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KC's religious landscape continues to change


This seems to be the summer of Kansas City area faith communities combining.

For instance, members of Central United Methodist Church at 52nd and Oak, southeast of the Plaza, have voted to close their congregation and then reopen as a branch of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) of suburban Leawood.

And two Conservative Jewish congregations, Beth Shalom and Ohev Sholom have decided to merge. I've just linked you to a Jewish Chronicle story about that. As many of you no doubt know, I capitalize the word "Conservative" because it's the official name of one of the primary branches of Judaism -- Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist -- not because it's full of people who are politically conservative, whatever that means anymore.

Although I'm not a Methodist (despite the fact that I once was married in a Methodist church), I have connections both to Central (next door to which I now live) and to COR.

One of my daughters and her family once were members of Central and later of COR, while my other daughter first attended preschool at Central and later taught preschool there. (Knowing that daughter as I do, I bet she no doubt also taught teachers some things even while she was a preschool student there.)

And Central is where I first met the Rev. Adam Hamilton, then an associate pastor there before he became the founding pastor of COR, the largest United Methodist Church in the country. Adam even wrote the foreword for my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

There seems to be a kind of organic life in Christianity, especially in Protestant churches in the U.S. Which is to say that churches grow, shrink, merge, disappear and split pretty frequently. That's been especially true after World War II, when a vast majority of Americans identified as Protestant. Today Protestants make up less than half of Americans who identify as affiliated with any religious tradition.

Central-M-2No doubt some of those dynamics played into the decision to close Central and have it become, instead, a campus of COR.

In any case, I want to share with you what the Rev. Sally Haynes, Central's pastor, shared with her congregation about this change. On July 1, she wrote:

Dear Central Friends,

I want to share with you the results of last night’s Church Conference, where we voted whether to close as Central UMC in order to reopen as a campus of Church of the Resurrection.

The vote passed, 72-9.

As a result of this vote, our last worship service as Central UMC will be on Sunday, September 25. The first service on our site as Church of Resurrection will likely be December 11 or 18.

You’ll be getting lots more information in the days ahead about how we’ll celebrate Central’s legacy between now and our closing. You’ll also be hearing much more about Resurrection’s ministry plans as they develop. By the way, Resurrection will hold their own vote in a couple of weeks to receive Central, so please hold them in prayer as they complete their own discernment process. There is every expectation that their vote will pass, affirming everything that I’ve said above.

Beyond the many meetings we’ve had and last night’s vote, I want to invite you to pause a moment and allow the weight of our actions to sink in. As you breathe in and out, what emotions are you feeling?

If you’re like me, you’re feeling the whole spectrum. Gratitude for all that Central has meant. Grief at the ending of what was. Excitement for what will be. Anxiety about what changes will occur. And hope for a future that is bigger than can be imagined in this moment. Hope, always hope.

Whenever I’ve wondered if this change might be too much for us, I’ve thought about the wall of pictures of Central’s previous buildings in the downstairs breezeway. The oldest picture shows Kansas City as a frontier town, the last stop for provisions before heading off into the prairie. You can practically smell the fresh-cut lumber of the building scattered around the dirt roads. There is a steeple visible above that rugged town, and that steeple is us. Other pictures show different church buildings, locations, and names over the decades. Our history has been doing whatever it takes -- moving, merging, changing names -- to share the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ to our area. We’ve been doing that since 1844, and this vote allows us to share this powerful DNA so that our legacy can continue.

The Good News will continue to be shared with a world that needs it so powerfully because, once again, Central is willing to do whatever it takes.

So, this morning I am breathing deeply, grateful for the past, and hopeful for the future.



And here's what Adam Hamilton later shared with the COR congregation on the church's website:


Thank you to all who attended our Church Conference last Saturday in person or online. We voted to approve Central United Methodist Church at 51st and Brookside as a new location of Church of the Resurrection.

The vote was nearly unanimous (165-3) with a lot of excitement. This is a remarkable opportunity to continue and expand upon the historic work Central has done in building a Christian community in this part of the city. The first public school classes in Kansas City were held at Central. UMKC began holding classes at Central. Shepherd’s Center International and Kingswood Manor retirement community were started out of Central. And Central UMC played a key part in starting Resurrection.

The planning and transition process is underway. Central will worship until September 25 when they will have their final service and close, passing the baton to Resurrection. We will then begin preparing to launch this new Resurrection location in December (with activities taking place for Central members between September and December). If you live in the Plaza/Brookside area and might be interested in helping launch this location and worshipping there, can you take a minute and let us know?

The Jewish Chronicle piece to which I linked you above gives some explanation for why the two Conservative congregations elected to merge. My only insight into that is that sometimes it's more difficult for people in the middle -- labeled, say, moderates or centrists -- to attract the kind of energy and enthusiasm that can be found at either end of the continuum, whether we're talking religion or politics or even music and other forms of art.

But remember also that the total religious landscape in the U.S. has been changing in recent decades to the point that at least 25 percent of adult Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated. American Judaism reflects that. As the Pew Research Center reported in 2020, some 27 percent of American Jews identify as non-observant, or non-religious.

In any case, the reality is that religion in Kansas City is far from static. Houses of worship open, change, move, close. Individuals commit to one path but then change to another or to none at all.

As these Christian and Jewish mergers this summer prove again, the landscape changes regularly. But, as I wrote recently, if all religious communities ever disappear, we'll all be sorry.

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PAWHUSKA, Okla. -- I'm in Oklahoma this weekend with a group from my church visiting museums and other sites related to Indigenous life in the U.S. It's part of the anti-racism work we're trying to do, and that begins with educating ourselves. So this note will have to suffice for the usual second item here on the blog.

Is the U.S. susceptible to another civil war? A really good question

After the American Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction meant that although the war itself may have led to the end of slavery, it did not destroy the idea of white supremacy, which was at the root of the war. That's why we Americans wound up with legal segregation, including all the racist Jim Crow laws, with lynching, with, finally, the necessary Civil Rights Movement.

How-Civil-Wars-StartAnd it's why, after the Civil Rights Movement, we ended up with many bitter white people, especially (but not exclusively) in the American South, who believed they had lost something precious. (Thus, the "Lost Cause" mythology.) Many of those disappointed whites didn't own much or have much of an economic future, but in their own minds they at least had the advantage of being white.

I've been thinking about our Civil War and its aftermath recently as I've been reading University of California international relations professor Barbara F. Walter's 2022 book How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.

Much of the book has to do with countries outside of the U.S., such as Northern Ireland, Serbia, the Philippines, Syria, Ukraine and others. But underlying all of that is the idea that current political, economic and social conditions in the U.S. are such that we cannot categorically rule out another civil war. That may seem far-fetched, but it seems more believable now after the January 6, 2021, insurrection and, indeed, after both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

I was particularly struck by Walter's observation -- based on years of her and other scholars studying civil wars around the world -- that when people feel they have been "downgraded" in some way, they are more open to action (sometimes violent) to stop it and regain what they think they've lost. She writes:

"Downgraded factions can be rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, white or Black. What matters is that members of the group feel a loss of status to which they believe they are entitled and are embittered as a result."

In some ways that comment quickly reminded me of one of the major errors that Hillary Clinton made in her 2016 presidential campaign. She referred to at least some supporters of Donald Trump as a "basket of deplorables."

Although it's far from the only stupid thing presidential candidates have said over the years, it rang with an appalling tone of dismissiveness from which she never recovered -- even if the candidate who beat her was himself an appalling man who became the worst president in American history (though I'm open to the argument that Andrew Johnson, given the long-term consequences of his failure to make sure Reconstruction succeeded, might have been worse in the long run).

What made Trump appealing enough to win not the popular vote in 2016 but the majority of votes in the antiquated Electoral College was his appeal to the very people Walter writes about in her book, those who believe they've been downgraded -- especially those who were so badly hurt economically in the Great Recession of 2007-'08. That economic downturn came about in many ways because of misguided government tax and business policies that were stacked against middle-class Americans but that mostly helped the richest Americans.

It's from such an attitude of being downgraded -- whether justified or not and whether economic in nature or not -- that you get protesters marching to this antisemitic chant: "Jews will not replace us." And you get such misleading political slogans as "Make America Great Again," which seemed to suggest that the greatest time ever in American history was the early 1950s when Ozzy and Harriet Nelson slept in separate beds on their TV show and Black people knew that they belonged in the back of the bus.

There are things about all of this that involve religious ideas, and we'll get to that in a minute. But back to Walter's book first.

She writes: "Human beings hate to lose. They hate to lose money, games, jobs, respect, partners and, yes, status. . .They are much more motivated to try to reclaim losses than they are to make gains. People may tolerate years of poverty, unemployment and discrimination. They may accept shoddy schools, poor hospitals and neglected infrastructure. But there is one thing they will not tolerate: losing status in a place they believe is theirs. In the twenty-first century, the most dangerous factions are once-dominant groups facing decline." (Think of the Great Replacement Theory.)

Among once-dominant groups facing decline in the U.S. are white males, especially those blue-collar and farm workers battered by the economy. So far the Democratic Party, which used to represent such folks, seems not to have a cohesive or coherent plan to regain their votes. It's a major party failure.

But ideas about feeling degraded -- whether they reflect reality or not -- lead to such dangerous groups as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Ku Klux Klan and others. (And, yes, social media now play a huge, disastrous role in disseminating mis- and disinformation that fuels this catastrophic growth of extremism.)

It's from such groups -- which have other names in other countries -- that civil wars have sprung. As Walter writes, "People don't realize how vulnerable Western democracies are to violent conflict. They have grown accustomed to their longevity, their resilience and their stability in the face of crises. But that was before social media created an avenue by which enemies of democracy can easily infiltrate society and destabilize it from within. The internet has revealed just how fragile a government by and for the people can be."

Among the many failures in American society today and in recent years has been institutional religion's cozying up to such extremism in the form of white Christian nationalism, for instance, as well as religion's failure to find more effective ways of offering generative alternatives to radicalism. Yes, some people of faith have tried and some have done important work in this area, but not enough. And when people distort a faith tradition -- whether it's certain Christians in the U.S., Hindus backing nationalist ideology in India or Muslims supporting terrorists who murder women and children to make political points -- the results are inevitably catastrophic.

We-need-to-buildIt's unclear where all this is going in the U.S. But Walter offers helpful scholarship to open our eyes to some of what's happening here and around the world, events that may lead to civil war. As I noted recently on the blog, Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith America, writes in his new book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, "The United States is the world's first attempt at a mass-level diverse democracy. That's one of the reasons we call this 'the American experiment' -- because not only was such a thing never tried before; people also considered it impossible."

It looks increasingly as if our job is to make sure that diverse democracy can, in fact, work for the common good. That outcome is not guaranteed. So we'll need the voices of religion to help us with that, not to undermine the effort by mistaking patriotism for allegiance to God.

* * *


Pope Francis did the right thing this week by going to Canada personally and apologizing for the role the Catholic Church played in the effort to strip away the language and culture of Indigenous children by sending them to boarding schools to turn them into white kids. But the right thing isn't always enough. And that's true here. Additional work should include an effort to educate not just all the world's Catholics but everyone, including other Christians, about the deformed theology that led to such disastrous developments as the Doctrine of Discovery. That 1493 racist piece of religious exclusivism helped lay the groundwork not just for the brutal boarding schools but for the appalling mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada and in what became the U.S. And my guess is lots of white folks in church pews have never heard of it. You can't fix what you can't see or don't know exists. So, Pope Francis, you found the right place to start. Just don't stop there. Here is a piece in the Toronto Globe and Mail by an Indigenous writer making points similar to what I just made -- but with much more credibility than I have on this issue. 

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column is now online. It's about a Catholic priest who, through no fault of his own, has had what he calls a cloud over his priesthood. You can read it here.

Abortion? Humans disagree about what a 'person' is

Much of the abortion-related discussion both before and after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has been about when life actually begins.

Personhoodpod-01But as this intriguing piece from The Conversation suggests, maybe that's not the most basic question. Rather, the author says, we should be talking about what it means to be a "person" and about how different cultures around the world have come up with different answers to that question. (The author is Robert Launay, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University.)

I'm sure I should have expected that there would be different views about what "person" means, but I admit I've never given it much thought. A person is simply another human being, right? Well, says Launay, who specializes in the study of non-European religions, not so fast. It's more complicated than that. He writes: "The central question is what – or who – constitutes a person."

Answers to that question vary a lot, it turns out, though some answers are far more popular than others. For instance, as Launay notes, "Ideas about personhood in U.S. culture are largely a product of Christianity, in which personhood is inextricably tied to the notion of the soul. Only a being who possesses a soul is a person, and personhood is treated as a black-and-white matter: Either a being has a soul or it does not."

But then, of course, you can easily wander into a discussion of whether there's a difference between a person's "soul" and "spirit," and, if so, what is it? Let me know if and when you settle that one.

Launay is right that Christianity focuses on one's soul, but let's make a side point here to say that Christianity doesn't teach that people have immortal souls. (That's an old Greek idea that somehow has wormed its way into parts of Christianity.) Only God is immortal. If someone is to live eternally in the presence of God (call that heaven, if you like), that will happen only because God grants that person that gift, not because when the person was born he or she was given an immortal soul. You can find more about this idea about soul in this 2020 blog post, which includes links to some references.

Launay writes a bit about the Beng culture of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), saying, "For Beng, all babies are reincarnations of people who recently died. They emerge from a place called 'wrugbe,' which is simultaneously the afterlife and a sort of before-life." And apparently it's not immediately clear whether the newborn already is his or her own "person" or retains something of the personhood of the one who recently died.

It reminds me of the Tibetan idea of "bardo," which that great source of all accurate wisdom, Wikipedia, describes as "an intermediate, transitional or liminal state between death and rebirth." If you haven't read George Saunders' amazing novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I highly recommend it, having just finished it. (Whew. What a read.)

Launay also notes that in some cultures, “'Persons' are not even necessarily human." Remember, in fact, that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its "Citizens United" ruling, declared, in effect, that corporations are persons. (For many reasons, we need to get that ruling fixed.)

So it's no wonder that human beings argue about abortion, about when life begins, about what a person is. And it helps to be at least a little bit humble about thinking you know the final word of truth about all of this.

(It's intriguing that as more scholars and legal experts begin to analyze the recent Dobbs case in which the Supreme Court overturned Roe, they're finding inconsistencies in the court's wording about what it means to be a "person." This article from Religion & Politics is a good example.)

(The photo illustration here today came from here.)

* * *


The stunning newly released images from the James Webb Space Telescope once again raise the question of when, if ever, folks who believe that Earth is just a few thousand years old will concede that they've lost that election. As this RNS piece by religion scholar Mark Silk notes, despite the telescope's evidence that what it's seeing is billions of years old, "there certainly are Christians who don’t accept it. Foremost among them are 'young Earth' creationists such as those associated with Answers in Genesis, the fundamentalist Christian apologetics organization that was founded in 1980 as the Creation Science Foundation." (Wonder if those folks include some flat earthers in their midst.) Silk quotes one of the young earthers this way: “God created everything in the heavens and the earth within six literal days approximately 6,000 years ago (per the biblical timeline), all for his glory.” It must be sad and disheartening to miss all the poetry, the allegory, the myth and the mystery in scripture. But whichever way the biblical literalists use to figure out the Earth's age, I bet they have made a 24-hour adjustment for the time the sun stood still for that long, as described in Joshua 10:13. After all, you want to be as precise about such matters as you can be.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column is now online. It's about a priest who, through no fault of his own, has had what he calls a cloud over his priesthood. You can read it here.

Suppose all the faith communities just disappeared

A few weeks ago in this post, I introduced you to a new book by Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith America. I did that even though I hadn't yet read We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.

Religions-of-the-worldNow I have read it. But instead of telling you all the reasons you should read it (you should), I want to focus on an excellent point he makes in just one of the chapters, which is this: If all the houses of worship in the U.S. vanished tomorrow, our society would look much different and also much, much worse.

It's a point I have made before here and in other venues, but at a time when there's been a diminishment of religion in our culture in recent decades, it's easy to forget all that religious institutions have contributed to our society.

Patel writes that if all religious communities in your town disappeared, "the social consequences would be at least as devastating as the spiritual ones. Where would the local Alcoholics Anonymous group meet? Who would organize volunteers to go visit the senior center? What would happen to all the families who rely on the food served in the soup kitchens?"

But it gets worse.

Think of all the hospitals that faith communities have started. Just in Kansas City, Episcopalians, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Catholics, Jews and others have been contributors in this field. And where would the thousands of kids who attend area YouthFront (a Christian organization) camps go to summer camp if that agency didn't exist?

What about the colleges with religious roots? Some of those colleges remain ministries of one or another religious tradition, including Rockhurst and Avila universities and Donnelly College (all Catholic) and MidAmerica Nazarene University. And I haven't even mentioned the several seminaries in our area.

Add in charitable organizations (maybe start with Catholic Charities and the Jewish Community Foundation) and you start to see what trouble our community would be in without the religious heart for giving to sustain the needy. (Yes, we should debate whether the need for so much charity indicates that we have systemic failures in our economic system. We do. But even if faith-based groups responded only to emergency needs, they would be busy.)

Patel quotes Robert Putnam from his book Bowling Alone this way: "(Religious communities) provide an important incubator for civil skills, civic norms, community interests and civic recruitment. Religiously active men and women learn to give speeches, run meetings, manage disagreements and bear administrative responsibility."

Patel doesn't ignore the religious decline in the U.S.

"(A)s the numbers of people involved in those religious communities decline," he writes, "so does the strength of faith-based agencies. There are fewer volunteers, less money, lower morale."

The question, of course, is how faith communities adapt to new, more secular times. And what the whole of society might lose if religious congregations and organizations die off.

One of the primary lessons of the world's great religions is that God's love and grace are free. But to maintain an organization that can deliver that good news is not free. And when faith communities shut down, the whole society loses something. In a time when we Americans are badly divided over so much, we'd do well to appreciate -- and, where appropriate, support -- faith communities, which are woven deeply into our social fabric.

* * *


One recent day my wife and I took our two youngest grandchildren to the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, just a block or two from where we live in Kansas City. The current exhibit theme is "America’s Monsters, Superheroes and Villains: Our Culture at Play." Notice the "at play" aspect of that. Americans tend to tame their monsters. But it turns out that monsters also play a fairly prominent role in the Bible, as this article from The Conversation points out. They may not be quite everywhere in scripture, but it's kind of hard to miss them. As Madadh Richey, assistant professor of Hebrew Bible at Brandeis University, notes, "The Bible is full of monsters, even if they’re not Frankenstein or Bigfoot, and these characters can teach important lessons about ancient authors, texts and cultures. Monsterlike characters – even human ones – can convey ideas about what’s considered normal and good or 'deviant,' disturbing and evil." Perhaps this is one more reason to understand that the Bible makes the most sense when it's not read as literal history or science. Its purpose, instead, is to explore the questions of who God is and who we are in relation to God. To do that, in addition to some actual history, it uses myth, metaphor, allegory and the occasional monster.

* * *

P.S.: You get a bonus today: This lovely piece from the Jewish Telegraph Agency about one beautiful way to think about the astonishing photos you're seeing from the Webb telescope. A sample: "We are the universe coming to know itself. We are the eyes of God peering out into endless darkness, lighting fires of imagination and ingenuity that allow us to reach into our bodies to make them well, and to travel to the great orbs in the sky, and to look deep into the past, with a golden vessel like the altar of incense overlaid in gold, burning through time and thick with the fragrance of memory, hiding its illuminations somewhere beneath the smoke."

Readers of the Bible seem to be getting more discerning


There's good news about Bible reading.

The Gallup poll people report that only 20 percent of Americans now believe that the Bible is God's literal word.

As the report to which I just linked you notes, that 20 percent figure is "down from 24% the last time the question was asked in 2017, and half of what it was at its high points in 1980 and 1984."

But there's also bad news about Bible reading.

That same Gallup report notes that "a new high of 29% say the Bible is just a collection of 'fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.'"

Well, the Bible, indeed, contains some of all of those kinds of writing, but it has shown itself over history to be considerably more than that. And about half of Americans seem to understand that.

Which means that the kind-of-neutral news about Bible reading, also from Gallup, is that 49 percent of Americans think the Bible is "inspired by God, (but) not all to be taken literally." That percentage has stayed pretty steady for quite a while, and I'm in that 49 percent figure.

So why do I say it's good news that the percentage of people who take the Bible literally has dropped? Because it's impossible to read the Bible as God's literal and inerrant word while at the same time taking that word seriously. You can do one or the other but not both at the same time.

(A literal reading of the Bible is one way to come up with the bogus idea that God hates LGBTQ+ people because homosexuality is a sin. That conclusion leads to all kinds of evil. One of those evils has to do with the way LGBTQ+ people are quite often cyberbullied. This site can help those of you who need guidance on how to confront such hateful aggression.)

And while we're talking about the Bible, it also helps to identify which Bible you're talking about. The Hebrew Bible? If so, which translation? The Christian Bible? If so, not only which translation but do you mean a Bible that includes the Apocrypha, which some branches of Christianity do not include in the official canon? (Or are you with a woman who once told the former director of the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., that if the King James Version was good enough for St. Peter it was good enough for her?)

There isn't, it turns out, just one Bible.

Beyond all that, it's important to recognize that the Bible (whichever version you've chosen) is a collection of writings that dozens of writers took at least 1,500 years to create. And although those writings include some verifiable history, they also use metaphor, poetry, simile, allegory, song lyrics and, well, tall tales to make valid points about God and about God's relationship to humans and the rest of creation.

The Bible is not a journalistic account of events written by the equivalent of Associated Press or Reuters reporters at the time. (Had it been put together by a TV reporter back when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the reporter delivering the news no doubt would have mentioned the 10 total number but then, for the sake of brevity, added, "the three most important of which are. . .")

The Bible is way, way better and more interesting than that. But if you read it as if God spoke the words directly into the ears of the robotic-like writers and they simply jotted down those words of divine origin, you dehumanize the book and miss its point(s).

The Gallup report to which I linked you above also notes this: "The shift in attitudes about the Bible is not an isolated phenomenon. It comes even as a number of indicators show a decline in overall religiosity in the U.S. adult population."

And while it's true that such things as church membership have been on the decline for decades and the percentage of people who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated has been on the rise rather dramatically over that same time, that doesn't mean that people who read the Bible with some regularity and understanding have gotten dumber and dumber about the book.

Yes, biblical and theological illiteracy is rampant in churches and synagogues (ask the nearest pastor or rabbi). But the news that fewer people think the Bible is God's literal word is a sign of some growing theological maturity.

And who can be against that?

* * *


Yes, the photos from the Webb space telescope have been stunning. And please notice how much better the Catholic Church reacted to them than hundreds of years ago when it put Galileo under house arrest for suggesting that the church's view of how the universe is structured was faulty and that, as Galileo insisted, Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. This time, a leader of the Vatican space observatory (yes, the Vatican has one of those) issued a statement expressing awe at what the Webb is showing us. As the RNS story to which I've just linked you reports, Vatican astrophysicist Brother Guy Consolmagno's statement included these words: “The science behind this telescope is our attempt to use our God-given intelligence to understand the logic of the universe.” No one should fault Brother Guy for connecting Catholic theology to the Webb photos. That's part of the job of religion. But unlike the many times when religion has denied what science has revealed, this time we have an example of religion appreciating the work of the scientists. Galileo must be happy.

Why the rebuilt Orthodox church at Ground Zero is a welcome site

The most important victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 were, of course, people. Nearly 3,000 of them died that day, including my own nephew, a passenger on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center.

St._Nicholas_Chapel_2022I tell that family story and I explore the roots of extremism (and what to do about it) in my last book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

But as we all know, there were non-human victims of the terrorists, too -- and not just the tall twin towers.

In fact, one of the structures severely damaged that day was a Greek Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas. Last week, a rebuilt St. Nicholas was consecrated as a national shrine.

I've been to Ground Zero in New York, as the twin towers site became known, several times and have paid at least a little attention to the slow progress to rebuild St. Nicholas. I thought I had a saved photo that I took of the not-yet-rebuilt site from a few years ago to use here today but, in my otherwise-perfect photo storage system, I can't find it. The photo that you see here today comes from this Wikipedia site.

The Religion News Story to which I linked you a couple of paragraphs up reports this: "The restoration had been stalled for many years, due to ongoing issues with funding. Since 2019, the rebuilding project has been funded and overseen by the Friends of Saint Nicholas, a nonprofit group that includes the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos, the former vicar general of the Greek archdiocese who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this week." (As he and several others did.)

One reason to pay attention to this church rebuilding news is that at its best and fullest, the United States is a nation of diverse religious traditions. And although Orthodox Christians make up only about half a percent of the U.S. population, they connect Americans to a rich history within Christianity, especially to what has been called the Great Divorce of 1054, when Christians split apart to become the separate Orthodox and Catholic churches.

So today you will find, Greek, Russian and other branches of the Orthodox tradition represented in churches in Kansas City and in communities across the nation.

America is a blooming flower bed of faith traditions (along with people who declare no allegiance to any such tradition), and there are all kinds of efforts locally and nationally to help people recognize the strength that religious diversity brings to the nation and to places such as Kansas City. For a national view of that, visit the website of Interfaith America. For a local view of that, visit the website of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.

As Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith America, writes in his new book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy, "The United States is the world's first attempt at a mass-level diverse democracy. That's one of the reasons we call this 'the American experiment' -- because not only was such a thing never tried before; people also considered it impossible."

Which is another reason to welcome back St. Nicholas.

* * *


Sometimes groups to which I belong or support get it wrong, even if their hearts are in the right place. For me, the latest example is my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the national governing body (the General Assembly) of which just voted to condemn Israel's treatment of Palestinians by calling Israel an "apartheid" state. It amounted to borrowing a highly charged term from a different historical situation (South Africa) and applying it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of dealing with that conflict on its own terms. There's no doubt that the Israeli government has made a series of bad (at times grievous) policy choices about the Palestinians and about pursuing Israeli settlements on land the Palestinians think of as their own -- just as there's no doubt that the Palestinians often have been badly led by leaders who have made unfortunate and even deadly choices that have resulted in needless deaths and in some cases the express wish that Israel itself would be blown off the map. But this is a situation in which I think it helps not a bit to use bitter, condemnatory language to try to move along a peace process that has fatally stalled out for a long time. I don't have any specific answer for how to settle this fraught situation, but I'm sure that this kind of spat-out language won't help and I wish my fellow Presbyterians hadn't used it. Rather, we should be committed to a just, two-state solution that seeks Israeli and Palestinian autonomy and peace. Sigh.

Is this the way to measure and improve spiritual maturity?

It's no secret that biblical and theological illiteracy is common in many Christian churches in the U.S. -- and, presumably, around the world.

ChristianbiblicalilliteracyIt's one reason that years ago I began teaching an occasional seminar I called "Theology Even the Clergy Can Understand." It was a lay-led (me) look at the core beliefs and practices in the Reformed Tradition (read: Presbyterian) of Protestant Christianity. And teaching it was a way of improving my own literacy in these areas.

So it doesn't surprise me to find people from other Christian traditions trying to encourage people to become more biblically and theologically literate. Which is what a pastor named Bill White is doing with his 2021 book, Mature-ish: Your mission from God, should you choose to accept it....

White, who is senior pastor of Christ Journey Church in Florida., first picks what he believes are the four core beliefs of Christians who, like him, identify as evangelical.

They are:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe
  • It is important for me to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation

For those of you who don't know, let me say that there are plenty of Christians for whom those four statements are not at the center of their theology. And White's statements -- especially the final one -- are one reason you rarely find self-identified evangelical Christians engaged in interfaith dialogue and action, except when they see it as a tool to use to convert others.

(By the way, you can read in much more detail about all of this if you download this PowerPoint: Download Mature-ish Topline FindingsIt presents findings from a survey designed to measure where evangelicals are in their spiritual development.) 

White seems to anticipate a point I'm about to make when he says this: “It is my desire, prayer and hope that participants don't see these results as a negative, legalistic measure of their spiritual journey, but an opportunity to identify where they are and see what is in store for them as they move forward to deepen and strengthen their relationship with Christ. The book and study are not designed to show Christians where they’ve gone wrong, but to highlight key areas where a few positive steps can propel them forward in their spiritual walk.”

So why does he think they might react that way? Well, the categories he uses to describe where people are in their faith journey are, at best, off-putting and at worst unnecessarily condescending.

The categories of spiritual development begin with "newborn," on the assumption that everyone starts there. In this formula even well-educated adults are categorized as spiritual infants. These are the stages White says come after that: Infant, toddler, child, pre-teen, adolescent, adult, parent, grandparent, and godparent.

By White's calculations, more than 80 percent of evangelicals have not advanced beyond spiritual toddlerhood.

To get past those early stages, of course, you are encouraged to read White's book.

So he describes a problem in fairly narrow terms and then proposes to fix it by asking people to read his book. (Why didn't I think of that?) Well, that might work or it might not. But what I do know is that there are lots of people I know -- people I consider spiritually well-grounded, mature and wise -- who probably will never fit into the measures of maturity White sets out based on his four core beliefs.

And I hope those folks will never disappear. They make the world richer in countless ways. I not only hope they don't disappear, I also hope all of them don't become Presbyterians. I love my church and denomination, but I'm sure I don't want to live in a world of such uniformity.

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God, of course, often gets drafted into armies at war because, well, the people leading the fighting are convinced God is on their side and will help win the victory. Over history, there have been a few "just wars" as defined by Just War Theory (at least part of World War II, for instance), but nowhere near as many as the perpetrators of those wars imagine. God, however, is not the only religious figure to be called on to inspire the troops. As this article from The Conversation notes, "Western Christianity, including Catholicism, has often been enlisted to stir up patriotic fervor in support of nationalism. Historically, one typical aspect of the Catholic approach is linking devotion to the Virgin Mary with the interests of the state and military." It all seems so preposterous. Why don't we humans simply acknowledge that war is almost always and everywhere an evil to be avoided and not try to redeem it by calling up famous religious reserves? Whom, after all, are we fooling by doing that?

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Speaking of biblical and theological literacy, as I was above today, I want to recommend a small book to you who are Christians for use as a devotional in the upcoming season of Advent. It's The Hunger for Home: Food & Meals in the Gospel of Luke, by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. Volf, whose works I've read and recommended before and whom I've heard speak, teaches theology at Yale Divinity School. Croasmun is director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. The book's official publication date is Aug. 1, but can be ordered now.

Volf and Croasmun take a look at several passages in Luke's gospel that deal with food and with their origin in God's creation. "A meal, it turns out," they write, "is the quintessential enactment of home, a site of nourishing mutual encounter between people, places and God that, in ideal circumstances, makes present, in a broken but nevertheless real way, the eschatological home that it represents." Here and there throughout this short (108 pages) book, the authors drop in what I think of as golden nuggets of insight. Such as: "(T)he picture the synoptic Gospels paint of Jesus is not one of the puppet master of the universe come briefly to play a part (even a central role) on the stage of the puppet theater. Rather, the picture is of a rightful king come to liberate a land under the unjust and destructive rule of a usurper." You will think differently about food and its origins after reading this book. It might even increase your spiritual hunger.

The high court's prayer decision is deeply flawed

It's been my experience that a lot of Americans misunderstand the concept of having a separation between church and state.

Football-prayerWhich is to say that many people think it means that religion should have no voice in offering ideas for the government to consider. In fact, the wall of separation was not meant to keep religion's voice out of the public square but, rather, to keep government from meddling in religion.

That doesn't, of course, mean that this or that religion gets to set the nation's policy in any area. Indeed, it shouldn't mean anything close to that.

But over the years the courts at various levels have issued important rulings that, for the most part, have been helpful in figuring out where the separation line is or should be. Which is why, for instance, public school teachers are not allowed to lead students in prayer in classrooms.

But now a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling has complicated all of that and given public employees considerably more leeway in promoting their own religious views in publicly paid-for spaces.

As this article from the Conversation reports, "In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District – the Supreme Court’s first case directly addressing the question – the court ruled that a school board in Washington state violated a coach’s rights by not renewing his contract after he ignored district officials’ directive to stop kneeling in silent prayer on the field’s 50-yard line after games. He claimed that the board violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and the Supreme Court’s majority agreed 6-3."

But the specific facts are important, and religion scholar Mark Silk, in this RNS column, notes that the court didn't get at least one of those facts right. He writes:

"The majority opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton, the decision the U.S. Supreme Court handed down on Monday (June 27), begins with a lie: 'Petitioner Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach in the Bremerton School District,' it reads, 'after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer.' (The photo here today depicts that.)

"In fact, the coach lost his job after he told his superiors at the school that he would continue his practice of praying at the 50-yard line immediately after games and insisted students not be prevented from praying with him, despite his employers’ cautions that the prayer sessions were getting out of hand: His postgame devotionals had turned into a media event, at which citizens and politicians had knocked over band members in a rush to join in."

(Although Kennedy says he's Christian, somehow he seems to have missed these instructions from Jesus [in Matthew 6:6] about praying: "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.")

In addition to thinking about the coach's constitutional rights, we also should think about how exercising those rights might affect the students under his guidance.

It was my experience when I participated in high school sports that you did (or tried to do) what the coach asked you to do. Run three laps around the football field? You ran three laps. Do 50 pushups? You did 50 pushups. Pay attention to what the coach had to say after a game? You paid attention.

So when a coach kneels on the 50-yard line after a football game to pray, there's immediate pressure on players to join him, whether they are people of faith or not. You simply don't want to get on the wrong side of your coach. And when, beyond praying, the coach starts giving faith-based post-game pep talks, you listen. The coach's actions were coercive and manipulative. But this court, which now seems to have become something like a wing of the Republican Party (whatever that is anymore), decided there was nothing wrong with that.

The court, in other words, approved of using a publicly funded employee to promote a particular religious practice that was being used in an exploitive way, taking away the agency of high school athletes in much the same way the court, in overturning Roe v. Wade, has taken away moral agency from pregnant women.

It's one more example of why elections matter. But because the American system allows Supreme Court justices to stay in office for life, this is a problem we can't fix with one more election. This is a problem we'll be dealing with for decades, and it's unclear now what further damage this court will do to our religious freedoms and rights.

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Sometimes religious beliefs lead to abhorrent actions. And when they do, it's time to question those beliefs. This recent example comes from Nigeria, where, as the AP story to which I've linked you reports, "Police in Nigeria have freed at least 77 people who were kept in a church basement by pastors who preached to them about Christian believers ascending to heaven with the second coming of Jesus Christ." This belief is a relatively new one in Christian history, as this Wikipedia entry notes: "The idea of a rapture as it is currently defined is not found in historic Christianity, but is a relatively recent doctrine of Evangelical Protestantism." Oh, you can find some words attributed to the Apostle Paul in the New Testament book of I Thessalonians, which believers in the rapture use to justify the idea. But in her 2005 book, The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing argues that this idea about the world's future is a serious distortion of the Bible. I mentioned Rossing's book a few years ago in this blog post. The AP story about the situation in Nigeria isn't as detailed as I had hoped, but it still shows an example of the misuse of theology to get people to do what you want them to do. The idea of the rapture, by the way, gained wide popularity with the publication of the "Left Behind" series of novels starting in the mid-1990s. Always be wary of any theological idea that forms the basis of fiction. Not all such ideas are off base, but enough of them are that it should make all of us cautious.

Some scholarly help to unpack LGBTQ+ issues in religion

The small northern Illinois town in which I was born, Woodstock, had a population of about, 6,500 at my birth. By the time I was graduated from high school, that number had crossed 9,000 and was continuing to rise.

Woodstock-book-coverAs far as I knew, none of those people was gay. Not one. Which tells you what I knew.

Today, Woodstock's population has exceeded 25,000. I'm guessing the LGBTQ+ community there is, proportionately, the same as it is across the country.

(I deal with my somewhat limited background on this and other subjects in my book, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.)

My education about gay people happened slowly. At some point (maybe kindergarten, when I thought I was in love with Carole Harrington; or third grade when I thought I was in love with Linda Laing), however, I knew I was heterosexual and that it wasn't a choice.

As an adult, my education about life in the LGBTQ+ community has been advanced by subjects I've written about (maybe starting with Bill Clinton's misguided don't-ask-don't-tell policy) and by my involvement in such church matters as my congregation's AIDS Ministry.

When I joined the congregation of which I'm still a member, our denomination barred the ordination of otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to ministry or elective office. But because the home my family bought not long before joining that church was next door to a wonderful male gay couple, I felt compelled to do the theological and biblical exegetical work to decide whether my denomination was right or wrong. It was wrong, though it took a long battle until 2011 for it to change its mind and allow gays and lesbians to be ordained.

As this struggle was underway, I wrote this essay trying to describe what the Bible says about homosexuality and why the Bible should not be used as a weapon in this dispute.

So, to advance the story a bit: In late 2015, I attended a conference in Kansas City sponsored by The Reformation Project (TRP), which has taken upon itself the task of trying to help evangelical Christians understand that there is no good biblical reason to condemn homosexuality.

Come-now-argueOne of the people at that conference, Jon Burrow-Branine, was doing a scholarly study about all of this, though Jon identified neither as gay nor Christian. He did, however, believe that TRP's work was important and needed to be understood and spread.

The University of Nebraska Press recently published Jon's summation of that work in a book called Come Now, Let Us Argue It Out.

I point it out to you as one more helpful resource that is moving along the conversation about LGBTQ+ folks and religion. There are, of course, still communities of faith that believe homosexuality is sinful. It's one reason the United Methodist Church is in the midst of a schism at the moment.

But for a long time there have been faith leaders who have insisted that if your religion leads you to consider certain people as second-class or even sub-human, you're getting things wrong. Religion should be a liberating force in the world. That it hasn't always been is its shame.

Burrow-Branine takes a careful, scholarly approach to this whole subject, though it's clear that he supports the liberating aims of such groups as TRP. If this subject is one with which you or your faith community struggles, perhaps his insights and experience as described in this new book can help. There must be room for grace in these conversations. That's part of what Burrow-Branine offers here.

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Speaking of LGBTQ+ issues, perhaps you're wondering whatever happened to the impending schism (I mentioned it above) in the United Methodist Church. It's a long, complicated story, but this RNS article does a pretty good job of putting you up to speed on why that formal schism hasn't happened even though an informal one already has. In short, the Methodists have made kind of a mess of all of this, especially those who have broken away to found what they're calling the Global Methodist Church. But this split-split-and-split-again pattern has been pretty much the norm since the Protestant Reformation began in the early 1500s. It reminds me of a cartoon that shows a desert island. When rescuers show up, the lone man on the island points to a small building and tells his rescuers, "That's my church." But they see a second small building and ask about it, to which he replies, "Oh, that's the church I used to belong to."