Previous month:
October 2020
Next month:
December 2020

Here is Advent seen through stunning glass art


The Christian world enters the season of Advent on Sunday. It's the annual time of rich and expectant waiting to commemorate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day.

For this Advent, I have found a moving work of art, "Nativity Triptych," (pictured above) on which I plan to focus. And even if you're not Christian, I'd like to commend it to you as special art worth seeing and studying.

Hasna-salThe artist, glass sculptor Hasna Sal (pictured at left), has had a remarkably varied career, and Kansas Citians may know her because a recent work of hers was dedicated this fall in Lykins Square Park in Kansas City's northeast neighborhood.

That multi-panel work, done in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City and the Lykins Neighborhood Association, is described as the first exterior memorial in the nation for victims of human trafficking. To see a short video about it, click here. A much longer video in which the artist explains the work can be viewed here. The photo at right shows one of the panels in Lykins Square Park.Hasna-Lykins

But back to the other work shown above.

First, here is a link to an hour-long (or so) talk the artist gave last year about what she was trying to say through the sculpture, which depicts, at the bottom, a traditional, if extended, manger scene, and at the top the figures of Christ (in the middle), with Joseph (on the left) and Mary.

And here is how the artist describes the work, created in 2015:

"This sculpture installation is a freestanding construct, and consists of an ensemble of three panels, which are lighted. Each panel is 34 inches wide, 7 feet, 9 inches tall and 6 inches deep. Hence, the entire composition would be 8 feet, 6 inches in length, 7 feet, 9 inches high and 6 inches deep. The material is glass on metal frame. Each panel weighs approximately 200 pounds. It is very sturdy.

"Thematically, this sculpture is a combination of iconology and allegory. The top two-thirds shows the three biblical figures -- each with a message to the world. I'm showing Saint Joseph in shepherd's clothes, with a stick in his hand as all shepherds have. He is portrayed as a simple man standing by Christ's side, symbolically giving him support. His face is stoic. Blessed Mother Mary stands on her son's other side, in a white veil, her face shadowed in pain, her eyes downcast, her hands at her sides, clenched. I sculpted her as I see her; as any mother would identify with pain and peace. And Jesus Christ in simple clothes pertaining to that era, wearing a crown of thorns and, in his arms, he holds close to his heart a dove or lamb, embracing the being in his strong warm chest. This is a symbolic message that Christ protects the innocent, whoever they may be, whatever they may be.

"The bottom one-third is an allegorical unfolding of the birth of Christ. Growing up in a Catholic school, I was always very moved by the hymn "Away in a Manger." It still brings tears to my eyes when I hear it or play it on my cello, and it translated into my sculpture. I show the birth of Christ in a  manger, the animals looking in, the angels gathering above in the skies, the stars twinkling, the three kings coming from afar crossing mountains and the city of Bethlehem a silent spectator to this miracle. My message to the world  is that when something beautiful happens, it  brings the world together."

Here is a pdf about the triptych written by Kevin Vogt, director of sacred liturgy, music and art at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish in Leawood: Download DIVINE COMMISSION A Story of Art (Kevin Vogt).

This year Advent seems somehow different, given what 2020 has dumped on us. My own pastor, Paul Rock of Second Presbyterian Church, offered some thoughts about that recently in a letter to congregants. Here's part of what he wrote:

"Until this year, it (Advent) always seemed a little bit made up, to be honest, these four Sundays of not really doing anything but waiting, watching, expecting the inevitable arrival. It felt fabricated because we know Christmas will come. We know we’ll light the candles and sing the carols and open presents and celebrate the fact that God became one of us and in so doing, solidified our hope and salvation.

"But this year, this long, different and awful year, we have been forced into postures of waiting and wanting and yearning for months -- without knowing exactly when and even if news of salvation will come. And that’s where real hope comes into play. Dark and dirty, weary and tenacious hope."

What Paul wrote is in deep harmony with thoughts from the 20th Century French Reform theologian Jacques Ellul. In Ellul's book Hope in Time of Abandonment, he writes this: "Hope comes alive only in the dreary silence of God, in our loneliness before a closed heaven, in our abandonment. . .Man is going to express his hope that God's silence is neither basic nor final, nor a cancellation of what we had laid hold of as a Word from God. . .The hope is that this Word of God might once again be spoken, might again be born and might again be decisive. But it is more than that. It is not only expectation or certitude. It is demand. When God is silent he has to be made to talk. When god turns away, he has to be made to turn back to us again. When God seems dead, he has to be made to exist."

Some of that willful hope is what I see in Hasna Sal's work. It seems to put humanity in touch with divine possibilities -- and divine possibilities are always possibilities. Hasna says this about the art work she does now: "I have created work for money, for fame, for charity. But I am at this point where I now create for honesty. Truth is the most powerful tool; it makes the work authentic and it is here to impress no one. It is just to be."

(For now, the Nativity Triptych is housed at the Savior Pastor Center, a retreat and conference center in Kansas City, Kansas. It's not on public display, but you can call 913-721-1097 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays to arrange a time to see the artwork. Hasna says she hopes a Catholic church, school or hospital will become its permanent home.)

* * *


As many of you know, from time to time there's conflict -- sometimes violent -- over display of pictures or cartoons purporting to represent the Prophet Muhammad. The most recent example has been in France, where a teacher was brutally murdered (beheaded) after showing such depictions to students. The website The Conversation, where scholars write about current events, has this interesting piece about the different ways that Muslims themselves over the centuries have imagined what Muhammad looked like. As the author, , assistant professor of classical Islam at Brandeis University, writes, "The prophet’s earliest surviving biography, written a century after his death, runs into hundreds of pages in English. His final 10 years are so well-documented that some episodes of his life during this period can be tracked day by day. Even more detailed are books from the early Islamic period dedicated specifically to the description of Muhammad’s body, character and manners. From a very popular ninth-century book on the subject titled 'Shama'il al-Muhammadiyya' or The Sublime Qualities of Muhammad, Muslims learned everything from Muhammad’s height and body hair to his sleep habits, clothing preferences and favorite food. No single piece of information was seen too mundane or irrelevant when it concerned the prophet. The way he walked and sat is recorded in this book alongside the approximate amount of white hair on his temples in old age." The author's conclusion is that "These meticulous textual descriptions have functioned for Muslims throughout centuries as an alternative for visual representations." It's helpful to have this kind of context when rigid views on anything turn to violence. The question for France now is whether it will react to the latest controversy in a way that makes sense. This Atlantic piece raises that very question.

After a year like 2020, is there a way forward for faith?

If faith communities know one thing after experiencing the traumatic, disruptive, costly but enlightening year of 2020, they know that there's no going back to whatever normal was.

We-Shall-Be-ChangedNormal was mostly broken even before the pandemic, even before police murdered George Floyd, even before worship services had to move to Zoom or Facebook.

Now society in general, but religions in particular, must find new ways of holding on to what, at core, is vital to who they are and offering that to a deeply wounded and chastened world.

As Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago writes in one of the essays in a helpful new book, "The bulk of current institutional structures and leadership models we brought with us into the pandemic will simply not be sustainable for long, and may even prove to be irrelevant to -- or an outright obstacle to successfully adapting for -- the post-pandemic church."

Lee's clear words are among many in the book, We Shall be Changed: Questions for the Post-Pandemic Church, edited by Mark D. W. Edington, bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.

Yes, many of the authors who have contributed essays here are from the Anglican tradition, but much of what they say is useful not only for other Christian churches but for houses of worship and governing bodies in other faith traditions as well.

In his preface, Edington notes the commonality between the pandemic and Floyd's murder. In both cases, people were and are crying, "I can't breathe."

In response to the Covid pandemic, he adds, "nothing could be less Christian" than not to wear a mask or observe social distancing because that is "a refusal to accept a basic minimum responsibility for the well-being of others."

So what ideas and insights can readers find here for faith communities looking to regather and find their sea legs once the Covid pandemic is behind us and we can focus not just on worship in person but on responding to all of the needs that 2020 has revealed to us?

A few examples from the book:

-- "(T)he church's new world will require a creative embrace of technology and new media -- not as substitutes, but as inspired and strategic vehicles of ministry and mission."

-- "In this new world, the church comes to the people, and it must be willing to change much of the 'culture' associated with the church."

-- "The pandemic has, in a deep way, invited us to remember that worship is everything we do in our lives. While we hungered for the gathered church, especially for our sacramental heart, many Christians expressed in social media and elsewhere that they learned much of worshiping God in other ways, including how to pray."

-- "The truth of the matter is racialized oppression and inequality has grown on the watch of those who claim to be church. Hence, calling ourselves church is aspirational. In many respects, therefore, the Covid-19 pandemic has called the church to account. For whether or not we live into the aspiration to be church has much to do with how we respond to those on the underside of justice. . ."

-- "The great rethink that Covid-19 is requiring of us is going to change the church forever, for bells are ringing that cannot be un-rung. One of those bells is the realization on the part of faith communities that they have a much bigger toolbox than they realized. . ."

-- Among the questions faith communities now must ask are: "Is our theology. . .big enough to engage the virtual world." And: "Are we courageous enough to leave our buildings once we return to them?"

In one of the 16 brief essays in this collection, Shane Claiborne, co-founder of Red Letter Christians, concludes this: "In this moment of groaning and pain, I believe a new world is being born. And we get to be the midwives."

Which is a way of recognizing that sometimes what feels like a tomb is actually a womb.

* * *


The National Football League team from Washington, D.C., finally has abandoned its long-held racist nickname and, at the moment, is simply known as the Washington Football Team. Which at least separates it from the Washington Reality Denying Team in the White House. But as the publication Indian Country Today reports, the team now has "dumped its foundation created to help Native people." The story adds this: "The team will no longer make contributions to the Original Americans Foundation and will instead focus its charitable efforts on the Washington Football Charitable Foundation, USA Today reported this week. The Washington Football Charitable Foundation will continue to assist Native communities, according to the newspaper, but it’s unclear how." As the U.S. has gone through this past year of racial strife, with protests often led by people of faith, it's hard to understand why a change like this one wasn't thoroughly thought through and presented to the public carefully so as not to seem to inflict more damage on Indigenous people, who have been on the brutal receiving end of things since the first European invaders landed here centuries ago. Here is a Washington Post opinion piece about how, with this move on charities, the football team's owner has messed up again.

American churches become more racially diverse

One of the oldest, most-repeated statements about American Christianity, often attributed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is that the most racially segregated hour of the week is 11 a.m. on Sundays.

Worship-diversityIt's time to update that observations at least a little. First, fewer and fewer congregations start worship at 11. Second, as a new study by a Baylor University sociologist and two colleagues shows, racially diverse congregations have become much more common in the last 20 years. The link I just gave you will take you to the study itself. For a Baylor press release that summarizes the study, click here.

The results of the study sound like encouraging news. And, indeed, it is good news to find racial segregation breaking down in the U.S. in various ways.

But if you dig a bit deeper into the study you find evidence that not all is on the right track.

For instance, one of the researchers who did the study, Michael O. Emerson, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, notes this: “The path to diversity seems to be a one-way street, with people of color joining white congregations but very few whites joining Black churches. Until congregations confront the historic structures that keep racial groups divided, diversity inside congregations may function mainly as a superficial performance.”

The study also was unable to find much evidence that racially diverse congregations are active in promoting racial justice.

Some predominantly white congregations, including mine, are becoming more intentional about doing anti-racism work, as I reported a few months back in this Flatland column. And that's a good thing, of course. But given the history of how white supremacy was baked into our nation's founding and into how Christianity has operated in this land from the start, there still is much reparation work to do.

Still, it was good to read this in the new study: "Our central result is that racial and ethnic diversity within congregations steadily increased between 1998 and 2019, with no signs of having reached a plateau."

By the way, if you want to experience what I think is one of the most racially diverse congregation in the Kansas City Area, visit the Sheffield Family Life Center, an Assemblies of God congregation in the northeast part of the city. I wrote about it here last year.

* * *


A cardinal who resigned under pressure from Pope Francis over financial matters has sued an Italian magazine, claiming that his ruined reputation now prevents him from ever being elected pope. Similarly, Pete Rose never got to be MLB commissioner and Jeffrey Epstein never got to lead the Girl Scouts.

How will Joe Biden's religious faith matter?

We Americans still are two months from Joe Biden (pictured here) becoming president.

Biden-churchBut one question worth asking is what, if any, difference will it make that our new chief executive will be only the second Catholic elected to the office.

Yes, we all know that there's no religious requirement for office and that the only legitimate question about religion to ask candidates for office is how their faith commitments might affect public policy.

All of that said, however, it's clear that Biden brings to the office a long history of engagement with the Catholic Church, even if some Catholics aren't happy with the way he interprets the faith on some issues of social justice.

But I've found three different looks at Biden's religious path that may help you have a clearer picture of how his faith might affect how he governs. The first is this one from the British newspaper The Guardian.

"Biden’s Catholicism," the piece says, "is at the core of his life and is likely to shape the way he governs as president.

“'I’m as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic,' he wrote in his book, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. 'My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture.'”

Next, there's this article from the Jesuit magazine America.

It reports that "Mr. Biden has said his faith has helped him cope with personal tragedy, including the death of his wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash and then again in 2015, when his son Beau died from cancer. Mr. Biden had a health scare himself in 1988, shortly after he dropped out of the presidential race. He was admitted to Saint Francis Hospital in Wilmington. With his family gathered around, a priest visited to administer the sacrament of anointing. Mr. Biden healed following surgery, and for the next two decades, he returned to work in the Senate."

And the America piece includes this: “'Biden actually sees his Catholic faith as a key for bringing the country back together and overcoming the divisions that divide us,' Stephen Schneck, the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, told the National Catholic Reporter earlier this year. 'He thinks there’s something in Catholicism itself that provides a ground where both sides can find commonplace.'”

Finally, this Religion News Service story describes the people on whom Biden will depend when it comes to matters of how religion might affect public policy.

"Compared to Trump," the article says, "President-elect Joe Biden will likely bring a more formal and interfaith approach to religious engagement, closer to the model forged by Bush and Obama. Different religious leaders will likely rotate on and off a fixed advisory council underneath a White House faith office that would host public meetings and produce formal reports."

It also lists a series of advisers who are likely to have Biden's ear when it comes to all of this. Interesting list.

A remaining question, of course, is whether those who identify as white evangelical Christians, who provided so many votes for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, will find their voices ignored in a Biden White House or whether they, too, might be heard. This excellent Atlantic piece by religion reporter Emma Green explores some of that. It's a conversation with megachurch pastor Andy Stanley, one of the few evangelical leaders who declined to join in the mass adoration offered to Trump by evangelical leaders.

* * *


The Pew Research Center reports that in 2018 the global level of government restrictions on religions reached the highest it's been since Pew began tracking them in 2007. The 2018 are the latest available statistics. The center said this: "The increase in government restrictions reflects a wide variety of events around the world, including a rise from 2017 to 2018 in the number of governments using force – such as detentions and physical abuse – to coerce religious groups." None of that is good news and shows again the need for such agencies as the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. State Department's ambassador at large for international religious freedom (Sam Brownback) need to be calling more attention to the problem and proposing global solutions.

A questioning man's journey into a strict religion

What drives, nudges, attracts, lures human beings to religion?

Turning BackIs it simply a way to resolve mysteries by imagining a god who becomes the explanation for those mysteries? Is it a desire for order and dependability in a world that seems -- especially since the dawn of quantum physics -- increasingly inexplicable? Or do we just want assurance that our lives have meaning?

No doubt it's all of that and more. And, at base, it's the question raised in a fascinating and elegantly written new book, Turning Back: The Personal Journey of a 'Born Again' Jew, by Michael Lesher.

The Judaism in which Lesher grew up seemed to him about as interesting as old lawn furniture: "Judaism to me wasn't something one studied. It was just a feature of the landscape in which most of my friends had grown up, an old eyesore that nobody had got around to demolishing and that only visitors really noticed in the first place."

Eventually, however, he began to find in the Orthodox branch of Judaism the tools he needed to take life seriously, to minister to his existential grief, to give life an order and dependability in a world that seemed sometimes to spin wildly off its axis. This is the story of that surprising journey into Orthodoxy.

In finding that path within Judaism, however, Lesher wisely learns that what he has found is not all the answers but, rather, a useful way to ask the hard questions. He finds not false certitude but, rather, an ancient way to live with mystery, with allegory, with myth and with a god who sometimes seems simply to abandon the creation.

And yet he writes: "I'm  much more at home with people who don't claim moral certainty -- yet there's something in fundamentalist Jews and Christians that touches me in a place the others seldom reach. Maybe that's because theological certainty so often shares the same heart with the deepest personal confusions."

Lesher is a terrific storyteller. But the stories always have a purpose, which is to illuminate his religious journey and to draw readers into theirs. What Lesher eventually acknowledges is that he has become devoted to a path that is different from not only most of humanity's but also from that of most other Jews. Instead of proclaiming that he's finally found the one truth, however, he asks this hard question: "So why claim to be 'different' from the mass? This has been one of the proud themes of my new-found religiosity. But doesn't everybody claim the same thing? And aren't the claims almost always a sham?"

The problem with being so certain about matters of religion, Lesher writes, is that "Facts mean nothing to one who knows. He carries his own reality around with him." Does that remind you of anyone who just lost a presidential race?

Religious study -- especially of the Talmud -- "had both galvanized and confused me. It had galvanized me by shoring up my sagging sense of historical identity. It had also given me some intellectual space in which to work out my fascination with the questions of right and wrong. But it had confused me, too. I was confused about the stern array of limitations, boundaries, warnings. By the notion of people skimming over their lives as though life itself were a stretch of treacherous rapids whose dangers were to be kept uppermost in mind and were to be avoided as much as possible."

Part of Lesher's story has to do with awkward family dynamics. His father was essentially a secular Jew. His mother was in the Reform tradition of Judaism and couldn't imagine why her son felt he needed to move to Orthodoxy. Beyond that, one of his brothers converted to Christianity and then became devoted to a congregation of Messianic Jews. Through all that and more, Lesher had to find his own path and, at times, to infuriate family members when he stuck to it.

In the process, we find that Lesher really knows how to write. Throughout the book the reader will find golden nuggets of words and phrases. Such as: At a restaurant, "Steve and I sat under lights obscenely low, over the carcasses of sea creatures." And: ". . .staring up at me with the maddening solemnity of the dead." And: "Cruelly wrinkled, sunk into his own disorganized bulk as if he were a sack of spoiled cotton, he. . ." And: "The Hudson (river) is a flat track below, prickled with city lights."

Along the way, we learn that it wasn't so much that Lesher chose Orthodox Judaism but that "Orthodox life has chosen me." And that has had both its joys and its sorrows, including this: "It had hurt to find myself on the outs with old friends. And it hurt, too, to find myself in opposition to so many Jews -- about Judaism."

He also finds it hard to understand why people finding or returning to Orthodox Judaism, who presumably have spent much of their lives questioning religion, aren't questioning Orthodoxy "as they once questioned secular culture." That's sad, he says, because "the religious life of a truth-seeker subjects religion to constant tests."

Lesher's commitment to Talmudic study and his need to question everything is of a piece, given how a rabbi once described the Talmud to me: "It's 3,000 pages of unresolved debate."

As many of you know, I've not been reviewing many books this year because I needed time to finish my own next book, which will be published in January (more about that later). But when Lesher wrote to me and described his book, I was willing to have a look. I'm glad I did.

* * *


Families around the world, seeking "a more spiritual approach to palliative care, hospice service and chaplaincy programs," seem to be increasingly seeking out hospices that promote Buddhist teachings related to death and dying, this RNS story reports. This is another area where we can learn from faith traditions not our own.

When nuns and nones get together

Perhaps the least secret story about religion in the U.S. in recent decades is the growth in the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated. They're called the "Nones."

NandN_logo-1It turns out that most of them aren't atheists but, rather, agnostics, seekers or participants in some kind of non-institutional spirituality.

Well, for the last four-plus years there's been an alliance called "Nuns & Nones." It's made up of Catholic sisters and seekers who, the group's website says, are exploring "things like community, belonging, justice and spiritual practice."

And now there are branches in several places around the country, though not, according to the website, in the Kansas City area. If there is such a group here and you know about it, let me know. And tell Nuns & Nones to update its website.

The group says this about its basic approach to life and spirituality: "We believe in a future that prioritizes spirit and care, over domination and control. Together, through a mix of spiritual formation and political education, we seek to re-wire and re-future our lives, our communities, humanity’s sense of the sacred and our world."

I've never heard of refuturing something, but maybe that just shows how much I have to learn.

The model here seems both reasonable and helpful. People who don't hold the same commitments to theology can come together and learn from one another if they're willing to be open. Could the nuns simply use this organization as a way to entice people into Catholicism or even into becoming sisters? No doubt, but my guess is that little, if any, of that is happening. What may be happening instead is that the sisters are learning about the serious questions the Nones are asking and the Nones are learning about the depth of religious commitment the sisters think is worth making.

11-12-20-panelThere are lots of interfaith opportunities in Kansas City and around the country that, like Nuns & Nones, can help people do spiritual exploration and help them gain an appreciation of someone else's religious commitments. In fact, you have such a chance tomorrow evening, when I'll moderate an interfaith panel sponsored by the Faith Always Wins Foundation. To register for this free event, click here.

* * *


Let's pause for a moment to mourn the loss of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom, described in this RNS tribute by an American rabbi as a "public Jewish voice — a voice that went far beyond the local, and embraced the universal." Sacks, writes Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, "brought the Torah out of the ark, out of the aisles of the synagogue — and into the world. He showed where Judaism could influence the way the world thought, and how its principles could transform the world." Every faith tradition could use someone like that -- not to beat others up with this or that religion's unique teachings but to share those teachings in ways that might help repair the world.

* * *


Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr., by Montague R. Williams. In this time of racial unrest and strife rooted in the long history of white supremacist thought and action in the U.S., religious congregations have both an opportunity and a responsibility to engage young people in these matters in constructive, healthy ways. This new book, written by an associate professor of church, culture and society at Point Loma Nazarene University, can help adult leaders guide that conversation and that work.

Church-in-color The book is based on deep research in three multiethnic Christian congregations in the northeast part of the U.S., but the findings are almost certainly useful to congregations anywhere. "If pastors and youth workers can join (Martin Luther) King in accepting that Christian faith lived well is a daily embodied protest against injustice," Williams writes, "then congregations can better connect with young people's longing to live lives of meaningful purpose and identity."

Williams is insistent that avoiding issues of race is a losing strategy, but he found quite a bit of that avoidance in the congregations he studied.

"A church that does not see color," he writes, "demands young people to leave their bodies out of Christian discipleship and accept bifurcated identities. A God who does not see color is a God who cannot see their bodies, hear their stories and take their experiences seriously. A God and a church that do not see color cannot know what it means to be human in their neighborhoods."

In the end, he argues, there's no use avoiding the subject of race because "young people feel the weight of white supremacy that has shaped the systems and norms in American society and the world. The last thing we want to do is help young people get used to these things and conclude that it simply has to be that way."

There's a lot of detailed academic work behind this book. It's not another book of advice for inexperienced youth pastors. It is, rather, a guide for congregational leaders who take seriously their responsibility to guide young people into redemptive Christian discipleship.

Is this the world's most useless Bible?

Biblical scholarship may just have driven itself into its last meaningless corner. Well, scholarship may not be the right word. A better one might be gimmickry.

Bible-theSideline Collective, an international team of designers, writers and programmers, has just published the King James Version of the Bible (first published in 1611), but not in its usual word and chapter order. Rather, this new project, called (uncleverly enough) Bible The, rewrites the entire King James Bible alphabetically.

That's right, it gather together all the "A" words first, then the "B" words and so on. What's lost, of course, is any narrative at all, any sense of historical movement, any flow, any sequence, any sense at all.

The people with clearly too much time on their hands who did this have an explanation, of sorts.

The goal, they write, is to "turn a book into something objective. Quantifiable. Analytical. So we can study the individual parts and learn new ways to read a text. If we look at books as datasets, we can see the statistical information within the writing, and discover insights that might otherwise be impossible to find."

For instance, there's the insight that the word "no" repeated 1,394 times in print looks suspiciously like the number of times my mother said that word to me in my fourth year of life. Or maybe in the first week of my fourth year.

What do we learn when we discover, as the Sideline Collective folks tell us, that in the KJV, "‘Good’ is used 720 times, ‘bad’ only 18"? Or that "‘Love’ is used 308 times and ‘hate’ 87 times"?

And why, of all things, did they pick the King James Version of the Bible? Its poetry is soaring and some of its language is deeply moving and memorable. But in the 400-plus years since its publication, all kinds of older manuscripts unavailable to the KJV translation team have turned up, which means more modern English translations are closer to the original Hebrew, Greek and (some) Aramaic used in the original texts.

In fact, why pick an English translation of the Bible for these word games at all? If something mysterious and spiritually uplifting is to be learned by rewriting the Bible in alphabetical order, wouldn't you want to use the most original manuscripts available instead of filtering it all through another language into which those words were translated at least 1,500 years after the words first were written (and in some cases much longer ago than that)?

This project sounds like the kind of idea that gets written down on a soggy napkin in a bar late at night. On the other hand, maybe you will be delighted and enlightened to know that in this blog post I have used the word "Bible" eight times, counting the one in the headline. Or maybe not.

* * *


So we see again via the national election process how radically divided Americans are. Which again raises the old question of how we live together. Advice from the world's great religions can help, but we have to be careful that we don't interpret familiar words in ways that make things worse. For instance, Matthew 5:43-44 reports Jesus saying this: “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you. . ."

The problem with using that advice to live together in peace with Americans with whom we disagree is that we begin by labeling them enemies. That road leads nowhere good. Oh, to be sure, some of the people with whom we disagree see us as enemies and we should see some of them that way if their goal is to undermine the values of freedom, democracy and equality that we hold dear (even if we sometimes don't act like we care about them). But to label everyone who doesn't think like us an enemy is to make enemies where we had only adversaries or challengers. We must imagine, instead, that we are all on the same team, though we may have different strategies for winning.

So let's start in this post-election season by using more careful language, which means using words meant to clarify instead of to incite. And let's use that kind of healing language not just in public but in private, too, to build a kind of mental muscle memory.

The president to talk about today is: Abe Lincoln

Springfield, Ill. -- I will get to the 2020 presidential election here on the blog eventually, but today I want to talk about my new understanding of our best-ever president, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln-12Last week I spent parts of three days here in the Illinois capitol, including a day on which I spent a full morning at the magnificent Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. (The photo here today shows the front of it.) It opened just 15 years ago and does a phenomenal job drawing visitors into the details of this profoundly wounded man who saved the United States from a permanent split over the freedom to sell other human beings as property.

Lincoln was born into desperate poverty in Kentucky and was slammed around by events, family, fate and circumstance for decades before he finally found himself where most American voters did not want him to be -- in the presidency. What he survived to get there -- sorrow, death, poverty, more -- makes a breathtaking list.

Once, when his marriage to Mary Todd -- set for New Year's Day 1841 -- got called off, Lincoln wrote this: "Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me. . .I can write no more."

There's a small side room at the Lincoln museum in which a film shows various people involved in the creation of the museum talking about how it came together and how they understand the story they're trying to tell.

At one point in the film, Bob Rogers, founder of BRC Imagination Arts, which was heavily involved in the whole museum-creation process, decides to reveal to the audience what he hopes many will see on their own (but may not). The thread that holds together the Lincoln story as told at the museum, he says, is that Lincoln is presented as the Job of his day.

Bam, I thought. Of course. In both Lincoln and the biblical character Job we see men going through trial after trial after trial and never losing sight of their own humanity, their own hearts, their own principles. Lincoln, in losing his mother when he was quite young (nine years old) and later losing three of his four sons, carried with him a sorrow and melancholy so deep and profound that today it's likely that some psychiatrists or psychologists would recommend long treatment and that he get out of public life until he finds his footing, if ever. Like Job, Lincoln got advice throughout his life about how to proceed, including in the Civil War, when the voices coming at him are relentless and full of contradictory ideas.

As for Job, of course, he loses everything, including his children, as part of a cosmic morality play in which God allows Satan (sort of a prosecutor to measure the faith of people) to test Job. Eventually even Job's wife says he'd be better off cursing God and dying. And his several friends pretend to tell him why he's suffering and what he should do about it. They say that all this is happening to Job because of some sin he has committed -- even though from the start God calls Job a righteous man. But the radical message of the book of Job is that suffering is not a sign that someone has sinned. Suffering is simply to be expected in a life in which humans have free will.

People have misunderstood at least parts of the book of Job for a long time. We hear of the patience of Job. The truth is that Job was not a patient man. He was, rather, a righteous man who, like Lincoln so many centuries later, knew his own heart and his own worth. A couple of years ago, I reviewed here a new translation of Job in which, contrary to most translations, we find that, at the end, Job does not "repent in dust and ashes."

As I wrote there, "Indeed, Job tells God that now that he's seen and heard God he's 'fed up' and that he 'takes pity on' what translator Edward L.) Greenstein, in a footnote, calls 'wretched humanity.' In effect, Job accuses God of unfairness resulting in human pain. And he's not sorry he's said that, either."

In the end, Lincoln was proved right in his insistence that the union must be preserved, even if it meant the abolition of slavery. Lincoln was no 21st Century anti-racist. Indeed, though he detested slavery, he had trouble imagining why anyone would want there to be social, integrated racial equality. And yet he did what was necessary to make sure there was at least a small chance that one day all citizens -- black, brown, white or red -- would be treated equally under the law. That, at least, still is the goal, even though this bitter year of 2020 has shown how much farther we have to go to reach that goal.

Indeed, in some ways we've all played the part of Job in 2020. What I hope we learn from this unwanted experience is that what matters, in the end, is what Lincoln knew mattered -- that we should regard one another as precious human beings even when life itself seems determined not to treat us that way.

Now let's see if we, as a nation, can find our way from here to Jan. 20, 2021, in one piece and ready to save the country once again, perhaps not unlike the way Lincoln would have sought to save it were he here.

* * *


The Vatican has issued statements seeking to clarify what Pope Francis said in a recent documentary about civil unions. It's what large religious organizations do to protect orthodoxy. And although the Vatican is right to insist that Francis was not changing church teaching in what he said, the reality is that he's challenging that teaching and that lots of people inside and outside the church hope the church can find a way to treat LGBTQ+ people with respect and to include them fully in the whole life of the church, including in same-sex marriage.

* * *

P.S.: As most of you know, France is in turmoil over the response of some Muslims there to what they consider provocations that they believe show disrespect for the Prophet Muhammad. My friend Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has written this piece on what French President Emmanuel Macron had to say about this as he defended freedom of speech in his country. Katju makes an interesting case supporting Macron. Do you agree?