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How your view of God affects your politics: 2-28-18


It turns out, if a newly released Baylor University study is accurate, that your view of God often affects the political positions you support in a variety of ways.

“Republicans with a deeply engaged God," said one of the study leaders, "are consistently liberal on issues of social justice. And Democrats with a highly judgmental God are consistently conservative on issues of retributive justice.”

In other words, one's view of God can turn someone affiliated with a traditionally conservative party more liberal and someone affiliated with a traditionally liberal party more conservative.

All of this assumes, of course, that we all agree on what the terms "conservative" and "liberal" mean, and my guess is we're nowhere close to a societal agreement about that.

Still, it's an intriguing study that tells us a bit about what our theology leads us to think and do.

As the Baylor press release to which I've linked you in the first paragraph notes, "The study — 'God, Party and the Poor: How Politics and Religion Interact to Affect Economic Justice Attitudes' — is published in the journal Sociological Forum."

The link in the previous paragraph will get you just to an abstract of the study. Looks as if you have to subscribe to that journal to read the whole thing.

I thought this quote from one of the researchers was especially interesting: “Liberals with a ‘strict father’ image of God are more inclined to support harsher criminal punishments and military solutions to foreign conflicts because they adhere to a theology of retribution and just deserts. It appears that Americans who see God as wrathful are quicker to support policies which seek an eye-for-an-eye outcome.”

As I understand Christianity (to say nothing of some other faiths), God is more interested in restorative justice than retributive justice. Theologies that focus deeply on God's wrath and vengeance as opposed to divine mercy, compassion and love seem to be at the root of all kinds of trouble. Among other things, that view leads to Christian theories of the atonement that seem to get it all upside down, suggesting that God loves us because Christ died for us, whereas it's the other way around: Christ died for us because God loves us.

(By the way, the photo here today is part of a series of photos of clouds I've taken from airplanes. I've been trying to capture the image of God up here, but God seems too bashful ever to show up in my photos. Why is that?)

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Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 57 percent last year, a new report from the Anti-Defamation League says. Somehow this ancient, indefensible hatred just never seems to die. The books to read are Resurgent Antisemitism, by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, and Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg.

A new stack of books about religion: 2-27-18

As seems to happen every few months, the stack of new faith-based books has reached a ridiculous height on my desk, and it's time to let you know about them in case you wish to spend the remaining weeks of winter tuning up your spiritual life for spring. Or, maybe you want to give one or more of them as gifts to others who could use some help in that regard.

As usual, in a blog post like this I won't be doing a full review of any of these books. Rather, my hope is to tell you enough so you'll know whether you want to look into them further. And with each will be a link (usually to Amazon) where you can learn more and purchase the volume.

So let's begin:

Soul-support-- Soul Support: Spiritual Encounters at Life's End, Memoirs of a Hospital Chaplain, by Joan Paddock Maxwell. This is a moving, well-written account of the life of a chaplain who often is called to be with the dying. Americans live in a death-denying culture in which many people seem to believe that somehow death is optional. The stories in this book reveal the various ways in which the job of a hospital or hospice chaplain is to create a space in which conversation and spiritual healing can take place. The author gets that. The second link here will take you to my recent Flatland column about the important work that Kansas City area hospice and hospital chaplains do.

-- Stranger No More, by Annahita Parsan. This is the story of an Iranian Muslim woman who winds up leaving Islam and becoming an ordained pastor in the Church of Sweden. It's always hard for me to know what to make of these kinds of conversion stories. Are they meant to be Christian tools of evangelism? Are they meant as implicit criticism of Islam and Islamic culture? You will have to answer that for yourself if you read this. For me, I rely on a simple statement she makes late in the book: "It seemed like God's work, so I just said yes." That is said about a move of a small group of worshipers from a house to a church, but it strikes me as how the author understood her abandoning Islam in favor of Christianity. And, without judging her, I simply can acknowledge that that's how she understood what was happening to her through some quite traumatic experiences.

-- Intercultural Theology, Volume 2, Theologies of Mission, by Henning Wrogemann. This is the second of a three-volume study by a German theologian of the concept of Christian mission in a multicultural world. It explores a wide range of approaches to ideas about how to spread Christianity as well as how to live it out authentically in different parts of the world. This matter of mission has been both a vital tool for Christianity over the centuries as well as a blunt tool at times that has run roughshod over local religions and cultures in ways that have brought no honor to anyone. Wrogemann, chair of mission studies comparative religion and ecumenics at the Protestant University Wuppertal/Bethel in Germany, also leads the Institute for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies. This is a book aimed not at average church members but at people who are seeking to shape the way Christianity relates to other faith traditions around the world without losing its mandate to share the Gospel.

Winter-heart-- Winter of the Heart: Finding Your Way through the Mystery of Grief, by Paula D'Arcy. Some decades ago, the author's husband and toddler daughter were killed in a car accident. As you might expect, the grief was sharp and breath-taking. Beginning with that experience, she has sought to understand how we grieve and what is necessary to walk through the pain and come out in a healthy place. This book is a guide to that. As she writes, "Pain must move if it's to be transformed. If it's denied or hidden away inside, it affects future choices and the ability of our wound to heal. There must be an open space through which the river of sorrow can flow." There are many good books that can guide people in grief. The value of this one is not that it provides blinding new insights (it doesn't) but, rather, that it condenses to fewer than 50 pages what is helpful for grievers to know. This small volume can be a helpful gift to someone early in the stages of grief.

-- Merton's Palace of Nowhere: 40th Anniversary Edition, by James Finley. This is a reprint of a popular book in which the author, who studied under the famous monk Thomas Merton, explores what he learned about spirituality while with the great master. In a new preface, Finley says his goal is to help readers "see the surprisingly intimate ways that Merton invites us to discover that God is all about us and within us. . ."

-- St. Teresa of Avila: Her Life in Letters, translated and introduced by Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh. This collection of late 16th Century letters from a doctor of the church provides insight into what life and the religious life looked like then as compared with now. Teresa was a brilliant mind and able to display that in this revealing correspondence. She lived in a lively, formative time, after the Catholic Church had begun to respond to the start of the Protestant Reformation. So in some ways this is church history sung in a personal key.

Even-darkness-- Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life, by Jack Deere. This anguished book is centered on the suicide of the author's son but is not limited to that story of darkness and heartache. It is, rather, a larger story of Deere's search for answers and for a right relationship with God. Behind it all, however, is the old question of theodicy: Why, if God is good and powerful and loving, is there evil and suffering in the world? There is, of course, no fully satisfying answer to that age-old question, but that doesn't mean it's not worth wrestling with. Deere's story is deeply informed by the fact that he used to teach at Dallas Theological Seminary. The book has a March 6 publication date, but can be pre-ordered now.

-- The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church, by David John Seel, Jr. Like other branches of Christianity in the U.S., the evangelical church (however it's defined) is in decline. This book tries to identify reasons for this and to propose some solutions that require church leaders to understand millennials and not simply dismiss them as insular and entitled young people born between 1980 and 2000. They, too, are seekers, and if the church doesn't take them seriously it will harm itself in countless ways, Seel argues. At the end of each chapter are helpful summaries and study questions. And although evangelical churches are the target here, Seel's insights can be useful for any branch of the faith and even for traditions outside of Christianity.

-- Together: A Guide for Couples in Ministry, by Geoff and Sherry Surratt. The authors have been in different kinds of Christian ministry together since the early 1980s. Here they offer their insights about not just that but about approaches to ministry in a broader context. They come out of a relatively conservative branch of the church, and that certainly colors what they say here and how they say it. But much of their experience is transferable to other kinds of theological paths.

-- The Upside Down Kingdom: (40th) Anniversary Edition, by Donald B. Kraybill. The author has studied and written a lot about Anabaptists over the years, and this book, first published in 1978, reflects some of that practical and radically committed approach to theology. Which is to say that it reflects the counter-cultural message of the Beatitudes. He writes, "More important than finely honed tactics is compassionate service that flows from a vital experience of worship and prayer. Finally, all forms of witness should not point to ourselves or the church, but to Jesus, our Savior and Lord."

Breakthrough-- Breakthrough: A Journey from Desperation to Hope, by Fr. Rob Galea. This is the story of redemption -- of the author, a native of Malta who now is a Catholic priest in Australia but whose path took him through the darkness of gang life. He concludes this: "You and I were not created to walk in this world alone. However, God respects our free will, and should we want to journey through life alone, he will allow us, but even then, he is never far behind."

-- Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life, by Mary Elizabeth Sperry. People who live in the industrialized West are, it often turns out, pack rats. We clutter our lives with stuff and stuff and more stuff. And in the process we dull our spiritual senses. This book is designed to help us declutter and to figure out what is both good and bad about material things. "Sorting through unnecessary purchases," she writes, "may arouse feelings of guilt and failure, and you may simply feel overwhelmed. But God is waiting for you and for me in these challenges. . ."

-- Boundless Compassion: Creating a Way of Life, and Prayers of Boundless Compassion, both by Joyce Rupp. In the main book and in the companion prayer book, Joyce Rupp, a Christian who is marinated in Buddhism, tries to help people understand what it means to be compassionate and how to live deeply compassionate lives. The main book is a six-week guide toward that goal. The companion book provides liturgical resources to help. Rupp's many fans should appreciate this latest dive into spirituality.

-- What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life's Big Decisions, by Leonard J. DeLorenzo. The author is a University of Notre Dame theology professor who tries here to train Catholic leaders to help younger people understand their calling and purpose in life. "They need the gift of a memory that sees what God has done," he writes, "giving them a vision of the world and themselves as created out of love. . .Young people need someone to present the more challenging path that promises the true treasure." As is true of other books here, this one is more broadly applicable than just to Catholics.

Make-a-list-- Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts, by Marilyn McEntyre. The advice here can seem deceptively simple, but the author makes the persuasive case that making all kinds of lists can turn up surprising results and lead us down better paths. "When you make a list," she writes, "if you stay with it and take it slowly, take it seriously but playfully, give yourself plenty of permission to put down whatever comes up, you begin to clarify your values, your concerns, the direction your life is taking, your relationship to your inner voice, your humor, your secrets."

-- The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to Renewing Your Faith with a Rediscovered Spiritual Practice, by Patton Dodd, Jana Riess and David Van Biema. This book unpacks the Liesborn Prayer Wheel, a 10th century diagram that did not become widely known until 2015 when it was found in a book used in an exhibit of rare monastic manuscripts. There are seven paths to God in this intricate wheel, and the authors dig into how it can be used in a spiritually disciplined life. There was much religious wisdom in the supposedly dark Middle Ages, and this small book shows another example of that. 

-- Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life, by Susan Muto. People of faith are called to be full of gratitude for the myriad gifts of life. But that's a difficult attitude to maintain. This volume is designed to help with that. "The liberty of spirit bred in us by the grace of gratefulness," the author writes, "lets us face the obstacles strewn on our path without flinching. These obstacles teach us to respect our limits and to look upon them as reminders of our reliance on God."

Anxiety-love-- From Anxiety to Love: A Radical New Approach for Letting Go of Fear and Finding Lasting Peace, by Corinne Zupko. Throughout our American culture people are suffering with all kinds of anxiety. The author, who has been through that herself, offers here ways to defang anxiety and live a life of enduring tranquility. One of the problems with anxiety and other mental stresses and illnesses is that our society has made them so difficult to talk about publicly. In fact, my own pastor became so concerned about this that he led a sermon series on the topic. Here is one of those sermons. It's called "Why Are We So Anxious?" Zupko's book can be a good resource to help all of us answer that question.

-- The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For, by Jo Saxton. In some ways this can be a companion book to the one by Corinne Zupko I just mentioned. This, too, focuses on our anxieties, starting with the author's own experiences of growing up in the United Kingdom as a child of Nigerian immigrants. She now writes this as a Christian: "Let's not allow a sense of inadequacy to tell us we're not ready or not enough for the task. It would be easy to allow that to happen, because we once were the broken ones who now are sent to serve other broken lives and communities. Maybe we'll remember to be tender and nonjudgmental as we recall our own stories."

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Christian groups in Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for several hours on Sunday to protest taxes Israel plans to levy on some of their surrounding properties. Wait. What's the calculus that suggests punishing Christian pilgrims and tourists makes sense when trying to change the behavior of politicians?

Franklin Graham is not his late father: 2-26-18

There's no telling how children of famous people will turn out when they reach adulthood.

Donald-trump-and-franklin-grahamGeorge W. Bush made it to be president, like his father. But in the estimation of many, including me, W. was no George H. W. Bush, though W. has been a much better ex-president than he was a president (not unlike Jimmy Carter).

Not to equate W. and the Rev. Franklin Graham (pictured here with President Donald Trump), but something similar can be said about Franklin, who thus far is no Billy Graham, the great evangelist who died last week.

And I'm far from the only one who thinks so. Franklin's niece, Jerushah Armfield, who is Billy's granddaughter, thinks Uncle Franklin has gotten off track, too, as this Religion News Service piece details. The column quotes Jerushah this way about Franklin: “'He has an incredible humanitarian ministry that’s been on the front lines often before a lot of ministries have been there,' she told a CNN interviewer. And then she added: 'I think he probably needs to stick to doing that.'”

Richard Mouw, author of the RNS column and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, adds this: "Graham should publicly admit that his support for the president has been seriously misleading and harmful. Graham, a member of Trump’s informal evangelical advisory board, has consistently encouraged evangelicals not to focus on character issues in thinking about Trump’s leadership."

Franklin Graham runs a terrific charitable organization, Samaritan’s Purse, but he also has been a bitter voice against Islam and has aligned himself with Trump in many ways even though the president's personal life has shown tons of evidence that he rejects the very morality that Billy Graham and other Christian evangelicals have stood for.

As Mouw points out, Billy Graham got burned by hanging out with and supporting the eventually disgraced Richard Nixon. Franklin should learn from that error.

Franklin also might want to educate himself about traditional Islam, which he has called "evil" and "wicked." It's the sort of divisiveness that we don't need in our religiously pluralistic nation.

I'm sorry Franklin has lost his father. I'm also sorry that in some respects he's also lost his way.

(By the way, one way to understand Franklin and his siblings and family better is by reading this excellent Washington Post piece by William Martin, an emeritus professor at Rice University. Clearly Billy, like almost all of us fathers, had some failures in that role.)

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In commemoration of Black History Month, let's take a look -- via this Time Magazine excerpt of a new book on slavery -- at how American slaveholders misused the Bible to justify that immoral institution. It's one of the most repulsive examples of terrible biblical interpretation ever, and it helped lead to the rebellion that cost so many lives in defense of an indefensible crushing of fellow human beings.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column now is online here. It's about musicians of one religious tradition who perform music for a different tradition's worship.

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ANOTHER P.S.: I'm gathering pledges for this year's AIDSWalk Kansas City to benefit the AIDS Service Foundation. I hope you'll consider making a donation. To do so online, just go here. And thanks.

After 5 years, Pope Francis attracts love and disdain: 2-24/25-18

It soon will be five years since the Catholic Church's College of Cardinals shocked the world by electing Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (pictured here) of Buenos Aires to be the next pope. Bergoglio then signaled the kind of pontiff he might be by choosing the name Francis in honor of of St. Francis of Assisi.

FrancisAt the beginning, the world seemed to fall in love with Francis. Even many non-Catholics were attracted to him, a phenomenon that my pastor, Paul Rock, and I examined in our 2015 book, Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

But increasingly this pope is facing a divided church and criticism from both left and right, as this Guardian piece makes clear.

". . .in the Vatican itself," the piece reports, "all is not well. Ever since his election in 2013, Francis’s efforts at reform have made him deeply unpopular with conservative Catholics, some in positions of influence within the Vatican itself. They have balked at his efforts to change the way the Vatican is run, including its bank, and to rethink the manner in which the church deals with failed marriages, including welcoming remarried divorcees to receive holy communion. Now the rumblings of discontent have spread to liberals who support Francis but are deeply upset by recent remarks he has made on child abuse."

In some ways, Pope Francis has upset many of the very Catholics who felt that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were right to slow down -- and even occasionally block -- some of the reforms that came out of Vatican II. That's because it became pretty clearly early in his papacy that Francis had a primary goal of revivifying those reforms, adapting them for what the church and the world look like now 50-plus years later.

Francis also has upset traditionalist Catholics by his strong advocacy of environmentalism, his focus on the worldwide plight of immigrants, his suggestions that maybe it would be OK to give Communion to divorced Catholics, his notion that he should be really careful about judging LGBTQ people and other matters.

From my outside perspective as a Protestant who wants better relations between Catholics and other Christians, this pope has been mostly a wonderfully welcome change. And even when he has stumbled -- as he did in recent remarks about how he has dealt with the scandal about sexual abuse by priests and coverups by bishops -- he usually finds his footing again and says or does the right thing.

In any case, the Guardian piece is well worth a read as we approach the fifth anniversary of this pope's election. It's my hope that he has several more years in office.

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Archaeologists think they've discovered the first physical evidence showing that the Prophet Isaiah really existed. Whether he existed or not, Jews and Christians certainly know he had a lot to say.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column now is online here. It's about musicians of one religious tradition who perform music for a different tradition's worship.

A helpful guide for interfaith conversations: 2-23-18

Richard P. Olson has been a dynamic fixture for a long time around Central Baptist Theological Seminary, an American Baptist institution in suburban Shawnee, Kan., though he's now retired and living in Wisconsin.

Side-by-SideBut Dick's passion for theological education and interfaith activity continues, as evidenced by his new book, Side by Side: Being Christian in a Multifaith World. It's official publication date is March 1 but it can be pre-ordered now.

He had asked me to write a back-cover endorsement for the book so he let me read the manuscript some months ago. What I wrote was that this "is the book to keep by your side as you engage in interfaith explorations."

This is a well-researched, well-organized handbook designed for Christians who want to know more about people of other faith traditions. It includes helpful study questions and suggestions for action.

Why is it needed? Here's how the author answers that question:

"The need for personal relationships with those of other faiths and a deeper understanding of one another's faith heritage grows more urgent by the day. Persons commit vicious and violent acts, often claiming that their faith motivates them to do so. Suspicion of one another grows, and retaliation takes on various shapes and forms. Public policies are developed based on our worst suspicions of the other -- policies about military engagement, immigration practices, and more. Persons with certain characteristics and suspected countries of origin are subjected to more restrictions and searches on airlines. Places of worship are vandalized. Students, even grade-school students, and workers are viewed with suspicion and possibility harassment when another public bombing or other attack occurs."

The primary focus of this book is on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but not exclusively so.

In the end, readers who want to know best practices for engaging in interfaith learning and action can rely on these 172 pages as a trusted guide. In fact, I intend to use it next weekend when a Muslim friend and I co-lead a men's retreat for an area Episcopal church.

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If the people who know you best can testify to the solidity of your moral center when you die, you've lived right. A man who worked with Billy Graham for three-plus decades does exactly that in this piece. Imagine, by contrast, how many members of the clergy, especially televangelists, could not honestly receive praise for their ethical character from people who know them well.

Phyllis Tickle's life story in lovely detail: 2-22-18

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the late influential religion writer Phyllis Tickle, one of whose many books I consider brilliant, The Great Emergence. In it she describes the every-500-year explosions that have happened in Christianity since the beginning, including the one that seems to be happening now.

TickleWhen I wanted someone to write a back-cover endorsement of the 2015 book I wrote with Dr. Paul T. Rock, I asked Phyllis. Though she was near death, she was gracious enough to read the manuscript and she supplied a lovely endorsement that you can find on Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

I e-mailed her on Sept. 1, 2015, this note of thanks:

Dear Phyllis:

As you might imagine, I was thrilled and surprised, given the reality that you are facing lung cancer, that you took the time to write a comment about our new book. . .
Your lovely endorsement on the book's back cover certainly will attract readers, and it increases our hope that what we've done in this book is to open up an opportunity not just for Catholics and Protestants to abandon old hostilities and rediscover sisters and brothers in Christ but for all people of faith to find ways to live in harmony.
My hope and prayer for you personally is that the road ahead will be as smooth as possible. . .
She replied on the very next day, which turned out to be just 20 days before her death.

Thank you, Bill, for this gracious note and for the opportunity to see/ be some small part of Into A Bar. Blessings on all your work always, p 

So even though I'm in debt to Phyllis and even though I've read some of her many books, until now I didn't know very much about the details of her life's story. Now I do because of a newly released biography of her by Jon M. Sweeney, Phyllis Tickle: A Life.

Anyone who has been moved by her work and wondered about how she became such an important writer about matters of faith will want to read this book by a man who has known and studied Tickle's prose and poetry work for years.

Sweeney, after telling of her birth, her childhood, her education, her marriage, her call to write about and analyze spiritual matters, concludes this:

"Taken together, when one considers her life and work in every respect -- from the early scholarship to mentoring students, to encouraging the arts, teaching a generation of children to find their own poetry, curating and publishing important writers, writers of her own on liturgy and prayer and the spiritual life and the changes roiling the organizations of religions that she loved, and the indefatigable way that she taught hundreds of thousands of people from podiums for decades -- Phyllis Tickle was surely one of the late twentieth century's most important advocates for the written word and the life of faith."

I'm not going to give you a timeline of her life here. Rather, I just mean to encourage you to read this excellent biography. But I will quote something included in the book that she wrote early in her career because I find it to be in deep harmony with the book I wrote after the one Phyllis read and endorsed, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.

She wrote this: "I. . .wish for each of us a bit of doubting and a bit of wondering about the issues of life. There is no faith worthy of our support if it is not a faith which allows thinking and questioning. Beware the faith that brands doubt and ponderance as sin."

Exactly, Phyllis. My regret is that I didn't know her better and longer and that I never had a chance to send her my Doubt book, which confirmed what she had expressed so well decades earlier.

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Journalists sometimes have the oddly macabre job of writing obituaries of famous people well before their deaths. That was my job in 2007 at The Kansas City Star when the Rev. Billy Graham got seriously ill. That piece -- updated in various ways over the years -- has been sitting in wait since then. With Graham's death this week, the piece now is on The Star's website here. I have said there all I think I want to say about Graham and his extraordinarily influential life, so I commend it to you. If I decide later that I have more to say about him, you'll be the second to know.

A role for youth in stopping gun violence: 2-21-18

What role can people of faith play in the struggle to end gun violence? And what role is there for young people in this, especially high school and college students?

Gun-violenceRabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who leads a congregation in south Florida, writes here that it's now up to those young people to change the country's gun culture because their parents and grandparents failed to do it.

I think he's right.

"It is now up to the kids," he writes, "to the teens and the hipsters and the young people in their twenties. They now have to do it. They now have to fight against American gun culture.

"We tried.

"Actually – no, we didn’t. We think that we tried, but we didn’t do nearly enough. We screamed, but not loudly enough. We have been too nice, too polite, too neat."

So one obvious place for young people to begin is not to agree to go along with the weird idea in Neosho, Mo., as reported here by The Kansas City Star, to have third graders "sell raffle tickets for an AR-15 to benefit their traveling baseball team."

Parents, of course, should never have agreed to let their kids do that. But the kids can learn to say no to such foolishness, too, and in the process maybe teach their parents and grandparents something.

Our legislators have failed us in seeking to protect Second Amendment rights while also regulating gun ownership and use in a sensible way.

So maybe Rabbi Salkin is right. It's time for the kids to lead the way. And, I would add, it's time for congregations from every faith tradition to make their voices heard, too.

The good news is, as Kansas City Star editorial page columnist Melinda Henneberger noted in this column on Tuesday, kids in big numbers already are rising to the challenge.

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For those of you (myself included) who haven't yet seen "Black Panther," be aware of what Religion News Service in this piece calls "the spiritual imagination that undergirds the movie." The cosmology that informs the people featured in the film is uniquely African, and a "pivotal early scene in the movie engages African cosmology and varieties of African spirituality on many levels," RNS reports. I've got to clear some space on my calendar to see this film. And I hope you will, too.

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P.S.: My obit/analysis about Billy Graham now is on The Kansas City Star's website here.

What the Oxfam sex scandal means: 2-20-18

When charitable organizations go bad, it hurts not just those people they're supposed to be helping. It also can hurt other charities that get tarred by association even though they had nothing to do with the bad apple.

OxfamIt will be interesting for that reason to watch what happens to other charities in light of the awful news that the British charity Oxfam spent money on prostitutes in Haiti and then covered that up.

One of the first reactions to this disgusting news revealed by The Times of London is that the British government has barred Oxfam from receiving any new government funding until it fixes its internal problems.

Britain's international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, announced that the charity, which was given 31.7 million pounds last year, would stop getting public money until her department is “satisfied that they can meet the high standards we expect.”

The Times also reported that more than 80 million pounds of other Oxfam funding is at risk "because of a backlash against the charity."

Oxfam describes itself as an international confederation of 20 non-governmental organizations working with partners in more than 90 countries "to end the injustices that cause poverty."

It now says it has asked a group of women's rights leaders to "form an independent commission to carry out a wide-ranging review of Oxfam’s practices and culture, including its handling of past cases of sexual misconduct."

All of this is one reason for people to investigate charities thoroughly before they support them with money. And that goes for congregations, too. People of faith should know that their churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are honest and transparent in how they raise and spend money.

The recent disturbing reports about Oxfam in Haiti should remind us of our obligations not just to be honest about money ourselves but to insist that the charities, including houses of worship, that we support are equally so.

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The City Council in Plano, Texas, has just voted to censure one of its members for anti-Islamic trash he posted on Facebook. Good. Silence in the face of such bigotry amounts to approval of it.

On scripture and our government: 2-19-18

Each year in honor of Presidents' Day, fifth graders at St. Paul's Episcopal Day School in Kansas City do some research on our nation's presidents, write papers about them and put on an evening event at which students deliver short memorized talks about one of the chief executives.

SPEDS-presThis year one of our granddaughters focused on William Howard Taft, and so we shared information. She told me about the old president and I told her about one of my University of Missouri School of Journalism professors in the 1960s whose name was also William Howard Taft. I forget how my teacher Bill Taft was related to the old president, but in any case, he was a good guy.

I'm all for giving young people a good education in civics, including the history of our presidents. And fifth grade isn't too early to start.

And I'm all for teaching children about their obligations to be good, active citizens. In fact, I hope some of these fifth graders one day can help heal the terrible political divisions in the country that today are tearing us apart.

I also think we have to be careful in drawing on scripture and other religious sources to teach us how people of faith are to relate to the government that happens to be in power now.

This became clearer to me recently. A group I'm part of is studying the sometimes-mysterious book of Romans, which the Apostle Paul wrote to Christ-following non-Jews in Rome. These gentiles were learning from Paul how to live in a Jewish way and how to be disciples of the one whom Paul believed was the long-hoped-for Messiah, Jesus.

So in the 13th chapter of Romans, Paul begins (in the New International Version) this way: "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."

This chapter often has been used as a way of telling people to be good, obedient citizens of the government and to trust that whoever is in power is there by God's leave. And, oh, the trouble that can lead to.

Religion scholar Mark D. Nanos (whom I wrote about recently here), suggests that reading Romans 13 as a pile of rules for being obedient to secular government is a mistake.

Nanos wrote the textual commentary on Romans for The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and notes there that "the traditional view of this chapter is that it exhorts the community to obey or subject themselves to the empire or state." But, he writes, it's important to remember that Paul was writing to gentiles who were in community with Jews in Rome -- Jews who for the most part had not bought into the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. So Paul was telling them to be good synagogue citizens. As Nanos writes, Paul "was concerned with how these non-Jews were to behave among those who did not share heir convictions. . ."

So before we rip a passage of scripture out of its context to make a point -- in this case about imagining that God has specifically selected our current president, Congress and/or judiciary -- we'd do well to understand how the original readers of that passage from the Bible (or the Qur'an or any holy writ) might have understood what was being written and not simply imagine that 2,000-year-old words were meant to describe our current context.

Even if our context is 100-plus years after President William Howard Taft may or may not have gotten stuck in a White House bathtub.

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Pope Francis, in preparation for a world gathering of Catholic youth, has asked young people to go online and tell the church what's on their minds. This is the same pope who just acknowledged this: "I don't know how to use the internet." So remember kids: Do as he says, not as he doesn't do.

When sacred texts are read as real science: 2-17/18-18

Over the years -- in several different venues -- I have written and spoken about how religion and science relate and about what each can contribute to society.

Science-religionBut despite lots of conversation about all of this across the land, we still find young people who discover what they consider to be an irreconcilable tension between science and religion.

The other day, Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, former president of Gonzaga University, was talking about this on a "Purpose Nation" podcast. That link will let you listen to it. This link will give you a transcript of the conversation. (Explore the "Purpose Nation" site while you're there and subscribe to these good podcasts.)

Spitzer put the problem this way: ". . .at Gonzaga University when I was president, it became apparent to me way before the Pew Research got done that kids were really struggling with their faith because of an unnecessary problem. They thought that faith and science were incompatible with one another, even contradictory with one another. And so if science is truth, then faith must be false."

That is, of course, a false dichotomy. The reality is that science can answer questions that religion can't, about such things as dark matter and dark energy, the subject of Friday's blog post here. But religion can offer answers that science cannot -- such as our purpose here on Earth.

Spitzer has concluded that "faith and science are not contradictory at all. And in fact they point to the same thing."

Well, they point to how to appreciate the complexity and beauty of the creation. They point to the uniqueness of every living being. They point, as I wrote Friday, to awe and wonder. In that sense they point to the same thing.

But trouble ensues when religion imagines that its stories of creation and supernatural phenomena somehow are scientific accounts of reality. If, for example, you read the two Genesis creation stories as accurate science, you wind up misunderstanding much more about the physical universe than you'll ever understand by relying on them for that. Those stories were not written to be accurate science. Reading them that way not only distorts scientific reality but it also misses the religious points the stories were meant to convey.

So if you know young people who turn away from religion because faith's stories seem scientifically impossible, guide them to the truth that the original writers of those stories never meant them to be scientific texts. Those stories are permeated with deeper spiritual meaning that they will miss if they dismiss them as scientific baloney (which many of them mostly are).

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Here's proof that all of the anti-Islam, anti-vaccination, pro-conspiracy bozos aren't Republicans. One of them is a Democrat running for office in Texas. Let's hope this doesn't spread even further.