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A denomination headed toward schism: 4-29/30-17

My next Flatland column, which posted here this morning, focuses on the role the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan., is playing as the UMC denomination faces a likely schism.

Umc-gayLike other Mainline Protestant denominations before it, the United Methodists are in deep disagreement about what scripture says, if anything, about homosexuality and about how the church is called to respond to LGBTQ persons. (For my own essay about what the Bible says on this subject, click here.)

This potential schism in the UMC follows the pattern seen when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) finally saw the light and agreed that otherwise-qualified LGBTQ people could be ordained as ministers and officers and that pastors were allowed to perform same-sex weddings.

Which is to say that there has been a lot of debate, a lot of hurt feelings. Beyond that, some churches that would describe themselves as more conservative theologically have left those denominations over the issue. And some already are leaving the UMC.

In addition to pointing you to my Flatland column this weekend, I want to give you this link to a passionate, if distressing, piece by a retired female UMC pastor who is so upset by the divisions over this issue in her denomination that she recommends a split now.

In that piece, Christy Thomas says that various responses from UMC members and clergy to a story about a former UMC pastor with a transgender son have been so hurtful and hateful that they may constitute a "breaking point for me." She says the church is "based on a theology of grace (but) operates with no more gracefulness than the nastiness of our current political discourse. We have debased ourselves."

Finally, she writes, "a church that says it is based upon the grace of God but consistently heaps disdain and condemnation on those whose lives do not fit a purity code is a church that has no idea of how radical the message of Jesus actually was and still is."

This is the kind of passion that this debate has stirred up. And the sad thing to me is that the church should have been leading the move to liberate LGBTQ folks, instead of standing in the metaphorical schoolhouse door saying "no" or being terribly slow to do the right thing.

It's possible that some kind of divinely inspired resolution will save the UMC from schism, but at the moment I can't imagine what that could be. What I can imagine is that there are sincere, loving people on all sides of this matter, and it's past time that they learn to speak to one another with respect and love.

(P.S.: Reflecting the divided nature of the UMC, the denomination's top judicial body on Friday night ruled that the consecration of an openly gay bishop was against church law but that, nonetheless, the Rev. Karen Oliveto, the UMC's first openly gay bishop, “remains in good standing.” Which, of course, solves almost nothing.)

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As Pope Francis spends time in Egypt this weekend, let's hope his ancient words about peace and love can touch the secular and religious leaders of that ancient land and move this heart of the Arab world toward freedom, prosperity and calm.

The futures of Islam and Christianity: 4-28-17

It's almost inevitable that when I speak to groups about interfaith matters and ask them the name of the world religion with the most adherents, the first guess will be Islam.

Christ-IslamNo. It's Christianity. At the moment the best guesses are that there are about 2.3 billion Christians in the world compared to some 1.8 billion Muslims. (Compared, by the way, to some 15 or 16 million Jews, followers of the religion in which both Christianity and Islam find their roots.)

But a new analysis of this kind of religious demographic data by the Pew Research Center suggests that change is in the air.

For one thing, the Pew study notes, although more babies are born now to Christian mothers than to mothers of any other religious tradition, within about 20 years, Muslim women will give birth to more children than Christian women.

As the Pew press release about this information notes, "Muslims are projected to be the world’s fastest-growing major religious group in the decades ahead, as Pew Research Center has explained, and signs of this rapid growth already are visible. In the period between 2010 and 2015, births to Muslims made up an estimated 31% of all babies born around the world – far exceeding the Muslim share of people of all ages in 2015 (24%).

"The world’s Christian population also has continued to grow, but more modestly. In recent years, 33% of the world’s babies were born to Christians, which is slightly greater than the Christian share of the world’s population in 2015 (31%)."

One issue for the global Christian community is that even though Christianity continues its impressive growth in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere generally, the religion is struggling to hold its own in Europe and, increasingly, in North America.

"Indeed," the Pew report says, "in recent years, Christians have had a disproportionately large share of the world’s deaths (37%) – in large part because of the relatively advanced age of Christian populations in some places. This is especially true in Europe, where the number of deaths already is estimated to exceed the number of births among Christians. In Germany alone, for example, there were an estimated 1.4 million more Christian deaths than births between 2010 and 2015, a pattern that is expected to continue across much of Europe in the decades ahead."

What continues to amaze me, however, is the success of Judaism in carrying out its original mandate from God, who told Jews to be a "light to the nations," the word "nations" there meaning non-Jews. In other words, the task of the people of Israel was to honor God by showing others what it means to live in a healthy relationship with that God. So of the globe's 7.5 billion people, today more than half (more than 55 percent) identify as worshipers of the God whom Judaism introduced to the world. And, yes, Christians and Muslims worship the same God, though they have substantially different ways of identifying that deity. The book to read on that subject is Allah, A Christian Response, by Miroslav Volf.

* * *


Saudi Arabia seems to have sentenced a man to death for being an atheist. That kingdom's radically foolish insistence that Islam is the only religion that can be practiced there makes Islam look weak. Muslims would do well to protest against this governmental action. After all, religions that seem unable to stand on and by their own truths without being propped up by a government seem to outsiders to be unattractive. And as artist Ben Shahn once said, you haven't convinced someone just because you have silenced him.

Why everyone is called to ministry: 4-27-17

In my last National Catholic Reporter column, I suggested the churches rethink the processes they have created to ordain people to be pastors.

MinistryThere are lots of reasons to reconsider ordination, including the current danger that pastors who don't know how to delegate responsibility or who fall in love with being the center of power can cause all kinds of damage to their institutions.

So I was intrigued last week when the co-moderator of the General Assembly (national governing body) of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), seemed to warn against pastors being in charge of everything.

"We've got to let go of the pastor being the only go-to person," the Rev. Jan Edmiston told a gathering at my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City.

The folks in the pews, she suggested, are ministers, too, and must understand that "if you've been baptized you no longer are a lay person." I like that way of putting it.

The duty of pastors, she said, is to follow the task outlined in the New Testament book of Ephesians: ". . .equip God's people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ."

In other words, pastors are to train others how to minister to the needs of those in the congregation, not rely on someone ordained as a "Reverend" to do all the work.

In the Reformed Tradition of Christianity we have a term for this. It's called the "priesthood of all believers," though that idea is taken more or less seriously in various congregations.

Individual churches that are functioning well teach that concept and then find ways to carry it out.

That doesn't mean there is no purpose in setting aside certain leaders with specific theological training to be what might be called "professional Christians," but it does mean that ministry -- meeting the needs of others -- is the task of everyone.

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Speaking of people called to ministry, Pope Francis gave a surprising video TED talk the other day, urging scientists and others to focus on "equality and social inclusion." Good for the pope for using today's technology to challenge people to live by ancient and godly standards.

What are non-religious reasons for being good? 4-26-17

As Christian churches in the U.S. try to find ways to be faithful to their theology and still seem relevant and useful to millennials and other younger people, they face a reality that the Rev. Jan Edmiston (pictured here in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church), co-moderator of the General Assembly (national governing body) of the Presbyterian Church (USA), described this past Saturday morning when she spoke to a gathering at my congregation.

Jan-Edmiston"You can be considered a good person," she said, "and never set foot in a church building." More and more Americans, she said, believe that they don't need church to help them be what she called "proper human beings in the 21st Century."

It may have been coincidental, but exactly that subject came up two days earlier in a downtown Bible study that I help to lead. In effect, this was the question that arose tangentially from our reading of the New Testament book of Galatians: Can you be good without God? And, if so, what would motivate you to be?

One of the women in our group noted that she has met some non-religious people whose behavior and general demeanor is more "Christian" than that of some Christians she knows. That is, she said, these religiously unaffiliated people are thoughtful, merciful, generous, compassionate and loving people, whereas some Christians are judgmental, narrow and sometimes even hateful.

The question I raised in the downtown group that I didn't have a chance to raise with Edmiston or with those who came to hear her was this: Although I know what I consider to be my own motivation for trying to be "a good person" who seeks (and often fails) to be kind and generous (my motivation has to do with expressing gratitude to God for all the ways God has been generous to me), what ultimate motivation do non-religious people have to behave in ways that are loving, considerate and worthy of praise?

So far, the best answer I can come up with is that the world simply works better if people behave decently. That is an answer rooted in expediency and even self-interest, I realize, but it seems to me to be true. The world is safer, more dependable and a more desirable place to live when people are generous, kind and the whole list of attributes that children learn in scouting organizations. In the same way, the world is all those things because we have stop signs and laws that regulate where you can build a house or a 35-story hotel.

No one wants to live in chaos or anarchy. Which is reason enough to behave in a civilized way.

So Edmiston is right that lots of people in our culture can be considered a good person without any religious motivation for being so. But this reality makes it more difficult for faith communities of any variety to make an argument for membership. And yet expedient or self-interested reasons for good behavior don't get anywhere near the eternal mysteries that religion seeks to unpack. Where do you go to get help discovering meaning and purpose? Where do you go to find answers to questions about how we got here and why we're here at all?

Help with those questions is what faith communities can and should provide. It's not all that such religious groups should do, but if they're not doing at least that it's hard to know why anyone would want to be part of them.

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A BIG PRIZE TO A THEIST (don't run those last two words together)

In coincidental harmony with my main topic here today, the 2017 Templeton Prize has just been given to Alvin Platinga, retired now from the University of Notre Dame. He spent much of his academic career arguing that theism, or a belief in God, should be considered a serious philosophy by scholars. “Alvin Plantinga recognized that not only did religious belief not conflict with serious philosophical work, but that it could make crucial contributions to addressing perennial problems in philosophy,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. This is an important annual prize. You can read about past winners here.

How to hear final words of the dying: 4-25-17

I have been with quite a few people as they've neared death, but I've never heard anyone's last words. Both my parents died 500-some miles away from me, though I saw both of them within months or weeks of their end. And I especially remember my father mumbling a few things that made almost no sense to me, as senile dementia had bewildered his mind near the end.

Words-thresholdBut it turns out that such seemingly nonsensical mumbling may have deep, even eternal meaning, writes Lisa Smartt in her new book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We're Nearing Death. And not just the baffling words but also the body movements, the facial expressions and the words that do seem to be coherent in some way.

Smartt draws on the death not just of her own father, but also on hundreds of reports and transcripts of final words that she collected in something called the Final Words Project.

As her father neared the end, he spoke of getting prepared for a big exhibition, a big art show of some kind: "But at the time," Smartt writes, "none of us knew that this kind of figurative language is common in the words of the dying. We dismissed my father's utterances as mere 'word salad' or the result of medications he had been taking."

But, she discovers, she was wrong. Through her work, recorded in this book, she learns a lot about the words, visions and actions of people at the edge of death. And although I would not say this book is overtly religious in the sense that it reflects the theology of this or that faith tradition, Smartt does conclude this: "The words at the threshold suggest to me that consciousness does indeed survive, and that we ourselves can be both guides and tourists as we journey with those we love to the portal."

Sometimes death comes so suddenly that there can be nothing that qualifies as final words, but when they do happen, she writes, "Our final words deeply reflect who we are and what most matters to us. It is as if the lens of our Creator is magnified and all that we are is in close view."

Smartt also draws from research done about so-called near-death experiences and reports that the "paradoxical language associated with near-death experiences suggests that there is a dimension or reality that cannot be fully explained in the language with which most of us are comfortable. . .The language of the threshold may be governed by its own logic that is only barely comprehensible to most of us."

Even when we can understand something of what's being said, we often are left with questions. For instance, when Apple founder Steve Jobs died, his last recorded words were "Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!" And wouldn't we all like to know what wowed him?

The final words we may hear, she writes, can be "sophisticated metaphors and symbols," and it may take some time to unpack their meaning. But "the more at ease we are with the language of the threshold, the greater comfort we can bring to those who are dying and to all those dear to our beloveds."

For my tastes, there is too much attention in this book to psychic readings and related approaches that I'd put in the "paranormal" category. But the message about the variety of ways people communicate at the end of their lives is a worthy one, and all of us would do well to know as much about that as we can.

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The weekend marches for science around the country raised the question of what would make a person of faith turn against science? My answer: fear. For instance, if you believe religion teaches that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that human beings were formed in one day pretty much as we find them today, then you have reason to fear what science is discovering about our origins and about evolution. Religion that produces fear instead of a heart and mind willing to learn is unhealthy. Period.

Our image of God really matters: 4-24-17

One of the questions scholars of religion and others ask about the growing number of people in the U.S. (and Europe and some other places) abandoning institutional religion is: What is their image of God?

AngergodFr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, thinks he knows. And he thinks it helps to explain why they are moving away from traditional faith communities.

In his recent book, The Divine Dance, Rohr says that a truly Christian understanding of God includes grasping the paradox that God comes to us most persuasively and powerfully in weakness, especially as Jesus Christ, born a helpless baby and ultimately crucified by Roman authorities in Jerusalem.

"Jesus," he writes, "is the suffering and dying of God visible for all to see. As long as we have the Zeus-notion of God. . .we can't make much progress. He is the power-hungry, remote-control god at the top of the hierarchy of gods, throwing down thunderbolts and favoring a very few chosen ones. He is always a he; he is almighty, but not equally all-vulnerable. . .Our collective and cultural understanding of God, I'm sorry to report, hasn't moved much beyond the 'Almighty God' language we took for granted; we haven't realized that God has forever redefined divine power in the Trinity! The Christian God's power comes through his powerlessness and humility. Our God is much more properly called all-vulnerable than almighty, which we should have understood by the constant metaphor of 'Lamb of God' found throughout the New Testament.

"But unfortunately, for the vast majority, he is still 'the man upstairs'. . .In my opinion, this failure is at the basis of the vast expansion of atheism, agnosticism and practical atheism we see in the West today. 'If God is almighty, then I do not like the way this almighty God is running the world,' most modern people seem to be saying."

Although I think Rohr is on to something important here, the reasons for the decline in religious adherence in the U.S. and elsewhere are many and complicated. It's not just one thing.

But surely the Zeus-like image of an all-powerful God who somehow nonetheless doesn't seem to be powerful enough to stop suffering and evil in the world is part of the problem.

And if you insist I'm wrong, I'll pray to have God zap you with lightning. (Surely She'd do that, right?)

* * *


Next time you want to compare something to what the Nazis did or compare someone to Hitler, just stop. Pope Francis just compared current refugee camps to Nazi concentration (read death) camps, and now he's being (properly) criticized for it. The Holocaust was unique. It should not be compared to some current disaster, no matter how troubling.

When the target of a crime is a whole people: 4-22/23-17


As the various Seven Days events in Kansas City come to a fruition on Monday evening with a walk that starts at Union Station, I want to return to a panel discussion about "violence, community and faith" that took place Wednesday evening at UMKC under the joint sponsorship of Seven Days and the American Public Square.

And I especially want to focus on a point that Mark Levin, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah, helped all of us see more clearly: The murders of Reat Underwood, his grandfather William Corporon and Terry LaManno constituted an attack not only on those individuals but also "an attack on the community." Thus, there must be a community response, which of course is what Seven Days is all about as its led by Mindy Corporon, Reat's mother and William Corporon's daughter, as well as Jim LaManno, husband of Terry.

The neo-Nazi who killed those three people came to Kansas City on that Palm Sunday in April 2014 to attack Jews just because they were Jews. As Levin told the Wednesday gathering, "The murderer was not looking to kill individuals. The murderer was looking to kill members of a particular community (Jews)." And, in fact, it turned out that the three people who died weren't Jews at all but Christians.

"The crime that was committed was committed against the Jewish people," Levin said.

That reality leads to the question of what legal actions it's possible to take against the perpetrator of such a crime, perhaps even beyond the sentence he received from the court for committing the murders.

"It seems to me," Levin said, "that there is a function of legislation that defines a society. And that function in this case has to say that there is such a thing as an injustice perpetrated against a people or against a community, not simply against an individual." The suffering this murderer has caused, Levin said, "is unspeakable. But what as a society do we want to say when somebody plans to kill not an individual person but a group. Is that not a crime and does not that have to be defined in the legal code and through the legislature in some fashion such that people will recognize that we as a society stand against that form of action and that form of mental attitude known as hatred against a group?"

In the aftermath not only of the Palm Sunday shootings but also a series of other antisemitic acts committed here and elsewhere around the country means, Levin said, that "the Jewish community is terrified. . .in a way that you never, never saw before." All area Jewish institutions, he said, have changed their protective procedures: "Those three murders drove home the fact that it could happen here and now."

Asked by panel moderator Nick Haines of KCPT-TV what should be done in response to this reality, Levin bemoaned the fact that in his four decades of serving as a rabbi in the Kansas City area there has been and still is isolation between and among different religious and racial groups: "People don't talk to one another in the community. . .People don't talk to one another seriously across racial bounds. . ."

But these 2014 murders, he said, finally motivated people to ask hard questions about the divisions -- racial, religious, economic and otherwise -- in the Kansas City area.

Much of the evening was focused on whether hate crime legislation is useful or needed. That was left unresolved.

But Levin raised the right issues about how society deals with crimes aimed against groups of people and how our community can respond in useful and helpful ways to the terror that our Jewish neighbors now feel. If we don't find answers to those difficult questions, the terror that the shooter wanted to plant here will continue to bloom.

(The panel in the photo above was made up of, left to right, Levin; Barry Grissom, former U.S. attorney for Kansas; state Sen. David Haley of Kansas; Haines; Prof. James B. Jacobs of the New York University School of Law; Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, and Rosilyn Temple, founder and director of KC Mothers in Charge.)

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As more Islamic schools open in the U.S. (to parallel the Catholic, say, and Jewish schools), there's an effort to teach not just religion but also how to be integrated into American society, this NPR story reports. That's important for the immigrant stream of American Muslims, of course, but let's not forget that a large group of American Muslims are African-Americans whose roots in this country go back to the time of slavery.

Muslims move toward local political activism: 4-21-17

A lot of Americans -- well, in fact, the majority of people who voted in the 2016 presidential race -- woke up the day after the election disappointed by the results of the race for the White House.

Muslims-politicsWe are beginning to see evidence that their disappointment has stirred them -- including quite a few Muslims -- to get more active in politics, starting at the local level.

As this Atlantic piece reports, "Reema Ahmad, a political consultant and organizer who works with the Muslim community, counted some three dozen Muslims running for local office in the Chicago area on April 4, when municipal elections were held."

I have heard from Kansas City area Muslims about their distress over the presidential election (and some other races), but I don't yet know if and how this is translating into political action here. It's time for The Kansas City Star to assign a reporter to look into that. There certainly have been Muslims elected to local offices in the KC area in the past. For instance, Aasim Baheyadeen served on the Kansas City Board of Education for a time.

The Atlantic story about Chicagoland notes that Muslims there "are trying to find their role in this political moment, when Muslims are a constant topic of national discussion. But they’re also discovering something else: Local politics are hard."

And yet it was some years ago when Christians who identified as conservative decided to get active in local U.S. politics. The result was that they gained considerable ground in controlling local school boards and state legislatures. In effect, they showed how political control can be gained. Now people who identify as more progressive are copying those Christians and seeking to gain political influence.

So the pendulum swings.

In some ways I wish we weren't so deeply engaged in identity politics -- the kind in which it matters whether you tell voters you're a conservative Christian or a more liberal Muslim. I wish, instead, it always had more to do with the common good.

Someone tell me why that's not a good idea.

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There is, of course, a deep religious angle to the story of Bill O'Reilly finally being fired from Fox News after all the allegations of him sexually harassing women. This Washington Post story captures it pretty well: "During his tenure, O’Reilly helped to shepherd the once-fringe right-wing movement into the heart of the GOP by marrying a religious movement with right-wing media. O’Reilly regularly invoked religion as a part of his show and acted as an aggressive right-wing prophet decrying the elitist secular left. Perhaps O’Reilly imagined himself as a modern-day King David, a prophet and psalmist, who with eloquence and persistence, would protect God’s people from the Goliaths of today — most notably the left." I met O'Reilly once when he spoke at one of our annual National Society of Newspaper Columnists conferences. I quickly dismissed him as a pompous bully when he improperly and needlessly attacked one of our members. If you want to read the terrific column my friend Mike Leonard wrote about being slimed by O'Reilly, here's a pdf of it:  Download Leonard-bill-o-column.

What's different about terrorism today? 4-20-17

Scholars and various analysts have been trying to explain the sources of terrorism and the processes that lead to radicalization, starting (at least in the modern era) perhaps with the time in which Yasser Arafat led the Palestine Liberation Organization to engage in various acts of terrorism (not unlike the terrorism committed by some of the early backers of the creation of the modern state of Israel).

TerrorismNo answer has proved exhaustive of the subject or fully satisfying. The matter is so complicated, in fact, and the conditions on the ground change so quickly and so often that whatever explanation seems to work in this or that case later appears to be unrelated to a new round of terrorist acts.

The latest worthy effort to track terrorism's trajectory to today can be found in this piece in The Guardian. It is an edited extract from Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State, by Olivier Roy. And though the excerpt to which I've linked you is not short and not an easy read, it offers what I found to be fresh insights into the phenomenon of terrorism and radicalization.

Roy writes: "What is unprecedented is the way that terrorists now deliberately pursue their own deaths."

It is worth noting, however, that deliberately pursuing one's own death is different from martyrdom, no matter what followers of ISIS, al-Qaida or other terrorist groups proclaim.

Martyrdom is when you stand by an ideal that finally results in you dying by the hands of others. In suicide bombing and similar self-destructive behaviors, the one who dies is also the one who caused his or her death. That, simply, is suicide, not martyrdom.

And yet suicide is what Roy says is often the goal of today's brand of terrorists: "The systematic association with death is one of the keys to understanding today’s radicalisation: the nihilist dimension is central. What seduces and fascinates is the idea of pure revolt. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. . .(L)iving in an Islamic society does not interest jihadis: they do not go to the Middle East to live, but to die. That is the paradox: these young radicals are not utopians, they are nihilists."

In other words, Roy writes, these young (they are almost exclusively young) terrorists have not radicalized Islam but have done quite the opposite --  they have Islamisized radicalism, meaning they have spread disparate (if not desperate) bits of Islam over the idea of violence as an appealing way of death. It's an approach that seems to have an appeal that much of the world simply cannot grasp.

"This systematic choice of death is a recent development," Roy writes. "The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France in the 1970s and 1980s, whether or not they had any connection with the Middle East, carefully planned their escapes. Muslim tradition, while it recognises the merits of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of their own deaths, because doing so interferes with God’s will. So, why, for the past 20 years, have terrorists regularly chosen to die?"

One answer is that "contemporary jihadism, at least in the west – as well as in the Maghreb and in Turkey – is a youth movement that is not only constructed independently of parental religion and culture, but is also rooted in wider youth culture."

As I say, a lot of what lies behind terrorism is shifting and it's never easy to grasp. But what we do know is that it stands against every uplifting value the great world religions, including the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (to name them chronologically) stand for.

So even if there are non-religious motivations for the radical acts of violence that terrorists produce, adherents of religion worldwide must continue to speak out against those acts and to comfort those affected by them. To do anything less would be to accept that evil can triumph in the end.

* * *


Now the Los Angeles Times reports that there's talk of schism in the Catholic Church because some more traditionalist leaders don't like some of the things Pope Francis has been doing and saying. I know, I know. It's hard to imagine disagreements within a religious body -- except for probably all of them.

Essays to explain our collective madness: 4-19-17

In the English-language Sunday evening worship service that my family attended at the Allahabad Agricultural Institute in India for a time in the 1950s, things usually began with words from the book of Habakkuk, "The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the Earth keep silence before him." Or from the 46th Psalm, "Be still, and know that I am God." (The Ag Institute is now known as Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences.)

Be-stillIn either case, we were being urged to shut down the cacophony of voices in our heads, all those loose, wandering thoughts about food or love or math. Our focus was to turn from ourselves to the one who, from an impulse of love, started all this.

It's precisely that outwardly focused attitude that permeates the Rev. Gordon C. Stewart's new book of essays, Be Still!: Departure from Collective Madness. Stewart, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), brings to his writing not just a theology of care, awe and wonder but a pastoral heart that breaks whenever God's own heart breaks.

These essays are short -- usually 1,000 words or fewer. But they do the work that columnists and essayists are charged with doing -- they complicate the thinking of readers. And that's a good thing.

I knew early in this book that I would like it when I discovered Stewart quoting a man who, it turns out, was a friend of both Stewart and me, the late Rev. Steve Shoemaker. I wrote about Steve's confrontation with death here last year. And I wrote about Steve's witty final book, A Sin a Week, here.

Stewart does not walk through the world without noticing things. Or without asking why things are the way they seem to be. For instance, he is aware that we live in a death-denying culture that seems to want us to be young forever. In response, he writes this:

"I'm increasingly convinced that the denial of death (mortality) and the search for immortality are the opposites of the Christian faith in God -- in Hebrew YHWH ("I am Who I Am / I will Be Who I will be" -- who alone is eternal. All else is species hubris, the refusal to live thankfully, graciously, and peacefully within the limits of finite, mortal goodness."


He thinks and writes about the systemic racism that still infects our American culture, about our infatuation with weapons, about the anxiety that seems to pour from our pores, finally terrorizing us and causing us to miss so many of the miracles of life all around us.

This little book will open your eyes. If that frightens you because you may have to see life differently and be required to change, then avoid Stewart. But if you are open to having new light shine on what you hold dear, Stewart's words can help with that.

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A new study suggests there are more atheists in the U.S. than previously reported. I'm not sure what to do with this information. I believe in God, but I don't always believe in new studies.