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Is the U.S. about to see a religious awakening?


A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal carried this opinion column with this headline: "Thank God, American Churches Are Dying."

The headline, as many headlines are online these days, was simply click bait. The author, Ericka Andersen, a writer from Indianapolis, was not really thanking God for each church that dies. Rather, she was pointing out what many Wall Street Journal readers might not know, though it's been pretty common knowledge to the rest of the country: Alternative forms of worship are growing in the U.S.

In fact, there's one such successful alternative worshiping community right in my own congregation, The Open Table, which we have helped to birth and nurture, though we also offer more traditional weekly worship and programming.

Still, I'm glad the Journal is taking note of this not-very-new news.

"Those with denominational affinity," Andersen wrote, "will be sad to see a certain kind of church fall away. But the success of new models shows significant groups of people looking for ways to live faithfully, albeit in a less structured way. Could this really signify a religious awakening?" Well, maybe, maybe not.

She adds this as a reason for optimism: "Every recent generation has experienced significant post-high-school drops in church attendance, but most wayward youths return after marrying and having children. Given that the average age for marriage has increased seven years since the 1940s, it’s too soon to dismiss millennials as godless."

Again, maybe, maybe not. I'm guessing mostly not. At least not until later in life when some of those millennials discover that they not getting elsewhere -- community, moral strengthening, a sense of awe and wonder -- what faith communities can and do provide when they're healthy. Those benefits are hard to live without, and my guess is that eventually some millennials will turn to congregations to find them.

Religion in the U.S., the author asserts, "is far from dead. With a vibrant, new church landscape on the scene, there will be no shortage of options to choose from as millions of Americans again find their footing in faith."

I'd like to be around 50 or 75 years from now to see if she's right, but the actuarial tables suggest I won't be. What I do know is that there often is such resistance to change within traditional faith communities that they die slow but hard deaths. New worshiping communities will have to offer what those dying communities fail to. The unanswered question is whether they can be vibrant and flexible while also incorporating some of the traditional elements of worship and community that are required if the new gatherings are to be more than, say, spiritual book clubs.

(The photo here today shows the sanctuary of the Methodist church in central Illinois that my father attended as a boy -- and that his brother, who will turn 98 years of age next month, still attends.)

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Like many people around the world, I've long admired Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, who died last year. His idea that we so-called "normal" people could and should learn from people with intellectual disabilities was wise and life-giving. And he seemed to live that out. But as this Religion News Service column notes, "The recent revelations that from 1970 to 2005 Vanier had manipulated and sexually abused at least six women in the context of 'spiritual accompaniment' are as shocking as they are devastating." Are there no heroes? Are we all sinners? Well, yes we are. That's exactly what Christianity (and some other faith traditions) teach us. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans (3:10), “There is no one righteous, not even one." We forget that at our peril. We want to trust. We want to believe people are good. But we wind up naively injuring people if we don't put in place systems of oversight and accountability for everyone, even supposed saints. As the author of the RNS piece says, "We are fallen, broken, depraved creatures in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. We must let that disturbing reality sink in. Profound sin lurks even within the best of us. Sometimes, as in this case, even horrible sin lurks within the best of us." True. Sigh. 

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P.S.: The annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner, sponsored by the Dialogue Institute and the UMKC office of Diversity and Inclusion has been scheduled for Monday, April 20. The key note speaker will be the Rev. Jon Paul, author of Fetullah Gulen: A Life of Hizmet. Clicking on the first link here will take you to a site to get tickets.

Will Americans elect a Jewish president?


Voters in the U.S. have a chance to elect their first Jewish president this November -- either Sen. Bernie Sanders (left) or business tycoon Michael Bloomberg (right).

Bernie-sanders Michael-bloombergMight this be a sign that we are a more pluralistic, more accepting, less prejudice nation than we've ever been? Well, you and I might hope so, but I think that's a difficult case to make, especially under President Trump.

This Religion News Service story by Yonat Shimron quotes Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, on this subject this way: “Having two candidates who are Jewish is especially significant.  We didn’t really have Jews in the Cabinet or on the Supreme Court until the 20th century. Even in the 20th century, you find that America was not ready for imagining a Jew in high office; several Jews declined Cabinet appointments in the first half of the 20th century, fearing it would lead to prejudice.”

One reason for this antisemitism, of course, is that it's related to the long, sorrowful history of anti-Judaism in Christianity, which I recount in this essay. There was a time 15 or 20 years ago when American Jewish leaders could say that most American Jews had little or no personal experience with antisemitism. But most of them aren't saying that any more, given such horrific attacks as the 2018 murders at a Pittsburgh synagogue and the murders of three people at Jewish institutions in suburban Kansas City in 2014.

So we don't yet know how the American electorate will respond to Jewish candidates in this tenser time.

Tablet Magazine, an interesting publication covering Jewish affairs, has done this story that focuses on Sanders and Bloomberg, raising the question of whether and how Bloomberg can stop Sanders from getting the nomination: "Specifically, Bloomberg is intent on splitting the race between Bernie, himself, and another 'centrist' (Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar). Bloomberg’s electoral strategy is premised on one goal and one goal alone: to prevent Bernie’s movement from winning a majority of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention."

The story mentions something that I either had forgotten or didn't know about this process: "Due to Bernie supporters’ post-2016 demands, the party’s new nomination rules stipulate that the superdelegates can enter the fray only on the second ballot — meaning in the event that a candidate cannot amass a full first-ballot majority. The Bloomberg campaign and the more than $350 million it has already spent — and the hundreds of millions more it intends to spend between now and July — therefore exist for one purpose and one purpose only: #NeverBernie."

I would like to believe that in this religiously pluralistic society Americans are willing to judge candidates by their proposed policies and ideas and not by whether they are followers of this or that religious tradition. I think we're certainly closer to that ideal than we were 100 years ago, say, but I don't think we're all quite there yet. Just as John F. Kennedy had to break through the Catholic barrier to the presidency, someone eventually will have to break through the Jewish barrier. I'm just not convinced yet that either Sanders or Bloomberg is the one to do it -- especially because so far my current favorite Democratic presidential candidate is Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a member of the Mainline Protestant denomination known as the United Church of Christ.

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Houses of worship in the U.S. used to be some of the most racially segregated spaces in the country. Is that still true? Religion News Service, in partnership with Sacred Writes, a project that helps scholars share their research with a broader audience, is examining that question. This article is one of a series RNS is doing. It reports that "More than a half century after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the Christian church to 'remove the yoke of segregation from its own body,' an estimated one-sixth of U.S. congregations have succeeded in becoming at least partly multiracial — but not without struggles." I see some of those changes in congregations with which I'm familiar, including my own, but for sure progress is slow.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday, you can find it here. It's about a great Judaica collection at a Kansas City area synagogue.

Did the Lord speak thus about tattoos?

If you read the Bible in a literalistic way -- which is to say in a way that relieves you of understanding the original context and what the Hebrew and Greek (and Aramaic) words might have meant -- you could conclude that the Bible forbids tattoos.

TattooAfter all, Leviticus 19:28, in the Common English Bible translation, says this: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put marks on yourselves; I am the Lord."

Indeed, quite a few people over the years have interpreted that verse to mean that 22-year-olds in 2020 are forbidden from getting a tattoo of the Kansas City Chiefs' logo on their arm.

But, as this article concludes, ". . .the Bible does not say anything clear and direct about tattoos."

As a matter of fact, there's a growing trend for people of faith to get tattoos, and researchers at Baylor University and Texas Tech University have been studying the phenomenon.

The Baylor press release to which I've just linked you reports this:

The study, published in the journal Visual Studies, analyzed 752 photos of tattoos taken at a Christian university in the United States and found that nearly 20% of those were overtly religious in content.

“The embrace of tattoos in the United States reflects a generational shift toward greater individualism and self-expression,” said lead author Kevin D. Dougherty, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Baylor University. “Americans born since the 1970s have increasingly embraced tattoos as an acceptable means to communicate identity and belonging, whereas previous generations of Americans largely did not. Today, men and women in the United States are equally likely to have tattoos.”

One of the interesting results that researchers found is that quite often the tattoos on religious people are not meant to be seen by others -- they are not, in other words, signs designed to spread a religious message. Rather, they are placed so that the only person likely to see them is the person on whom they are inked. Thus, they serve as a reminder of sorts to the faithful to be faithful.

The researchers analyzed 752 photos of tattoos and found that "overt religious content appeared in 145 photos (19% of total sample)" and that "more men in the photos (23%) had religious tattoos than women (17%)."

I have friends and family members with tattoos, though so far I haven't joined that party and don't expect to. But I find it intriguing that more and more people seem to be using tattoos as a reminder of religious values, no matter what the writer of Leviticus thought about them. If you're reading this via Facebook and have a faith-based tattoo on you, would you share a photo of it?

(The photo here today is from the Baylor press release and was taken by the lead researcher, Kevin D. Dougherty.)

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We are living in a time when interfaith activity seems to be growing and when people seem more willing to cross religious lines. As this article from the Jewish newspaper The Forward notes, this is resulting in new words to describe various religious combinations. Among them: Jewish&, Just Jewish, JewBu (Jewish-Buddhist), JewMu (Jewish-Muslim), Jew-theran (Jewish Lutheran), CathJew (Catholic-Jewish), Jewnitarian or Jewniversalists (Jewish Unitarians), Intercultural, Mixed heritage, Intermarried. For some reason the list doesn't include what my wife sometimes calls herself, an Episcoterian, a combination that also could be rendered Presbypalian. Are you some other kind of mix?

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a magnificent Judaica collection at a Kansas City area synagogue -- now is online here.

How two views of 'the gospel' clash


For more than 50 years, maybe 60, a major story in American Christianity has been the slow decline of the place of religion in the life of the country. The Mainline Protestant churches (Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, American Baptists, Episcopalians) have been hit particularly hard.

Lots of reasons have been offered for this and for the contemporaneous rise of the "nones," meaning the religiously unaffiliated. And, indeed, there really is no single answer to the question of what has happened.

As the decline has been occurring, some polling organizations, such as the Barna Group, have periodically checked in with pastors to see what they think has been going on. Not much from those results has ever been released publicly, but now Barna has published what it found in its latest survey of pastors, and it makes for interesting, if sometimes puzzling, reading.

This Religion News Service story about the release says this: "According to the report, three-quarters (72%) of Protestant pastors identify the impact of 'watered down gospel teachings' on Christianity in the U.S. as a major concern. That's especially true for pastors in non-mainline denominations (78%). Mainline pastors (59%) are less concerned.

"About two-thirds (66%) of pastors say a major concern for Christianity is 'culture’s shift to a secular age,' followed by 63% who identified 'poor discipleship models' as a major concern and 58% who named 'addressing complex social issues with biblical integrity,' the survey says."

There's a lot piled into those two paragraphs. But let's focus on just one point, the alleged watering down of gospel teachings.

My guess is that non-Mainline pastors mean something quite different from what Mainline pastors mean by that -- and by "the gospel" itself. Which is to say that those pastors who would identify as conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist might say that the problem is that churches aren't demanding that members publicly identify Jesus as their "personal lord and savior" and that members aren't,  in turn, confronting others to get them to accept Christ in that narrow way.

By contrast, my guess is that Mainline pastors would not put their emphasis on personal salvation but, rather, on what Jesus meant by the "gospel," or good news. And what Jesus meant by the gospel is what he announced right at the start of his ministry: The kingdom, or reign, of God is at hand. And followers of Jesus can live in that kingdom today by demonstrating what the kingdom will look like when it comes in full flower, which is to say, by showing mercy, love, compassion and justice.

In other words, one group of pastors tends to emphasize the importance of personal salvation while the other group tends to emphasize the covenant community and its responsibilities to the world. The gospel, thus, means different things to different group and, thus, so does the "watering down" of the gospel.

Who's right?

The church is at its healthiest when it maintains a creative tension between those two approaches. When personal salvation is the only emphasis, the church's responsibilities to the broader world gets ignored. When personal salvation gets ignored, the church sometimes doesn't seem much different from the Rotary Club or the Red Cross.

How will this divide ever be reconciled? I don't know, but it can never be reconciled if these different ideas of what the gospel means aren't at least recognized and acknowledged.

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Archaeological finds near Jerusalem suggest there was a monumental temple outside the holy city in the late 10th and early ninth centuries B.C.E. If so, it could change our understanding of Holy Land history. It's all a reminder that in many ways we only think we understand history. What we don't know and what humanity has forgotten or buried no doubt is much greater than what we do know. Which should lead to a little humility, though it seldom seems to.

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P.S.: The annual AIDSWalk-KC will happen April 25. I hope you'll join me in walking and/or making a donation to support the great work of the AIDS Service Foundation. You can donate on my page by clicking here.

When the truth doesn't matter any more

This is -- or, anyway, before Monday holidays, used to be -- Abraham Lincoln's birthday. He was born Feb. 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Ky. His later-adopted state of Illinois is where I was born, and we Illinois natives like to claim Lincoln as our own. But Abe was a Kentuckian to start out.

LiesLincoln wasn't the president who famously (if apocryphally) said, "I cannot tell a lie." That was George Washington, whose Feb. 22, 1732, birth the nation also will note on Presidents' Day, this coming Monday. But both Lincoln and Washington developed reputations for a devotion to truth and honesty. Those habits of the heart are virtues taught by the great religions of the world, though, of course, one can be honest for non-religious reasons.

But people of faith have an interest in promoting honesty for many reasons, including the reality that it's a sign that one has a moral center and can be trusted -- which is what we should want in political leaders. A famous passage about truth in Christianity is found in verses 31 and 32 of the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says this to some of his followers: "You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

It's the last sentence of that passage that often gets taken out of context and is applied to truth in general (in a way that works, actually, despite the missing context). But in the original, it is another signal that for followers of Jesus truth is not a dogma or doctrine but a person, Christ himself.

In any case, from Washington and Lincoln we have moved through various periods of political leaders who seem attracted to the use of falsehoods, exaggerations and outright lies, one of whom was impeached (though acquitted) for a lie under oath, Bill Clinton.

But it's hard to imagine a president more addicted to falsehoods that Donald J. Trump. The fact-checking staff at The Washington Post so far has compiled a list of more than 16,000 such statements since he was inaugurated. And various fact checkers were kept busy by the recent State of the Union speech. You can read their assessments here and here.

Well, all politicians lie, right?

Let's not engage in so useless an observation. What we're dealing with here is a political culture of untruth in one of the most religious nations on the planet. What has happened to us? For help with that question, let's turn to Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes, authors of a new book, Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office.

"Trump's lies," they write, "are not like those of the traditional presidency. The difference is not just a matter of volume, though the volume is radically different. The lies are also of a different sort.

"They are, for one thing, closely linked to Trump's radical use of presidential speech. . .(T)hey transform what would otherwise be just an endless fireside chat into a persistent presidential disinformation campaign, amplified through Twitter and by the conservative media eco-system. The nature of the president's speech makes it impossible for the press and the public to effectively filter for his dishonesty. . . Trump's specific innovation -- his personal improvement to the devil's invention, if you will -- is brazen pervasiveness in the application of lies to the office of the American presidency. Trump does not just tell lies. He wields a water cannon of lies."

A president who isn't credible creates enormous real and potential problems, especially if there is some kind of international crisis when his or her words would require an assumption of credibility so we could determine how to react.

But over the long haul, what is Trump doing to the office of president by not being credible? Hennessey and Wittes say the first result of his mendacity "is simply the decline in prestige and credibility of the office. . .That means allies cannot rely on America's word."

The problem is that Trump doesn't seem to be paying much of a price for his untruthfulness, as all but one Republican senator demonstrated when they voted to acquit him of the charges in the articles of impeachment. Beyond that, if Trump can get away with lying, shouldn't the rest of us be able to? The value of truth itself becomes a casualty.

And if, as scripture says, the truth will make us free, what do lies do? They put us in bondage. In the end, that's what's at stake here. That's why we need whistleblowers. That's why we need a genuinely free and fair press. That's why we need religious leaders who condemn public lies instead of looking for ways to defend them.

The price we'd pay by accepting wall-to-wall lying as reasonable behavior on the part of a president -- or anyone with power -- would be enormous and would leave us morally bankrupt as a nation. If this continues, that's where we're headed.

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I pass along this story from Michigan just because I like it. Six sisters were ordained to be pastors on the very same day in the very same ceremony. The six have one brother who already is ordained. I grew up with three sisters and no brothers. I think it made me a better human being than I would have been otherwise. My guess is these sisters' brother feels the same way.

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P.S.: Recently here on the blog I listed upcoming events for this year's "Give Seven Days" commemoration. Since then organizers have flipped dates for two of the events. The annual walk now will be on Sunday, April 26, while the Iftar gathering will be the next day.

  • ONWARD Day - Kindness Walk @ The National World War I Museum and Memorial, Sunday, April 26, 6 p.m.
  • GO Day - Go to a Ramadan Iftar; engage in interfaith dialogue @ The Islamic Center of Johnson County, Monday, April 27, 6:30 p.m.

This year's Give Seven Days events scheduled

The responses to the April 2014 murders of three people at Jewish institutions in the Kansas City area continue. And thank goodness for that because those responses stand not only against the barbaric neo-Nazi thinking that led to the murders but, maybe as importantly, they stand for worthwhile values of love, faith and kindness.

Mindy-2The Faith Always Wins Foundation organizers of the annual Give Seven Days events in Kansas City recently announced what's on the schedule for this year's commemoration, and I hope you'll give the list a careful read now and commit to being part of a community that is trying to say no to hate.

But first, by way of background about these annual events, here is a Flatland column I did a year-plus about about Mindy Corporon (pictured at left), whose father and son were murdered that day. And here is my recent Flatland column about Jim LaManno (pictured at right), whose wife was murdered that same day by the same neo-Nazi.

LaManno-3Those columns will help you understand why these events happen at all and, I hope, give you some reasons to want to participate in them, scheduled this year for April 21 through April 27.

Here's what the organizers have announced is on tap for this year:

  • Kindness Student Art Show @ KC Public Library Plaza Branch- Student Art Show
    • Opening Reception Tuesday, February 18 (evening)
  • First Fridays ‘The Art of Kindness’ Show @ Buttonwood Art Space
    • Monday, Feb. 3-Thursday April 23; First Fridays event, March 6 - 6-9 p.m.
  • LOVE Day- Love in the Community & Awards Ceremony @ St. James United Methodist Church
    • Tuesday, April 21- 6:30 p.m.
  • DISCOVER Day – Discover Diversity Dinner @ Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City
    • Wednesday, April 22 - 6:30 p.m.
  • OTHERS Day – Guest Speaker Wesley Hamilton of Disabled but Not Really Foundation: "Survival to Revival: Living Your Best Life After the Unthinkable Happens” @ United  Methodist Church of the Resurrection, Thursday, April 23 - 6:30 p.m.
  • CONNECT Day- Connect with your own kindness act or one of our 14 charities today. Friday, April 24
  •  YOU Day- Taking Care of YOU; Mind, Body & Soul @ at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission Saturday, April 25 (all day)
  • ONWARD Day - Kindness Walk @ The National World War I Museum and Memorial, Sunday, April 26- 6 p.m.
  •  GO Day - Go to a Ramadan Iftar; engage in interfaith dialogue @ The Islamic Center of Johnson County, Monday, April 27 - 6:30 p.m.

Please do some calendar marking now. I hope to see some of you at one or more of this year's events.

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the only senator in history to vote to convict an impeached president of the senator's own party, based his decision Wednesday, he said, largely on the moral code taught to him by his faith. In the Atlantic piece to which I've just linked you, author McKay Coppins writes this: "Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, described to me the power of taking an oath before God: 'It’s something which I take very seriously.' Throughout the trial, he said, he was guided by his father’s favorite verse of Mormon scripture: Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good. 'I have gone through a process of very thorough analysis and searching, and I have prayed through this process,' he told me. 'But I don’t pretend that God told me what to do.'” Romney was wise to add the latter disclaimer. In the end, it's hard in such circumstances to be absolutely certain of the divine will. Beware of people who tell you they know that will in all cases. Romney also was willing to speak of his faith directly when he addressed the Senate after the acquittal vote on Wednesday, saying, "I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am." Wouldn't you like to hear from senators on both sides of the aisle what is at the heart of who they are?

The sad upcoming 'United' Methodist schism

The long-misnamed United Methodist Church, barring divine intervention, will experience schism when its governing body, the General Conference, meets in Minneapolis from May 5 through May 15.

Umc-logoI say it's been misnamed because from the time it was founded in April 1968 until today, it has been internally divided in several ways, including over LGBTQ+ issues that now are causing it to fall apart. The allegedly "united" new denomination was formed then with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church.

It was a laudable effort, a good try. But it has failed. And the failure was both predictable and sad. The division that will happen in May -- perhaps based on some amended version of this proposal put forth by a widely representative group of people who disagree with each other -- will be an admission that at least this group of well-intentioned Christians cannot seem to live out a peaceful coexistence that might have been a model for others.

In that, of course, the Methodists are not alone. One example is my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has experienced de facto schism after we changed our LGBTQ+ rules in 2011 to allow for the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians and to allow our pastors to conduct same-sex weddings. Many Presbyterian churches that disagreed with that long-overdue decision have split from the PCUSA and have joined other denominations that would describe themselves as more theologically conservative.

So to say the Methodists have failed here is not to suggest their failure is unique. Still, when you put "United" in your name, it seems to me that it obligates you to work hard to live up to the label. Dividing in such a case is simply a bad model for the kind of unity (not uniformity) that is desperately needed in religious life today to show that people of different persuasions can live together in harmony and maybe even learn from one another.

One thing that may cause some delegates to the General Conference to rethink the split plan proposed recently is that it requires the newly separated LGBTQ+-friendly denomination that remains to pay millions of dollars to part of the current church as that part leaves to continue its theological bigotry. No analogy is perfect, but it makes me wonder whether, after the Civil War, churches that worked against slavery would have been willing to pay money to pro-slavery churches that wanted to continue to hold to that despicable view. I'd hope not.

The publication First Things, which tends to be traditionalist in tone, recently published this opinion piece that concluded this: "It is a tragic necessity that represents the 1968 union’s failure to achieve an enduring unity. Born from the initial fires of the ecumenical movement, the UMC symbolizes how modernist approaches to ecumenism lack the depth necessary to nourish and sustain consensus."

Just as the term "traditionalist" sometimes means anti-LGBTQ+, so the term "modernist" is dismissive of a biblical interpretation that winds up supportive of full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. Such labels, as labels usually do, hide more than they reveal. But I think the problem hasn't been that approaches to ecumenism lack depth but, rather, that the so-called traditionalists have lacked a commitment to letting the Bible be a living document that must be read in light of when and why it was written as it's applied to today's circumstances.

To give you a fuller view of the proposal to split the church, here is a Religion News Service piece quoting members of the group who came up with the plan. For a deeper dive into the history of the coming schism, here is a piece from The Conversation. And here is a column by CNN religion Editor Dan Burke about why he thinks the schism of the United Methodist Church is good for no one. For one thing, he writes, "Now, online and in real life, we seem to only want to associate with like-minded people, clustering into our dissent-free echo chambers. Churches can force us out of those bubbles, helping us connect across all kinds of social, political and racial barriers. There's value in worshiping next to someone different from you."

True. But religious and political silos seem to be the order of the day (as the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate has proved again). The fact that one of the biggest Protestant denominations in the country can't seem to avoid dividing into those silos is terrible testimony that must further break the sacred heart of Jesus who, in John 17, is reported to have prayed that all of his followers "may be one."

So, in the end, the United Methodist Church will split apart. It will be a sign of the reality that we live in a fallen world, a world in which even people of good will sometimes cannot live together. It was expecting too much of the Methodists to fix all this. Unity, after all, can itself become an idol that gets valued higher than treating all people with dignity, equality and respect. That misplaced priority in favor of idolatry should be unacceptable. And because it is unacceptable, this schism seems inevitable.

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As you've been watching the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, have you been wondering about the background of the U.S. Senate chaplain who has opened each session with prayer? This Associated Press story will tell you about the Rev. Barry Black. He has, I think, handled his job in this case fairly and well.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an artist who produces magnificent iconography -- is online here.