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Wanted: A religion of pure grace: 11-30-15

Perhaps some of you remember sitting in a college dorm room late at night with several other sophomores talking about religion and what it means to you. There's a reason such conversations have been called sophomoric. What they lacked in depth they made up for in the certitude of some of the participants.

Hoping-hopeIn a good way, John D. Caputo's new book, Hoping Against Hope: (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim), may remind you of some of those late-night conversations, except that this time all the participants are Caputo himself -- as a devout Catholic boy, as a young man then known as Brother Paul, considering giving his life to the church, and finally as a mature college professor who focuses on philosophy and religion.

It's a fascinating -- and also, at times, disconcerting -- read. Caputo challenges himself and his readers at every turn:

"I am seeking," he writes, "to know what religion would look like, what form it could take, if it were wrested free from people who consider themselves authorities in matters in which we are all unlearned novices and perpetual beginners."

Clearly, his respect for the pre-Vatican II Catholicism he learned as a child has waned profoundly. And yet there is something about the religious perspective that he wants to save. The book represents his effort to find out what that might be.

Caputo knows with some clarity the religion he seeks: ". . .the religion I am trying to retrieve in the present text begins and ends with grace."

Ah, grace, that pure, unmerited favor about which people of faith speak, sometimes not understanding that for grace to be grace, it cannot come bound with conditions, cannot mandate a gift in return, cannot perhaps even reveal the giver.

For Caputo, one of the main problems with traditional religion is that too often it "allows itself to be all about winning, about beating time at its own game, about cheating death. That is religion at its worst. . .I embrace a religion of the gift, of an unconditional affirmation made without the expectation of a reward, a religion that we would lack only at our peril."

Caputo, in this internal dialogue (well, trialogue) that he invites us to overhear, draws on the mystics, those people in various traditions who have written about a more personal experience of the divine. He describes them as "those insidious insiders who make such salutary trouble for religion." But it's the kind of challenging trouble that religion needs to keep it honest, to keep it seeking, to keep it humble.

If, as he writes, "people who think in terms of inerrancy and infallibility are dangerous," his task is to find adherents of religion who, by contrast, are willing to explore what it might mean if God simply disappeared from the world and left us to embody, to incarnate the goodness, the love, the mercy that God represents -- and not just represents but, in fact, is. Thinking such thoughts can be, as I say, disconcerting in the sense that it feels a little like walking on a high tight rope without a net underneath to catch us.

All of that said, Caputo has not completely given up on the church -- especially in light of the new tone that Pope Francis has set since his election. But if Caputo were put in charge of the church (he would refuse), it would look much different than it does now.

He also reminds us of the profound difference between belief and faith: "When beliefs deepen, entrenchment sets in, fundamentalism waxes, searching wanes. When faith deepens, beliefs are destabilized, searching waxes, fundamentalism wanes. . .My task here is to help religion out of the hole it keeps digging for itself."

In contrast to some traditional Christian thinking, Caputo insists that God needs us. Others often say God would be God without humanity. But Caputo is having none of that: ". . .God is a promise, an unkept promise, and everything depends upon us to keep that promise, to translate that hope into reality. . .Without God we can do nothing, but then again without us God can do nothing."

Catholics deeply committed to the church as it now exists may well find Caputo to be too challenging to be taken seriously. Some may wish to label him a heretic. It's that kind of instinct toward certitude that Caputo thinks is damaging true religion. It would be fun to bring him before the College of Cardinals to hear him try to make his case. He gives a hint of what he would do in such a case: He would simply hand the cardinals a rose and tell them that the flower's unconditional grace and beauty say all they need to know about religion. And then he'd rest his case. And what a strong case it would be.

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What role is religion playing in the climate change summit in Paris? This piece from The Economist offers an interesting look at that question, particularly as faith affects the French president, who, like Jack Caputo, (see above) has given up the Catholicism in which he was reared.

Chaplains who ministered to Nazi criminals: 11-28/29-15

Faith that in some way doesn't challenge and even complicate our thinking seems hardly worth having. And yet sometimes the challenges can be especially difficult.

Chaplain-logoIn this Washington Post story, for instance, we learn about two American military chaplains who wound up ministering to some of the Nazis who were on trial for crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials soon after the end of World War II.

The story's opening question is telling: "Should anyone who commits evil on a massive scale be offered a path to forgiveness?"

Later the story raises this question: "If the perpetrators of genocide can be seen as fellow human beings, do they deserve empathy or forgiveness from those who have chosen to lead good lives?"

As I understand the concept of forgiveness in Judaism, I as a third party not guilty of the crime nor a victim of it can have no say in the question of forgiveness. It is up to the victims to forgive the criminals. In the case of the Holocaust, two-thirds of the Jews of Europe alive at the start of the war had been murdered. By that deadly mathematics, those victims were in no position to offer forgiveness to the architects of the genocide. Rather, only the survivors could consider the question of forgiveness -- but only for what they themselves suffered, not for what was done to those who were murdered.

But I don't think offering clergy services and spiritual counseling to Nazis accused of crimes constitutes an offer of forgiveness in and of itself. Rather, it is simply a recognition of our common humanity, even if the person in whom we locate that humanity has done viciously inhuman acts.

On this I stand with the chaplains who did the work assigned to them. I just don't choose to designate that work as a sign of forgiveness either offered or accepted.

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The trip to Africa by Pope Francis has been intriguing in the way he has spoken truth to power -- being a representative of power himself, albeit theological, not political, power. In Kenya, for instance, he chastised the nation's elite for neglecting the poor. It's been his consistent message to the powerful around the world. And it's a message the church itself has needed to hear, particularly when you think of vulnerable children as being among the poor and the elite as including the bishops who allowed abuse priests to remain unpunished after attacking those children.

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Pope-cover Woodstock-book-coverP.S.: Are you looking for exactly the right book as a gift for someone with excellent, though perhaps a bit off-beat, tastes in writing? May I suggest one or more of the books I've written or co-authored: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans or They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. The links I've given you will let you buy them online. But if you want autographed copies (and in the case of the Woodstock book, want to pay less than online prices), send me an e-mail at [email protected] and I'll tell you how that can happen.

A story of hope and respect: 11-27-15

As we enter what is supposed to be a joyous holiday season -- but one that is, nonetheless, filled with wars and rumors of wars, terrorism and rumors of terrorism, political lies and rumors of political lies -- I want to share with you an inspiring story of hope.

Israeli_palestinianIn Jaffa, Israel, next to Tel Aviv, there's a school known as Hand in Hand, where roughly equal numbers of Jewish and Arab children learn together, with each class having a teacher who speaks Hebrew and one who speaks Arabic.

This story describes this small sea of sanity in the midst of what sometimes looks like insanity. As the story notes:

"The school is vital for the community and parents — who understand their 5-year-olds may not yet grasp the implications of their ethnic, religious or national identities — to show that it is possible to 'be together, while still different, and learn about each other,'" said one of the parents.

The story properly notes that this is far from the first Jewish-Arab effort at cooperation. But such efforts are nowhere near as numerous as they need to be, and not enough of them involve teaching children how to be both proud of their own heritage and at the same time respectful of the different heritage of others.

That kind of instruction is crucial if the conditions and beliefs that lead to extremism are to be overcome. The story ends with this hopeful note:

"While parents are eager to foster mutual understanding during these tense times, it’s easy to see a sense of normalcy back at the school’s playground when Jewish and Arab children go to class together.

“'It’s fun to know other languages because then you can speak with all kinds of people!' exclaims Ofri Druckman, 5, as two of her friends, one Arab, one Jewish, nod in agreement, before they all resume playing on the wooden jungle gym."

Ah, a bit of light in a world desperate for light.

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Remember reading the old sermon by Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? Well, this piece suggests it might be enlightening to turn that phrase around and compare that turn-around to reality. I think the writer is on to something.

But first some words of thanks: 11-26-15

Bill Vaughan wrote the daily "Starbeams" column for 31 years before I took it over in 1977 at The Kansas City Star and wrote it for another 27 years. The column format called for 12 one-liners (quips, often satirical) plus one beam reserved for the front page each day.

ThanksWhen Bill wrote the column, the front page line was called, simply, "Bill Vaughan says. . ."

And every Thanksgiving those words were followed by this simple word: "Thanks."

I have no idea why, but the surprising simplicity of it -- after being used to beams of 25 or 40 words there -- always made me chuckle.

A simple "Thanks" will not, of course, ever be recorded among the best and most engaging comments ever made about Thanksgiving itself or about gratitude. But there are other sayings worth passing along on a day like today, and some of them reflect ideas about gratitude from this or that faith tradition.

So let's begin. And let's start with Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship:

“Thanksgiving and praise open in your consciousness the way for spiritual growth and supply to come to you. Spirit pushes Itself out into visible manifestation as soon as a channel is opened through which It can flow. You should be thankful for everything at all times. Realize that all power to think, and speak, and act comes from God, and that He is with you now, guiding and inspiring you.”

(By the way, the Self-Realization Fellowship is starting a holiday season gratitude challenge tomorrow. If you're interested in checking that out, click here.)

Next we'll turn to the Apostle Paul, who in I Thessalonians 5:18 of the New Testament, writes this:

"Give thanks in every situation because this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find this word about thanks in Psalms 138:1:

I give thanks to you with all my heart, Lord. I sing your praise before all other gods."

From the Islamic tradition, we find these words about Abraham in 16:120-121 of the Qur'an:

"Abraham was truly an example: devoutly obedient to God and true in faith. He was not an idolater; he was thankful for the blessings of God who chose him and guided him to a straight path."

Going back to ancient Rome, we find these words from the philosopher Cicero:

"A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue but the parent of all the other virtues."

Finally, a Thanksgiving thought from the late, great Erma Bombeck:

"Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence."

And in the spirit of the late Bill Vaughan, I, too, say this to my wonderful readers:


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And when you tire of football and leftovers later today, come back and read this explanation of what Thanksgiving is really all about. Memorize it. There will be a quiz next Thanksgiving.

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

An Augustinian approach to self-esteem: 11-25-15

The other day The New York Times reviewed a new book about the early Christian leader Augustine (seen here in his fraternity pledge class photo). It looks like an intriguing read and maybe I'll get to it eventually.

AugustineBut I was especially engaged by what the reviewer said in the at the end of the piece:

"Augustine hit upon an idea that would shape Western consciousness for centuries: the notion that human beings have two wills within, a defiant one that wants autonomy and a chastened one that wants to serve God. The only way to achieve happiness, Augustine believed, was to subordinate the former to the latter. . .It was during the Renaissance that this conception of the self came under serious challenge, most powerfully in Montaigne’s ­'Essays,' which mocked the idea of sin and preached self-acceptance. To Augustine’s anxious admission that he was a problem to himself, Montaigne simply responded, So what’s the problem? Don’t worry, be happy. As modern people we have chosen Montaigne over Augustine. We traded pious self-­cultivation for undemanding self-e­steem. But is love of self really enough to be happy? You know the answer to that, dear reader. And so did Augustine."

The great religions teach us that we must love ourselves if we ever are to be capable of loving others. And there is profound truth in that. The problem, which Augustine obviously understood, is that our task is made more difficult because we must learn to love ourselves even while acknowledging that we are deeply flawed in various ways. It's not unlike true patriotism, which is love of our nation even while acknowledging our national faults -- and sometimes speaking aloud about those flaws so they might be fixed.

The self-esteem movement that gained traction a few decades back was rooted in a proper concern about being able to love and accept ourselves. But, as I came to know more about it, I found that it was not built either on the religious idea that we are lovable because we are precious children of God or on the more practical idea that true self-esteem is gained through real accomplishments -- not in all the children in a foot race receiving equal "participation" ribbons.

The book reviewer is right that we all know the answer to the question of whether love of self is really enough to make us happy (as if being happy were the ultimate goal of life; but that's another subject). And if you don't know the answer, perhaps it's time to read Augustine's Confessions.

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A new report from Bread for the World says hunger in the U.S. is terribly costly and is killing tens of thousands of children. Come on, Americans. We can do better than that. The problem is systemic, and so must be the solution.

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

When fear leads us to reject our values: 11-24-15

Sometimes, as my friend Rick Horowitz pointed out on Milwaukee Public Television recently, we Americans get fearful and forget our foundational values.

XenophobiaIn World War II, for instance, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Americans and their leaders became fearful of Japanese-Americans, who had elected to come to this country and contribute in so many ways. So we rounded them up and forced them into internment camps, even while some of those same Japanese-Americans put on military uniforms and fought for the country that was treating their families like poison.

My brother-in-law Gary was born in one of those camps. Gary has gone on in his life to do many excellent things, including marry one of my three sisters. But his family's sad history at the hands of our government is an indelible part of who he is and, thus, by extension, an indelible part of our family's history.

Although the United States was created (eventually) to be a nation without an established religion, everyone knows that our basic values often reflect the teachings of Christianity and Judaism. The Hebrew scriptures insist over and over that the people of Israel are to welcome the stranger, in part because they once were strangers in Egypt.

And the teachings of Jesus emphasize the inestimable value of every human being and the obligation to care for those in crisis and in danger. Matthew 25 records Jesus saying, "I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me."

But we find ourselves in another time of fear. The fear is justifiable. There really are radical Islamist terrorists out there who want to kill us -- and who already have killed some of us, including my own nephew on 9/11. The threat and the danger are real. And we are fools if we don't recognize that.

But fear among American Muslims is also real and also justified. Just yesterday a Muslim friend told me that things are as bad right now for Muslims in the U.S. as they were right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Muslims, she said, are living in constant fear of retribution simply for being followers of Islam.

Our fear of terrorism should not mean that we ought to jettison our core values. It should not mean that governors ought to say they won't accept Syrian refugees into their states. It should not mean that presidential candidates like Donald Trump (but who is like Donald Trump?) ought to say they would create a watch list that would include every Muslim in the U.S., not unlike the way Nazi Germany created lists of Jews in preparation for the Holocaust. And it surely should not mean that Trump (more than once and without apology) and Ben Carson (before taking it all back) can get away with making up wildly inaccurate stories about thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. In another time and another circumstance, the kind of bunk Trump has been saying about 9/11 was called a Big Lie.

When we do such things we can be sure we have lost our way. We have abandoned the values first introduced by religion and later codified into secular law. Rick Horowitz is right that we will get past this current round of fear and stupid reactions to fear and then be embarrassed again about what we did -- just the way we found ourselves later embarrassed by Sen. Joe McCarthy's fear-mongering about communists and by the way our ancestors brutalized native Americans when those very ancestors were immigrants seeking a better life.

But the sooner we get over it the better. And you can help that process by rejecting xenophobia. It's an illegitimate response to legitimate fear.

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Oh, and if you're looking for actual factual true facts (which, as you know, are the best kind of facts) about Syrian refugees, you might want to have a look at this piece by Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. For instance, did you know that more than half of those refugees are children under age 18?

A new look at a pope and the Holocaust: 11-23-15

For decades now, people have argued over whether Pope Pius XII (pictured here), who served throughout World War II, did enough to help save Jews from the Holocaust.

Pius-12This controversy has created such deeply divided opinion that it has slowed the effort inside the Catholic Church to designate Pius XII a saint.

My friend Russ Saltzman recently did this review of a new book on the subject (a book I haven't had a chance to read yet) called Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler, by Mark Riebling. Riebling looks at the considerable evidence that Pius XII took steps to protect Jews as well as the indisputable evidence that he was extraordinarily silent about the fate of the Jews during the war. In the end, Saltzman notes, Riebling concludes this: “Buffeted by shifting pressures from all sides, Pius did not so much keep above the fray as work below it.”

I have mixed feelings about the effort to make this pontiff a saint. First, it's an internal Catholic matter that in no way changes anything he did or didn't do in his life. But, second, if I were Catholic and had any voice in the process, I would want a much more thorough vetting of the evidence before coming to any conclusions.

Sainthood, after all, is kind of a big deal in Catholicism. So I'd hope the church would get it right, though noting that all human beings are imperfect, the lone exception, according to church doctrine, being Jesus Christ himself.

If this matter of Pope Pius and the Holocaust interests you, then Riebling's book sounds like a must read. But in the meantime, here are three online sites you can explore to help you understand the issues at play:

  • This one is from the Jewish Virtual Library, which seems pretty unimpressed by the pope's actions. It says, in part: "For much of the war, he maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed. He refused pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality, while making statements condemning injustices in general. Privately, he sheltered a small number of Jews and spoke to a few select officials, encouraging them to help the Jews."
  • Here is the Wikipedia entry on the subject. It's more generous, saying, "Pius employed diplomacy to aid the victims of the Nazis during the war and, through directing his Church to provide discreet aid to Jews and others, saved hundreds of thousands of lives."
  • Finally, here is a piece from Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial authority, which notes both sides of the argument this way: "For his supporters, the Pope avoided making public statements because there was a strong possibility that they would expose innocent people to drastic Nazi reprisals. They emphasize that Catholic institutions rescued thousands of Jews. Papal opponents focus on the particular evil that Nazism represented and maintain that in such circumstances religious leadership must be clear, forthright and outspoken."

No one knows, of course, how all this will work itself out. But I'm glad the conversation continues because it has relevance for us today in the way we think about and speak about more recent atrocities, from genocides in Africa to murderous terrorism at the hands of Islamist extremists. Public silence, a position that Pius XII chose, seems unlikely to be the right choice or one ever likely to be honored for its moral strength.

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Sunni Islam does not have a pope, but the closest to it, the head of al-Azhar in Cairo, says that terrorism is an “intellectual and psychological disease” and that terrorists are wrong to use religion to justify their actions just as people are wrong to blame Islam for terrorism. Fine. But the problem is that the radical Islamists consider this man and others like him to be traitors to their vision of the religion.

A model for pastors everywhere: 11-21/22-15

When Hal LeMert was called to be pastor of the Presbyterian Church in which I grew up in Woodstock, Ill., -- I want to say it was about 1979 or 1980 -- I was long gone from my hometown.

Retire 028But my parents still were active in the church, so while Hal looked for a Woodstock house to buy for him and the rest of his soon-to-join-him family -- Annie, three daughters and a son -- he stayed with my folks. It turned out to be the beginning of a long friendship I developed with this remarkable man, whose funeral I attended this past Wednesday in Lawrence, Kan., where he died Nov. 11 at the age of 83.

Several years into his productive pastorate in Woodstock, one of Hal's good friends died while serving as pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in the Kansas City suburb of Prairie Village, Kan. Hal and I both attended the funeral and I began to imagine what a good fit Hal might be if he were called to replace his friend. It took a bit of time -- as these things always do in Presbyterian polity -- but eventually that's exactly what happened. And Hal served that church well for quite a few years as my and my wife's friendship with him and his wife Annie grew.

After a retirement stint helping with campus ministry at the University of Missouri in Columbia, he eventually retired and he and Annie moved to Lawrence, Kan., where one of their daughters lives and where Hal also helped out with the Ecumenical Campus Ministries on the University of Kansas campus. Lawrence isn't far from where I live on the Missouri side of the state line, so we continued to stay in touch in person and by phone and e-mail.

The photo you see here today of Hal and Annie was taken at a 2006 party at our house celebrating my formal retirement from The Kansas City Star.

As Hal has neared the end of his life this fall, I've been doing some thinking about what he brought to the profession of ministry and why he was so winsome. And what I've concluded might be helpful to others still in professional ministry -- and to lay ministers, which Christianity says all followers are -- so I share it with you today.

Hal-LemertHal had a sense of curiosity that seemed endless. At times he seemed baffled by the universe and by the idea of a God who could love seemingly insignificant humans. He was willing to admit his bafflement but was, nonetheless, happy to commit himself to such a God -- in gratitude and with humility, knowing that scripture is right when it says that we walk by faith, not by sight.

Any time I had a conversation with Hal, he had some new idea, some new thought that he wanted to share so as to complicate my own thinking. He did. And it did.

Once Hal and I drove together to Woodstock. He drove. I rode. And as I did I read aloud to him the beginnings of a possible book I had in mind to write -- and had, indeed, begun writing. I called it The Unauthorized Autobiography of Jesus Christ. I read a few chapters but there was relative silence in response from Hal. I got the uncomfortable feeling that he thought I was off base. Eventually he challenged me because what he was hearing was pretty much straight out of the Bible, with a few semi-interesting comments thrown in. But there wasn't much fresh in it, wasn't much that challenged the conventional views about Jesus, wasn't much that made Jesus accessible to people today. If I wanted people really to think hard about this itinerant rabbi who changed the world, I needed to present him in interesting, fresh ways that somehow spoke to contemporary times -- and not just use echoes of language employed 2,000 years ago. Of course Hal was right about that. Maybe one day I'll get back to that project. I wish I'd finished it while Hal was still around to box me about the head and shoulders as I moved it toward publication.

Hal, in the end, was a servant. He was enthralled with the idea of the diaconate -- servant ministers the church has called deacons almost from the beginning. And if Hal LeMert was anything, he was a servant -- not only of Jesus Christ but also of love. What kind of love? The kind described by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13 (using the Common English Bible translation): "Love is patient, love is kind, it isn't jealous, it doesn't brag, it isn't arrogant, it isn't rude, it doesn't seek its own advantage, it isn't irritable, it doesn't keep a record of complaints, it isn't happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth."

That's a lovely description of Hal, though, of course, Hal would confess that he regularly failed to live up to such glowing words. Which simply means that Hal understood and tried to live by the Benedictine virtue of humility. But the fact is that those words from Paul fit Hal as well as they fit anyone I know, especially the part about being unhappy with injustice. Throughout his whole ministry he stood with the marginalized and sought to be a voice for the voiceless.

Hal was deeply engaged by the idea of spirit -- human spirit, Holy Spirit, any sense of spirit. And he himself was something of a free floating spirit who occasionally could challenge what some considered orthodoxy. He was no heretic. Not at all. But he was willing to listen to and learn from heretics, which is something quite different from being one.

Hal also had a marvelous sense of humor that endeared him to his congregants. Long ago he made up a character he called Hester Bugle. I understood her to be kind of a sharp-tongued, slightly racy church lady, and occasionally he would drag Hester out to be the mouthpiece for wisdom that sounded better coming from her than directly from him.

(I confess that when I signed the guest book at Hal's funeral the other day, I also registered Hester Bugle's presence. I hope Hal laughed.)

5-W-TypewriterOnce some years ago I got a call from Hal in Lawrence. He told me he was standing by a trash dumpster and was looking at an old Woodstock manual typewriter, made in my hometown, next to the dumpster.

"Do you want it?" Hal asked, assuring me it was in reasonably decent shape. "Of course I want it," I said.

So I now own that typewriter and it sits proudly on a bookshelf in my home office. It's what I think of as an attractive nuisance for grandchildren, who naturally want to pound on it, though I discourage that. In fact, I pictured the typewriter in my 2014 book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.

After Hal saw its picture in that book, he sent me this note: "Among the file I keep on coincidences, I mark that typewriter as a major curiosity. Maybe I've told this too many times, but I seldom go past the spot where I saw it without a memory flash. Why a Woodstock typewriter, of ALL things, should have been sitting out so prominently quite apart from the trash container, as if addressing me! And the unlikeliness of anyone even paying attention to its two part brokenness, and there I was." Thanks to Hal's sharp eye and generosity, I now sign off my e-mails with this line: "Sent from my manual typewriter." Hal liked that signature.

Sometimes pastors can have a cutting edge to them, a hard-heartedness that defends a heart-hearted sort of religion, which can become an alibi for hate, for injustice, for war, for racism, for sexism, for xenophobia, for cruelty to those in need.

I wish I could take all such clergy and make them spend a week with Hal LeMert, though now it's too late for that.

Hal's daughter Amy had asked her father how he wanted the end of his life to come at his house, where he was under the care of a hospice nurse. Hal told her he'd like the family in the house, though not necessarily in his room at all times. He just liked hearing their presence nearby. So the day he died there was family, including grandchildren, in the house, and they were making family sounds that Hal could hear from his room.

A rerun of "M*A*S*H" was on TV in Hal's room. The very minute the show ended and the credits rolled, Hal breathed his last breath, with a few family members in the room to notice.

Hal went gentle into that good night. And although he was never burdened with false certitude, Hal, I'm convinced, was as sure as he could be that the night he was entering would, indeed, be good -- and full of divine light.

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It's reassuring to hear a voice of reason and sanity on the matter of Syrian refugees coming from someone who identifies as a leader among conservative Christians. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says the anti-refugee rhetoric being heard in recent days is appalling: “We really don’t want to penalize innocent women and children who are fleeing from murderous barbarians simply because they’re not Christians,” he said in an interview. Good for Moore. I wish the Donald Trumps, Ben Carsons and Mike Huckabees of the world would learn from him.

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Relig-litP.S.: A reminder that this year's Festival of Faiths in Kansas City was postponed from late October to the evening of Dec. 10. You can read about the speakers and event at the link I've given you in the previous sentence. I hope to see you there. Also on Dec. 10 -- but as a breakfast event -- is the next American Public Square program on religious literacy, "What We Don't Know Is Hurting Us." The link I just gave you will give you details about how to attend the event at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village. Or you can click on -- and enlarge -- the graphic you see here at the left.

Sampling another faith tradition: 11-20-15

Today I'm going to tell you about a book I hadn't heard of at all until recently and that I didn't think I wanted to read once I got a copy. Why did I get a copy? Oddly enough, I noticed a tweet about it from the Jewish newspaper, The Forward. The tweet said if that you'd retweet it, you could win a copy. So, as an author wanting to encourage other authors, I did. And, to my surprise, I won it.

Mystics-Mile-EndThe book is called The Mystics of Mile End, by Sigal Samuel, and it's about a family from Montreal whose members get connected in various ways to the Jewish mystic path, called Kabbalah. As you may know, almost every religion has a mystical path. Each one in different ways emphasizes a personal experience of the divine. The piece about Kabbalah to which I've linked you describes it as "one of the most grossly misunderstood parts of Judaism."

I don't read a lot of fiction and I rarely review it for blog readers, feeling that I'm not qualified to do that. And I'm not going to do a full review of this book today. Rather, I want to make another point or two about learning about faith traditions not our own.

But I will say that I frankly thought the book started out slowly, and I wasn't sure I would stay with it. It begins using the voice of a young boy, Lev, and although the author gets the boy's voice right, sticking with that voice didn't allow her to show off what turned out to her rather prodigious writing skills that became possible when the voices turned to those of adults.

For instance, at one point, when the narrator is the father of Lev and his sister, Samara, he describes a moment with his lover this way: "Our warm bodies just barely touching. Not the supernova of two people newly in love, not the sticky melding together of disparate identities, but a constellation of adjacent alonenesses, a parallel glide through space." You simply can't put such words into the voice of a young boy.

You can read the story for yourself and discover its engaging ins and outs. What I want to do is to here is to encourage you to do what I have done in reading this book: Go outside your own faith tradition and sample writing that brings you into a world you don't know much about.

As someone who writes regularly about religion, I know a bit about Kabbalah but am far from an expert in it. And I know some things about Judaism, too. But to immerse myself in a Jewish story centered on Kabbalah was an experience that expanded my horizons and give me at least a small taste of what such a context feels like.

So I suggest you find a novel or a non-fiction book that focuses on a faith tradition beyond your own. As you read, write down questions. Then find someone knowledgeable from that tradition to help you answer those questions -- remembering that whoever you ask cannot possibly speak for the whole of that religion or spiritual path.

If you want to delve into Kabbalah, this novel is a good place to start.

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Missouri state Rep. Mike Moon, perhaps in harmony with his name, has offered this bit of lunacy: He doesn't want Syrian refugees in the Show-me State because he wants to prevent “the potential Islamization of Missouri.” This is on a par with GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich proposing creation of a federal agency to promote Judeo-Christian values. Sometimes politicians who get entangled with religious issues embarrass not just themselves but the whole country.

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NoahGellerP.S.: Speaking of sampling other faith traditions, let me tell you about the opportunity you have to hear Noah Geller, the great concertmaster of the Kansas City Symphony, play in a solo recital. This will happen in the sanctuary of Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church, 9300 Nall in Overland Park, Kan., under the sponsorship of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City, which holds its weekly services in the Rolling Hills chapel. The "play in a solo recital" link I've given you has details about how to purchase tickets. I love watching Geller when I attend Symphony concerts but have never heard him doing a solo performance. Hope to see you there. 

Is ISIS Islamic or not? 11-19-15

Now that a bit of time has passed after the terrorist attacks in Paris, maybe it's a good time to think again about the ways Islamist terrorists misuse Islam.

QuranIt is not an easy subject and there are no simple answers as to the relationship between terrorists and Islam.

Reflective of that complexity, Will McCants of the Brookings Institution has written this piece about how to think about ISIS and Islam. It's worth a read. As is this CNN piece by Haroon Moghul, in which he argues that "The Islamic State is at war with how Muslims understand Islam." 

As McCants notes, "Ultimately, it’s for Muslims to decide whether the Islamic State is being faithful to scripture. For the nonbelievers, it’s enough to recognize that Islamic scripture is contradictory when it comes to violence and to rejoice that most Muslims makes sense of these contradictions in a very different way than ISIS."

Not only is Islamic scripture (which, as McCants notes, broadly includes both the Qur'an and the Hadith) contradictory when it comes to violence, so is the scripture held sacred by Jews and Christians.

Christians, for instance, must figure out what to do with words Jesus is reported to have said in Matthew 5:29: "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." Or these words attributed to Jesus from Matthew 10:34: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."

Sounds pretty violent to me.

The point -- one I've tried to make many times in many venues -- is that all scripture must be interpreted. And there will be differences of interpretation. One useful rule (that I wish ISIS would learn) is that if your interpretation of scripture regularly moves you to hatred and violence, you're not doing it right. Healthy religion leads you toward peaceful, not violent, resolutions of disputes. It's exactly the point that a large group of Islamic scholars made about ISIS in September.

The fact that Islamist terrorists insist on their bloody interpretations of parts of the Qur'an and the Hadith is much more reflective of their limited capacity for humane understanding than it is a reflection on those collections of Islamic sacred writing. And President Barack Obama was right the other day (as former President George W. Bush was right for the same reason right after 9/11) to insist that the U.S. is not at war against Islam. Such a war would be unthinkable.

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Because you can't tell the terrorist players without a scorecard, Religion News Services has put together this piece in which it explains the various names of the group identified as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. You are free to make up your own four-letter word for the organization, as I do from time to time.