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Racing the clock in KC and Boston: 3-31-17

Kauai-16

The other day I heard from a guy I grew up with in Woodstock, Ill. He wanted to know what the big hurry was. I wasn't sure quite what he meant until I read a piece he referenced -- this piece, in fact, from the Anderson Institute, a research institute you can read about here.

Kauai-8It had to do with various studies about the pace of life. In the U.S., that pace sometimes seems unsustainable, as it sometimes does even in my own life.

But buried in the article was this: ". . . the United States also tends to come in as an extremely fast-paced country — in many cases competing with Japan for the fastest pace. Within the United States, Boston and Kansas City have been seen as two of the fastest paced individual cities (Lienhard). After reviewing the results of these studies, it almost seems as if these fast paced countries are in a race to get through life as quickly and as efficiently as they can each day."

I did a quick search to see if I could figure out who Lienhard, but without conclusive results. What I found is here in case you want to dig into that question further.

As a resident of Kansas City for almost 47 years, it struck me as odd that KC would be matched with Boston as one of the fastest-paced cities. I was in Boston last month to speak at the Memorial Church at Harvard and can tell you that life seemed to run a bit more quickly than it usually does here in the nation's Heartland.

Nonetheless, my old Woodstock friend Jim asked the right question -- indeed, a theological question: What's the big hurry?

In previous posts and other writing I've occasionally quoted a Jewish prayer book with which I'm familiar. It says that we "walk sightless among miracles." And I think that's right. I also think that one primary reason for it is that we live life at a pace that our bodies, minds and spirits aren't built to sustain. So we miss a lot.

I mentioned here on the blog this week that God is an artist. Earlier this month I got to visit Kauai for a week and see some of that magnificent art. But I slowed down to do it. At least a little. (The photos you see here today are from that trip.)

Slowing down: It's a good spiritual discipline, one I need to be reminded of almost daily.

Waimea-canyon

* * *

WHAT MARTIN LUTHER CHANGED

As the world commemorates the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation this year, it's worth thinking again about what Martin Luther set in motion in 1517. The author of this piece suggests that by his protests, Luther "fundamentally undermined the idea of authority itself." In our time, it has led to such 1960s ideas as "Never trust anyone over 30" as well as all kinds of challenges to civil and religious authority. Much of this has been valuable. Some of it has been disastrous. We need the wisdom to tell the difference.


Turning church space into art galleries: 3-30-17

2nd-art-2

Within the past year, thanks to my wife and some others, the parlor in our church building has become the site of a rotating art gallery displaying works not just by the artists within our congregation but also artists from the community.

It's been pretty cool.

It turns out that this use of church space for art is something of a trend around the country, as this Religion News Service story describes.

The in-church art gallery in Lexington, Mass., described in the opening of the story, is "one of hundreds that have cropped up or expanded in U.S. churches over the past decade," the story says.

2nd-art-1"With a few inexpensive moves to turn bare walls into venues, churches are using visual displays for a range of purposes. Some complement lessons taught in worship (one church asked members to submit art pieces in response to a sermon series on thriving). Others bridge cultural divides with the secular world (such as a show at a Fort Wayne, Ind., church featuring local artists’ creations from discarded objects and materials).

"Parishioners, staffers, artists and neighbors all say they benefit as displaying art becomes a larger part of the church’s mission."

In the parlor of Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City (my congregation), artists put up displays of their work for a month. Then another artist gets featured. Then another. Artists may sell their works.

We also use art by church artists in our library on a rotating basis. And our church artists (plus a few from elsewhere) gather for several hours once a week in the church to work on their art together.

In addition, this fall will mark the second year of Second's "Art on Oak" event featuring local artists.

The old question of what art has to do with theology is always worth discussing. Clearly art has had many spiritual uses over time and even been the subject of controversy, such as in the battles over the use of icons. But, in the end, humans are artists (as is God), and beauty is its own excuse for being.

(By the way, here is the blog post I wrote back in 2009 about the faces-of-Jesus artwork on display at the Broadway Church near 39th and Broadway.)

(The photos here today show the Second Church parlor with displays of art by Liz Vargas, whose work currently is being featured there. You can shop for her work here. Or stop by 55th and Brookside and have a look.)

2nd-art-3

* * *

A WISE VOICE OF WARNING

At least since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Jonathan Sax, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, has been an important voice for interfaith understanding and connection. Recently he spoke at Duke University, where Religion News Service did this interview with him. One of his good insights: "In the Middle East and elsewhere, political protest is taking religious form. We haven’t seen that in the West since Martin Luther. The great rows in the 16th and 17th centuries were religious rows. The cliché is right: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The West has forgotten what religious revolution looks like. Religion isn’t something you do just in the home or in a house of worship. You can sometimes take it to the street, and we’ve forgotten how dangerous that can be."


Making Pharisees the bad guys again: 3-29-17

People who take their religious tradition seriously soon discover that trying to live by the standards taught is a terribly difficult task. For instance, as a Christian I am supposed to remember that every person I meet -- from drug addict to queen, from bus driver to CEO -- is created in the image of God and carries the imago dei, or image of God, within.

Barna-chartAnd I am to treat each of those people as if he or she were Christ himself.

Just writing that out is difficult because it reminds me how often I fail at that. And yet I know that my eternal destiny -- what often gets called salvation -- has nothing to do with how well I succeed at treating everyone I meet as a child of God. I can be forgiven for my failures. What finally saves me, in other words, is not my faith in Christ but the faith of Christ.

Still, a useful question for Christians is how well we match the attitudes and actions of Jesus. That's what the Barna Group, a religious polling organization, decided to try to measure in a large survey. This story describes the results. They aren't encouraging. (And I'm pretty sure I would have presented Jesus' attitudes and actions somewhat differently.)

The survey found that most Christians are hypocritical, showing not much evidence that they think or act like Christ. You can dig through the results yourself.

What I want to call to your attention -- in addition to the findings -- is Barna's use of the terms Pharisees and Pharisaical to describe hypocrites. As used, the terms border on antisemitism or at least anti-Judaism. In Christian parlance, the Pharisees, a group of First Century Jews who took their religion seriously, have come to stand for showy but heartless rule followers who are arrogant about how they live and what they're accomplishing. And lots of contemporary Christians often dismiss Jews today as mere rule followers who are seeking to earn God's love.

As Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine notes in her book The Misunderstood Jew, Christians "usually presume Pharisaic evil." Her reference is to how Christians often read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector found in Luke 18, but I think the presumption of which she speaks is far wider than in reaction just to that parable.

In fact, in the First Century the Pharisees were the widely admired religious superstars. As Levine notes, "Although a bit generous as an analogy, the Pharisee would be the equivalent of Mother Teresa or Billy Graham. . .Just as Luke has set up the tax collector to represent the 'good Christian,' so readers are neatly led to see the Pharisee as the 'bad Jew' (in both cases the adjectives are redundant). The poor Pharisee of the parable never had a chance."

Levine notes that Luke is the one who creates this misleading anti-Pharisee context, not Jesus: "By Luke's time, the Pharisees had come to represent for the church the Jews who refused to follow Jesus; their portrait is primarily composed of polemic, not objectivity." (Levine did a piece in March 2015 for Sojourners Magazine called "Quit Picking on the Pharisees." You can find the start of that piece here, though to read it all you must be a subscriber.)

Barna, as I see it, then simply presumes everyone will have that same negative understanding (misunderstanding) of the Pharisees and uses them as a foil to stand for hypocritical religious people and hollow religion.

There's no need to reach back to the First Century for an example of hypocrites. As the Barna study itself shows, they are quite plentiful in 21st Century Christianity.

(By the way, about the only First Century writing by a Pharisee that we have comes from the Apostle Paul, meaning it's difficult to get inside the heads of Pharisees without some kind of broad written record of thoughts and actions.)

* * *

STILL UNCONSTITUTIONAL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

The mother of a girl in Virginia is suing to stop the public school system her daughter was attending from teaching a conservative form of Christianity in a class. The classes clearly are unconstitutional and should be abandoned. But how in the world could public school administrators not know that? It's one thing to teach about religion in public schools -- in fact, that should be done and done well -- but it's quite another to give children distinctly religious instruction favoring one faith tradition. That's what's happening in this Virginia school.


Newspaper readers describe religious doubt: 3-28-17

Because my latest book is about religious doubt, I tend to have my antenna tuned to when that subject shows up elsewhere, as it just did in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

Cover-Value of DoubtThe Erie Times-News just asked its readers about how they deal with doubt when it comes to faith. They responded here.

The answers ranged all over the lot, with some pretty predictable. I think this was my favorite response:

I think it's natural and common to have doubts at some point, or off and on, over the course of one's life concerning religion. Faith is not fact. There is so much about faith that we cannot prove and that we don't understand but that doesn't mean we no longer believe. I've often used the prayer from Matthew 9:24: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief." Faith is always "in spite of" doubt — which is what makes it faith rather than science. The Christian faith is grounded in what God has done. Our love is what we choose to do now.

— Deacon Dennis Kudlak, St. Mark Catholic Center, Erie

Faith, indeed, is not fact, as Deacon Kudlak notes. That doesn't mean it's not based on some facts, such as the life of Jesus or the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, as I note in The Value of Doubt, faith is a decision we make about how to live in spite of not having all the answers. It's our commitment to be comfortable with ambiguity, with paradox, with mystery.

And doubt can be the tool we use to get to faith. But it helps a great deal to be part of a community of people who allow its members to express their doubts and to seek guidance from others about the difficult, even embarrassing, questions of faith.

Perhaps the most difficult question about faith has to do with why there is suffering and evil in the world if God is all-knowing and all-loving and all-powerful. Doesn't God care enough to stop suffering? This is called the old question of theodicy, and the reality is that there is no exhaustive explanation to it. Which is why it's sometimes called the open wound of religion.

At any rate, good for the Erie paper for encouraging a discussion about doubt, even if one of the respondents made this claim: "I have not experienced doubt about religion."

My response to that: "Oh, I'm so sorry."

* * *

A HIGH SCHOOL PRAYER ROOM?

A high school in Texas makes a prayer room available to all students, but this NPR report says it's raising some concerns. My guess about that was wrong. I thought it probably got way overcrowded just before tests, but that's not it.


What 'Seven Days' is doing for Kansas City: 3-27-17

This spring will mark the third annual week-long commemoration called "Seven Days," begun a year after the 2014 shootings by a neo-Nazi at Jewish establishments in the Kansas City area that killed three people, William Corporon, his grandson Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno.

SevenDays_2017_Button art collageMindy Corporon, who lost her father and son at the Jewish Community Center shooting, has worked with the LaManno family to create opportunities through Seven Days for Kansas Citians to join together and stand against the kind of perverse hatred that led the gunman to try to murder Jews (though the three people he wound up killing were Christians).

She has devoted enormous energy and time to open up dialogue and to find ways to promote generative values.

I asked Mindy three questions about this year's events. Here are the questions and her answers:

* How will this year's events differ from those of previous years?

We are celebrating our competition winners on our first day, the Day of LOVE rather than announcing them at the very end of the week. This provides us the ability to promote these students all week to guests attending other events. They will be awarded and announced during the evening event at B’nai Jehudah on April 18th. Our education piece for that evening is Rabbi Art Nemitoff, Pastor Scott Chrostek and Imam Sulaiman Salaam Jr.

We added a mental health workshop to our mix of activities. Mental health doesn’t lend itself to interfaith or kindness, people might think, but we are seeing so much anxiety in our community, our children and even many adults (so) we decided to take this step to talk openly about anxiety and depression, in particular. Saturday, April 22, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is hosting our Improv Youth Workshop and our Train the Trainer (read as adult) Improv Workshop. Mental health spans all humans no matter the race, ethnicity, or religion. We need to speak about how to better care for ourselves and our loved ones. This workshop is an approach to engage the community in a cross section of people but who hold the same concerns for the high rate of teen suicide.

* What are some of the things you have learned in all the time you've devoted to this since 2014?

The role I am in as founder of SevenDays is much like being the co-founder of Boyer & Corporon Wealth Management.

  1. I had the vision but not all the skills needed to make this event have legs.
  2. In the beginning and still some now I do a little bit of everything to get an activity up and running.
  3. It takes a village of caring, thoughtful, bright and engaged people to make the event take off as it has.
  4. I say, "Yes and…" most of the time rather than "No."
  5. I delegate and empower very quickly in all processes.
  6. Adapt, adapt and adapt as needed…be flexible and keep trying. However, you can’t fit a round peg in a square hole. Sometimes we have to redirect.

* How are you different from the Mindy you knew before the shootings and how have you seen others grow and change because of the way you responded to this catastrophe?

Actually, someone asked me this same question last night and the answer that came to me was “I found my voice.” We all learned as children to not talk about politics or religion with others. If find myself talking about both often and publicly. I am pushing myself INTO the path that God is placing before me. I pray much more often, I journal more often, I take 5 minutes here and there to settle my mind and LISTEN. I know that God talked to me on April 13th (of 2014) and I have learned to share this with confidence rather than be ashamed or worried people will think I am crazy.

I am following what many would say is “my heart”. What is going on in my heart are the stirrings of God’s path…following God’s path gives me peace. I lean into it more than I ever thought possible and it gives me peace…same sentence, sort of but saying it a different way.

Seven Days has been a gift to this community, a bit of gold drawn out of the dross of disaster. The Seven Days organization now is working with such groups as the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance and others to educate the community about values that build up so they can counteract thinking and actions that destroy.

Here is a list of events for this year's Seven Days activities and programs, which start April 18. I hope to see you at some of them.

* * *

CAN RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS MAKE UP THE DIFFERENCE?

If federal budget cuts reduce or remove assistance to poor people, can faith communities fill the gap? This Atlantic piece concludes that the answer is almost certainly not. Despite the fact that religious congregations often are quite generous when it comes to helping people in poverty, the scale of the problem would simply overwhelm them if government assistance disappeared.


What the heck is 'INC Christianity'? 3-25/26-17

Over the centuries, Christianity (well, all religions, really, but today I'm going to focus on Christianity) has undergone lots of changes, though its core message from and about Jesus Christ has been remarkably consistent.

Network-ChristianityStarting out as a dissident sect of Judaism, it eventually became a separate religion, though always in debt to its Jewish roots, without which it would be something radically different, if, in fact, it were anything at all. It began in house churches and found itself persecuted in various ways and places. In the Fourth Century it found itself declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, which, for better or worse, made it both political and spiritual in its influence.

It has cracked apart in various ways over the centuries, including the Great Schism that wound up with the Orthodox churches on one side and the Roman Catholic Church on the other in 1054. Almost 500 years later Martin Luther inadvertently began the Protestant Reformation, something the church universal is commemorating this year, exactly 500 years after Luther nailed his complaints about abuses in Catholicism to a cathedral door in Germany.

In the last 100-plus years we've seen the rise of Pentecostalism as well as the Social Gospel. We've seen a growing ecumenical movement and an effort (without great success) to recreate something like Christian unity. Since the 1960s, we've watched the decline of the Mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. and the rise of mega-churches that often have preached a message focused on individual salvation versus a broader concern for the common good.

And on and on. (I've left out a lot, including the Emergent Church Movement of the last 20-some years.)

Now the authors of a new book, The Rise of Network Christianity, argue that we are seeing an important new development in the faith. As the title of the book (which I have not yet read) indicates, Brad Christerson and Richard Flory call it Independent Network Charismatic, or INC Christianity.

Here's what the authors say about INC Christianity, in this piece:

Charismatic Christians emphasize supernatural miracles and divine interventions, but INC Christianity is different from other charismatics – and other Christian denominations in general – in the following ways:

  • It is not focused primarily on building congregations but rather on spreading beliefs and practices through media, conferences and ministry schools.
  • It is not so much about proselytizing to unbelievers as it is about transforming society through placing Christian believers in powerful positions in all sectors of society.
  • It is organized as a network of independent leaders rather than as formally organized denominations.

 And later this:

When compared to the oversight and accountability of formal congregations and denominations, these structures allow for more experimentation. This includes “extreme” experiences of the supernatural, unorthodox beliefs and practices, and financing as well as marketing techniques that leverage the power of the internet.

One INC leader the authors interviewed summed up the approach of the movement this way:

“The goal of this new movement is transforming social units like cities, ethnic groups, nations rather than individuals…if Christians permeate each mountain and rise to the top of all seven mountains…society would have biblical morality, people would live in harmony, there would be peace and not war, there would be no poverty.”

That sounds a lot like what's been called the Dominionist approach to the faith, which has a lot in common with theocracy, which is the last thing the U.S. needs. I have difficulty believing that the majority of Americans ever would stand for that sort of faith takeover of government. On the other hand, I had (and still have) difficulty believing that a majority of Americans ever would elect Donald Trump president. Oh, wait. A majority didn't.

I was intrigued that the authors of the new book include the International House of Prayer, based just south of Kansas City, in this INC movement. It certainly has developed a reputation over the years for its unorthodox beliefs and practices, including what some have discerned as its antisemitism.

At any rate, it's worth keeping an eye on this movement to see whether it brings anything useful to the faith. What I know of it so far doesn't much endear me to it, but we'll see.

* * *

REFUGEES BRING THREE CONGREGATIONS TOGETHER

Three churches in Canada, which had not been on very friendly terms, have come together to provide welcome and help for Syrian refugees, this story reports. Sometimes a congregation's real theology is much more evident in action than it is in written statements of faith or long diatribes about doctrine. Good for these churches.


What holy sites mean to us: 3-24-17

The news this week from Jerusalem included an item that said workers had completed the restoration of the site in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where, tradition says, Jesus was buried.

Garden-Tomb-6This happened after a 200-year delay (that's no typo) caused by arguments among the Christian groups that control various parts of the ancient church. Only when Israeli authorities declared that the church no longer was safe did the Christians quit squabbling and get what's called the Edicule restored.

I've been there a couple of times, as well as to an alternative burial site called the Garden Tomb. (In fact, the photo you see at left here today I took a few years ago at -- and inside -- the Garden Tomb.) They're fascinating to visit, but would be even more so if anyone could prove that this or that exact spot was where Jesus' body was laid after crucifixion.

But, in fact, no one really knows without any doubt. Just as no one knows whether the small site in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the exact spot where Jesus was born. In fact, some scholars think Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem at all but in Nazareth. (That spot is pictured below at right.)

All of which raises the question of why humans seem so drawn to holy sites.

I am among those who find them endlessly fascinating, though perhaps more for historical than for devotional reasons. I have been to holy sites in Israel, India, New Mexico, Thailand, France, Poland and other countries and I'm always a little surprised to see such enthusiasm among the visitors. Are they seeking escape, healing, insight, spiritual awakening?

Maybe all of the above. Or maybe they just wandered in and were struck by the history, the stories that inevitably get attached to such places.

Bethlehem-NativityHumans seem to want a clear, clean story about matters of religion: This was the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment; this is a piece of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified; this is where the people of Israel crossed the sea on miraculously dry land in the Exodus; this is the place where the Prophet Muhammad began to receive the Qur'an from the angel. And on and on.

Even if we don't exactly want to be, we tend to be literalists about such matters. And literalism about history is almost as useless and misleading as literalism in reading holy writ. As I say in my latest book, The Value of Doubt, the reality is that we live by metaphor, by myth, by allegory. It's not that there are not literal truths, but they are not generally as useful as spiritual truths that come to us indirectly.

I have stood in the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository from which it's alleged that Lee Harvey Oswald fired shots that assassinated President John F. Kennedy. I'm glad I was there once. But being there taught me next to nothing about the meaning of JFK's presidency or the sorrow and waste of Oswald's life.

So whoever among you is the first to visit the redone Edicule in Jerusalem, please report to me your experience. And if you encountered Christ there, I will expect you to tell me the name of the person you met who bore his spirit.

* * *

MORE RESTORATION WORK NEEDED

Speaking of the restoration of the Edicule inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the people who did the work now say that unless serious shoring-up work is done to the whole church, it could catastrophically collapse some day: "When it fails, the failure will not be a slow process, but catastrophic," says one of the supervisors of that work. I'm glad I've been to the church twice in my life. Given its current condition, I think that's enough.


When 'truth' becomes a casualty: 3-23-17

In Christianity, truth is not a doctrine. Not a dogma. Not any particular statement of faith. Not a proposition to which followers are obliged to give public consent.

Truth-lieRather, truth is a person, Christ Jesus.

This is a difficult and revolutionary concept, but it also is enormously liberating for people who take it seriously and who refuse to get bogged down in having to be bound by human words attempting to express the inexpressible, finite words seeking to unpack the infinite.

And yet Christianity and other faith traditions encourage adherents not to mislead, not to "bear false witness," as one of the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew scriptures says. It's easy to be just plain wrong about something. In fact, that's how science makes progress. But to be wrong and then to speak that error intentionally as if it's truth is what has plagued our politics for a long time on both sides of the aisle.

What I continue to find baffling, however, is how President Donald Trump has amassed such a huge pile of untruths without seeming to lose all or most of his support from many Christians, who should be standing up for truth-telling.

Just this week the president tweeted this: "The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process." And even the Wall Street Journal editorial page concluded that Trump's failure to speak truth may result in lots of Americans considering him to be a "fake president."

They said no such thing because, their representatives testified after the tweet was revealed, they don't know any such thing. Yet. Indeed, if I had to guess my guess would be that they will come to exactly the opposite conclusion. But I don't know that, either. Yet.

Last month, a writer for Sojourners Magazine did this piece in which she noted that "it’s curious that in our culture of 'fake news' and 'alternative facts,' so many Christians seem comfortable with a loss of truth."

Being skeptical is part of the job not just of journalists but of all citizens. But in this era of fake news and alternative facts, we may have pushed skepticism so far as to call into question everything that really is true and, thus, to leave ourselves open for one untruth after another.

In a land in which most citizens still identify as being attached to one religion or another, this is a disaster that can lead only to more trouble and even to the unraveling of civilization as we know it if it continues. If we accept fiction as truth, we're doomed.

* * *

POKING YOUR STUDENTS IN THE EYE

Princeton Theological Seminary, one of several theological schools in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), announced it would be giving an award to the Rev. Tim Keller of the Presbyterian Church in America denomination, which, unlike the PCUSA, refuses to ordain women or LGBTQ people. In other words, Princeton planned to insult at least half of its own students by doing this. Well, yesterday I read that that changed. Princeton has decided not to give Keller the award but to allow him simply to be a speaker on campus, as explained in this statement from the seminary's president, M. Craig Barnes. That works for me. We should be open to hearing opinions different from our own, but we need not give special honors to those opinions when they result in actions that we believe oppress people.


100 years later, WWI lessons still relevant: 3-22-17

The United States, after watching from afar for two and a half years, joined World War I 100 years ago, in April 1917.

Crossed-handsSo, as might be expected, lots of commemorations of that are planned and, in some case, already under way around the world. You can find some upcoming events connected to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City by visiting its website.

Any war is in some sense a failure not only of diplomacy but also of theology. And the stunning carnage of World War I led theologians and poets to rethink things. Poet Ezra Pound, for instance, in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," pronounced this heart-sick conclusion about the war:

There died a myriad,
and of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization. . .

And in 1920, Karl Barth, in his ground-shaking commentary on the New Testament book of Romans, threw away the conclusion of theologians who were known at the time as "liberals" that humankind was progressing toward perfection. The war proved otherwise, and what resulted from Barth's work was a movement called neo-orthodoxy.

So in light of all this, two pieces of writing about World War I have crossed my desk recently, and I want to introduce them to you.

The first is a book called The Crossed Hands of God: The World War I Diary and Letters of Eugene William McLaurin, edited by Jerry R. Tompkins.

McLaurin, a Presbyterian minister, served as an assistant chaplain in the war. His primary job was to bury dead American and German soldiers. Later he became a seminary professor.

His diary entries and his letters to the woman he would marry after the war are profoundly insightful in part because he rarely goes beyond being a reporter of facts. Often his accounts are emotionless, merely taking note of the bodies and pieces of bodies he was required to bury.

But when McLaurin does draw some larger conclusions they are quite moving, in part because they seem a little unexpected. An example of both kinds of writing is this single passage, written on Nov. 7, 1918, which, by coincidence, was my father's ninth birthday:

On the next hill is where the 1st Battalion jumped off on the afternoon of November 1. It was a veritable shambles, all those who were killed in this particular sector met death from a galling artillery fire. The mutilation and mangling  was something terrible. As we left the Grand Carre farm we passed a piece of human flesh about twice as large as a man's hand. We searched and searched for any other portion of the unfortunate soldier, but nothing else could be found. We picked it up on a shovel, dropped it into a shell hole and covered it up. On the next hill we found one man (with) only the legs from the knees down. . .

And this is the glory and glamour of war; this is the price of victory; this is the sacrifice that is always demanded by the devotees of war. It is a thrilling and sublime sight to see men advancing coolly into the jaws of death, facing the screeching shells with unflinching nerve, and going forward over a bullet swept plain. But the thrill and the sublimity come as a result of war, and are not war itself. . .There is nothing glorious in war. It is beastly and brutish. What had these men done that they should be deprived of life in this violent manner, away from relatives and friends, and in a distant, alien land? They went to their death with a smile and a jest; but human life and human rights should be so sacred and inviolable as to be safe and secure to every individual in every land. On the other hand, what punishment can be sufficient and just for the men who cause war? A terrible price has to be paid in the lives of men on the battlefield, and all humanity is deprived of the potential benefits of their work. How can a fitting penalty commensurate with the crime be meted out to these men?

McLaurin's questions continue to be necessary and fitting. It would be good if every national leader had those questions framed and visible from his or her desk.

(I was intrigued that Kansas City got a nice shout-out from McLaurin in this book. In a letter written in June 1918, as he and other soldiers are making their way from training camp to leave for the front in France, their train passes through Kansas City, and he writes this: "At Kansas City, we hiked up town for exercise, and believe me, the people there made a noise. Handclapping and yelling were inspiring to us and we were prouder than ever of being soldiers.")

If, like me, you've read Harry S. Truman's letters to the woman he would marry, Bess Wallace, while he was serving in World War I, McLaurin's letters will remind you of them. They are detailed, sweet and sorrowful.

Christian-historyThe next writing I want to call to your attention is the new issue of Christian History magazine, devoted to "Faith in the Foxholes: Seeking hope amidst war's despair."

It doesn't limit its scope to World War I, but one piece in the issue describes how both world wars proved to be not just political but also spiritual crises. An example from the time before the First World War:

The unification movements in Central Europe had another dark side: they energized ethnic and racial nationalism. Many respectable intellectuals argued that the white race possessed superior traits, while non-whites were biologically disadvantaged and doomed to be servants and slaves.

Where have we heard similar nonsense lately?

By the way, you can subscribe to the print issue of Christian History magazine for free, though contributions are welcomed. And over the years I've found the publication offers facts and insights rarely found elsewhere.

This issue is a good way to prepare for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of America's entry into World War I.

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THEN WHO ARE THE EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS?

The student newspaper at Wheaton College in Illinois has done this interesting interview with evangelical scholar Mark Noll, whose several books are all worth reading and who taught at Wheaton for many years. And in the interview Noll says that if people first think about political stances when they think about evangelical Christianity, "then the serious meaning of the word is gone." In its broadest sense in Christianity, to be an evangelist simply means to be one who tells the story of the good news of Jesus. But the word has been hijacked and twisted so that to many people today it is a reference to people who are narrow in their views, bigoted, judgmental and full of false certitude. For sure those issues are problems among some people who consider themselves conservative or evangelical, but such criticisms are far too broad to be universally applicable to evangelicals.


A remarkable story of hope: 3-21-17

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This Lenten season for Christians (like Ramadan for Muslims and the High Holy Days for Jews) tends to focus quite a bit on our need for forgiveness and repentance. But, in the end, all three periods in these Abrahamic faiths also lead toward hope.

I was thinking about that the other day when someone I used to work with on the afternoon newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1960s sent me a note that contained his own remarkable story of spiritual collapse and resurrection into hope. It was a story I essentially knew nothing about, given that we've had only sporadic contact since our days at the now-defunct Rochester Times-Union.

So I found Emerson Moran's story both shocking and inspiring. He told me that he had given this talk I'm about to reprint at his Lutheran church about 10 years ago and recently revised it.

I offer it to you as evidence that there is almost no low point in life from which it is impossible to rise. May Emerson's story speak to your heart the way it did to mine. He called his talk "The Least Among Us: A Spiritual Memoir."

This is a new experience for me: Standing up in the sanctuary of a church and speaking Christian to Christian – vulnerable; the full spiritual Monty, as it were; taking a big risk to be honest with you, with myself – and with the Higher Power up in front of us here.

Cal-45Right away I knew I’d be lost if I tried to turn this into one of those Bible lectures. I don’t possess the wisdom or the humility to do that. So I’ll leave that up to our real experts.

Instead, I’ll talk about what I do know about – and that’s how I’ve experienced some of God’s lessons about you and about me and about exactly who and what the “least” of God’s family really are.

Let’s begin with some honest self examination: Have you ever been down on your luck – totally broken and bereft, mentally, emotionally, spiritually? Financially and materially?

Ever been unable to care for yourself – alone and overwhelmed and absolutely terrified of the future?

Ever looked into the eyes of someone in pain or in need, someone really hurting – maybe even yourself in a mirror – and felt God was looking back?

If you answer yes, you know what it’s like to feel the touch of God. You know what it’s like to be a Least-er. 

You’re not alone. Jesus would answer “yes” to all these questions, too.

Jesus was an outcast. He was rejected, scorned and betrayed. Even his own brothers thought he was nuts. He knew what it was like to be lost, alone, hungry, and thirsty in the wildness of the desert and the wilderness of the soul. He knew fear and anguish. 

Knowing all this is one way he knows us when he sees us. When he looked into the eyes of the fallen and the failed, he knew God was there, too. 

But don’t for a minute think Jesus was a victim. No, he was a radical – no namby-pamby, no milquetoast. He didn’t want to be your best friend forever or your boy friend or your buddy. Jesus knew our earthly domain was upside down – and he’s still showing us how to turn it right-side up.

Many of you know I first came to these pews more than a decade ago when Pat, my wife, was near the end of the road with early-onset dementia.  Not quite Alzheimer’s, but pretty similar. It transformed the red-haired, funny, whip-smart, caring, passionate Irish woman I married her into the very, very least of anyone I’ve ever known. We dealt with it 20 of our 25 years together. 

Dementia in any form is a truly terrible disease. First the memory goes. The personality disintegrates. Cognitive functioning falters, then fails. The brain can’t even control the body’s functioning anymore. Body and brain finally just stop trying. A diagnosis literally is a death sentence. There is no hope, no fighting back.

There is, however, a sound, the hard tick of a death watch winding down a second and an hour and a day at a time. The tick measures out a pain and suffering that when you witness it up-close and personal it sticks to your soul forever more.

For Pat, her dementia’s progression was mercifully slow – granting us years of value and quality in our time together. Caring for her became a gift, allowing me to experience the absolute purity of love in this life. But it wasn’t until the grim, grinding, tough, tough later days of her decline that the greatest blessing of all was revealed.

At the nursing home one day I cupped Pat’s face in my hands. Her blue eyes were veiled with dementia’s haze. I leaned in close, singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a favorite.

Kauai-8Suddenly, her sightless eyes flickered crystal clear – as if it were God Himself looking back at me. I froze. My breathing was fast and shallow. The skin on my arms tingled. My brain tingled. 

It was over in an instant. Pat’s eyes were cloudy again, her features flat, the smile gone – but not my tingling.

I call this my “Matthew moment,” that passage (25:31-46) when it’s a couple of days before Passover and Jesus and the Disciples are hanging out over on the Mount of Olives.

Jesus is telling the Twelve those parables about fig trees and unfaithful slaves and bridesmaids. The words are rough and come in a rush. He knows there’s not much time left and He has to get it all out in a hurry.

He tells them that when they fed strangers who were hungry, and gave drink to the thirsty, and clothed the naked, and visited the sick in prison, “That just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” 

The Gospels tell us the stories, some horrible and some glorious, about outcasts and the unclean, people who’ve been called “the great unwashed,” the misfits and the miserable, the forgotten and the left behind, the hopeless, the helpless and the have-nots.

But the Disciples didn’t get it right away. They were not alone. Here we are, maybe 80 generations later, and some of us still don’t get it. Meanwhile, all we need do is look around – and look to ourselves. 

Strip away our pretensions, rob us of our secrets, command us to be totally honest in the eyes of the Lord, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we discovered that some of the least among us are so skilled hiding in plain sight that they outwardly appear to be the “best” among us.

Here’s my point – the least among us are not a distant or detached abstraction. No, the least of us are present right here, right now. In today’s more clinical terms, they certainly include:

. . . the infirm and the afflicted;

. . . the homeless and the abused

. . . the alcoholic and the addicted.

. . . the falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned.

(In other words, folks pretty much like some of my own unwashed and unwelcomed Irish and English peasant ancestors.)

I’d suggest there’s more to it than stereotypes like these. I’d suggest that we – you and I – are just as vulnerable as are all those “other” people.

Think back a over a decade ago to those agonizing images of the lost and forgotten of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, up on their rooftops, waving those signs that said “Help Us!” and calling out for food and water and rescue that did not come.

Someday that might be any one of us, stranded on our own spiritual roof tops, the water’s rising fast, and we’re calling “Help Me,” but there’s no help in sight because we’ve been existing in a void of our own making that’s so desolate and detached that the darkness surrounds us like the soundless death of the misbegotten.

That’s what it means to be all alone. Forsaken. Lost and lacking. 

Look around. Can you see just how many of us are out there alone on our own rooftops right now – and no one knows?

Some time ago I spent a weekend with other Christian men at a Via de Cristo retreat where there was a lot of talk about “the isolated Christian” who lives a life that looks just fine on the outside but is full of despair and defeat on the inside.

This “paralyzed” Christian is held hostage by self-erected barriers to growth and love, a volunteer victim banished to some inner desert island.

He or she may show up in our own Christian community outwardly laughing and praying and sharing coffee in the loggia – while inwardly they’re spiritually strangling in a dead-end life, undiscerning of purpose or prayer, separated from God by a chasm that seems unbridgeable.

But it is not. The gap routinely is closed when God, in his marvelously muted way, gently nudges unwitting bridge-builders to carry out his will as if by unspoken proxy. I know this to be true because it’s exactly what’s happened to me.

Once upon a time I believed I was master of my own universe. I had it all: my first wife, Marilyn; three sons, Daniel, David, Patrick; a house in the country, prominent jobs, plenty of ego and arrogance, a cat named Abijah and a couple of Labradors named Timothy and Barney.

I was a hot shot. Sometimes on the TV news. People looked up to me – unless they really knew me. 

What most people didn’t know was that I was a hopeless, helpless drunk, a hard-core alcoholic ever since college, high-performing and deceptive for a long time.

I fit the old Irish axiom that the man took a drink, the drink took a drink, the drink took the man.

With a progression not unlike Alzheimer’s, my universe eventually collapsed in upon itself. I lost everything – family, home, job, friends, honor, dignity, worthiness.

Self-loathing and low-living took over. I ended up in a tiny one-room rental, complete with a Murphy bed, cockroaches on the walls, drinking around the clock, black-out to black-out.

Cloud12-cBy then, anything and everything of material or spiritual value to me had vanished. My own soul was so disgusted it lost its way, too. I knew evil. I was sick and sickening, a bona fide member of the last, the lost, the lacking, the least. 

Then I was evicted. Almost six months without paying the rent. I resigned myself to dying on the streets, drunk and alone – and it didn’t really bother me that much.

I was an isolated, paralyzed Christian who’d abandoned Christ, family, love and life itself – and believed that instead they’d all abandoned me. Then the miracle began unfolding.

First I had to ask God and other human beings for help. I had to let people into my life. What I didn’t expect was that they’d bring God along with them.

I was in my late 30s, but felt like a frightened young boy. From a hide-away pay phone in my building’s boiler room, I called my far-away father and mother for help. Instead of sympathy or money, they offered a phone number. It was for a hospital detox unit not far from their home.    

I dialed the number. A cheery voice on the other end said, “Oh, Mr. Moran. We’ve been waiting for your call.” My Higher Power was already on my case.

Before I could get medical help, though, I needed financial help.

They sent me to a county social worker. It was 10 in the morning. Breakfast had been generic beer. Plain white carton. Big black letters that said, simply, BEER. 69-cents a six pack.

I was filthy, smelly, and desperate – but to God that didn’t matter.

The case worker’s name was Biblical – David. I’m grateful I still remember that. He was a Vietnam Vet who’d come home from the horrors of the killing hooked on heroin. Now he was clean and sober and literally felt again his version of my pain.

Right there, at his green-metal government desk, under unforgiving fluorescent lights, David the social worker collected my history and weighed my prospects for survival. He wept for us both as he told me my chances were slim. 

Looking back, it was as if Jesus himself was weeping over me – His first step to restoring my soul and lessening my leastness. I got the message loud and clear.

Once in detox, I knew for the first time in years I was safe and cared for – as if rescued by the will of God the day before I was supposed to die.

Then came the flood of guilt, shame, remorse. Isolation now had a name – “fear” – crippling, relentless, visceral, self-centered fear.

Trust me - When you’re the “least” is when the fear is the “most.”

That’s when God showed up a second time. She looked and sounded just like a nurse. Her name was Mary.

She took a piece of yellow paper like kids draw on in school. She taped the paper to the wall next to my bed. With a black Magic Marker she wrote in big letters:

“I’m A Worthwhile Person –

No Worse or No Better

Than Anyone Else.”

This was 1981.  Framed, her message today hangs over my desk at home.

No one thought I could survive on my own. I went from hospital to rehab to a half-way place called Gate House in the middle of Pennsylvania Amish country, complete with morning drive time horse-drawn buggies. I was a stranger in a strange land.    

We were 17 men, aged late teens to mid-70s. I still hold some of the names close: Pedro, Charlie, Harold, Joe, Denny, Ray, even a guy named Jack Bible.

All hard cases. Down-and-out loser guys. Certifiably unemployable. On public assistance. Medically, mentally and emotionally damaged. Chillingly aware that the odds were stacked against us. Instinctively driven to care for one another.   

I was there six months. It saved my life. Christ Himself was saying, “Yo, Least Guy – we’ve been waiting for you. Welcome back to the family of the Lord.”

We pooled food stamps to buy milk and meat; stood in line like refugees for bags of free staples; stuck together; accepted the scorn of some of the town-folk.

GR-2010-6The most least of us was Joe the Painter, a beat-down old Navy veteran just off his latest tour through a VA drying-out clinic. Joe was crusty and gruff and dually-addicted to bad news and bad booze. For some reason he took me under his wing. We were the morning cook crew. Just stay close, he said, and I’d be OK. I believed him.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving Joe cashed his welfare check, booked into a flop house – and drank himself to death in five days. The men of Gate House were the only ones at his funeral – except for the guy who drove the hearse.

We buried Joe in a cheap wood box in a pauper’s cemetery under a huge oak tree out at the edge of town. It was one of those gray, windy, raw up-north late November days. I remember dried-out leaves blowing around us and a black-garbed Amish man and his Standardbred horse both watching from a two-wheeled gray buggy.

Joe, by the way, was right – I still stay close, in spirit, and I’ve have been OK ever since. He still occasionally reaches into my consciousness. I always ask, “Joe, did you die that I might live?” He never answers; he doesn’t need to.

This I do know – but for the grace of God they might’ve buried me right next to Joe, under that same big tree. But that wasn’t to be God’s will. Instead, God opened up the gates of hell and let me out. He wasn’t done with me, either.  

Over time, I came to understand that God’s will for me is to be an un-paralyzed Christian; to be a loving, present, sober man of faith; to keep doing the next right thing, like honoring and caring for my wife through her very last breath and beyond; honoring my mother and father on their own terms; embracing all the joy and love of my children, and their children, and their children (!); to experience a new life’s love with a grace-filled woman met through the only perfect Christian dating site – church!

When I was a kid growing up Mom and Dad – people of great faith – regularly read from a little book called “My Utmost for His Highest.”

It’s a set of daily readings taken from the long-ago lectures of a Scottish Bible teacher named Oswald Chambers. Many of the lectures were delivered in soldier’s huts in the desert in Egypt during World War I.

There was so much truth and insight in what he said that his book’s still around. Recently, flipping pages, I stopped on one talk titled “The Ministry of the Unnoticed.”

Chambers writes that the people who influence us the most don’t have the remotest notion of the affect they have on us, that they possess the “unaffected loveliness which is the characteristic touch of Jesus.”

He said that “We always know when Jesus is at work because he produces in the commonplace something that is inspiring.”

I believe in my heart of hearts that Jesus sent to me these commonplace people: David the social worker; Mary the nurse; Joseph the Painter.  They carried into my lower-place life that “unaffected loveliness” of the touch of Jesus that graces me still.

So, yes, God does work though people. I sense and see it every day, especially among other “least-ers” like myself, men and women who’ve traveled their own soul-cursed road of personal suffering until they astonishingly discovered the God-given joy of relief, redemption and irreversible faith that our gracious Lord will, indeed, help, save, comfort and defend us – if and when we let Him.

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HOW TRUMP'S WORDS HELP ISIS

Why hasn't ISIS said much of anything about Donald Trump since his election? This analysis comes up with this reason: "In effect, Islamic State has no need to present Trump as a strident Islamophobe because the president’s own words and deeds play right into their worldview." In other words, you don't want to criticize one of your best recruitment tools.