year I was pleased when Nebraska, one of the most politically conservative states in the country, voted in its unicameral legislature to abolish capital punishment.

Now, however, Nebraska's citizens -- led by their governor and others who support the death penalty -- have collected enough signatures to force a public vote on whether to reinstate it.

Those supporters have chosen the wrong position. They are out of step with most of the world and with a growing number of Americans, including those who would identify themselves as conservative politically and evangelical in terms of their Christianity.

In fact, the National Association of Evangelicals just changed its formal policy on the death penalty from one of unequivocal support to one acknowledging there are good arguments against the death penalty. In doing so, the NAE overwrote a policy it has had since 1973, but did not go all the way to proclaim opposition to capital punishment. I think it eventually will.

But I was a little surprised that in the current NAE statement about all of this, it says, "As evangelicals, we believe that moral revulsion or distaste for the death penalty is not a sufficient reason to oppose it." Seems to me there's hardly any better reason to oppose capital punishment than moral revulsion.

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Like many people, I was surprised and, frankly, appalled when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week claimed that in the 1940s the Mufti of Jerusalem had “a central role in fomenting the Final Solution,” resulting in the Holocaust. It was deceptive historical revisionism at its worst. What we do know is that the mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was pro-Hitler and met personally with Hitler. But the Hitler with whom he met already was deeply antisemitic and well on his way to envisioning and executing genocide against Europe's Jews. (The book to read is Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann, which I wrote about here.) As Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who is in Kansas City for several appearances through Sunday, told me Thursday, "I don't think Hitler needed any help in coming up with the Holocaust." Speaking of Levine, some 450 people showed up at the Central Kansas City Library downtown on Wednesday night to hear her talk about Jesus' parables. She was just terrific. Please try to hear her at one of her other Kansas City appearances, listed at the site to which I've linked you above.

Seminaries attracting non-religious students: 10-22-15

As more Americans identify as "nones," which is to say people affiliated with no religious tradition, both the religious world and the secular world are having to find ways to adapt to each other.

Pew-forumThis process of negotiating a place in a predominantly religious country will, over time, take some unusual turns.

For example, The New York Times now reports that more and more nones are choosing to go to seminary. If that seems odd to you at first, you're not alone.

What would make non-religious people want to hang out in divinity school?

There are lots of reasons, it turns out.

For instance, a none who now attends seminary at Harvard said this: “I wanted to respond to what I saw as a crisis of isolation among young people. I wanted to create a meaningful community that came together based on a shared goal rather than a shared religious creed.”

The Times piece adds these factors to explain what it calls a boomlet in nones attending seminary: "Two factors are driving this surge. First, the proportion of nones in the United States has grown to about a third of all millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, according to the Pew Research Center. Second, divinity school offers even atheists and spiritual seekers a language of moral discourse and training in congregational leadership. The traits appeal to nones who aspire to careers in activism, social work, chaplaincy or community organizing rather than taking to a pulpit."

If nones are showing up at seminary, what might people of faith do to understand the nones better? One idea is to attend what are called the "meet-ups" that such folks put together now and then. One example in Kansas City might be to show up at the regular Sunday afternoon gatherings of the Community of Reason, which contains lots of folks who are religiously unaffiliated.

The more we understand about each other the less likely it is that there will be prejudice and bigotry rooted in ignorance.

(The chart here today came from here.)

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The Vatican's vehement denials that Pope Francis has a small brain tumor seem quite resolute and even angry. It's either ridiculously sourced journalism or church leaders being disingenuous. I'm betting on it being bad journalism, though we all know that's a terribly rare occurrence. (We all know that, right?)

How should churches be governed? 10-21-15

I mentioned here on the blog yesterday that Pope Francis is floating the idea of decentralizing the power of the pope and the whole church.

PCUSA-modelIt's an idea worth thinking about in more detail -- not only from a Catholic perspective (which, as a Presbyterian, I can't offer) but from a broader Christian and even broader religious perspective.

What does everyone know about Catholic polity? That it is hierarchical in nature. Which is to say that for the most part power flows from the top down. By contrast, some Protestant churches are almost exactly the opposite and are have what is called a congregational polity, in which, like town meetings in Vermont, power rests in the hands of the members.

The governmental system in the Presbyterian Church (USA), to which my congregation belongs, is something of a hybrid of the two. It's more a representative democracy in which people in the pews hold a lot of power but that power is shared with local and regional governing bodies through elected representatives. We call it a connectional system.

Jesus was all about sharing power. In John 14:12, for instance, he is reported saying this to his disciples: "I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these. . ." He was deputizing his followers.

It is, of course, relatively easy for an early movement to get along without a lot of governing structure. But when a movement becomes an institution, some kind of structure is required. The question Pope Francis is raising is whether there can be some reasonable adjustments to Catholic polity that will make the current hierarchy less rigid.

Recently, here on the blog, I reviewed a book in which the author argued that one of the forces that killed Jesus was the political and religious hierarchy of his time. It's an interesting argument and there are many reasons to be wary of such governing structures. But the question is how to modify a hierarchical system of governance with something that doesn't turn into anarchy.

It's going to be fascinating to watch the Catholic Church wrestle with exactly that question.

(By the way, the image here today portraying Presbyterian polity leaves out a layer -- the synods, which are made up of several presbyteries.)

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Did you know that a woman was ordained as a rabbi in Nazi Germany? This Religion News Service column tells the fascinating story. Rabbi Regina Jonas' story should not be lost to history. Maybe now it won't be.

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P.S.: A family emergency has resulted in postponement of the Oct. 28 Festival of Faiths event at Unity Temple on the Plaza in Kansas City to Dec. 10. Same time, 7 p.m. Tickets for the Oct. 28 event will be honored Dec. 10. More details at the link I've given you here.