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A time for discovering healthy faith: 12-30/31-17

The end of this raucous, strange year can provide an opportunity to take a new look at what religious faith might mean to us in the future. Which raises the question of whether we are willing to change if somehow change seems called for.

2015-01-14 14.07.43The author of this insightful piece in The Guardian gives us a look at what that kind of change might look like and why one might want to move into it with hope.

Writer Bryan Mealer reports this: "After growing up in the church and leaving for many years – even abandoning my beliefs at one point while covering war – I was contemplating a return. On a visit to my parents, my children had inadvertently exposed a void that I’d been trying to ignore. My three-year-old daughter asked my mother, 'What is God?' only to have her brother reply: 'Don’t you know, silly? God is Harvey.' Harvey is what we called our Honda. The look my mother shot me is still burned into my retinas."

What Mealer had to throw overboard was his childhood vision of a God interested primarily in rules and retributive -- not restorative -- justice.

He writes that one time when he was a freelance journalist covering war in the Congo, "One day while I was visiting a displaced camp, my guide took me on a tour of tents where babies had died during the night, the mothers still cradling the tiny corpses, catatonic with grief. 'It’s God’s will,' one woman told me, but I’d grown tired of hearing it. 'Then I want no part of this god,' I thought. As I stood in a haze of cooking fires at the forgotten edge of the world, that god ceased to exist."

Back in Texas, Mealer became jogging friends with a man who had been on a similar journey and who now was an Episcopal priest. Eventually they helped each other confront the question of who God is and how can we live in a healthy relationship with the divine, recognizing that God is real, wild and adventurous, not just some rule maker and disciplinarian.

One day Mealer's priest friend, David, said this to him: “God has to die. The God of our childhood has to shatter in a thousand pieces, die, disappear or change, if we are to have a spiritual life beyond our childhood.”

For many people that is the path toward a healthy faith commitment. Others found God in childhood and have never had to watch that God die, to be replaced by another more in harmony with the God of the Bible.

For Mealer, "Reclaiming the title (of Christian) is a moral protest against those who attack immigrants, refugees, minorities, and the poor and the sick, the very people whom Christ instructed us to help along the road, and without question."

This rediscovery process can be life-affirming even if often painful. What we don't want to do, however, is to discover a god merely of our own making.

P.S.: If you'd like some help on that road to discovery, I'll be leading gatherings in late April at Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania based on my latest book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. For details and to register, click here.

(The photo here is one I took at the Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel at Powell Gardens just east of Kansas City. It's a wonderful place to think about the divine.)

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In the face of state budget cuts, Episcopalians in Wyoming have taken on a ministry of suicide prevention. It's an increasingly necessary task, and thank God people of faith are willing to help. What's your congregation, if any, doing about this? At my Presbyterian church in Kansas City, we're about to hear a sermon series, starting in January, about dealing with suicide and similar kinds of mental health catastrophes.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column about some fascinating scholarship on the Apostle Paul now is online here.

The 'Hollow Earth' conspiracy theory: 12-29-17

As anyone who has ever heard of the book of Genesis, much less read it, knows, the first creation story begins this way (at least in the Common English Bible version):

Earth-core"When God began to create the heavens and the earth -- the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God's wind swept over the waters -- God said, 'Let there be light.' And so light appeared."

What that story -- and the second creation story later in the same opening book of the Bible -- never says is that our Earth ended up hollow and that Vikings and Nazis live inside it in a kind of paradise.

And yet that, Newsweek reports, is what purveyors of a new conspiracy theory believe.

Look. I'm as intrigued as anyone by the crowdy pile of conspiracy theories floating around. Well, let me reword that. I'm intrigued by how many such theories there are and by what makes people susceptible to such nonsense.

But the level of individual and societal delusion must be much, much higher than I ever imagined it to be for people to fall for such theories as the Hollow Earth.

And yet for some reason Newsweek, drawing on a report in the British tabloid The Daily Mail, felt compelled to set the record straight about what's really at the core of our planet -- as if rational scientific explanations could possibly change the mind of someone so disconnected from reality as a believer in the Hollow Earth.

And here I am taking up your time with my thoughts about all this. Maybe it's all due to year-end nuttiness. Let's stick with tried and true stories about God speaking the world into existence, about the parting of a sea, about a Virgin birth and about a resurrection. You know: the stories that are ancient and fascinating, not brand new, unscientific and weird.

(Does the NASA depiction here of the core of the Earth confirm or deny the Hollow Earth theory? Well, technically neither, though what it labels "Inner Core" doesn't look very hollow to me.)

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A new poll shows that “being a better person” is the top New Year's resolution for 2018. The RNS story to which I've linked you asks a good question: How will you know if you've succeeded? (One obvious answer: You'll read my blog and columns more often. Right?)

Reclaiming the rituals of death: 12-28-17

Several years ago I read Caitlin Doughty's book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. It was an up-close look at the way we Americans deal (and often avoid dealing) with death.

Doughty-bookDoughty, now operator of a non-profit funeral home in California, has just released another book on death, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.

One of my daughters gave this to me for Christmas because she knows I write a lot about death and that I serve on the board of Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care, a terrific non-profit agency.

Doughty has traveled the U.S. and from Indonesia to Mexico to Japan and beyond to look at how people deal with death, which in many ways is a primary subject of the world's great religions. The result is a fascinating account of many traditions and practices that take death seriously but that, at the same time, take grief seriously, too, perhaps even more seriously than death itself.

Several years ago, she writes, she heard a lot about how the job of funeral professionals is to create a space to be held open for families to grieve as they face the awe that death always brings. But when she first heard the term "holding the space," she writes, it "sounded like saccharine hippie lingo. This judgment was wrong. Holding the space is crucial, and exactly what we are missing. To hold the space is to create a ring of safety around the family and friends of the dead, providing a place where they can grieve openly and honestly, without fear of being judged."

Doughty notes that houses of worship provide that kind of safe space, often, "but for everyone else, the most vulnerable time in our lives is a gauntlet of awkward obstacles."

In this small book, you will learn about funeral practices that, at first, will seem ghoulish to Americans. But in that shock we may discover how our own practices often are unsatisfying and death-denying. (From a Christian perspective, the book to read is Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.)

In effect, Doughty argues persuasively for healing rituals of death, but warns that "we won't get our ritual back if we don't show up. Show up first, and the ritual will come. Insist on going to the cremation, insist on going to the burial. Insist on being involved, even if it is just brushing your mother's hair as she lies in her casket."

You'd think that a culture like ours that entertains itself with thousands of violent deaths each week on TV dramas would have a better grasp of real death of real people. Sadly, that's not the case. Doughty's book should help us with that. And we certainly need the help.

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St-nick-ground-zeroA Greek Orthodox church next to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks but has been in the process of being rebuilt. In fact, I watched some of that reconstruction when I was there in mid-October. The photo here shows what I saw at the site then. But it's now reported that construction has been halted at the site "amid rising costs and questions over how donations have been managed." Church officials and others think the halt will be temporary and that, in the end, things will work out. But we'll see. The Associated Press story to which I've linked you reports that "In September, the estimated cost was $50 million. But according to The New York Times, which first reported the work suspension, the cost had jumped to an estimated $72 million to $78 million as of earlier this month." A roughly $25 million jump in costs in a few months clearly needs to be investigated if donors are to trust that things are being handled well and honestly.

She thought God wanted her to smash bars: 12-27-17

As we move toward New Year's Eve and the inevitable consumption of a considerable volume of alcoholic beverages by a considerable volume of adults (and some short of adulthood), today is an excellent time to remember Carry (sometimes "Carrie) Nation and her religious war on alcohol. (I like to think of the photo of her here as her high school graduation picture, but only because I have a weird sense of humor.)

Carrie-nationFor it was on this date in 1900 that she smashed up the bar at the Carey Hotel in Wichita, Kan. Her actions got her arrested and jailed -- and certainly not for the last time.

Carry mostly grew up just south of Kansas City in Belton, Mo. As a young woman she was briefly married to a man who turned out to be a raging alcoholic.

Carry decided it was her divinely appointed task to save other men from demon rum.

As the Wikipedia biographical entry on her (I've linked you to it above) notes, she once said that she is "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn't like." (This, remember, is the same Jesus who once made gallons and gallons of wine for a wedding party.)

She began her work, Wikipedia says, "in Medicine Lodge (Kansas) by starting a local branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and campaigning for the enforcement of Kansas' ban on the sale of liquor." (I've never understood the use of the word "temperance" in the title of that organization. The right name would be the Woman's Christian Abstinence Union.)

In fact, I have a book that says she wrecked her first saloon in Medicine Lodge on this date in 1899, but I can't find any other source to verify that, and it's possible the author of that book simply mixed up that with the Dec. 27, 1900, raid on the hotel bar in Wichita.

At any rate, one of the times she was arrested was in Kansas City after smashing bars along 12th Street. That would have been intriguing to cover as a reporter for The Kansas City Star, but she did her deed in April 1901, almost 70 years before I got to The Star. Darn.

One reason to remember Carry Nation is to acknowledge that people from many different religious traditions over the centuries have felt that they've been called by God to commit violence.

Any time to you see that, run the other way. Or do what you can to prevent the violence and help the perpetrators see that they are religiously delusional.

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Kwanzaa has been around since 1966, but lots of Americans still don't understand much about it. Here's your chance to figure it out. CNN has done this explanation of the season celebrating African-American culture. Read it and learn something today, even if you think you know all about Kwanzaa.

What's with Mormons baptizing the dead? 12-26-17

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, has a theological practice of baptizing dead people.

LdsAs this CNN piece explains, "For Mormons, baptizing the dead solves a big theological problem: How do billions of people who never had the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ – including those who lived before Jesus walked the earth – receive salvation? By baptizing the dead, a practice known as posthumous proxy baptism, Mormons believe they are giving every person who ever lived the chance at everlasting life. That includes Muslims, Hindus, atheists, pagans, whoever."

As you might imagine, quite a few people outside of Mormonism think the practice not only is unnecessary but even offensive. In fact, a few years ago some Jewish people found that the LDS church was baptizing Holocaust victims. After complaints were lodged with the church, the LDS said it would quit the practice, and it apologized for it.

A few days ago, however, the Associated Press filed this report saying that someone has uncovered the fact that the LDS church is continuing to baptize Holocaust victims.

AP reported that "The discoveries (were) made by former Mormon Helen Radkey and shared with The Associated Press."

The LDS, in turn, said these particular baptisms "violated its policy and said they would be invalidated, while also noting it's created safeguards in recent years to improve compliance."

And the AP story says that a rabbi who consults with the LDS to make sure it doesn't baptize Shoah victims says "that the church takes seriously preventing Holocaust baptisms and said leaders are acting in good faith to honor the agreement."

Well, all of this is a reminder that not all faith communities that call themselves Christian share the same theology or the same practices.

For instance, in my Presbyterian denomination, there would never be a practice of baptizing dead people. One reason is that the church teaches that baptism is not necessary for salvation. Rather, it's a ceremony marking the beginning of membership in what's called the Body of Christ, or the church. The only possible exception is when, as an act of pastoral care to a distraught, grieving family, a hospital chaplain might baptize a still-born infant or one who died quite soon after birth. The chaplain might explain to the family that the ritual is not necessary for the well-being of the baby's soul, but if the parents insisted in the midst of their anguish, the chaplain might go ahead and do the baptism just to calm and reassure the parents.

A major reason the LDS church has such terrific genealogical resources (see its site for that here) is to assist it in finding dead members of current Mormon families to baptize -- along with many with no connection to Mormonism, as explained in the CNN piece to which I linked you above.

I'm grateful for the genealogical help, but I would find it offensive if I ever found that the LDS had done a proxy baptism on any dead members of my family.

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The Trump administration clearly is using religion and religious language to advance its agenda. Which is odd, this Atlantic piece notes, "for a president who is among the least overtly pious in recent memory." But it's increasingly clear that being overtly pious -- either for Trump or for the large percentage of white evangelical Christians who voted for him -- has almost nothing to do with it. It's about power and politics, not faith.

May the joy of the season find you: 12-25-17

I hope you are able to spend today, Christmas Day, with family and friends, appreciating the many gifts that life has to offer, whether you are a disciple of Jesus, an adherent of some other religious tradition or a follower of none at all.

String_of_christmas_lightsSo I am mostly going to be quiet here on the blog today, though I do want to play around typographically to wish you a:











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And in the spirit of the season, I thought you'd enjoy this story from the Jewish Daily Forward about how a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany came to be known as America's Father Christmas. You may have some of his company's merchandise on your Christmas tree.

O wounded town of Bethlehem: 12-23/24-17


On this Christmas Eve weekend, the thoughts of Christians around the world inevitably turn to the small backwater town in the backwater Roman-ruled region where tradition says Jesus was born (though some scholars say the probability is high that Jesus was, instead, born in Nazareth).

And so we get our annual wire service update (this one from the Associated Press) on how Bethlehem is faring these days. The short answer is: Meh.

Bethlehem-NativityThe AP puts it this way: "President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital looms large in Christmas festivities this year in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

"Some food vendors, sellers of holiday trinkets and a leading hotelier in biblical Bethlehem say Palestinian protests, triggered by what many here view as a provocative show of pro-Israel bias, have hurt their Christmas business."

The city is the site of much turmoil these days, not only focusing on the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian dispute but more directly on the status of Jerusalem and the status of the long-stalled process to move the region toward peace.

I was first in Bethlehem for Christmas Eve of 1957, just a few weeks before my 13th birthday. My family was traveling home from having lived in India for two years and we spent time in Jerusalem. But because we next were going to Egypt, we were required to stay on the Jordanian side of the border. Which meant that the relatively short drive to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve services at the Church of the Nativity there required a round-about, extra-time car route, with pointy-helmeted Jordanian soldiers stopping our car every few miles.

It was impossible to see from that vantage point 60 years ago that today there still would be no solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, of which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a subset.

But in Bethlehem today, even as some pilgrims gather, nothing is settled about the future of the Palestinians and, therefore, the future of Israelis. The sacred heart of the Prince of Peace must be broken.

(I took the top photo of Bethlehem in April 2012. My other photo shows the star marking the spot in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity, considered the traditional birth spot of Jesus.)

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The folks at Religion News Service asked several religious leaders to describe what they thought would happen in religion in 2018. Their predictions are here. To my surprise, no one predicted that God would file an eviction notice for humans to move away from Earth and that the humans would receive back none of their damage deposit.

Christmas as irritating, annoying, disruptive: 12-22-17

One of the great Christmas passages of the New Testament is found at the end of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It's called "The Magnificat," and is spoken by Mary, the newly pregnant mother of Jesus.

MagnificatIn the image here today I've given you one translation of it, but here is the translation found in David Bentley Hart's new translation of the New Testament, which I reviewed here on the blog yesterday:

"And Mary said, My soul proclaims the Lord's greatness, And my spirit rejoices in God my savior, Because he looked upon the low estate of his slave. For see: Henceforth all generations will bless me; Because the Mighty One has done great things to me. And holy is his name, And his mercy is for generations and generations to those who fear him. He has worked power with his arm, he has scattered those who are arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts; He has pulled dynasts down from thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has given aid to Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, Just as he promised to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed, throughout the age.'"

That's verses 46 through 55, and what I'd like you to notice about it is its counter-cultural nature.

Fritz Wendt, a native of northern Germany, a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City, unpacks some of that in this interesting meditation on The Magnificat.

The passage, Wendt writes, "sticks out because, instead of being sweet and gentle, it is impolite and 'in your face'; instead of soothing us, it irritates, it annoys, it interrupts."

Indeed, that's what the whole gospel story does in some ways. We are likely to think of the sweet Christmas baby and of all being calm and all being bright, in the words of the hymn, but, in fact, the reality is that in that birth, Christianity makes the astonishing claim that God has entered human flesh and that nothing will ever be the same.

And though Christianity calls Jesus a king, this is not a king with a violent army ready to establish power. Rather, it's a king born into weakness who will die in weakness. Talk about being irritated, annoyed and interrupted.

Wendt says Mary's message is this: "Through God’s action, the social hierarchy of wealth and poverty, power and subjugation is to be turned upside down; a new social order of justice is at hand."

Ah, yes. Sweet Christmas. It's revolutionary stuff. Which means that for many it will irritate, annoy and interrupt. As it should. So Merry Christmas.

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Pope Francis says that trying to reform the Curia (top officials at the Vatican) is like trying to clean the Sphinx with a toothbrush. I've seen the Sphinx a couple of times in my life and now Francis has given me a fun reason to visit it again to test out his metaphor.

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The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight and Resistance in the Middle East, by Andreas Knapp. What makes this book both heartbreaking and effective is that it's the account of the author's personal journey to the Iraqi land that, until recently, the terrorist group ISIS controlled. He travels from his native Germany with a refugee from Mosul to begin his story of the slaughter of Christians at the hand of radical Islamists. From there he describes in excruciating detail what has happened to Christians who have stood against ISIS. Knapp, a poet, priest and author, several times comes to the edge of denouncing the whole of Islam, but he backs away from that prejudice in time and concedes there have been times when "Sword and Bible-wielding Christians became cruel colonial masters, as reverence for humankind as the image of God gave way to thirst for power in the guise of religion. Conversely, Islam has known periods of relative tolerance." Religions of all stripe have blood on their hands. And the focus here is on the Islamists who have betrayed the core of their faith to commit violence in pursuit of radical religious and political goals. Knapp's conclusion: "Christians from the Middle East have given up everything in order to remain true to their belief in the gospel. They come from the homeland of Christianity and remind us of our own origins and values. By opening our doors to them, we have it in our power to preserve this precious legacy and ensure a more humane future for humanity."

Did the Greek New Testament sound like this? 12-21-17

I was so intrigued by a recent story about a new one-man translation of the New Testament that I wrote about it a few days ago here before ever putting my hands on the book. I linked readers there to that story, which was published by The Atlantic.

New-Testament-HartNow, however, I have a copy of the translation and have spent a fair amount of time reading not just various sections of the biblical text but also the long introduction and the long "Concluding Scientific Postscript" that you will find in The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart (pictured below right), an Eastern Orthodox religion scholar.

It is a remarkable and challenging work of integrity and importance. It allows readers of English to get a much better sense of the original Greek (well, original Greeks, plural, given that the New Testament is the product of several authors and that each of them wrote Greek with varying degrees of competence and in various styles). "Most of the authors of the New Testament," Hart says, "do not write particularly well."

As Hart himself explains in his notes, "I have tried not to advance any theological or ideological agenda, but rather to capture in English as much of the suggestiveness and uncertainty and mystery of the original Greek as possible. . ." Hart explains that his "principal aim is to help awaken readers to mysteries and uncertainties and surprises in the New Testament documents that often lie wholly hidden from view beneath layers of received hermeneutical and theological tradition. And I would hope my translation would succeed, in many places, in making the familiar strange, novel and perhaps newly compelling."

Translating the New Testament -- all originally written in Greek except for a few phrases in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke -- takes an enormous amount of dedication to try to determine how the writers meant -- and the original readers or hearers would have understood -- a particular word or phrase.

It is exacting work that doesn't always have a happy or uncontestable outcome. Part of the problem with traditional translations is that they are done by committee. That approach has the advantage of adding wisdom and knowledge around the table, for sure, but it also requires consensus on translation choices, and too often the committee chooses the easiest, or least offensive, translation. Which may make for easier reading but which doesn't always convey the original meaning.

As Hart writes, "The inevitable consequence of this (translation by committee) is that many of the most important decisions are negotiated accommodations, achieved by general agreement, and favoring only those solutions that prove the least offensive to everyone involved."

In his introduction, however, Hart makes the same category error that countless writers do by referring to the earliest followers of Jesus as "Christians." Some decades after Jesus' death and resurrection that term came to be applied pejoratively to his followers, but there was no formal religion called Christianity until quite a bit later -- in some places not until well after the year 100, and, thus, technically no "Christians." The followers of Jesus at the time were either still Jews, but part of that segment of Judaism that believed the long-promised Messiah had come as Jesus Christ, or they were gentiles who had been invited to live a Jewish way of life but who were urged not become Torah observant, which for men meant being circumcised and following a particular diet. The idea was that when the messianic age arrived, as the Apostle Paul believed it had with Jesus, non-Jews would turn and worship the God of Israel. And stay non-Jews as evidence that God was not just the God of the Jews but of everyone.

But whatever these early Jesus followers were called, Hart writes that most of us would have found them "fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, political irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent." Indeed, he calls the first Jesus Movement members "an association of extremists, radical in its rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent also. They were rabble." 

And yet their numbers grew and grew quickly.

David_bentley_hartWhen it comes to the biblical text itself, Hart says that "there may perhaps be no passage in the New Testament more resistant to simple translation into another tongue than the first eighteen versions -- the prologue -- of the Gospel of John." These are the verses that, in traditional translations, usually begin, "In the beginning was the Word," the term "Word" there being a weak translation of the Greek word logos.

The problem, it turns out, is that there is no good English equivalent of logos. Hart wrestled with several possible translation possibilities but, in the end, decided simply to use logos and retain a sense of the mystery surrounding that word, a mystery that doesn't yield an easy answer to whether Christ, as later theological discussions concluded, was equal to God in substance or whether Christ, instead, should be understood as some kind of divine representation of God but not fully God. (At least not yet identified as fully God.) As Hart notes, he chose to stick with logos because "In certain usages, the word is so capacious in its meanings and associations that it must be accounted unique; any attempt to limit it to a single English term would be to risk reducing it to a conceptual phantom of itself."

Hart also will challenge the thinking of some Christians who are profoundly committed to the existence of a hell in which there will be "eternal punishment" for some people.

". . .in the original Greek," he writes, "there really are only three verses that seem to threaten 'eternal punishment' for the wicked (though in fact, none of them actually does) [that parenthetical phrase is Hart's], and many who are doctrinally or emotionally committed to the idea of eternal torment for the unelect would feel gravely bereaved if the delicious clarity of the seemingly most explicit of those verses were allowed to be obscured behind a haze of lexical indeterminacy. To these I can say only that, if they really wish to believe in the everlasting torment of the reprobate, they are perfectly free to do so, whether there is any absolutely unquestionable scriptural warrant for doing so or not. . ."

Beyond that, Hart notes, "there is no single Greek term corresponding to the Anglo-Saxon "'hell,' despite the prodigality with which that word is employed in traditional English translations, and no term at all that quite corresponds to the picture of hell -- a kingdom of ingenious tortures ruled by Satan -- that took ever more opulent and terrifying mythical shape in later Christian centuries."

Careful readers of Hart's "Concluding Scientific Postscript" will be frustrated, as was I, by a clear and unfortunate typographical error in referring to a term he says is found in "Romans 6:27." Romans 6 has only 23 verses, not 27, so it's not clear what chapter and verse he meant. I came up with a guess or two, but in the end I wasn't clear about his reference.

People who care about getting as close to the original Greek version of the New Testament as good scholarship can get will be both thrilled and challenged by Hart's work. I expect to keep it in my personal collection of different translations for a long time to come and, given world enough and time, to wear its pages into dog ears.

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The last time I was in Bethlehem (the one in the Holy Land, not Pennsylvania) I bought a small wooden cross from a family-owned business. This RNS story tells the story of one such olive-wood shop there and the struggles its owners have had. For a famous pilgrimage destination, Bethlehem certainly has seen its share of catastrophe. Sigh.

How funerals teach us how to live: 12-20-17


I attended two funerals in the past week, and both left me wanting to do whatever I can to urge you to attend funerals.

They have a way of concentrating the mind and stirring the heart to recommit ourselves to pay more attention to what really matters in life and to quit spending our time on the many opportunities life offers to wallow in mindless trivia.

The first funeral was for the 86-year-old mother of a good friend. Janet devoted her life to her three children and to their children. I don't know if there may have been just the tiniest bit of hyperbole in a claim heard in one of the eulogies, but she was credited with never missing an activity of a child or grandchild. Ever. And I am willing to believe it.

Yes, she had a life of her own that she shared with her husband of 67 years. But mostly she wanted to make sure that her kids and grandkids felt loved. Could there be a better way to live a life? Isn't such a life a model of the teachings of the world's great religions?

The service for my friend Keith (his picture is seen in the photo above in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church) was different, though in good ways. For one thing, cancer killed Keith when he was just 58 years old. I visited him several weeks before his death and his rambunctious, funny, inspiring soul still was present despite the maddening ways the disease had battered him.

At his service, friends and our pastor, who also considered Keith a good personal friend, told wonderful stories about this mischievous, generous, talented man.

Stories and then more stories. We laughed until we cried. And we said to ourselves that we want to leave such a joyful legacy for a broken world that can use some light to contend with its darkness.

If we are paying attention, death always brings with it a sense of awe, in large part because we know death is also our eventual fate. And, barring the gift of redemptive grace from God, it is also the end of us.

So, please, make it your habit to attend any funeral of any person to whom you have even a tenuous connection. The habit can help teach you how to live.

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Some funerals, of course, carry with them the old admonition against making quick judgments about the deceased. That surely was the case in Kentucky this week when a state representative accused of sexual harassment killed himself, with the funeral being held in the church where he preached. What a sad story -- sad for the woman who charged Dan Johnson with sexual assault, sad for Johnson's family, sad for the congregation, sad for everyone. And all that sadness is true whether Johnson was guilty or not. My tendency in these many sexual assault cases is to believe the accusers, though what I may or may not believe as someone outside the story is irrelevant. And while I acknowledge that tendency I also must acknowledge that I am in no position to know the truth in any full way. I can only weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.