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To answer eternal questions, we must think theologically

What does it -- or can it -- mean to think theologically? In other words, is it possible in the midst of war, pandemics, economic disparities, racial oppression and so much more to keep an eternal perspective on life? To wonder about purpose and meaning and final things?

K-TippettKrista Tippett (pictured here), a journalist and theologian who hosts the "On Being" public radio show and podcast, raised that question recently when she spoke at Kansas City's Country Club Christian Church, which has been celebrating the centennial of its 1921 founding.

At one point in her remarks, she was reminiscing about being in Europe in the 1980s when East Germany collapsed and joined with West Germany to become, simply, Germany today.

"It was like this social experiment," she said, "because we had this one city (Berlin) -- one city, one people, one history, one language -- and you split it down the middle. And you have two completely opposite economies and political systems and ways of telling the same history that they'd all lived through. There were two kind of levels of moral confusion. One was, what I was seeing in the world was real power. And the other was I watched people on the western side of the wall and on the eastern side of the wall and I saw that people in the east who had nothing could create this incredible beauty and dignity and intimacy. But it was also equally likely that if you lived in West Berlin where you had everything, you could be really shallow."

She said that made her wonder theologically how it is that we are human and "how is it that we craft life with meaning?. . .I just wanted to think theologically."

You and I, if we're conscious and mindful, recognize that we face those questions every day.

Why do some people produce art and other people get caught up in the deadly business of drugs? Why are some people profoundly moral, meaning they inevitably think about others and their needs, while some people are astonishingly self-centered and regularly demean others?

Well, of course, all of us are a mixture of good and evil. All of us, even with the best intentions, fail to live up to the standards that our great religions set for us and that we, in various ways, set for ourselves even if we're detached from those faith traditions.

And yet it's important to think theologically about our systems and our leaders. What conditions and failures coalesce to lead to a Vladimir Putin, a Donald Trump, an Andrew Johnson, a Viktor Orbán -- one autocrat after another? And what conditions and successes coalesce to lead us to an Abraham Lincoln, a Harry S. Truman, a Harriet Tubman, a Dalai Lama?

To answer such questions we must think theologically. We must ponder the factors that contribute to moral education and, in turn, to systems that control and work against humanity's tendency toward greed, power and empty consumerism.

There are, of course, various helps with all of this -- people, books, art, podcasts (such as Trippett's). But to want such a path in life requires that we say no to endless distractions, to mindless TV, to whatever draws us away from life-giving sources.

I wish I did much better at this task than I do. I wish everyone did. Maybe it requires a daily rededication to thinking and acting theologically, to listening to our better angels, to saying no to what sucks life and purpose out of us. Maybe today is the day to start that daily rededication.

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A few days ago was Yom Hashoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust and the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in World War II. If you've read the book that Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I wrote about how some non-Jews in Poland saved Jews from the Holocaust (They Were Just People), you know that trying to describe how non-Jewish Poles have related over history to Jews is, well, complicated.

And that's exactly the point that the rabbi who wrote this RNS column makes as he describes his recent visit to Poland. He writes this: "In the centuries of Polish Jewish sojourning, there were good years, even beautiful ones. But, there were also ugly, troublesome and tragic times." It's a piece well worth reading.

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P.S.: There's been a fair amount of news recently from astronomers about black holes. The question the author of this article explores in an interview with astrophysicist Jeff Zweerink is what any of that tells us about God. Part of Zweerink's answer: "Black holes are so beyond what I could fathom, so far beyond what I could even comprehend experiencing. We’re confronted in a small way with what it would be like to experience something infinitely bigger than us." (Zweerink seems here to be following Tippett's advice to think theologically.)

When people of faith lose their way because of idolatry

When religious leaders fail to follow the path that their tradition has traveled for centuries (with, of course, certain adaptations and occasional missteps), they inevitably get challenged by members of their community who call them to account.

IdolatrySome of that seems to be happening in light of the obvious presence of Christian nationalists at the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at our nation's Capitol. That event marked a culmination of ideas that had been expressed by certain pastors.

And as this NBC story describes, it has driven some self-described evangelical pastors out of the church and even out of the U.S.

As the story reports, "Jared Stacy had made the decision to leave his job as youth pastor at Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, just a week before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington."

Stacy, it's clear, was "(d)isillusioned with his church and the increasingly conservative and nationalist nature of the broader evangelical Christian community to which he had dedicated his life."

The religious support of former President Donald Trump -- at almost any cost -- is an American example of what's been happening to the Russian Orthodox Church's veneration of Vladimir Putin and of Putin's despicable war on Ukraine, a sycophant style relationship described in this Financial Times article. I also wrote about the church and Putin in the second item in this recent blog post.

None of this is to say that religious voices should not be heard in the public square. Nor is it to say that being a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu or an adherent of any other faith tradition means you should stay out of politics. Not at all. In fact, the very first creed of what became the Christian church -- "Jesus is Lord" -- was a bold political statement, meaning that Caesar is not lord.

But when faith communities become not just political but partisan in a way that ignores or abandons their core doctrine, they damage not only their own community, they damage religion in general by making it look hypocritical (because in this case it has become hypocritical).

The NBC story says that "Stacy, 31, is one of a small but growing number of younger evangelical Christians who have left what they see as a religious community led astray from its faith by a fervent strain of Trump-based politics. He and other former evangelicals warn that in a post-Jan. 6 world, the movement faces a challenge in attracting and keeping young, progressive Christians alienated by its relationship with conservative politics."

For some of those Christians, Trump became -- and, in many cases, remains -- an idol. And what is the first of the Ten Commandments? It's a warning against idolatry.

Stacy says he finally decided that "if I have to go buy into this politicization and conspiratorial mind in order to follow this peasant from Nazareth, I don’t want anything to do with that.”

The question is how many other people like Stacy there are in that wing of Christianity and how many eventually will recognize that Stacy is right to reject idolatry. Ask me in a few years.

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No one should be shocked that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its just-released annual report, says Afghanistan under the Taliban should be included in the list of worst offenders of religious liberty. That is who the Taliban has always been. That is why they allowed the 9/11 terrorists to train in Afghanistan. So I wouldn't be holding my breath of any significant change it the Taliban's approach to any religion beyond their own twisted version of Islam. (Here is a link to the new USCIRF report itself. Read it and weep.)

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about a great interfaith play -- now is online here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My review of Fr. Paul Jones' new book, Remnant Christianity, now is available online here from The National Catholic Reporter.

Why do we explore the creation? Because we must.

The recent news that "the final instrument aboard the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope finally achieved its operating temperature of just above absolute zero" is a reminder of what, from the beginning, humanity has done to explore the creation -- and, in turn, the idea of a creator.

Webb-telescopeAs the story to which I've linked you in the first paragraph reports, "The temperature milestone is a key moment in Webb's multi-phase, six-month-long commissioning period to get its mirrors aligned and its instruments ready for deep-space observations."

Almost no matter where you look to find the history of humanity, you discover that we are explorers and that our questions are endless. Even the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, though mythological and not historical, shows people who want answers, who need to test limits, who can't rest when they don't grasp something. In the biblical story, curiosity, in effect, killed those cats.

But that hasn't prevented people who came later from actively searching for answers to how the world works, which is the arena of science, and for what purpose the world and humanity exist, which is the arena of religion.

And over the centuries humanity has written about exploration as almost a God-given right and duty.

In Rudyard Kipling's "The Explorer" poem, for instance, he says a voice told him this: "Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges/Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

In Kipling's case, that voice may have driven him to participate in the scandal of colonialism, but the drive to find something new, to answer unanswered questions need not lead to evil and destruction. It can lead to insight and beauty.

Exploration, like a knife, is a neutral tool. It can help us, slice by delicate slice, understand how apples are formed. Or it can be used for murder, for appropriating for ourselves what doesn't belong to us.

Will that happen in the deep space that the Webb telescope soon will start revealing to us? Will we imagine distant stars, planets, galaxies are places to covet and control instead of being part of an intricate creation that contains its own fierce beauty? I can't answer that now. But if we treat distant space the way we've treated our own planet, I am not hopeful we'll get it right.

And yet, how can we not want to know what's out there? And what it might say about a creator?

(The image here was found with the story and carries this credit line: "Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab.")

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Do you, too, get satisfaction from stories about when bad things happen to bad people? I plead guilty, too. Which is why I so enjoyed this story from The Tablet headlined "Hitler's Jewish Baby." I won't tell you more than that. Just read it.

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P.S.: The Catholic Church has had two popes -- one in office, one retired -- living at the Vatican for nine years. A new book suggests it has been a destructive situation because the opponents of Pope Francis have made Pope Benedict XVI's home their headquarters. Once again a faith community is sadly divided between people who seem certain they know what the church should be and people who are open to more than one answer to questions.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My review of Fr. Paul Jones' new book, Remnant Christianity, now is available online here from The National Catholic Reporter.

What happened in the '90s that changed religion in the U.S.?

One of the stories about religion today that nearly everyone has heard has to do with the diminishment of Christianity in the U.S. It's been going on for decades, as Protestants now make up less than half the population and as the number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated (they're called the "nones") has soared (it's now at least 25 percent).

NonesBut did you know that the 1990s seems to have played a key part in this story? I hadn't really thought about that until I read this Religion News Service article. It was written by Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, a pastor in the American Baptist Church and author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.

He says that the 1990s are "when young Americans seemed to lose religion virtually overnight." I think he may be on to something.

What contributed to this phenomenon? "It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing," Burge writes, "but there are possible culprits." First is the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and with it the end of the "conflict between the virtuous Christian capitalists of the United States and the godless communists of the Soviet Union." That meant, he writes, "that being nonreligious no longer meant being un-American, giving permission for a lot of closet nones to begin expressing their true feelings on surveys."

Second was what he calls a "backlash against the religious right." That meant that "when faced with the strident rhetoric of the Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of the religious right leaders, many moderates headed for the church exits and never came back."

Third was the internet. "Demographers ignore the impact of the World Wide Web at their peril," Burge writes. "It would make sense that as young people were exposed to other faiths on the new technology — and saw the faults in their own — some would leave faith behind altogether." Well, the effect of the internet is more complicated than that, as he acknowledges, but it did play a role.

The question, of course, is whether anything can be done now to reverse the falling numbers. And, if so, what? That's what all kinds of scholars, congregational leaders and others are trying to figure out. And so far there's no clear answer.

There have been what I like to call some "movements" that have attracted people to this or that spiritual path in recent decades. But eventually movements need structure. And what results is another brand of institutional religion. That often means that what first attracted people to a movement slowly disappears and they drift away.

What we do know is that even most people who call themselves "nones" are not atheists. Whether institutional religion can find a way to appeal to them is still an unanswered question.

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The three Abrahamic religions whose major holidays have overlapped this year have this as a central tenet: "True life is found in living for others." That way of putting it is found in this article from The Guardian, which also makes this point: "(I)f your strategy for political victory is turning voters against their neighbor, if you see spending on universal quality child care, public education, mental health or raising the rate of income support for people without jobs as a burden rather than an investment, or if low wages and growing inequality are built in to your policy design and intrinsic to your political ideology, then your driving purpose is not the wellbeing of the human collective. Your leadership will not make the well-being of most people better most of the time – because, simply, that is not what you are about." And if that's not what we're about, why not?

A time to unpack what forgiveness and apologies mean

Among the many mysteries of faith, the roles of apologies and forgiveness rank pretty high on Easter weekend.

ForgivenessOne way of putting the Christian story, after all, is that the death of Jesus meant the forgiveness of our sins. The long-standing question, of course, is who gets included in the word "our."

As we think about being forgiven and forgiving others, it's helpful to think about apologies and their worth. To receive forgiveness, must we first apologize? And if we somehow represent more people than ourselves, can we legitimately apologize on behalf of others? Beyond that, do we have any standing to apologize for actions taken not by us but by, say, our ancestors or some of our long-dead fellow citizens?

Questions like that, I hope, will come to your mind when you read this piece from The Conversation about what it means when a pope apologizes.

The specific apology first dealt with in the article is one Pope Francis made recently "to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations, acknowledging the harm done by residential schools in Canada. . ."

Stories of mass graves of Indigenous children at boarding schools have received a lot of attention in the past year or so.

The author of the article, Annie Selak, associate director of the Women's Center at Georgetown University, writes that "As a Catholic theologian who studies church authority, I’ve observed how previous papal apologies can speak for the entire church and either deny or claim responsibility." And she adds this:

"It was once unthinkable for a pope to apologize, for admitting guilt would imply that the church was sinful. However, the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of bishops, cardinals, heads of religious orders and theologians that met from 1962 to 1965 and modernized the church, shifted the church’s perspective on change and instituted major reforms. It also opened the door to admitting fault."

So faith communities can -- and do -- establish their own rules for apologies and forgiveness, and they may not match the rules set by other faith communities. Governments, too, can -- and sometimes do -- issue apologies for actions taken by current or previous governments. The question is whether those apologies change anything, either in the one offering them or the ones receiving them.

No doubt part of figuring that out has to do with whether the apology seems sincere or whether it was simply a statement about being sorry that "you took it that way."

Beyond that, apologies that don't result in changed behavior seem pretty worthless. And yet Selak makes a valid point when she writes this: "While there are certainly actions that are necessary to repair and restore justice, I argue that it is also important to recognize that apologizing is itself an action." (To which I'd add, "though sometimes an empty action.")

In traditional Christian worship there's often both a corporate confession of sins and, after that, words that offer what's called an "assurance of pardon."

Whether in worship or simply in our daily lives, it's always useful to think about who is authorized to offer an apology and who is authorized to offer forgiveness. As someone with German heritage, for instance, do I personally have any standing to apologize to Jewish people for the Holocaust? Similarly, do Jews born after the Holocaust have any standing to offer forgiveness to German people also born after World War II?

In the end, philosophers and theologians can argue about such matters. And should. But the question I, as a Christian, must ask myself on Easter weekend is whether I need to apologize for any of my actions or thoughts and seek forgiveness. The answer every Easter is the same: Of course I do. After all, I'm human.

(P.S.: Here is an excellent article, apropos for Easter, from New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine about how Christians can avoid more anti-Judaism on this sacred day.)

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The origins of the so-called Easter Bunny are quite ancient, as this article from The Conversation notes. Indeed, it's always interesting to find out about the beginnings of our various cultural and religious traditions. In this case, however, the author, Tok Thompson, who teaches anthropology and communication at U.S.C., can't seem to acknowledge what Easter itself is about. He says this: "Easter is a celebration of spring and new life." But he doesn't say whose new life we're talking about. Here's a hint: Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ. You may believe in that resurrection or not, but that's what Easter is about.

Making sure journalism about religion gets terms right

Writing about religion, especially as a journalist (as opposed to an academician or a theologian), can be a tricky business because it's important to know a lot about many faith traditions and to be able to use the right terms.

Ap-stylebookTo help with that, the Associated Press is publishing a new "Stylebook," which will have quite a few additions and modifications in its section about coverage of religion. When I was at The Kansas City Star, we used both the AP Stylebook and a special local stylebook for various Kansas City references (as in, it's "the two Kansas Citys," not "the two Kansas Cities").

A stylebook that deals with religion, whether national or local in scope, has to pay close attention to how adherents and leaders of this or that religion refer to themselves and their tradition. For instance, as David Crary, the AP’s religion news director, explains in the Deseret News story (to which I've linked you above) about the new AP stylebook, "One of the most complicated things we did was to make 'Catholic' the default reference to Catholicism rather than 'Roman Catholic.' We consulted like crazy because we wanted to be sure that Catholic authorities were on board. They had a lot of detailed input for us."

Again, it comes down to how followers of a particular tradition prefer to be known or called. When, for instance, referring to people in my denomination, the correct term is "Presbyterians," not "The Frozen Chosen," even though the latter is a label we sometimes jokingly (sort of) apply to ourselves.

Holly Meyer, the AP's religion news editor, explained to the Deseret News what went into this revision of the AP Stylebook: "When we were given a green light to go ahead and revise the Stylebook, David (Crary) and I knew we needed help. We tapped three outside experts to go through it all and review it and give us feedback: Mary Gladstone (copy editor for Religion News Service), Bobby Ross Jr. (editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle and former AP religion reporter) and Richard Ostling (another former AP religion reporter). Their feedback was our guide for what entries to add."

Getting the descriptive words right in covering religion is more than a way to be as accurate as possible, it's also a way of showing respect to adherents and leaders of various faith traditions. And all of us certainly have learned various derogatory terms that have been used to describe this or that religious community. Such terms simply add to the misunderstanding and, frankly, hatred in the world. And why do we need more of either?

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Should the World Council of Churches expel the Russian Orthodox Church because it's essentially a Putin hand-puppet? This RNS article examines that question -- which has no easy answer. On the one hand, the ROC's patriarch has been an appalling enabler of Putin. On the other hand, the Rev. Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the WCC, makes this interesting argument: “It is easy to exclude, excommunicate, demonize; but we are called as WCC to use a free and safe platform of encounter and dialogue, to meet and listen to one another even if and when we disagree.” True, but at what point does that approach amount to having tea and crumpets with Stalin?

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P.S.: As a new member of the board of SevenDays, I invite you to participate in this year's SevenDays events, which you can read about at the link I've given you. All this started after a neo-Nazi murdered the son and father of Mindy Corporan and the wife of Jim LaManno at Jewish sites in the KC area in 2014. You can read about all that and how Mindy has dealt with the trauma by getting her new book, Healing a Shattered Soul. I especially hope to see you at the walk for kindness this Sunday at the Liberty Memorial.

What can we learn from those who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus?

On the Christian calendar, Good Friday happens this week. On the Jewish calendar, Passover begins at sunset that same day. And on the Muslim calendar, Ramadan began April 1.

Witness-crossSo I can't think of a better time than this week for adherents of all three religious traditions to read a new book about Good Friday by a New Testament scholar who is Jewish. Thus, this weekend I introduce you to Amy-Jill Levine's small (151 pages) new book, Witness at the Cross: A Beginner's Guide to Holy Friday. (An aside: The Qur'an says Jesus, Islam's second most important prophet, wasn't crucified but, by a miracle, was saved by God.)

If you are familiar with Levine's fine work (and, if not, why not?) you will come to this one with high expectations that she not only will teach you things you didn't know (but maybe should have) but she'll also offer an approach to learning that you can carry into other areas beyond theology. And you will not be disappointed.

She challenges readers to challenge themselves and the world around them, to ask hard questions, to not settle for simplistic answers.

Indeed, she encourages readers not to walk away from their doubts or the anger they may have felt at various times in their lives, whether that has to do with religion or simply living.

"Abraham argued with God," she writes, "Moses argued with God, Job argued with God, and numerous psalms have the form of lament. I've had my moments (Levine sometimes slips herself into her books in this way), and you may have too. There is nothing sinful or shameful in speaking out about pain or injustice. There is nothing sinful or shameful in lamenting to God. . ."

This approach will be helpful in trying to understand the cry of Jesus from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Indeed, Levine deals at some length with that, noting that it's the opening line of Psalm 22.

Although Levine is writing about an event that happened some 2,000 years ago, she always looks for ways to make it relevant to what's happening in the news today. For instance, when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus about whether he's "King of the Jews," Jesus tells him that his "kingdom is not from this world." Levine then asks this: "To what extent should church and state be mutually implicated? If Jesus is not a king in an earthly political sense, why do some of his followers want their political systems to be 'Christian' ones?" Why, indeed.

A few pages later she explores the question of what it really means to be "saved." In a word, it's not a simple concept. And if your idea of being "saved" is simply that you'll go to heaven, you may want to pay attention to the ways in which Levine will complicate your thinking in what she writes. As she notes, "in the Gospels, salvation is not simply a rescue from present danger; it is also a state of a right relationship between humanity and divinity."

Levine understands -- and tries to teach the rest of us -- that the Bible is not a simple book, nor one that can be understood in only one way. She writes: "The Bible, I have often said, is a book that helps us ask the right questions. It does not always provide answers, but by encouraging those who hold it sacred to speak to each other about difficult matters, it may lead us in good directions." And this: "I don't appreciate biblical studies that avoid the hard questions, whether of history or theology; I have known too many students who are shaken to their core in biblical studies classes when they suddenly realize that there are contradictions in the Bible."

The number of people -- and their identities -- who were at the cross on Good Friday is uncertain. But Levine is right to assert this: "Rather than engage in the futile attempt to determine who exactly these witnesses were, what they saw and what they did, we readers do well to listen to their stories and see how their stories transform us. At that point, we pick up the story ourselves."

Which, of course, is a primary reason for reading the Bible -- or any sacred text -- at all.

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The African Methodist Episcopal denomination is facing several lawsuits alleging the church badly mishandled its pension fund and lost tens of millions of dollars. One of the lawsuits alleges that the church’s Department of Retirement Services “invested Plan assets in imprudent, extraordinarily risky investments that ultimately lost nearly $100 million of Plan participants’ retirement savings.” The courts, obviously, will have to straighten this out. But it's one more clear reminder to faith communities that they, too, need competent financial advisors, honest employees and, perhaps most important, reliable systems of financial accountability. Depending on the good-heartedness of human beings without such restraints almost inevitably leads to disasters. God knew that. Which is why the Ten Commandments exist.

Two lives, two models for living well however long we have

Delavan, Ill. -- As some of my extended family gathered here recently to celebrate the wonderful reality that my late father's brother Lawrence (pictured here with me) has reached age 100 but acts like he's about 60, I was trying to process the memorial service I had attended by Zoom a few days earlier for Jim Lippold (pictured below), a childhood friend who hadn't yet died.

LT-100-sJim, dying of cancer, decided to put together a celebration of his life so he could attend. And he did. Those of us not near him in Washington state gathered via Zoom from across the country on a Wednesday.

Three days later, on the same Saturday we were celebrating Uncle Lawrence Tammeus' 100th, Jim breathed his final breath. His brother Bob, with whom I graduated from high school, was in the next room while Pam, a dear neighbor of Jim's, was with him as he left.

So Jim, a terrific social worker with a degree in behavioral science, died three months shy of his 74th birthday while Lawrence, a terrific farmer and Army veteran, so far has hit the century mark, each having lived generative lives of grace, hope, commitment and beauty.

Mere numbers don't provide a lot of help in thinking about what all this means, but they do provide at least a little perspective. Jim and Lawrence, human beings who never met, each was what the Dalai Lama likes to remind all of us that we are: "one of seven billion."

Since he began saying that, however, seven billion has become 7.9 billion and is expected to hit 8 billion next year. In his book, From Strength to Strength, Arthur C. Brooks makes note of the Dalai Lama quote and then adds: "By this, he does not mean that I am insignificant or just like everyone else. Rather, he is encouraging me to zoom out from my narrow, earthbound perspective on my life, my work, my relationships, my money."

That's a good practice. And I was reminded of that not only by some of Jim's friends who spoke, as did I, at his celebration of life, but also by catching up with various relatives at Lawrence's party. Only occasionally do second cousins once removed cross my mind. But they're out there living sometimes-beautiful and sometimes-difficult lives. Mostly, of course, I'm focused on me and my immediate family and their needs, joys and struggles.

James-LipppoldWhat I need to remember is that there's a bigger picture, that my perspective is inevitably too narrow, that although each life is of inestimable worth, few lives, including my own, are mine to control. I can only live my life in a way that I hope will be instructive and inspirational to others.

But I can learn from both Jim and Lawrence. For instance, just a few months before he died, Jim wrote this to his Facebook friends: "I'm happy. This may sound crazy or impossible coming from a dying man, but it's true. . .I'm studying and reading about death and dying from mostly a Buddhist perspective, but generally spiritually and philosophically. My intention is to have a good death."

In some way, maybe I can be like Jim, who in the Vietnam era was a conscientious objector, no easy position to take in our small, almost-all-white, heavily Republican hometown of Woodstock, Ill.

And in some way, maybe I can be like Lawrence, who farmed the land that his own grandfather, an immigrant from Germany, had acquired in the 1880s and that Lawrence's father had farmed before him.

LT-100-p And while he was doing that he and his wife Velma were rearing three children and being stalwart members of their church, in the choir of which Lawrence sang for at least six decades, resulting in the award you see pictured here.

Even the longest human life is, compared with the 13.8-billion-year-old universe, fleeting. But that doesn't mean it is insignificant or meaningless. It means that, like flowers, like music, it is impermanent but can be beautiful.

Lawrence-June-21The lives of Jim and Uncle Lawrence remind me to spend what little time I have well, to bring some joy and insight and laughter into the lives of others, to love even when loving is difficult.

Maybe I'll print this post out and paste it on the mirror in the bathroom so I don't forget what Jim and Lawrence have been trying to teach me.

Oh, and if you see a 100-year-old man cruising around Delavan, Ill., in his green Corvette, ask Lawrence if you can hop in for a ride. You won't forget it.

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Muslims around the globe began celebrating their holy month of Ramadan this past Saturday. What can those of us who aren't Muslim learn from this month of fasting and sacrifice? This article from The Guardian offers some ideas. The author, a school teacher in London, writes this: "It is a common misconception that Ramadan is all about food. In truth, it is about starving the body to feed the soul. By temporarily depriving our bodies of what they need, we forge room for spirituality and introspection, generosity and discipline, to blossom in its place." And it's precisely those qualities that can help us stand for the common good and against radicalism of any kind.

If our spiritual growth stops at age 12, say, what's the point?

What is the most perplexing question human beings ask about themselves?

NativeIt's some version of this: What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? If life has meaning, what is it?

In other words, people ask themselves the very question(s) that religion tries to help answer. And yet I find it both astonishing and disappointing that many adults, in my experience, have quit seeking answers to those questions. In some cases, they try to get by with the theology they had in sixth grade -- even if, in the meantime, they've completed graduate-level courses in science, engineering, journalism, agriculture, medicine or some other field.

I've been thinking about this phenomenon as I've been reading Kaitlin B. Curtice's book Native: Identity, Belonging and Rediscovering God. Curtice, who spoke recently via Zoom to a local audience at Village Presbyterian Church in suburban Kansas City, comes from both a white and a Potawatomi heritage. She spent much of her childhood as a member of a Southern Baptist congregation, but identifies now simply as Christian.

Fairly early in her book she writes this: "Many adults I've talked to have described a coming of age with their faith and/or identity in which they realize that what they were given as children wasn't meant to hold up in later years. We are all asking what the future of our identity looks like, what our own beginnings gave us. As we ask, we begin to deconstruct those things that were once so dear to us. We begin to let go of thing like legalism and see that though for some of us everything may have been good and safe, our faith tradition still left out and hurt so many people who should have been welcomed."

When my children were growing up, I'd tell them that if, at the end of the day, they didn't feel a little more ignorant, they weren't doing it right. I still believe that for them and for me, too. But to feel more ignorant at the end of a day, sometime in that day you have to come into contact with information, knowledge and insights you didn't know before.

And my contention is that because life's purpose is our most important question, some of that new information, knowledge and insight should have to do with that question.

I also tell people that the job of an opinion columnist is to complicate the thinking of others. But, in fact, complicating our own thinking is really the job of all of us. So I hope you'll find a way to explore the question of meaning through what you read, what you watch, to whom you speak and in other ways. I'm guessing that entering the afterlife won't involve a quiz we'll need to pass. But you do want to understand in a deep way that the purpose of life had to do with love, mercy, compassion, generosity, justice -- and did I mention love?

Let's all go figure out what that looks like today.

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In 2007, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I went to Poland to do interviews for what would become our 2009 book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, Jack Mandelbaum of Kansas City met us there and helped us with translating the interviews from Polish to English. We'll always be grateful to him for that assistance.

A play about Jack's own story of living through the Holocaust, "Surviving Hitler," will be presented in a limited engagement by the Lewis and Shirley White Theatre at The Jewish Community Campus, 5801 W. 115th St. in Overland Park, April 9-14. Tickets are available at, though the Sunday, April 10, performance, for which I have tickets, already is sold out.

Jack was a co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, to say nothing of being a wonderful and amazing man. “Surviving Hitler” is a stage adaptation of the award-winning book of the same name by, Andrea Warren. The play, which Warren adapted for the stage with the help of director Tim Bair, dramatizes Jack's Holocaust experiences. This is history we can't afford to lose. So come see it and spread the word.

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P.S.: A couple of years ago I wrote this Flatland column about the marvelous collection of Judaica on display at Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kan. If you haven't yet seen it, you (and your children or grandchildren) now have a chance to let a Girl Scout lead you through it. As Lauren Goldman recently wrote to me, "my daughter Natalie Goldman, is pursuing her Girl Scout Gold Award. To do so, she has created a special tour of the Michael Klein Collection at the Temple B'nai Jehudah. . .The tour, which includes art projects and a visit to the mitzvah garden, is meant for non-Jewish children to learn a little about Jewish history. It is Natalie's hope that this will create a warmer reception for Jewish friends growing up in the Kansas City community." What a good idea. Here's Lauren's Facebook post about this. And you also can connect through the temple's Klein page here. Visits to the collection are by appointment only.