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Imagining post-pandemic changes for congregations

No doubt faith communities are going to look and be different once (and if) we get past this coronavirus pandemic. The question is not whether but how.

Church-doorsI've got a few guesses: Lots more meetings, study groups and other events will take place through the internet, especially using such tools as Zoom. No need to cancel worship just because of a big snowstorm, for example. Just move it online. And why make a six-member committee get in their cars and drive for miles to attend a 45-minute meeting when it can happen virtually?

But there will be other, much more surprising changes. And this RNS piece describes one idea -- moving houses of worship from inside to outside.

"In 2014," writes Jana Riess, "the Rev. Anna Woofenden moved to Los Angeles to try a bold experiment: to reenvision church as an outdoor community centered on a garden. As a church, the community would grow food, prepare it and eat it together, and share it with the neighborhood.

"What happened next is a story she chronicles in her beautiful memoir This Is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls, out just in time for Earth Day."

I've been to quite a few outdoor worship services over the years, especially for Easter sunrise. But I've never considered the possibility of having a congregation permanently locate outdoors -- except, of course, for a little office space that needs to be protected from the weather.

Riess asks Woofenden this question:

"That sounds like it was a huge job. How did you make this a church?"

"I had to keep showing up every day. That meant talking to a lot of people, and partnering with a local farmer so we could work together to build above-ground garden beds and plant all sorts of seedlings. It meant figuring out how to do worship outside, with wind blowing over shade tents and the noise of traffic and sirens going by. And it meant stretching my heart to be ready to see the image of God in everyone who walked through the gate, no matter who it was."

Well, probably not a lot of congregations are going to opt to move outdoors. But I bet there will be lots of changes that will in many ways detach members from one particular building. Which is, of course, what should happen anyway. Although internal ministry to members is important, most religious traditions say ministry outside the walls of the building in which the congregation meets is even more important.

So thanks to this miserable virus for reminding us of that.

(The church doors you see in the photo above belong to the building that houses my congregation, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. We try to remember that most ministry happens outside those doors.)

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I was in a Zoom meeting yesterday with Kansas City area clergy who are concerned about education issues, and it was clear that many of them are struggling in various ways to adapt to doing ministry in new ways in this pandemic. It's put enormous pressure on them as they seek to minister to their congregations. If you're part of a congregation, I hope you'll take a minute or two to tell your clergy thanks for what they do. Heck, send them an actual greeting card. Or text them your love. And be their eyes and ears while you and they are separated so they don't miss joys and crises in your congregations. That's all. Carry on.

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P.S.: For those you who may have missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday, you can find it here. It's about an area man who creates events for people interested in contemplative spirituality.

Will this renewed interest in religion persist?

Name a national or global crisis, from wars to pandemics, and one of the results -- however short-lived -- is likely to be an upsurge in participation or reliance on religion.

Religions-of-the-worldRemember how full houses of worship were right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks? It didn't last, but there was a definite surge.

There's already anecdotal evidence of a similar upswing in this COVID-19 pandemic, and in this First Things piece, translator and journalist Filip Mazurczak, writing from Poland, expresses at least cautious hope that the current renewed interest in God and religion, if it's real, will last.

He says that "there are some preliminary reasons to hope that this trying time will cause more people to reflect on their relationship with God, even if that religious revival is limited and uneven."

This may remind you of that old but untrue cliche that there are no atheists in foxholes.

But even if this current semi-surge in interest in religion doesn't last long, this pandemic has given all of us another opportunity to assess how we live our lives and whether, once we're past the crisis, we want to try to make some permanent changes. Will those of us who have taken lots of walks in this time continue that healthful practice? Will we simply get outdoors more? Will we take advantage of the opportunity to be part of a live congregation at worship now that we have experienced worship via Zoom or Facebook Live?

The point, of course, is that we shouldn't waste a good crisis. We have a chance to do some assessment and make some changes, whether in how we approach religious faith or in such matters as gathering with family members who don't live under our roof.

I'm pretty sure I'll spend whatever time I have left in life washing my hands more frequently and thoroughly. And even something that seemingly small can make a difference.

But well beyond that, this is a chance to think deeply again about whether we want to try more diligently to live by the Golden Rule or convert to Buddhism or become a vegan or join a gym or use your library card more often or volunteer your time at a charity or donate to a good cause.

I hate COVID-19 and long for its banishment from the Earth. But I am grateful for another chance to think through what's really important in and about life. I hope you are, too.

By the way, if you read the piece to which I linked you above, you may notice that the author doesn't understand the nature of news. He writes this: "When all is back to normal, the mainstream media will once again disproportionately focus attention on the minority of evil clerics and willfully ignore the many virtuous ones." News is what happens that is out of the ordinary. It's not news when clergy behave well. That's what's normal and what should be expected. It's news when they don't behave in moral ways. Similarly, count it a good thing when war and crime make news because war and crime are out of the ordinary.

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Almost every sentient adult in the U.S. has heard stories of Islamophobia. But a new book that I haven't yet had a chance to read (it won't be officially published until late May) provides more than anecdotal evidence of this foolish hatred. It's Outsiders at Home: The Politics of American Islamophobia, by Nazita Lajevardi. In an interview with RNS, she said this about her work: "Anecdotal accounts of discrimination are not persuasive to lawmakers, to courts, to policymakers or to advocates. Without systematic evidence, we can’t trace whether these phenomena are actually occurring. By measuring discrimination empirically from a number of different perspectives and using a number of different methods, the book provides an account of discrimination that moves beyond anecdotes."

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P.S.: The last day of this year's SevenDays events will happen Monday evening on Zoom. It's a discussion of interfaith cooperation and understanding, and I will be a discussion leaders in one of the break-out sessions. It starts at 7:30 p.m. CDT at this Zoom address. Hope some of you can join us.

Is religious diversity good for business?

As you know if you've been anything like a regular reader of my words for the last several decades, I have advocated religious literacy and interfaith understanding for many reasons.

World-religionsOne reason for such advocacy that I hadn't given a whole lot of thought to, however, has to do with the work place. This article from RealClear Religion delves into that and suggests that paying attention to the religious well-being of employees makes a lot of economic sense.

"Just as religion is a major part of most people’s lives," the article says, "so too is their occupation. In light of the empirical evidence that religion is associated with well-being and human flourishing, it would seem logical that businesses would want to develop policies aimed at facilitating and protecting the free practice of religious beliefs, which would in turn foster the health and well-being of their workforce.

"Perhaps more than ever, in the midst of an economic crisis, this has never been more important. As corporations and small businesses feverishly look for ways to survive the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders would do well to consider how the faith factor may be a strategic tool for helping employees to cope and manage these difficult economic times."

How are businesses supposed to do that while also respecting people's privacy and other constitutional protections? If thinking about "the faith factor" sounds complicated, well, it is. But the article to which I've linked you gives us some insights into how this might be accomplished -- how, in other words, businesses can incorporate religion "as an integral part of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives."

The authors of the article describe an index that measures religious diversity in the workforce of large corporations.

"We found," they write, "that there is a strong correlation of roughly 30 percent between measures of financial performance, such as revenue per employee and revenue growth, and religious diversity. . ."

In other words, it makes economic sense -- more growth, more profits -- to have a religiously diverse workforce, one in which employees know they are welcome no matter what faith tradition they may be attached to.

"Admittedly," the authors write, "more research is required to uncover the causal effect of religious diversity on economic performance and employee satisfaction. But the writing is on the wall: religion and human flourishing are intimately connected. Companies that allow employees to authentically express their beliefs without fear of condemnation and persecution will attract talented candidates and outperform their counterparts in the marketplace."

I certainly wouldn't put corporate profits at the top of the list of reasons to advocate and work for interfaith understanding in our religiously pluralistic society. Rather, if religious diversity is good for a company's bottom line, I see that as just one more good thing to come out of our religious pluralism. In fact, maybe a profit motive -- as opposed to an altruistic motive -- is what it will take for some corporate leaders to do the right thing.

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Something like the opposite of appreciation for religious diversity has been happening lately in India, where the ruling Hindu nationalist party has helped to make life miserable for many Muslim citizens. My friend Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court (we were school mates in India for a time as boys) has written this distressing article on this subject. "It was already getting dangerous to be a Muslim in India, then came corona virus," he writes. "As said by an assistant professor in Delhi's JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) 'Islamophobia has been transposed on the corona issue.'" 

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P.S.: The Turkish government is seeking to pressure the U.S. government to extradite the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose international movement for peace and interfaith understanding has a branch in the Kansas City area called the Dialogue Institute. The institute and others around the country are circulating this petition to ask members of Congress to work against any move to extradite Gulen. Instructions for signing it online are there if this interests you.

In this pandemic, just who are our neighbors?

As we move into the sixth year (well, it feels at least that long) of this COVID-19 pandemic, a few things are becoming clearer. One, as this Christianity Today piece observes, our "neighbor" is not just the person next door but also people several continents away.

Global-diseaseBut even that thought is complicated. As Andy Olsen, the publication's managing editor, writes, "In our globally connected age, humans — and Christians in particular — have flaunted our ability to stretch the definition of 'neighbor' as far as an internet connection or a Boeing 787 will carry it. One takeaway of the COVID-19 crisis so far is that our boasting rings hollow. We clearly still react most strongly to events in our own backyard, and it’s very possible the pandemic will push the world inward to a new, self-centric era."

If people half a world away really are to be thought of as our neighbors, let's consider what is happening to them, compared with what is happening to many of us in the U.S. Here's what Olsen writes:

"If the COVID-19 pandemic has hammered wealthy nations, it’s arriving in many poorer ones like a demolition crew. Foreign investment is fleeing, revenue from oil and tourism has vaporized and unemployment has risen to perilous levels. All this in places where most people have little or no savings to cushion their fall. Days before Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, ordered his 210 million countrymen into their homes, he lamented that it would 'save them from corona at one end, but they will die from hunger on the other side.'”

Are people of faith in America, in response, to rush to the side of the people of Pakistan? Or India? Or Namibia? And if we don't, does that somehow condemn us as hard-hearted people with no moral center?

Hardly. Rather, it means we should do what we can to alleviate the situation closest at hand and then turn our attention beyond our walls in whatever way we can.

As Olsen notes, "In a firestorm, it’s only human, even prudent, to worry about your own house and your next-door neighbor’s house. But the lesson of pandemics in a globalized era is that there are no clear boundaries between neighborhoods; flames don’t just jump streets, they jump continents."

The point is that our minds and hearts should recognize our context, both immediate and global. We need to think of both even if we can do nothing immediate to assist people in Africa, Australia, South America. . .

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It's been quite well documented that a disproportionate percentage of African-Americans have died as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And pastors of black churches are working at top speed day after day to help their congregants deal with this, as this RNS story reports. Among other developments, the story notes, "The Church of God in Christ, another historic black denomination, has reportedly lost close to a dozen of its bishops and other leaders to COVID-19, including Bishop Phillip Aquilla Brooks II, who was the Michigan-based first assistant presiding bishop." Sigh.

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P.S.: Earlier this week here on the blog, I connected readers to a story describing how the virus pandemic has been a boon for the ISIS terrorist group. But there's something of a flipside to that story, too, and you can read about it here. It turns out that in various places Islamophobia has blossomed because of this pandemic. As the author of the story notes, ". . .a pandemic of global and historic proportions, a novel coronavirus that is infecting people in almost every country and territory on Earth, has been weaponized by the far right to attack … Islam and Muslims. . ." Hatred clearly knows no bounds.

ISIS terrorists take advantage of the pandemic

Further proof of how twisted the world looks through the eyes of misshapen, diseased religion is found in the fact that this terrible COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be good news for ISIS, the Islamic State terrorism group.

Isis-flagAs this Politico story explains, ". . .in the far reaches of Iraq, the terrorists of the Islamic State are enjoying new life."

In the view of ISIS leaders, the story reports, "the pandemic is a literal act of divine intervention as it reached its lowest ebb. Terrorism expert Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi noted that IS’ newsletter, Al-Naba, called coronavirus 'God’s torment' upon the 'Crusader nations,' and urged fighters to take advantage of the distraction and disruption caused by the virus."

Any view of the world that rejoices in a global health crisis is demented, and surely the way in which ISIS has contorted traditional Islam into something evil qualifies for that description.

We have seen this kind of religious sickness before, of course. We saw it in World War II when Germans cheered on their leaders as they murdered some six million Jews in the Holocaust. We saw it in the U.S. before the Civil War when Christian religious leaders turned to scripture to find ways to justify slavery. And, of course, we saw it in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Any religious movement that countenances such violent extremism has sullied the very concept of religion, which should find its roots in awe, wonder and love.

Because of the pandemic, Politico notes this: "Left to operate without being pressured and chased from hideout to hideout, Islamic State has been getting more ambitious at local level."

ISIS has seen an opening and is jumping in. We must hope the end of the pandemic comes sooner rather than later so that this brutal organization can't regain anything like its previous strength. Having failed to act soon enough in the COVID-19 pandemic, America and its allies should be devising strategy now, not tomorrow, to crush ISIS once the global virus curves are flattened.

(The meaning of the words and symbols on the ISIS flag pictured here can be found at this website.)

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This past weekend's Easter fight in Kansas over keeping church's open should be seen in a larger context, and this CNN piece provides some of that, noting that there's a "likelihood of steadily rising tension in coming years between an increasingly secular American society and the most religiously conservative voters, particularly white evangelical Protestants." We've seen plenty of that in recent years, but buckle up. There's more to come.

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P.S.: It took awhile this past Easter Sunday afternoon for our tech folks at my church to get some problems figured out and be able to post my video story online, but they finally did. Our church in this pandemic time is posting various stories by members to keep us connected and informed and maybe even entertained. You can view mine here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My friend Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court, likes to ask what he thinks are (and often are) difficult theological questions from his position as an atheist. Recently he tweeted this question: "If there is a God, why does he not tell corona to buzz off? Or does he like tormenting people?" It is, of course, the ancient theodicy question of why there's evil and suffering in the world if God is good and all-powerful. As I've noted before, there is no fully satisfying, exhaustive answer to that question. Which is why, when Markandey (we were in school together in India as boys) sent me that question in an e-mail, I responded this way: "My guess is that Adam once said to Eve: 'If there is a God, why didn't he stop Cain from killing Abel?' The question you ask is that old." But I send his question to you to wrestle around with as you spend another day at home.

Thank God for hospital chaplains now

In this Easter/Passover weekend with Ramadan coming (April 23), I want to honor the hospital chaplains who are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in countless -- and often painful and risky -- ways.

Hospital-chaplainsTo do that, I first give you this link to a Flatland column I wrote a few years back about the work of chaplains in various kinds of institutions.

Then I'd love for you to read this Slate piece about a particular hospital chaplain in Brooklyn and how she has been handling this crisis. I warn you that the chaplains holds back very little about her terrifically trying job now.

The pandemic, she says, "has made my job hell. Normally my job is to listen, to comfort, to pray for healing. Now my job is to pray for a swift and merciful death for most of my patients. I hold weeping, sweaty-faced nurses through gloves and masks, to whom I promise their work is meaningful and changing lives. I promise them that it’s OK to feel bone-tired, that everyone’s living with nightmares that they’re going to get sick. I have spent this morning making condolence calls (30 deaths over the weekend—we normally have five)."

The Slate interviewer asked the chaplain, Rabbi Kara Tav, this question:

Another hard question: Does any of this affect the way you think about God?

Her answer:

"Well, there’s a short answer and a long answer to that question.

"The short answer is: absolutely not!

"The long answer is that my understanding of God is best summed up by my understanding God not as causing our misfortunes but having created a world of inflexible laws. I do not believe that the painful things that happen to us are punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Tragedy is not God’s will, so we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. God can be present to help us overcome it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are."

I've just finished reading a book called Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. It describes the short life and death of a man in his 20s, Chris McCandless, who withdrew from his family and walked alone into the wilderness of Alaska in the early 1990s. Four months later a hunter found his decomposed body.

When news of it reached an old man he had befriended on his wanderings, the man said that when Chris (whom the man knew as "Alex") had "left for Alaska, I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn't believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex."

Chaplain Tav comes a lot closer to my own image of God when she says this: "I can’t believe in a God that gives 2-year-olds cancer or kills thousands of fishermen at sea. I just can’t imagine God wanting to destroy God’s own image, God’s own creations. My God is all compassionate. . ."

The image of God in the head of the old man who had gotten to know and love Chris McCandless is similar to the image that makes people walk away from institutional religion and even from belief and faith itself. None of us knows, of course (which is why faith is different from certitude), but I think the image of God that comforts Chaplain Tav will, in the end, be the image that more closely approximates reality. In some ways, that's the message of Easter and Passover. Thank goodness for chaplains like Tav.

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The effort in Kansas to overturn Gov. Laura Kelly's order banning large gatherings for worship is both ridiculous and potentially lethal. The voice coming from religious leaders today should be consistent, one that is aimed at preserving life. To encourage big Easter services may be an effort to stand up for religious liberty but such gatherings would be at the cost of a higher priority -- life itself. Here's an RNS story showing what all the states are doing about this matter. The Supreme Court in Kansas ruled late Saturday that Kelly's order stands. Thank goodness. The people who challenged Kelly should be ashamed.

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P.S.: In this pandemic, my congregation has started an online story project to help us share something about ourselves while we're physically apart from one another. My story will be available at 3 p.m. (CDT) on Sunday on this Facebook page of Second Presbyterian Church. I hope some of you will tune in. The story has to do with why you'll never have to call me Dr. Tammeus.

Closing the church building, not the church

My pastor, the Rev. Paul Rock of Second Presbyterian Church, likes to say that a church "is not a place where but a people who." Which is the sentiment expressed the other day by another pastor on a conference call with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.

DT-Bible-study-4-2-20Although I participated in that noisy call (some people need to learn the skill of muting their phones on such calls), I didn't hear who said this: "We're not closing the church, we're closing the church building." But he got it right.

This COVID-19 pandemic, in fact, has provided another opportunity to learn or relearn that truth.

As this Texas Tribune piece notes, "Religious services are designed to pull people together, to congregate, to commune, to pray. They’re held in sanctuaries — safe spaces. But for all of the good intent, that can be dangerous. Passing the collection plate is safer online than in person, where it goes hand to hand through the pews."

And the reality today is that despite the idea of sanctuaries being a place of refuge or protection, the only safe sanctuaries we have left are our homes -- if we follow the advice of health care experts.

But that doesn't mean we can't be active people of faith, whatever our religious affiliation. We can be in touch with vulnerable and needy people in various ways -- including by phone, e-mail, Facetime, Skype, Zoom and more -- without being in their physical presence. We can pray for the vulnerable. We can financially support charities that are trying to relieve this suffering. We can write cards and letters (remember them?) to people about whom we care. We can attend worship services online or hold study groups online, as the downtown Bible study I help to lead weekly is doing now (last week's small gathering is pictured above). We can greet our own neighbors from a safe distance.

In other words, we still can be the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the gurdwara, the temple, the meet-up.

And where two or three of us are gathered (virtually) together, God has promised to be in our midst. Is that a good deal or what?

That's especially true in this time when the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- celebrate major holidays about the same time, Passover, Easter and Ramadan. There are lots of interesting stories and columns about some of that on the Read the Spirit website operated by my friend David Crumm, former religion reporter for the Detroit Free Press.

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At virtual Seder meals all over tonight, the tradition of setting a place for the prophet Elijah will continue, but as this RNS column notes, even that will be done in an e-way. The author of the piece also has a proposal for a slightly adjusted way to end the meal: "According to the Haggadah, a seder officially ends with the words, L'Shanah Haba'ah b'Yerushalayim: 'Next year in Jerusalem!' This year, I propose we content ourselves with L'Shanah Haba'ah ishit: 'Next year in person!'"

'Real life?' We're deep in the middle of it

Over the weekend, Kansas City Star sports columnist Vahe Gregorgian, did this interesting piece about how the new KC Royals manager, Mike Matheny, is approaching this forced time off caused by the virus pandemic.

Real-lifeIn it Vahe used what I thought was an odd and misplaced phrase. He said that Matheny was "waiting for not simply a suspended season to begin but the resumption of real life."

Well, we all know what Vahe meant, I think.

But let's not kid ourselves. Friends, this is real life. This pandemic. This isolation. This oddness. This vulnerability. This virtual connectivity.

In fact, I don't know how it could get more real. We are being challenged in so many ways that will reveal what kind of people we are and whether we have moral centers.

My friend Rabbi Mark Levin wrote this good column in the same Sunday newspaper in which the Gregorian piece appeared, and in it Mark called us to act humanely in this crisis, to think of others even as we naturally try to protect ourselves.

"I am taken," he wrote, "with the religious response: Not what is the threat, but how do I react?"


This is when we draw from the lessons that our faith traditions have been trying to teach us: Love one another, be your brother's keeper, be channels of God's grace, God was serious about the Ten Commandments. And on and on.

How are you doing with all of that? Like you, I find it hard to be on point all the time while staying at home and away from others. But there are things you and I can do. People we can call to check on. Humor we can spread to lighten our loads.

Because this is real life. Every minute of every hour of every day. So let's rise to the challenge of acknowledging that and acting in redemptive ways.

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Sometimes monks get accused of trying to escape real life by secluding themselves in community and silence. But that's usually an unfair charge. In any case, cheers for the Iowa monks described in this RNS story. They're making wooden caskets for families who need them because of the virus pandemic.

We need help understanding death's inevitability

As the list of people dying of COVID-19 grows and grows, it's time to pay attention again to death-denial in America and to how some faith communities have been adding to that ridiculous attitude.

Cemetery-lightThe author of this First Things column, Carl R. Trueman, professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, says it well: In this time of pandemic, "it is the task of the church to mug people with reality before reality itself comes calling. Yet that note seems to have been signally absent from the public profile of the church in recent weeks. Efforts to fight the virus are important; but so is the church’s task of preparing us for death."

For Christians, Trueman's primary audience, this Lenten season and this weekend's Palm Sunday heading toward Easter, is an especially good time for the church to be speaking plainly about death and reminding congregants that, no matter what lots of Americans think, death is not optional.

One problem in the church, however, is that across much of its history it has allowed old Greek thinking about immortality to influence church doctrine. The old Greek idea that humans have immortal souls has infected the church like a virus despite the fact that such thinking stands in contrast to Christian (or at least Protestant, though even the famous Westminster Confession of Faith reflects Greek thinking on this) teaching about the resurrection of the body, which asserts that there is nothing in humans that is immortal. Rather, only God is immortal, and if we humans are to be in an eternal relationship with God it will be because that eternal life is a gift from God, not because something within each of us is immortal.

Because the idea of an immortal soul permeates a lot of contemporary Christian thinking, Christians, in my experience, don't take death seriously enough. (By the way, Catholic and Protestant doctrine differ on this matter. The Catholic catechism teaches that the soul "is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death.")

We followers of the risen Christ would do well to pay attention to such theologians as Thomas G. Long, who writes this in his book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral: "Christians. . .do not believe that human beings are only bodies, nor do they believe that they are souls who, for the time being, have bodies; Christians affirm, rather, that human beings are embodied. . .Take away the breath of God, and there is no immortal soul left over to make a break for it to freedom; there is just dust."

Given that reality, Trueman says this: "The church is certainly to help people to live, but to live in the shadow of mortality."

I have said this before, but I think it bears repeating: You'll never understand your own life if you don't understand your own death. In many ways, it seems to me, some of our faith communities aren't helping us enough with that. One proof of it is that lots of Americans battle with each other not over what's eternally important but over toilet paper. Sigh.

(The photo here today is one I took a few years ago at Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City.)

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Did you know, as this RNS column explains, that "dealing with contagious disease has been a Jewish preoccupation since ancient times"? The column is an intriguing look at how Jewish leaders across history have handled the kind of pandemic we're in right now. Let's hope all religious leaders are paying attention to the directives of health departments.

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P.S.: Molly T. Marshall has resigned abruptly as president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in suburban Shawnee, Kan., because of some unstated "ethical lapse." Here is the Baptist News story about it. (It contains a link to a statement from Marshall.) And here is the RNS story about it. And here is a Flatland column I did about her and the seminary last summer. At the moment, I don't know much more than that, except that campus sources tell me the staff feels shocked, angry and betrayed and hopes Marshall takes some time to withdraw, repent and figure out what went wrong and why. She is a wonderfully talented woman whom I admired. I'm sort of speechless.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest book review for The National Catholic Reporter -- about Unbelievers, by Alec Ryrie -- now is online here.

Here's an excellent model for how to live


My stepson Chris (pictured below here) turned 50 yesterday, though we couldn't spend the day together celebrating because of this damn pandemic. We did, however, arrange a socially distant gathering to celebrate in the driveway of his group home, as you can see in the top photo. Chris' mother, my wife, Marcia, is to the right, while staff members who work at the house are on the left.

C-50-1It's a crisis Chris, a special-needs adult, simply doesn't understand. All he knows is that he's stuck in his home and that he can't go to work at the sheltered workshop that employs him.

But instead of complaining about the limits to our contact with him right now, I want to tell you that if you ever need a model for what love and faithfulness look like -- you know, those qualities that institutional religion tries to promote -- you couldn't do better than Chris.

Chris simply loves people. He wants to hug pretty much everybody. He wants to joke with pretty much everybody and cheer up people who need it.

In Matthew 18:3 in the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying this: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

As I understand that, Jesus didn't mean you have to be immature or ignorant or naive. He meant, I think, that you have to be trusting, be open to receiving love. And giving it, too. The way kids are. The way Chris is.

And when Jesus spoke of the "kingdom of heaven," he made clear at the start of his ministry that he wasn't talking about some distant heaven but, rather, right here on Earth and right now. Oh, it's not that he dismissed the idea of an eventual heaven. Not at all. But his primary concern was the in-breaking of God's kingdom in our presence today. He said we could get a good taste of what that kingdom would look like when it eventually comes in full flower if we begin to live by such kingdom values as love, mercy, justice and compassion.

So Jesus wasn't saying that unless you become an ignorant child you'll never get to the an eternal heaven.

Rather, he was saying something like this: Be like Chris. Here. Today.

What a good idea. Well, the only way in which you don't need to be like Chris is to call me, sometimes, a duckhead. That's Chris's job, not yours.

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Here on the blog yesterday I had an example of how one clergyman is reacting to the coronavirus pandemic with ingenuity. But this RNS story offers a wider vision of what's happening around the country, at least based on a survey of Protestant congregations.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted this past Sunday -- it's about funerals in this time of coronavirus -- you can read it here.