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A church celebrates the arts: 10-19-17


Almost from the beginning of recorded religious history, art has played an important role in interpreting the various messages of faith. (Though sometimes faith communities have, essentially, kicked art out.)

AonO-2Museums are full of paintings in which the artist tried to convey some idea about God, about religious stories, about eternity itself.

But sometimes local congregations don't do much to find ways to celebrate the artists in their midst or in the communities in which they're located. My own church, Second Presbyterian, last year began something called "Art on Oak" to give congregational and local artists a chance to display and sell their work.

This past weekend, the second annual edition of Art on Oak happened, and more than 30 artists were there inside our church building at 55th and Oak to take part.

AonO-6The art was not necessarily religious in nature. Indeed, little of it was. Rather, it was an expression of the God-given creativity of each of the artists, and the wide range of approaches was fascinating.

I'm using more photos here today than I usually do in a blog post just to give you a sense of the event and maybe even to encourage your congregation, if you're part of one, to consider some way to raise up and celebrate artists in your midst.

AonO-11(The top photo here shows local artist Smitha George with some of her work. The photo on the top right shows widely known local artist Jim Hamill, who is a member of our congregation. The first photo on the left shows former Hallmark artist Susan Still with some of her latest work. Susan, too, is a member of our congregation.

AonO-3(On the bottom right is Hannah Harms, one of our congregation's teens. At bottom left is a poster showing that the weekend was dedicated to one of our members and artists who helped create Art on Oak last year, Keith Anderson, but who now is quite ill. And the bottom photo shows my wife, Marcia Tammeus, with some of her own art cards plus art cards created by employees of the Johnson County Developmental Supports sheltered workshop, where Marcia's son [my stepson] Chris works.)


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New York -- I'm here in Manhattan for a few days to visit 9/11 memorial sites. Until I return, I won't be posting the usual second short item at the end of each blog. Things should be back to normal by Saturday.

A papal redefinition of 'pro-life': 10-18-17

Pope Francis recently proposed a modification in Catholic teaching about the death penalty. As that teaching stands today, there are a few cases in which the church would not oppose capital punishment.

Anti-death-penBut Francis says the death penalty should be "inadmissible" in all cases. And as this Religion News Service analysis notes, that would broaden the meaning of being "pro-life."

In a good way, if you ask me.

The label "pro-life" today is almost exclusively used to describe people dead set against abortion, usually no matter what. It's one of those language tricks people often use to make something sound better or different. An example I heard recently: She wasn't "fired." Rather, she was given "vocational freedom."

I oppose the death penalty in all cases. No exceptions. And I like the way Pope Francis expressed why he would like the church to rule that capital punishment is always wrong. It's because, he said, it is “contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator.”

Just for the record, I will repeat that I believe abortion should remain legal because there are times (not often, but sometimes) when abortion is the least evil of a series of evil choices. And I believe the decision about whether to abort a baby should be made by the woman and her physician, after getting any advice she solicits from family and friends.

By that definition, most people who call themselves "pro-life" would not include me in their number.

But focusing again on the death penalty, I think the pope is right but that he has a big job ahead of him, given that nearly half of American Catholics support the death penalty. Still, it wouldn't be the first time a large group of religious people were wrong about something.

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New York -- I'm here in Manhattan for a few days to visit 9/11 memorial sites. Until I return, I won't be posting the usual second short item at the end of each blog. Things should be back to normal by Saturday.

The necessary, puzzling work of hospice chaplains: 10-17-17

Because I serve on the board of a non-profit agency, Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, I'm aware of the fabulous work done by not just the KCH medical staff and administrators but also by its chaplains.

On-livingBut until I read Kerry Egan's new book, On Living, I didn't have the details to imagine what such chaplains do and deal with almost every day.

Oh, my.

Egan is a hospice chaplain who lives in Columbia, S.C., and she's a terrific writer. Which means she's a terrific reporter. Which means she takes great care to notice and record important and telling details.

She's a great storyteller because she's a great story-listener, and what she's done in this small volume is pass along some of the stories that her patients have asked her to share, along with her own experiences and reactions to those stories.

Before she began her hospice work, she writes, "I didn't yet understand that everyone -- everyone -- is broken and cracked." She herself certainly was exactly that earlier in her life when a prescribed medication produced in her a psychotic break at the time she gave birth to a child. It was a long, painful road back for her, but the experience has helped shape her compassionate hospice ministry.

Egan acknowledges that it's hard to describe what hospice chaplains do: "The essence of any meaningful spiritual care is, by its nature, nebulous and ineffable, and trying to describe it tends to make you sound silly." But, in the end, what such chaplains do, she writes, is "create a space -- a sacred time and place -- in which people can look at the lives they've led and try to figure out what it all means to them."

Which is serious and seriously necessary work.

"All I can do is show up and listen," she writes. "This, as strange as it sounds, is where a chaplain's power lies, in the powerlessness of the role. Because there was no point in hounding me to get (a) transplant going, Reggie (about whom Egan is telling a story at this point in the book) didn't. We could just be there together. He could stop fighting, even if it was just for that hour. He didn't have to demand anything, and I didn't have to become a 'bad guy' in his mind."

The stories from patients in this book are compelling. And it's through those stories that we get some helpful insight into the difficult, misunderstood but necessary work of chaplains in hospice settings. When it's time for me to have one, I hope there are more Kerry Egans in the world.

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The Guardian got a sneak preview of the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., and has published this report about it. I mentioned the museum recently here on the blog and wrote about its Kansas City connections in this Flatland column earlier this year.

What adults can learn in Sunday school: 10-16-17

Most religious groups, at least the larger traditional ones, create curricula to be used to educate children and often a separate curricula for adult education.

Tww-logoIndividual congregations under the umbrella of this or that denomination or sect usually are not required to use the material produced by headquarters. So they either create their own material or they search for independently produced lesson plans.

Today I want you to know about one of the latter for use in Christian congregations. It's one I've fairly recently become aware of and have been asked to be part of the volunteer team that helps guide selection of weekly topics.

It's called The Wired Word, and each week it offers two in-depth lessons based on both the Bible and the news.

In the first lesson for this week, for example, TWW used details about the Las Vegas massacre "to consider the inexplicable nature of life and how faith in God helps us navigate that which is beyond our understanding."

The second lesson "explores the topic of hypocrisy after two men from opposite ends of the political spectrum fell from grace, their misdeeds compounded by their two-faced misrepresentation of who they really were."

So each week the TWW team -- as well as either paid subscribers to the lessons or anyone who goes to the TWW website, creates a free account and uses an on-line forum -- suggests topics based on news of the week. In effect, this is a living example of the old admonition to read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another hand.

One thing I like about TWW is that the volunteer team represents a pretty broad section of Christianity. For instance, the team includes a woman who is co-pastor of a Full Gospel Church in upstate New York, a retired Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor from Florida and a Presbyterian pastor from Virginia.

There's also a Pennsylvania business man who has been part of the same United Methodist Church for about 30 years, a retired Methodist businessman from Indiana, an American Baptist pastor who is active in an Episcopal church near her in upstate New York, an ELCA Lutheran pastor from Minnesota who now does freelance proofreading and copy editing as her business, a pastor and author who now lives with his wife in China, and a recently retired school guidance counselor who worships with her family at a United Methodist Church in Ohio.

Also on the team is a Church of the Brethren pastor from Indiana and a Catholic lay ministry leader from Florida. A consultant to the team is a former naval officer who lives in New Mexico. He's a member of a Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church congregation. 

The primary writer of TWW is a retired United Methodist pastor who lives with his wife in New Jersey.

The team does its best to deal with current news developments but without being partisan politically. No doubt that's one reason it offers two lessons each week from which to choose. Someone inevitably may think one of the lessons is too political.

TWW is a product of a company called Communications Resources, which offers all kinds of religious material to congregations.

I've been using a few TWW lessons in a Bible study group I help to lead, and the reaction has been quite positive. That group includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists and others.

TWW is an interesting concept that relies on volunteers except for the people (primarily two) who do the actual writing. If your congregation is rethinking what curriculum to use for adults, you might have a look at TWW as one answer. But also make sure you know what kind of educational material your denomination is producing for local congregations. Some of it is top notch.

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Pope Francis now has his own personalized Cubs jersey and he says he's "for sure" a Cubs fan. Even if I didn't like the guy (I do like him) I'd be in his corner now. But, of course, some of us were Cubs fans before it was cool. And the Cubs taught us how to lose, no small lesson in life.

Here's a start to your Christmas book list: 10-14/15-17

If Halloween is only a few weeks away, that means we're deep into the Christmas shopping season, which, from what I can tell, started Dec. 26, 2016.

All of which means it's time to suggest some new faith-based books to you, either for yourself or as gifts for people you wish were smarter and more well-read than they are. (That's partly why we give books as gifts, right?)

As you might imagine, the publishing industry seems to spit out dozens of new titles in this field each week. So it's impossible for any one person to stay on top of it all. But here is a list of books (with a link to learn more about them and maybe order a copy) that have crossed my desk in recent weeks.

History-church-objects-- A History of the Church in 100 Objects, by Mike Aquilina and Grace Aquilina. This book is a really cool idea well executed by a popular Catholic author and his daughter. It shows photos of objects important to the history of Christianity (not just Catholicism) and offers a page or three about each, starting with the silver star in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, marking the traditional spot of Jesus' birth. Beyond that, readers will see the Apostle Paul's tomb, the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg and even the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Scholars might argue for inclusion of objects not here and exclusion of some found in the book. But on the whole it's a great read.

-- Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, by Winn Collier. I rarely review or even list fiction in these book blogs, but these made-up letters from a made-up small-town pastor seem alive and engaging. They confront real issues in real lives and, thus, speak the truth in love. There's a worthy spirit in these letters, one that more congregations and their pastors could use. The book's official publication date is later this month.

-- Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News, by Brian Zahnd. The author is founder and senior pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Mo. In many ways, this book is an argument against the theme of the famous 1741 sermon by Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Zahnd is convinced that Edwards' emphasis on retributive, versus restorative, justice is terribly misguided and has botched up the church for a long time. "It's regrettable," Zahnd writes, "this sermon has shaped the American vision of God for nearly three centuries." Zahnd offers a corrective here -- a much-needed one.

Asian-Journals-- Asian Journals: India and Japan, by Joseph Campbell. The famed mythology scholar, who died 30 years ago this month, spent a lot of time on the subcontinent and in Japan and kept copious notes, which previously became two separate books. Now the New World Library has combined them into this large, engaging collection that includes photos, maps and other illustrations along the road. Campbell is a keen observer, and he captures both moments in time and what now appear to be silly predictions and out-of-sync opinions, including these in the mid-1950s from several Indians on a train ride with Campbell: It's not Russia and China but the U.S.A. that's "itching for a fight"; the World War II war trials "were a farce: Roosevelt and Churchill should have been tried"; "war is on the way right now and will probably break out in two or three years"; this war will "finish both Russia and the U.S.A." Or not.

-- Why Go to Church? by C.K. Robertson. Here in a mere 58 pages is an introduction, through Episcopalian eyes, to what church is all about. It's part of Church Publishing's series by theologians, "Little Books of Guidance." Among the authors of other books in the series are Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas G. Long, recently retired preaching professor at Candler School of Theology and author of the terrific book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral. Robertson's book, though short, provides a more complete answer than one given by the pastor of my boyhood church who planned to preach a sermon with the same title of this book one Sunday but, in a crazily full morning service, ran out of time. So he answered the question this way: "Because it's good for you." And sat down.

Speak-bones-- Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, by Richard A. Brown. Like Brian Zahnd, mentioned above, Rich Brown is western Missouri writer. He's the former editor of the Community of Christ's monthly magazine and author of the 2010 book, What Was Paul Thinking? This new book is a call for Christians to use their prophetic voices to speak truth to those in power. He says the church should not focus solely on each individual's private relationship with God but, rather, with what those individuals can do to help transform the broken world around them. Which is exactly the message the church today needs to hear. 

-- Auden, the Psalms, and Me, by J. Chester Johnson. The author once replaced the fabulous poet W. H. Auden on the committee charged with drafting the 1979 translation of the Psalms in the current Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church. This is an account of the various ways Auden helped with that project and how he helped to shape and maintain the majesty of the Psalms in that worship book. I was especially amused by Johnson's story of how, fresh out of college and a new resident of New York City, he found Auden's number in the phone book and just called him up and chatted. Later, when they got to know each other, Johnson never confessed to that starry-eyed call, which Auden answered graciously.

-- The Mythical Leader: The Seven Myths of Leadership, by Ron Edmondson. Just because someone leads a church as head pastor doesn't mean he or she is really much of a leader. The author, a pastor who founded Mustard Seed Ministry, writes in some detail from experience what it takes to become a true leader of a congregation. I can think of more than one pastor who would do well to heed some of this advice.

Adopted-sacrament-- Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World, by Kelley Nikondeha. The author was adopted as an infant and is the adoptive mother of two. She argues here that adoption can and should be seen as a sacramental way to connect what is given up with one who receives what is given up. She draws on biblical narratives to get readers to see the power of radical and positive change that adoption, whether actual or metaphorical, can bring about.

-- Big Love: The Power of Living with a Wide-Open Heart, by Scott Stabile. This book tells the inspiring story of how the author -- whose parents were murdered when he was a teen-ager, whose brother later died of a drug overdose and who himself joined a new religious movement he finally decided was a destructive cult -- came to find redemption and purpose. Yes, in some ways this is just one more self-help book, but it's rooted in lived reality.

-- Miracle in Motion: Living a Purposeful Life, by Antonio Martinez, Jr., with David Warden. Soon after the author, after a long journey, became a Jesuit priest, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By then he was the founding president of a Cristo Rey high school in Houston. If you know anything about the Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City, you know a fair amount about the one in Houston, in that they both serve underprivileged youth who get a chance to work part-time as part of their education to help cover the cost of the school. Martinez wanted to leave his students with advice about how to live full, productive, faith-filled lives. He didn't quite get the book done, but he asked friend David Warden to finish it for him.

Beyond-zen-- It Came from Beyond Zen!: More Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan's Greatest Zen Master, by Brad Warner. If you are one of those people (and who isn't?) who judges a book by its cover, you may well be tempted to skip this one, given that its sensationalized cover resembles a movie poster for "The Sea Monster that Swallowed the Monk." (Also a movie I'd never see on purpose.) But if you can just ignore the ridiculous cover you will find inside the author's effort to pass along, interpret and rescue the work of a long ignored 13th Century Japanese Zen monk named Eihei Dogen. It's an effort worth making.

-- Why I Am Catholic: (And You Should Be Too), by Brandon Vogt. Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but sometimes book titles leave you with no mystery at all about contents. Like this one. It's a volume of Catholic apologetics. The author had been among the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans when, in college, he converted to Catholicism. He offers here 11 arguments for why he believes Catholicism is true, good and beautiful.

-- Everyone's a Genius: Unleashing Creativity for the Sake of the World, by Alan Briggs. This is a book designed to help church leaders more effectively engage the communities they serve. The author is a pastor of a Colorado Springs church. He insists that everyone is capable of creativity, but "We live in a world that wants final-draft excellence with first-draft effort. Creativity needs time to roast slowly over divine coals."

-- The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, translated by William D. Creasy. This is a republication of a 1987 translation of the classic work by one of the best-known Christian mystics. Written in the early 15th Century, the book has provided spiritual guidance and, in some sense, the boundaries of boundless mysticism since then. Creasy says his goal was to produce a translation that was, clear, faithful to the original but not "stylistically quaint."

Catholic-hipster-- The Catholic Hipster Handbook: Rediscovering Cool Saints, Forgotten Prayers and Other Weird but Sacred Stuff, by Tommy Tighe. The author is a marriage and family therapist who also cohosts "The Catholic Hipster Podcast." In this book he has gathered together chapters from several writers who educate readers about saints they may never have heard of and other things that may fascinate Catholics with a sense of humor and inquisitiveness.

-- The Hollywood Commandments: A Spiritual Guide to Secular Success, by DeVon Franklin. The author, a Christian who writes books and produces films, here offers his thinking about what success is and how to achieve it. What is talent? he asks. It's "what creates value for others." Prayer is important, he says, but if you rely "solely on prayer you run the risk of weakening your faith (because) if we don't think it's going to take everything we have, combined with prayer, to be successful, we can wind up putting too much on God."

-- A Heart Like Mary's: 31 Daily Meditations to Help You Live and Love as She Does, by Edward Looney. This Ave Maria Press book guides readers into the heart of the mother of Jesus with daily meditations. The author is a Catholic priest who serves in the Diocese of Green Bay.

-- The Friendship Project: The Catholic Woman's Guide to Making and Keeping Fabulous, Faith-Filled Friends, by Michele Faehnle and Emily Jaminet. Not satisfied with countless Facebook "friends" you've never met? (Me, either.) These two authors, active in Catholic women's ministries, draw on the lives of female saints to guide readers toward deep friendships that will last.

Super-girls-halos-- Super Girls and Halos: My Companions on the Quest for Truth, Justice and Heroic Virtue, by Maria Morera Johnson. In this book readers will find female superheroes compared and contrasted with female saints. The idea is to understand virtue, morality and the role prophetic voice should play. There's some kicky juxtapositioning here.

-- Sacred Reading: The 2018 Guide to Daily Prayer, by the Apostleship of Prayer. This is the annual offering from the pope's worldwide prayer network, called the Apostleship of Prayer. It gets lots of use in Catholic circles but can serve as a model for how to do such devotional books in other traditions.

-- Catholic Puzzles, Word Games, and Brainteasers, Volume 1, by Matt Swaim. This is the size and shape of your standard coloring book, but it's full of fun ways to learn about aspects of Catholicism.

-- Christian Labyrinths: A Celtic Coloring Book, by Daniel Mitsui. I'd call this an intricate adult coloring book that offers the kind of contemplative experience that on-the-ground labyrinths offer. Careful colorers could spent a week on one page.

Cover-Value of DoubtAnd, of course, I remind those of you who didn't give my own latest book, The Value of Doubt, to someone last Christmas, you've got another chance coming up. It also makes a great Thanksgiving gift, to say nothing of a great treat to hand out on Halloween. (Oh, it does, too.)

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Quick quiz: Which is the world's largest religion? Wrong, it's not Islam, it's Christianity. Did more Christian or more Muslim refugees come to the U.S. over the last 15 years? Wrong again. Way more Christians, as this RNS story reports. If we're going to argue about this stuff, let's at least have our facts straight. (And if you weren't wrong on one or both of these questions, I apologize for saying you were.)

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P.S.: What looks like a terrific three-day symposium starts Thursday at the World War I Museum in Kansas City. It's called "Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today." Details and a place to register can be found here. Please have a look. Related to all that there's a "Voices of Conscience" traveling exhibit Oct. 24-29 at Rainbow Mennonite Church here. For details about this collaboration that includes Rainbow Mennonite, Church of the Brethren and Penn Valley Friends Meeting, click here.

Confronting evil, whatever that is: 10-13-17

Because of, among other things, the Las Vegas massacre, the California wildfires and the recent tremendously damaging hurricanes, the subject of evil is in the news.

Good-vs-EvilWhat is it? Who decides what is evil and what isn't? And the old theodicy question: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is good and loving?

Dan Burke, who used to write for Religion News Service but now is at CNN, has done this helpful wrap-up about evil.

As Burke writes, "But beneath the political debate lurk questions that seldom surface except in the aftermath of horrific events: What is evil? A malignant force, a moral category, or something else entirely? Where does evil come from? And what, if anything, can we do about it?"

Well, you can read his account, which draws on the thinking of quite a few folks.

But, in the end, the harsh reality we all face is that evil is real. And that evil appeased is evil empowered. Which means that one of our foundational human tasks is to name the evil that we see around us and to stand against it in ways that don't lead to more evil.

In the Adventist tradition, there is an emphasis on a cosmic battle between good and evil -- a malevolent force often portrayed as embodied as Satan.

Whether you think there is a personal devil or just some kind of more generic evil, the reality is that the entire recorded history of humanity is simply littered with examples of evil. (Yes, good, too, but some days evil seems to be running up the score. And most days the world seems much more complicated than a good-evil binary system.)

My question for you today is how your faith community, if you have one, speaks about evil and helps members understand and combat it in effective ways. And not just personal, Saturday-night sins but also systemic evil. Or is this a question your congregation or tradition shies away from? I hope not. The effort to undo evil and its effects must start by acknowledging that it is real.

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Two Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, signed a reconciliation agreement on Thursday, and both sides consider it a major breakthrough. Those working for peace in the Middle East no doubt will consider this an important step, but so far it's not clear what this will mean for efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Still, it was hard to see how the Palestinians could negotiate from a position of strength and unity when Hamas and Fatah were, in many ways, at war with each other. So we'll see. But if you hold your breath until there's peace in the Middle East, you will collapse first.

What pop-up shrines say about us: 10-12-17

More than 20 years ago -- maybe closer to 30 by now -- a teen-age girl who lived in our neighborhood and whom my daughters and I had met a few times died when the car she was riding in sped around a corner near our house and slammed into a tree.

Molly-treeMolly perished and the tree was badly scarred, but almost immediately it was wrapped with a thick yellow ribbon into which some flowers were stuck. The tree survived and that ribbon stayed up for years. Occasionally someone would change out the flowers. It was, in other words, a shrine to Molly's life.

This past March I was walking to a nearby grocery store and passed by what I always thought of as Molly's tree. And I discovered that it had been cut down. Only a stump remained, as you can see from this photo.

It sort of broke my heart.

It seems that no matter what disaster strikes us, one of the ways we respond is by setting up small, usually temporary, shrines. That's certainly happened in Las Vegas after the recent massacre there, as this Religion News Service story reports.

"Within hours of the Oct. 1 mass shooting that killed 58 people and wounded hundreds," RNS reports, "mourners and the merely curious, from here and far away, started coming to this memorial. It stands a stone’s throw — or a high-powered bullet’s range — from the Mandalay Bay hotel, where the gunman fired from before taking his own life."

Why do we do this?

I suppose there are lots of answers, but I suspect a primary one is that we feel helpless to do anything else. And we don't want simply to forget what happened or ignore it.

So we bring flowers and balloons. Or teddy bears and posters on which we write messages.

In some ways it's a beautiful human response in that it's one voice crying out to another voice that's been silenced.

Again, the RNS story:

“There seems to be this deep desire for people to bear witness at a place where something happened and acknowledge their witness by leaving something there,” said Jan Ramirez, chief curator at New York’s 9/11 Memorial and Museum. “They want to say, ‘I have come, I care, I will never forget and this is going to be integrated into my life.’ They will forever remember coming to this shrine.”

What sad, despicable thing would it say about us if we didn't have something like this response that honors the humanity common in all of us?

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I mentioned at the bottom of yesterday's blog post a federal judge's new ruling that giving clergy a tax-free housing allowance is unconstitutional. Although I mostly agree with the judge, I want to share with you this opposing point of view from a pastor in Chicago. He has some interesting arguments, but I'm not sure he wins on the legal points.

Recognizing our culture's overwhelming whiteness: 10-11-17

Like a fish that one day discovered she was swimming in water, the Rev. Daniel Hill a few years ago woke up to the reality that he was living in a culture dominated by whiteness.

White-awakeIn his new book, White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means To Be White, Hill helps the rest of us see how the idea of white superiority not only was baked into our founding documents and thinking but continues to be a force shaping who Americans are today.

The book is both distressing and hopeful, both unflinching about history and open to new paths forward. And although much attention is given to the historic black-white split in American culture dating back to slavery, Hill's focus is broader. He recognizes the changing religious and racial demographics of the American landscape.

For Hill, founding pastor of the River City Community Church in Chicago, the first step was to recognize and acknowledge what he calls the "normalization of white culture." He means that white culture serves as the baseline, the norm and that "we then evaluate every else's culture based on the norms we associate with white culture."

Christians, he writes, can be motivated to understand all of this through biblical principles, but "a cultural identity blind spot within white Christian circles undermines the entire process when left unaddressed."

Hill is not advocating that whites simply feel guilty and shamed about their culture and how it has dominated the nation. Rather, he simply asks that those of us who are white, especially Christians (who dominate in the U.S.), recognize reality and work to create a more open and welcoming culture for everyone.

And for sure he's not advocating some allegedly neutral "colorblindness." That, he says, "is a dangerous ideology for Christians to subscribe to." Indeed, he says, "it can thwart authentic engagement with cultural identity."

To get from a state of inattention and disinterest in all of this, he suggests that there are seven stages for "a white person seeking transformation from blindness to sight: encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening and active participation." And then he unpacks each of those chapter by chapter.

Hill is wise to note early in the book that "race is a social construct." In fact, the Human Genome Project has taught us that there really is no scientifically identified characteristic to be identified as "race." Hill writes this about the history of how the idea of race developed in the U.S.:

"When Europeans first colonized America, the concept of race, as we know it, did not yet exist. The white people who settled here over the years weren't yet considered white; they were British, French, German, Welsh, Dutch, Italian, Irish and so on. In fact, they first represented a wide range of cultural, ethnic and economic differences, and the idea of viewing them through a single racial lens would have been outlandish.

"That began to change when slavery became an integral part of the American fabric. . .The horror of slavery was a major moral crisis for America, but instead of acknowledging the sin of that enterprise, we went in the opposite direction. We began to de-emphasize the differences within various European ethnicities and began to describe white people as a human collective that was inherently superior to people of color."

From there the idea of white superiority mushroomed. And as we know -- most recently from Charlottesville -- the idea is alive and well today, even if in sometimes much subtler ways than our Constitution declaring slaves to be worth only "three fifths" of other people.

The Christian alternative to this has to do with the idea that each individual -- no matter what -- bears the image of God, or the imago Dei. That idea, as Hill rightly notes, "declares that all human beings are valuable and of infinite worth. God is the one that makes this declaration, and no human being is allowed to challenge it. To do so is to play God. Yet when we created the American construct of race, that's exactly what we did. We undercut the imago Dei by establishing the narrative of racial difference."

Hill also accurately describes an ongoing problem with all this: "It doesn't seem to matter how much exposure white America has to racial injustice or how many encounters we have with systemic inequality, we can't seem to snap out of our collective slumber and admit the faults in our foundations."

One of the clearest ways to ponder all this, Hill suggests, is to think about the common memory shared by whites and then the common memory shared by others:

"People of white European ancestry remember a history of discovery, open lands, manifest destiny, endless opportunity and American exceptionalism. Yet communities of color, especially those with African and indigenous roots, remember a history of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, boarding schools, segregation, cultural genocide, internment camps and mass incarceration."

The foundational principles of Christianity often stand in stark contrast to the reality of a culture of white superiority in the U.S., and, Hill writes, "both of these identity sources remain at war as they vie for supremacy in our lives."

This can be difficult stuff with which to wrestle, especially for people who have been unthinkingly swimming in white culture, not fully aware of what that means both for themselves and for others outside that culture.

But the reality must be faced if we are to be a nation that welcomes the world's tired and poor, yearning to breathe free.

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A federal judge in Wisconsin has ruled that it's unconstitutional for housing allowances for clergy to be tax free -- a system widely used by faith communities throughout the U.S. If this ruling eventually survives appeals and other challenges, it will result in significant change and no doubt some turmoil for churches, synagogues and other houses of worship. But I think the judge has a point.

A religious crisis in northern Iraq: 10-10-17

Sometimes when we hear of a persecuted religious minority in this or that country, we feel helpless, not having any good idea what action we might take to help make the situation better.

Iraq-mapBut that's not the case in northern Iraq, where Christians and Yazidis are on the verge of extinction.

As Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, writes in this column, government bureaucrats have been ordered to respond to that situation but aren't doing so. Our job as citizens is to tell our members of Congress to insist on a response from employees of the American government before it's too late.

"Astonishingly," Smith wrote, "for three years U.S. government bureaucrats have refused to help endangered religious minority communities like Christians and Yazidis survive the genocide ISIS began in 2014."

A little background from Smith:

"Congress required the secretary of state to determine by March 17, 2016, whether violent Islamist extremists were committing genocide against Christians and people of other faiths in the Middle East. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution declaring the genocide two days before the determination was due and the Senate later unanimously passed a similar resolution. The budget for fiscal year 2017 required the State Department and USAID to use some of the funds specifically to assist genocide victims from religious minorities. But career staff at the State Department and USAID have continued to ignore the genocide declarations (and the law)."

If the U.S. Senate confirms Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, this is one situation he'd do well to jump on.

Iraq, by the way, is in the second tier of worst religion-abusing nations, according to the annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which said, "Severe religious freedom violations continued in Iraq throughout 2016."

And the Iraq section of the U.S. State Department's latest annual report on international religious freedom notes that "Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country. The Christian population has declined over the past 15 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons."

In sum, the ISIS terrorists have created an international religious crisis in northern Iraq, and far too little is being done about it, including by our own government. The next time President Trump uses "Sad!" in a tweet, I hope it's about this situation.

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It turns out, CNN reports, that some of the Islamophobia being experienced in the U.S. is an import from -- Russia. Yep. The same country that tried to mess with the 2016 presidential election. One more reason to be ever-so-cautious about what you see on Facebook.

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

One insight into men who commit massacres: 10-9-17

In light of the Las Vegas massacre, let's think aloud here a bit about what healthy faith communities can and should provide.

Lonely-menTrust me, there's a connection.

But let me start with this engaging piece from a site called beyourself.

It argues that one reason men -- almost exclusively men -- become mass murderers has to do with three things:

-- They are chronically lonely.

-- They are deprived of play opportunities.

-- They are deeply ashamed.

You may read the details of the author's arguments for yourself. After you do, you may argue -- and I may agree with you -- that he overgeneralizes and that he's too simplistic. For instance, he barely mentions deep-seated anger in men as an issue. The author of this piece briefly mentions the possibility of a psychotic break from pharmaceutical drugs, but that's a possible cause that authorities should explore further.

Still, if he's right that even some noticeable percentage of American men are lonely, deprived of play and are ashamed, is part of that to be laid at the doorstep of faith communities?

Healthy faith communities -- and, for sure, not all are healthy -- should be providing opportunities to overcome loneliness, chances simply to have good, clean fun together and some mechanism for unpacking the reasons we might be feeling shame. In some ways, those three matters should be at the heart of what religious congregations have to offer.

For almost 40 years, I have been blessed to be a member of a healthy (that doesn't mean it's always without troubles and issues) congregation, Second Presbyterian Church. From Christian education classes to various ministries and social gatherings, there are countless opportunities for people to confront and overcome their loneliness. From Trivia Night to Sunday lunches and lots of other opportunities such as picnics, we play and have fun together. (Twenty-some of are folks just returned from a two-week trip to Scotland together.) Which reminds me that it's time to revive our old church softball team. And in various Bible studies, book groups, Sunday school classes and excellent preaching, we seek to understand what shames people and how they can overcome such destructive feelings.

We don't get everything right, for sure. Sometimes we operate on auto-pilot, failing to remember why we do what we do. But, in the end, Second is a place -- one of many such faith communities in the Kansas City area -- that actively works to fix the causes that Charlie Hoen, who wrote the piece for beyourself identifies.

I'm not claiming that non-religious organizations also can't or don't provide services to address the issues Hoen raises. But what I am suggesting is that if you are a member of a congregation and it's not dealing with these matters constructively, you should help fix it or find someplace that is. It could mean the difference between life and mass death.

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Earlier this year I wrote this Flatland column about the Kansas City connections to the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., being organized by Steve Green, museum founder and board chairman and president of Hobby Lobby. Toward the end of the piece, I wrote this: "It would be understandable for people who know of Green’s own Pentecostal Christian theology to suspect that the museum would reflect that, similar to how the Creation Museum in Kentucky reflects a literalistic Christian fundamentalism. But (Tim) Smith (who heads up fund-raising for the museum) insists that Green has purposefully set aside his own religious agenda to work with Jews, Catholics and others to create a learning environment that will welcome all." This review of a new book, Bible Nation, by Candida Moss, who teaches theology at the University of Birming­ham, and Joel Baden, who teaches Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, suggests that Green's real goal is to push a narrow, quite conservative view of the Bible, in tension with what Smith suggested. I don't know yet who is right, but I'm anxious to go to the museum and see what it says to me, though I don't yet know when I'll get that done.