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Can the pope's progressive instincts prevail? 10-31-19

The recently concluded Vatican bishops' conference on the Amazon provides an opportunity to reassess the papacy of Francis (pictured here). This Atlantic analysis does quite a good job of exactly that task:

Pope-Francis"The path Francis has been taking," the piece says, ". . .leads directly into a larger culture war, one that pits progressives against traditionalists."

Those labels, of course, hide as much as they reveal, but at times they're handy as long as we remember that Catholics don't easily divide into that binary system.

The pope's critics, the article notes, say Francis is "watering down Church doctrine. These critics tend to be defenders of (the former pope) Benedict, a brainy disciplinarian who advocated a smaller, more doctrinally pure Church, rather than a more flexible and inclusive one."

The Atlantic piece adds this: "In the culture war between traditionalists and progressives over the future of the Church, the pope may be on the progressive, inclusive side, but his traditionalist critics have access to social media, which has an outsize influence in shaping perceptions. . .

"In short, the Catholic Church on Twitter may not be the same as the Catholic Church writ large. Francis seems confident that he has the latter on his side, but will his efforts — on married priests, on environmentalism — spread beyond the Amazon?"

The church -- indeed, any institutional religion -- always struggles internally to stay true to what it perceives its core mission to be while seeking to attract people who may not understand that mission but have other needs. Pope Francis, who sits at the center of the institution, tends to look outward beyond the walls of the church to the wounded world he believes the church is called to serve. Some of his harshest critics sit near that same center but look inward in an effort to preserve what they have understood is the church's divine mandate.

In The Atlantic piece, one of those critics says this: “Is there anyone left who is actually worried about saving souls? But isn’t that why Christ died on the cross?”

Those are two heavily loaded theological questions that people of good will can debate and about which they can come to different conclusions. But if the church is dedicated simply to "saving souls," it raises the questions "from what?" and "for what?" Those questions should open up a conversation that takes seriously the needs of people (and the planet) outside the walls of the church. If that conversation doesn't happen -- and it's one Pope Francis regularly encourages -- then the church will turn inward and ignore its mandate to love this broken world and to work to repair it.

The questions quoted about saving souls and why Christ died reflect a limited theology that Francis is working to expand beyond one singular view of doctrine. I'm not a member of the Catholic Church, but I'm rooting for him in this work -- and have been since even before I co-authored the 2015 book Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

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Baha’is around the world are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Siyyid Ali-Muhammad Shirazi, known to as the Báb, revered as the prophet who founded the Baha'i movement. In this RNS column, Anthony Vance, director of the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., tells why the Báb continues to inspire people around the world.

What the post-Baghdadi world must do: 10-30-19


What we now believe to have been the forced suicide of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an important blow to the top of an evil organization. But it is far from the end of ISIS and far from the end of fanatical thinking that attracts followers who seem vulnerable to monochromatic dogma because they haven't figured out the need for metaphor, myth, allegory and mystery.

As this USA Today opinion piece suggests, "the Islamic State’s corrosive ideological message remains as enduring, and as appealing, as ever. Counterterrorism experts and officials caution that there has been no discernible change to patterns of recruitment and radicalization in the broader Muslim world over the past year. They also note that the organization’s outreach — carried out through a sophisticated apparatus that adroitly exploits social media, online propaganda and new technology — means that it remains a formidable force in the most important arena of all: the struggle for 'hearts and minds' taking place in the Muslim World."

I reported from Saudi Arabia back in 2002 that Islam was in a battle for its soul. It still is. Those of us outside Islam cannot win that battle for traditional Muslims who want to retain the best of their religion. That will be up to them. But we can encourage the traditionalists and we can do what we can to disrupt and scatter the violent extremists who offer nothing to the world but death and destruction.

The USA Today piece makes this good argument: "In the wake of the ISIS emir’s death, the impulse for the Trump administration to consider its counterterrorism mission accomplished is sure to be stronger than ever.

"That, however, would be a dangerous misreading of the resilience of the group that al-Baghdadi once commanded — and whose ideological message continues to both mobilize and inspire."

What we need, clearly, are models for how to help young and vulnerable minds recognize that the path of ISIS or al-Qaida or, indeed, any fanatical approach, is unworthy of them and won't lead to a flourishing life. They must see that even when they are appalled by the actions of such major players on the world stage as the U.S., there are reasonable and peaceful ways to work toward resolution and change -- ways that don't degenerate into useless violence.

(The photo above of the destroyed building where al-Baghdadi was living in northwest Syria came from this Time Magazine site.)

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What was it that bothered me most about the unseemly way in which President Trump gloated over the death of the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin pretty well nails it in this RNS blog: It would have been good had Trump responded in harmony with what Salkin calls "a classic rabbinic legend" that says "that when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, and the Egyptian soldiers drowned, the angels broke out in song. God rebuked them: 'The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you are filled with song!?!'”

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P.S.: I've made a change in the format of the blog to help make it easier for readers who view it on their mobile devices. Let me know if you like it. But please understand that the best way to read this blog is on your desktop or laptop or iPad. If you view it just on your phone, you see the left two columns and not the right column. The right column contains lots of related information plus links to the archives and more.

The Wicca-witchcraft connection for Halloween: 10-29-19

Perhaps the upcoming Halloween holiday is an appropriate time to explore a bit about witches and what now is called the Wiccan religion.

WiccaAfter all, as this Seattle Times article reports, "Halloween originated as a holiday held sacred by people who sometimes refer to themselves, unapologetically, as witches."

The story quotes Robert Anderson, who runs what the paper calls "the premier pagan supplies shop and bookstore in Seattle," this way: "“Wicca is kind of a mix of western magic and neopaganism. Wicca is a modern religion in a lot of ways. And it came about in the mid-20th century with a whole bunch of ideas whose time had come. Ideas about nature being sacred. Ideas about wanting to empower women. And they drew on a lot of ancient things, but they put them together in a whole new way. And they left out a lot of things from the ancient world that we would never be OK with.”

And it describes Samhain (pronounced sow-ain) as "the original Halloween, a modern(ish) version of an ancient Gaelic end-of-harvest festival. Co-opted by the Catholic Church as 'All Hallows’ Day' or 'All Saints’ Day,' Samhain lands midway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, celebrated on the evening of Oct. 31 and into Nov. 1."

I like to let people who practice a particular religion have a chance to describe it themselves and not rely entirely on descriptions from outsiders, even scholars who study religion (and who sometimes don't get it all quite right). So here is a description from the website

As the site reports, "Wicca is a recognized religion, while Witchcraft itself is not considered a religion.  Thus, Wicca might best be described as a modern religion, based on ancient Witchcraft traditions."

Similarly, the website says this: "Wicca is a modern, Earth-centered religion with roots in the ancient practices of our shamanic ancestors. Its practitioners, who call themselves Wiccans, honor the life-giving and life-sustaining powers of Nature through ritual worship and a commitment to living in balance with the Earth. Wicca is technically classified as a Pagan religion, though not all Wiccans would identify as Pagans — and plenty who identify as Pagans are not Wiccans."

And, to complicate your thinking further, here is a blog post that tries to describe Wicca.

You can kind of see how the Wicca-witchcraft connection has led to some kids dressing up as witches for Halloween, but if some come to our door this year I think I'm going to ask them to explain how they might be part of the religion of Wicca. If they don't know, I'll give them a link to this blog post. Feel free to do the same.

By the way, do you know why most witches have been women? The college English teacher who wrote this piece says it's because so-called witch hunts always went after the people with the least power.

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If you're looking for a reason to open an old family Bible, this story from Toledo, Ohio, might give you that incentive. And the Bible doesn't even have to belong to your own family.

Catholics consider female deacons, married priests: 10-28-19

Potentially major changes are astir in the Catholic Church.

2017-02-27 20.20.39It may not seem like a huge deal to allow women to be deacons or to allow married priests in some areas of the countries of the Amazon, but both of those possible changes came out of the just-concluded bishops' conference on the Amazon, and they have the possibility of remaking the church in significant ways.

Neither change is yet a done deal. And as we all know, religious institutions move at agonizingly slow speeds at times. So even if these changes pass the remaining hurdles, it will be awhile before they are put in place formally.

The National Catholic Reporter article to which I linked you above said that "after the 185 male prelates at the monthlong Synod of Bishops said in their final document that the idea of ordaining women as deacons had been 'very present' during their discussions, (Pope) Francis announced he will be summoning his commission on the issue back to work, and adding new members to its ranks. 

"'I am going to take up the challenge. . .that you have put forward, that women be heard,' the pontiff said in spontaneous remarks after close of the synod's business Oct. 26."

The conference produced a final 120-paragraph document, NCR reported, and the paragraph calling on Francis to consider priestly ordination of married men received 128 yes votes and 41 no votes. Approval of any particular paragraph required 120 yes votes.

As the NCR report makes clear, the bishops also spent a lot of time talking about the need to rescue the planet from environmental degradation.

But for how the final document may change the institutional church, the recommendations about female deacons and married priests are the most important.

Most other branches of Christianity allow members of the clergy to be married, and many such persons say it has both pluses and minuses. A major plus is that it helps pastors understand marital and family issues in a deeper way and, thus, better equips them to offer pastoral care to marriages and to families in crisis. At the same time, having the responsibility of being a spouse and, often, a parent, means that a pastor simply cannot devote full attention to the needs of the church.

It's also true that many other branches of Christianity allow the ordination of women, not just as deacons but also as pastors. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, began ordaining women as pastors in 1956, and the Episcopal Church began to allow for such ordinations two decades later.

It's been my experience that having female pastors has been extraordinarily beneficial for the church in almost limitless ways, including having a feminine voice and perspective available at the center of church power. Many argue -- including me -- that the Catholic Church might have avoided at least some of the scandal of priests sexually abusing children had women had a larger and more authoritative voice in the church.

Whether the idea of allowing women to be Catholic deacons will reasonably quickly lead to female priests remains highly doubtful. But female deacons might help to soften the opposition to female priests. We'll see. It seems to me that it's much more likely that allowing some priests to be married will more lead to allowing all priests to be married who want to be more quickly than having women deacons will lead to women priests.

(The photo here today shows the sanctuary of the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City.)

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It seems odd to cheer the death of anyone, but it felt perfectly understandable when Osama bin Laden met his end and, yesterday, when  Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi apparently met his end at the hands of U.S. special forces. Al-Baghdadi has been the source of fermented and demented fanaticism and he needed to be stopped. But this surely is not the end of ISIS and it's certainly not the end of terrorism rooted in distorted religion. As reassuring as his death might have been, the reality is that there is always a successor and then a successor to the successor. The only way to stop this evil is by somehow helping people see that a better future for all can be obtained not through war, terrorism and monochromatic religious thinking but through peace brought about by justice and through a willingness to listen to all voices.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a KC-area Muslim-Jewish partnership -- now is online here.

Is the Vatican going broke? 11-26/27-19

What has the worldwide sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church cost the Vatican? A lot, of course, in reputation, in trust, in credibility, in moral leadership.

Vatican-moneyBut it also turns out that it has cost it enormously in financial support, if a new book is to be believed. As this piece in the British newspaper The Telegraph reports, "Worldwide donations to the Catholic Church have plunged in the wake of sex abuse scandals that have eroded faith in the Vatican, a new book claims.

"The Church’s finances are in such a dire state – a result of a toxic mix of incompetence, internal wrangling and corruption – that the Vatican risks a default by 2023, according to the expose."

The book is called Universal Judgment, and is by Italian investigative journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi.

The Vatican quickly denied there was any immediate financial threat:

"There is no threat of collapse or default here. There is only the need for a spending review. And that is what we're doing. I can prove it to you with numbers,” Bishop Nunzio Galantino, head of the Vatican’s sovereign asset management body, said.

And precisely because this scandal has cost the Vatican some of its credibility, such denials are likely to seem like what we used to see in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s -- non-denial denials.

No doubt it's too soon to be able to say with any certainty whether the thrust of the new book is right or the Vatican's denial is right. But even local anecdotal evidence suggests that some Catholics have become so fed up with the way the institution has handled the sex scandal that they have reduced or eliminated their contributions to their church -- and some, including my friend Melinda Henneberger, have left the church altogether.

Other religious bodies, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination to which my own congregation belongs, have seen reductions in financial support over recent decades, too. But that has been more associated with the broad decline in Protestant membership in the U.S. and not with any particular sexual or other scandal.

At least so far no one has suggested that one solution for dwindling financial support among Catholics would be for the church to start selling indulgences again, an issue at the heart of the start of the Protestant Reformation.

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On the first anniversary of the horrific murders at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, my friend Tony Norman, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnists, has written this terrific column about what happened there. Read it and weep.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a KC-area Muslim-Jewish partnership -- now is online here.

Are we permanently and hopeless divided? 11-25-19


America's culture wars have, from the start, been entwined with religion. Name the issue -- from abortion to immigration to school prayer to environmental concerns and on and on -- and you find people divided in part because they see things differently through the eyes of faith.

That reality is confirmed by this new study from the Public Religion Research Institute. The study identified what it called "deep partisan divides. Strikingly, none of the top three critical issues for Democrats overlaps with the top three critical issues for Republicans. Like Americans overall, Democrats are most likely to regard health care (77%) as critical. But Democrats rate climate change (72%) and foreign interference in presidential elections (63%) as the next most critical issues. By contrast, Republicans’ top three critical issues are terrorism (63%), immigration (60%), and crime (50%)."

So members of the two parties not only disagree about policy positions, they also disagree about what's most important.

This CNN story about the PRRI study notes that "This separation in attitudes is rooted in an even deeper divergence between the two sides: While whites who identify as Christians still represent about two-thirds of all Republicans, they now compose only one-fourth of Democrats, according to results provided by the Pew Research Center from a new study it released last week. Americans unaffiliated with any religion, and racial minorities who identify as Christians, now each make up a bigger share of the Democratic coalition than white Christians do, Pew found. Both groups remain only relatively minor components of the GOP coalition."

Our silos are growing taller and more well fortified.

The question is whether any current presidential candidate can somehow help to bridge the divide so as to be able to govern in a reasonable and calm way. It's too early to say no, but the evidence is difficult to find. The primary system seems to drive Republican candidates further to the right and Democratic candidates further to the left to be able to win those early elections. That, in the end, makes it much harder to govern from the center -- or from what used to be the center. I think a center still exists, but it's shrinking, and that's not good news.

Perhaps one remedy to this divisiveness would be for faith communities to help their members find ways to embrace those with whom they disagree and to avoid losing the idea that their opponents and they share a common humanity.

But we'll have to learn to listen more and shout less. Can we do that? I don't know. But if we don't the future looks grim.

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Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders will join together at the San Diego/Tijuana border on Sunday for a day of prayer called  “Pray Beyond Borders.” Sometimes when governments are making bad choice after bad choice, people of faith step up to show a way forward. Good for those leaders.

Teaching Democrats to appeal to religious voters: 10-24-19

It's not been much of a secret that at least since the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Democrats haven't been very associated with religion. They've been especially weak on demonstrating skills needed to communicate with people who identify as evangelical Christians.

Vote-Common-Good-LogoOh, some have tried. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a current Democratic presidential candidate, probably does best at it among those running now, and sometimes even he makes some missteps. But on the whole, many national Democrats seem not to speak religionese well.

Doug Pagitt, a pastor who became known some years ago as one of the leaders of the Emergent Church Movement, is trying to change that by teaching Democratic politicians how to communicate clearly with evangelicals, this New Yorker article reports.

Pagitt, the story says, "points out that a large percentage of Democratic voters — sixty-seven per cent, according to a Pew poll from 2018 — still claim a religious affiliation. He believes that many moderate evangelicals would be happy to vote for Democrats, but that the Party often overlooks them during campaigns."

After Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential race, in part because she failed to attract enough support from people who identify as religiously conservative, Pagitt, the story says, "founded Vote Common Good to target the voters that Clinton had overlooked. In the leadup to the midterm elections, he and fourteen other members held religious revivals in support of candidates across the country."

One of the problems Democrats face in this is that Republicans seem to have locked up most of the votes of those who don't have much room for nuance in their religious beliefs or in the political positions that are informed by those beliefs. And in the U.S., that's a pretty crowdy group of voters.

So Democrats are left trying to appeal to so-called moderates and to people who get described as liberal or progressive. Those are the people Pagitt and others are targeting by teaching Democrats how to speak their religious language. Will it work? Don't know. But what I do know is that those people generally get tired of getting lumped into the "religious" voter category, which traditionally means being conservative politically.

There are, however, many religious voters who don't want to be identified with the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the country. Get their votes and you may have a winning formula.

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American troops may be leaving northern Syria on orders from President Trump, but Christian aid workers are mostly staying to help deal with the resulting humanitarian catastrophe. Brave souls. Good for them.

Some necessary prep work for Christmas: 10-23-19

A week or two ago when I made my weekly run to the Costco store in midtown Kansas City, I noticed that fake Christmas trees already were in the aisles for sale. That was pre-Halloween, pre-Thanksgiving and definitely pre-Christmas.

Keeping-ChristmasIt was just one more sign of the annual clash between what James A. Hopwood describes as two different Christmases in his new book, Keeping Christmas: Finding Joy in a Season of Excess and Strife.

"One is sacred. One is secular," he writes. "The Christian holy day and the winter holiday share a common ground, and this is where most of the fighting over Christmas occurs."

In the end, this book is a plea to Christians to focus on the sacred nature of the holiday and not get all bogged down in the culture wars over whether it's politically correct to wish someone "Merry Christmas."

"Christmas wars," he writes, "are inevitable because the incarnation of God in Jesus always confronts culture. God is all about redeeming creation, redeeming culture. So the enterprise of turning pagan customs to God's glory is never over, this side of the final establishment of God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven."

Along the way to Hopwood's goal of advocating for keeping Christmas well, the reader will learn a lot of interesting things about how Christmas came about and how it's been celebrated over the centuries.

There's even a whole chapter on why Dec. 25 was chosen as the birthday of Jesus when, in fact, no one really knows the date of his birth. As Hopwood writes, Christmas "has been a mess from the start."

I'm glad to have this book in its final form. The author, whom I knew when he, like me, worked at The Kansas City Star, earlier this year asked me if I would read the manuscript and write what in the book industry is called a cover blurb for it. So on the back cover of the book you'll find a quote from me recommending the book to readers.

After leaving The Star, Jim went on to become a United Methodist pastor, and his theological training informs this book from cover to cover. If you aren't Christian but are curious about Christmas, this is the book for you. If you are Christian, I suggest you read this before Dec. 25 actually gets here. It may help to concentrate your mind -- and more, your heart.

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The Chicago History Museum just opened a new exhibit about the history of Muslims in the Windy City. That history goes back a long time, as it does in the Kansas City area. I'd love to see such an exhibit here in KC that would show how Islam's two streams in the U.S. -- immigrants and African-American (and other) converts -- have developed here over the years. Maybe some local mosques could work with a local historical society to get that done.

American Christianity takes even more hits: 10-22-19

One of the well-known religious trend stories of the last 50 or 60 years is the decline in membership of Christian churches in the United States.

Pew-study-chartThis drop-off has been accompanied by a growing percentage of adult Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated, though that rarely means they are atheists.

New surveys by the Pew Research Center not only verifies this trend but reveals that Christianity is slipping fairly dramatically.

The report to which I've just linked you says: "In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade."

Before I retired from The Kansas City Star I asked editors for permission to do a series of articles about this decline, including a shift away from a nation that historically has been majority Protestant. I didn't get the go-ahead on this series for various reasons, but the trend was obvious to me 15 or so years ago.

Now the Pew results show an almost-shocking decline in members of Protestant churches overall.

"Currently," the report says, "43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009." Just a few decades earlier Protestants made up two-thirds to three-quarters of the U.S. population.

What about American Catholics? They're dropping numbers, too, despite immigration. As the report notes, "one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009."

By contrast, the report says, "the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular,' now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009."

Are we becoming Sweden?

Well, a little. But mostly we're becoming a much more religiously pluralistic country. While in the mid-20th Century it was quite rare for most Christian or Jewish Americans to run across Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs or Jains, for instance, today it is much more common. I recently wrote this Flatland column, in fact, about a Sikh temple being built in suburban Kansas City.

So what will our response to this changing religious landscape be? I don't know, but I do know that religious literacy is more important than ever. I've said this again and again, but it bears repeating: Religious illiteracy leads to fear, which can lead to bigotry, which can lead to violence.

Our goal, instead, should be finding ways to live in religious harmony with people of many different faiths and of none. Because, quite literally, the landscape under our feet is changing almost daily.

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John MacArthur, a prominent radio preacher, says that if Southern Baptists allow females to be preachers it means they no longer believe in biblical authority. Is it any wonder that younger people walk away from the church when some leaders think like that?

In the midst of these storms, there's good: 10-21-19

We all know how easy it is in this divisive, often dark era to focus on everything that seems negative, broken, wrong. The news is full of such matters.

Dogwood-19And why? In some ways the answer to that question is reassuring. News is what deviates from the norm. So crime and war will always be news as long as crime and war are not the norm.

Still, sometimes it helps to take a deep breath and realize, as many of our religious traditions teach us, that there's a lot of good in the world, including people who are courageous, caring, artistic, generous and inventive.

Jennifer Drinkwater, an Iowa State University assistant professor of art and visual culture and a community arts specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach, is looking for what's good around the country as part of the “What’s Good Project,” which, this press release about it says, "documents people’s perspectives on the positives in their communities."

“Culturally," she says, "it seems that we are addicted to negativity. This project recognizes that there’s still people doing good things amidst all the negativity.”

As I suggested above, religion reminds us that there is much good in the world. The creation stories in Genesis, for instance, include the very voice of God declaring that the creation itself is good and that humanity is "very good."

And yet religion also insists on pointing to our failures. For instance, in the third chapter of his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes this:  "There is no one righteous, not even one."

That's one reason that in the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity there's a doctrine called the "Total Depravity of Mankind." It sounds bad but isn't quite as bad as it sounds. It acknowledges that the image of God still is within us but says we have stained or covered up that image with our sin.

So there's some tension in faith traditions between bad and good. For instance, Jesus says that in some ways humanity is a mess but that we should "consider the lilies of the field." That's what Drinkwater seems to be doing, as she creates artwork that reflects what's good in the world.

I like that approach. As I write this I'm looking out my home office window to my back yard, where the dogwood tree is being painted a gorgeous, soft reddish purple as it prepares for its winter death. So far neither the U.S. government nor the president of Turkey has managed to mess up that beautifully balanced picture of good and the reality of death. Which makes me grateful.

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A Minnesota research institute has started to look at what is replacing institutional religion for young Americans. The first group of national surveys has just been sent out. This should be worth keeping an eye on.