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Why are so many teens ignorant about the Bible?


The Bible often is listed as the top-selling book in history. But, of course, there are tons of books that go under the name "The Bible." They include the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Bible and more. Some include the books of the Apocrypha and some don't. And there are tons of different translations and paraphrases. 

So not only is it hard to figure out what is meant by calling "The Bible" the best-seller in history, it's also hard to figure out whether and how people are reading and understanding it (them?).

Still, the Barna Group has undertaken a series of surveys to find out, among other things, how teenagers around the world view the Bible.

The Barna press release about this lists these results:

  • Three-fifths of teens around the world (59%) say there is a Christian Bible in their home. Among teens who own a Bible, 88% say it is in a language and version they can understand.
  • Many teens recognize that the Bible is holy (44%), inspired by God (41%), good (40%), and meaningful (39%). However, 22% of teens who own or read the Bible say they don't fully understand the Bible while reading it.
  • Bible reading is not the norm for today's teens. One in five teens uses a Bible at least weekly. Forty-one percent of all teens never use a Bible.
  • Parents and church leaders play a prominent role in supporting a teen's knowledge of the Bible. Many Bible-engaged teens have had a parent or guardian (56%) or pastor, priest or minister (54%) teach them how to read and study the Bible.
  • Nearly three in five teens are very motivated (35%) or somewhat motivated (21%) to continue learning about the Bible. This motivation increases with Bible engagement.
  • The more teens engage with the Bible, the more they seem to act on Jesus' teachings and encounter God's love. Two in five teens say reading the Bible motivates them (39%) or makes them feel loved (38%).
  • Bible engagement correlates with a strong desire and empowerment to make a difference. Though 43% of Christian teens want others to see Jesus reflected through them in their words and actions, that number jumps to 81% among Bible-engaged teens.

One of the reasons 41 percent of teens never use a Bible, of course, is that it's rarely introduced to them as literature in public school classes designed not to teach the Bible or to teach religion but, rather, to teach about scripture of various traditions and to teach about those traditions.

Something like that happens in the religious studies departments of various colleges and universities, but almost never in public middle schools or high schools. Which is too bad in many ways. For one thing, such common phrases as "go the second mile" or "let there be light" or "Good Samaritan" no longer have much meaning for many people. Beyond that, we begin to lose the way parts of the Bible have been at the base of our legal and other systems.

The danger, of course, in creating classes for teens about religion or about the Bible is that the teacher will use the opportunity to proselytize for a particular religion or a particular way of understanding the Bible. And that danger must be avoided in public schools.

So although I find it kind of sad that a lot of teens know little or nothing about the Bible, the blame for that must fall on faith communities, which aren't drawing in people who want to know more about the Bible and the God attested to in the Bible. If the Bible is the source of what's often called "the greatest story ever told," a lot of people who know that story don't seem very interested in sharing it. Strange.

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Every faith community knows that the Covid pandemic changed how it operates -- and in some cases how it decides what's important to do or not keep doing. But what of the future? The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, writes in this piece that if churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship try to return to what was, they will miss a great opportunity. She writes (focusing primarily on Christian churches): "The church and seminaries now have two options: cling to their history and lose sight of the massive progress that has been made or realize we are in a kairos time that requires us to chart a new path forward. Such times are often chaotic or moments of crisis, but they are also periods in which God is fully present and providing a way to God’s future." If you are part of such a congregation or denomination and your preference is to return to the past, do your community a favor: let others lead.

How will this 'Christian' movement affect U.S. politics?


By now many, if not most, of us have heard about white Christian nationalists who want to make America great again by making sure the U.S. is a Christian nation run by Christians who are descended from the original European invaders.

But how do such nationalists relate to Christian dominionists, about whom some of us began to hear in the 1960s and '70s? And how does dominionism differ from dispensationalist theology?

This article from the current edition of The Christian Century deals with that very question. And it's well worth the time it will take you to read it. In it, you will meet Rousas John Rushdoony, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Josh Hawley and others.

All this talk about dominionism, dispensationalism and nationalism may sound like a strange and meaningless debate among theology students. But it's much more than that. It has to do, at base, with what kind of government Americans want and with which politicians are seeking to move the government toward their own theological choices. If we don't pay attention to all of this we will pay for our ignorance in very costly ways.

So, as the Christian Century article by Keri Ladner (a religious studies scholar) notes, "Dominionism is the belief that Christians should take moral, spiritual and ecclesiastical control over society. It has risen rather quietly in American society, and it has had no major public battles with dispensationalism. Instead, the two have come to overlap in interesting ways. . ."

"(D)ominionism has made significant inroads in American evangelicalism over the last two decades—and shaped the political engagement of the religious right.

"Christian dominionism shares with (the late Rev. Jerry) Falwell’s public-facing dispensationalism the idea of America’s divine favor. But the two depart on the key question of the fate of the world. Unlike dispensationalism’s message of social deterioration that precedes Christ’s return, Christian dominionism is postmillennial rather than premillennial. It argues that Christians can and must reform society so that it becomes progressively better. Only then will Christ return."

I mentioned Rushdoony above. He developed Christian reconstructionism. As Ladner writes, "The central tenet of Rushdoony’s teaching is that God has tasked Christians with taking dominion over society, beginning in Genesis 1:28, in which God commands humans to take dominion over the earth. While many Christians have applied this verse in the context of stewardship, Rushdoony taught that this creation mandate is really a dominion mandate, commanding humans to bring every sphere of society — as well as nature itself — into subjugation under Christ."

Ladner then asks: "What would the perfectly reconstructed society look like? Rushdoony taught that it would provide man — specifically the male gender — with the greatest possible freedom, due to the absence of a government that currently limits that freedom. A federal government would no longer be responsible for laws that govern public safety, social programs (including public schools and welfare), or just about anything else.

"Instead, society would be reconstructed so that the male-headed family and local church fulfill the roles that currently belong to the government, which would have the authority only to protect private property and punish capital offenses. Families and churches, as the cornerstones of the reconstructed society, would implement Mosaic law, with Christ as king over what would have become a Christian nation.

"Without government welfare, churches would carry the responsibility of aid to the poor, and without public schools, families would be responsible for their own children’s education. The economy would operate without any government regulation, meaning present laws requiring the integrity of consumer goods, protecting workers’ rights and disallowing exploitative financial practices would no longer be in effect. Because in a reconstructed America Christians would have brought God’s kingdom to earth through the implementation of Mosaic law, these protections would not be necessary.

"Dispensationalists and dominionists share many political goals."

Beyond all that, the article introduces us to something called the New Apostolic Reformation. Oh, my.

My point in raising all this is that it's easy to miss because many Americans -- even those active in faith communities -- don't think theologically. So I urge you to read the Christian Century piece and to find out if any of the politicians you're considering voting for in the upcoming elections is somehow tied to Christian dominionism -- and whether that's really the thinking you want your elected officials to promote. Do your own research and be a smart voter.

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Why should we forgive people who injure us in some way? Well, faith traditions galore teach forgiveness as a way toward peace, so there's that. But as this RNS story reports, faith and science are in agreement about the benefits of forgiveness. The story put it this way: "When it comes to the transformative power of forgiveness, scientists and faith leaders agree on its benefits for long-term mental and physical health. It is clear that the ability to forgive — to transform anger and resentment into hope and healing — can indeed be a restorative and healing act requiring faith. But forgiveness is also backed by an ever-growing body of scientific evidence, one that refines and extends our faith in new ways. " So now you have more than one reason to forgive someone.

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P.S.: Because I spent two years of my boyhood in India, I try to stay up with what's happening there, particularly as Hindu nationalism now seeks to marginalize Islam there. But I also pay attention to my oldest friend there, Markandey Katju, a schoolmate who went on to become a justice on India's Supreme Court, from which he's now retired. He has just written this piece about why Indians should not be celebrating the choice of a Hindu to be Britain's new prime minister -- even though Britain once ruled India. See what you think. As you might imagine, Indians aren't all of one mind about the new British leader, as this Slate story explains.

An evangelical Christian turns state's evidence against that tradition

Although Christian churches in the U.S. that would describe themselves as conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical used to be on the upswing in terms of growth, even as Mainstream Protestant churches declined, that's not so much the case anymore, especially if we're talking about predominantly white churches.


Well, lots of reasons, many of which are at least touched on in a new highly personal memoir from a woman who left white evangelicalism, Heretic: A Memoir, by Jeanna Kadlec. The book's official publication date is this Tuesday.

Kadlec, from a home with an alcoholic and abusive father plus a subservient mother who seems never to have found her voice, was deep into the evangelical culture through high school.

The church in which her spirituality was shaped, she writes, "was at the extreme end of the evangelical spectrum of most every church I attended growing up: fundamentalist in its theology, politically conservative (which is to say, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ+ and opposed to women in church leadership), dedicated to a literal interpretation of scripture and keen to emphasize our total and wholesale dependence on Jesus."

After Kadlec made the mistake of being wed to a man who thought women always should be subservient in a marriage, she eventually discovered that she was queer. And she knew that being an open lesbian meant the end of her marriage and the end of her time inside a church that taught homosexuality is a sin.

It's a painful story with some unexpected turns, but in many ways it's a window into one of the many reasons evangelical churches are struggling to keep young people engaged.

As she tells her personal story, she also is not reluctant to offer her views of the larger story of Christianity in America, starting from the arrival of the Pilgrims, who, she writes, "didn't colonize this part of North America for freedom. They didn't travel across an ocean because of an idealistic investment in religious pluralism. No. The Puritans came here to establish a supremacist religious theocracy: full stop."

What most devastated Kadlec, however, was the way the followers of Christ reacted to her when her life began to change: "After I stopped attending church with my husband, filed for divorce and slowly came out, my Christian community stopped reaching out to me. My college friends, who were my closest friends, and also my most religious friends, wouldn't respond to my emails or texts. One by one, folks dropped off as I reached out, as I say, Hey, I'm struggling."

In other words, she found people who called themselves Christians but who chose to be her judge and jury.

She puts it this way -- too broadly, sweeping all evangelicals into the same room: "For all the talk of Christ's love, there isn't a lot of compassion or empathy within white American evangelicalism." And this: "In the evangelic worldview most Americans have been sinning on a mass scale and are advocating for those sins to be enshrined in public law -- Christ's power on earth is in danger, and they must protect their secular neighbors from themselves through law if they can't reach them directly through faith."

Despite her bitterness at the faith tradition she left, she finds herself searching for meaning, for some kind of spirituality as she moves into gay life.

"The loss of community and identity can be totalizing," she writes, "and we are only beginning to create the language and space for it in contemporary society. But I do not miss the authoritarian, rigidly patriarchal spaces where only men are onstage and in charge, where whiteness is the default. I do not miss preachers who wield scripture against me, who tell me that my obedience is the only valid expression of my spirituality. I do not miss the scriptural and hymnal insistence on humanity's depravity and worthlessness. I do not miss being in spaces that diminish and demean women, that outright deny the validity and existence of queer and trans people, that would insist on established torture practices like conversion therapy to suppress us. I do not miss the people who tell me that they love me but hate my sin, and I do not miss -- and still struggle with shame for -- the version of myself who used to say that."

In many ways, this is a difficult book to digest, in part because the author turns out not to be a perfect choice for someone who can critique evangelical Christianity without descending into understandable bitterness. But, of course, that makes her just the right choice because she is evidence that all of us are imperfect, all of us are struggling to find our way, all of us have doubts and questions, some of which we're afraid to share with others.

Kadlec, by the end of the book, seems to find some peace with and about herself, even if she understands that she will be wrestling with her religious past and present from now to the end. Still, she is able to offer this hopeful benediction:

"I buried my old self years ago. Do not look for her; she is not there. This is the truth about queer people. We have resurrected ourselves. We are born again. Our tombs are empty. We are risen."

(P.S.: My essay on what the Bible says about homosexuality can be found here.)

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Speaking of people who identify as evangelical Christians, as I was above, here is a fascinating and long Associated Press story about such a man, a U.S. Marine, who is being accused of abducting an Afghan couple's baby. And although much about this story is in dispute on all sides, it seems he was motivated to bring the little girl to the U.S. to make sure she grew up in a Christian home. Though he described his actions as an act of Christian faith, the means he used were at the very least morally questionable. Let's see where this distressing story goes in the weeks and months ahead.

An argument against United Methodist schism

Quite a few times in the last several years, I've written about the impending schism in the United Methodist Church, the largest of the Mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. (Here is a Flatland column I wrote in 2019, for instance.)

Umc-schismAs the AP story to which I've linked you above notes, "the United Methodist Church is also the latest of several mainline Protestant denominations in America to begin fracturing, just as Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations lost significant minorities of churches and members this century amid debates over sexuality and theology."

In each case, it's been a sad story of division rooted in how to understand what the Bible says, if anything, about homosexuality. You can read my answer to that question in this essay found elsewhere on this blog.

One of the wise voices in the UMC over the decades has been Will Willimon, a retired bishop and a professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School.

Even when I disagree with Willimon (not often), he's worth hearing. Which is why today I share this column he wrote recently for The Christian Century.

He thinks schism (he calls it "divorce") is a bad idea.

"After just 40 years of debate on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination — a mere twinkling of the eye in church history — some self-proclaimed traditionalists (and a very few progressives) say they’ve tired of arguing. At some point we Methodists began loving our caucus (we have dozens) more than our congregation. Political polarities overcame our biblically authorized identity, and we became a church in centrifuge. Caucusing is easy; church is hard."

But, he says, Methodists are called to do church -- almost no matter what.

When a church splits up, he writes, "We thereby say to the world that Jesus Christ can’t make and sustain community out of people whom I don’t like and are not my type. Rather than ask, 'What’s Christ up to in our neighborhood?' we say, 'I refuse to be part of a church that doesn’t reflect my values before I came to church.'”

All true. Indeed, the evidence is all around us, and it didn't start with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century or with the Great Schism in 1054. Any careful reading of the New Testament will turn up all kinds of internal dissent and bickering over this or that. It seems to be what we Christians do. And we're far from alone among religious people in our proclivity for lack of both civility and togetherness.

But let's think about the stakes in the various splits that have been based on the misreading of scripture -- a misreading that supposes that the Bible condemns what we today are beginning to understand about sexual orientation and same-sex relations. If, at the end of the day, one group of Christians in a denomination or individual church insists that LGBTQ+ people should be treated as second-class citizens, the right thing to do is to stand against that.

When religion oppresses people instead of liberating them, you can be sure that the oppressors have it wrong. And if you are silent in the face of oppression, you show yourself to be aligned with the oppressor.

Willimon may be right that there is more for Methodists to talk about before deciding finally on division (though I think that ship sailed several years ago). But if the rules forbid ordination of LGBTQ+ people to the ministry or forbid same-sex marriages while the talk goes on, real lives are being damaged. The question is when to recognize that reality and move on -- separately if need be -- because in the end you can't reason with irrationality.

Well, give Willimon's piece a read and see what you'd do if you were part of the United (not very) Methodist Church.

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Early this month a man convicted of murder in Texas years ago finally was executed. The killer, once in the control of drugs, had long since acknowledged the wreck his life was and that he was guilty of the crime. As the Atlantic piece to which I've linked you notes, he wanted a pastor he knew to be with him and touching him while praying for him as he died. It took more legal delays for that to happen, but it finally did. So what can we learn from this sad story? Maybe this is a geographically limited deterrent story, the moral of which is this: Never commit a crime in Texas, whose officials seem remorseless and even cruel.

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What Makes Us Human?: An Artificial Intelligence Answers Life's Biggest Questions, by Iain S. Thomas, Jasmine Wang and GPT-3. In this recent blog post about A.I., I mentioned that I was reading a new book on the subject. It was this one, and I found the book intriguing, if somewhat, well, artificial. (Its official publication date is Nov. 1, but you can order it now.) What the human authors say they've done is to use GPT-3, a natural language processing artificial intelligence, to write a book in which GPT-3, crammed full of a hundredyskillion human-produced words from across history, would answer questions about the meaning and purpose of life. (GPT, by the way, stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer.)

Well, it's a pretty impressive (and mostly human-sounding) list of responses. So it probably won't shock you when the human authors write this: "If there is one theme that emerged again and again from our questions, from the answers, from the vast troves of sacred data the A.I. was analyzing it was this: love. Love is everything. It is the most divine gift we have."

Neither should it surprise you that when GPT-3 was asked what love is, the answer came straight from the so-called love chapter of the Apostle Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking. It is not easily answered, it keeps no record of wrongs."

Frankly, many of the answers GPT-3 offers sound like they came from various self-help books. For instance, this: "How do I bring harmony to my life?" One answer: "Do not allow the demands of the world and the control of the ego to keep you from the holy moment of now." And some of it sounds like GPT-3 has been hanging around Protestant reformer John Calvin. Its answer to the question "Have I been here before?" was this: "All of your life is written down in advance, even your smallest acts." (Clearly Calvin didn't get everything right.)

Also: GPT-3 seems to need some lessons in good writing so as to know not to call something "most unique." It's either unique or it isn't. A.I. should know that -- even if lots of humans seem not to. This, finally, is an intriguing effort to introduce us to the possibilities of A.I. And that's a subject about which we need to know more.

What we don't know about Artificial Intelligence is legion


When I was in high school, one of my classmates, David Case, once explained this to me: "All laws of physics can be duly explained by magic."

I wish Dave hadn't died a few years ago so he could learn how close to right he was. Indeed in this article about Artificial Intelligence from The Atlantic, the author notes that science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said this: “technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.”

Then the author, Stephen Marche, writes this: "Magic is coming, and it’s coming for all of us."

What AI and related technologies seem to have in common is that, sort of like God, they produce fabulous and unfathomable mysteries. In fact, Marche quotes a former Google executive about AI this way: “We’re creating God.”

Which, of course, humans do every day in various ways. Although Genesis 1:27 says God created humankind in the image of God, humankind has spent much of its time on the planet either making gods of non-divine things (that is, engaging in idolatry) or imagining what God really is like and claiming to have received divine revelation for their answer.

Although Marche writes that "all technology is, in a sense, sorcery," he insists that "the sorcery of artificial intelligence is different. When you develop a drug, or a new material, you may not understand exactly how it works, but you can isolate what substances you are dealing with, and you can test their effects. Nobody knows the cause-and-effect structure of NLP (Natural Language Processing, an AI subfield). That’s not a fault of the technology or the engineers. It’s inherent to the abyss of deep learning."

He concludes this: "Machine learning has capacities that are real, but which transcend human understanding: the definition of magic."

But use of the term magic here is problematic in that it suggests that it's all so complicated that not even God could grasp how it works. I now will do what I said earlier here that people do all the time. I will imagine a god who grasps absolutely everything about the creation that there is to grasp. If God cannot do that, then he or she or it is not God.

We are, it turns out, only in the early stages of AI development. What's to come will be simply astonishing. As Marche explains, "AI is transforming writing and art — the divine mystery of creativity. It is bringing back the dead — the divine mystery of resurrection. It is moving closer to imitations of consciousness — the divine mystery of reason. It is piercing the heart of how language works between people — the divine mystery of ethical relation."

Years ago, when scientists were working on the Human Genome Project, I wrote several pieces suggesting that humanity should spend considerable time working out the moral and ethical questions that the project already was raising, including questions about who could and should have access to a person's genome information.

Clearly the same thing now is true of AI. We seem to be allowing this field to explode in our midst even as most people have no idea how it works or how it will affect us. That's not good, moral science. Rather, that's simply recklessness. And at the very least, leaders of our faith communities should be raising these issues -- not to stop science the way some people tried to stop any thinking about the theory of evolution 100 years ago but, rather, to make sure that the science we use will function in an ethical and moral way.

Magic, after all, is never morally neutral.

(The image at the top of the blog today came from here.)

P.S.: Speaking of AI, I have, and have started to read, a review copy of a book to be published next month, What Makes Us Human? An Artificial Intelligence Answers Life's Biggest Questions, by Iain S. Thomas and Jasmine Wang (and GPT-3). Watch for my thoughts about that book here on the blog soon.

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We've known for years that Hindu nationalism has been a serious problem for India, a predominantly Hindu nation where, nonetheless, many Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and others make their home. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been at the center of promoting Hindu nationalism, which seeks to suppress any religious tradition except Hinduism. Now, this RNS opinion piece reports, India is exporting its Hindu nationalism to other countries. That's exactly what the world doesn't need. As the author of the article notes, the Hindu nationalism movement is creating "a growing international crisis. The threat of genocide is an abomination emanating from the world’s largest democracy, and it’s already spilling over into our politics and streets at home (in the U.S.)."

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Shining Brightly, by Howard Brown. In many ways, humanity is surrounded by -- and sometimes pounded with -- rules and advice for how to live useful, charitable, loving, generative lives. From oaths taken by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to professional codes of ethics to the Ten Commandments and many other religious sources, it's hard to move through a day without some reminder about ways to be kind and generous to others.

But maybe that's the problem. We get lists. What we need are stories that transform the words in those lists into moving accounts of how to live in generative ways. For it's really through stories that we come to know not only the world around us but also ourselves and it's through the stories of others that we shape the moral center of our own lives.

It's also stories that two-time cancer survivor, Silicon Valley pioneer and interfaith worker Howard Brown offers readers in this new book. The stories are about his Jewish ancestors, including his Bubby Bertha, a name with which I immediately identified because Brown's bubby shares a first name with my own mother. They're about his life-shaping experience at Babson College and mentoring other Babson students after he graduated. They're about his two separate diagnoses of stage four cancer and the people who walked and loved him through that to wellness. They're about his shoe-salesman father and about his twin sister -- and more, including a passing mention of Kansas City (I'll let you find it in the book).

Howard Brown clearly is a resilient man who understands, as he writes, that "giving is the true purpose of a good life." That's true, but we learn that a lot better through stories than through lists of aphorisms. And Brown's stories are well worth reading.

A Green Mountain State Wedding -- in Black and White


Dorset, Vt. -- The latest U.S. census figures show that 94 percent of the population of Vermont identifies racially as white.

But history shows that when it comes to race, Vermont has been no brutal Mississippi, no vicious Alabama -- and especially when it comes to the promotion of marriage for all who want it. In fact, Vermont was one of only nine states that never had anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding interracial marriage).

Vt.-10Vermont was a pioneer in 1999 when it created the nation's first civil union law that allowed gay couples to join together legally in something that at least approached marriage.

And Vermont regularly has sponsored "Loving Day," named for Richard and Mildred Loving, the lead couple in a 1967 case that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court declaring anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. (If you are under, say 50, it may shock you to realize that when the state of Virginia's appellate courts upheld the law forbidding interracial marriage, it did so by insisting that the law's legitimate purpose was to prevent "the corruption of blood," a "mongrel breed of citizens" and "the obliteration of racial pride." Imagine that.)

So Vermont knows about love.

Perhaps, then, I should not have been overwhelmed to be part of an interracial family wedding here recently. One of my wife's nephews married a beautiful-inside-and-out woman with Haitian roots. In fact, they asked me to perform the ceremony, and I did (as authorized by the state of Vermont even though I'm not clergy).

But the whole experience was both deeply satisfying and profoundly jarring -- for reasons I will try to explain.

The satisfying part was due to the joy everyone at the wedding felt when the couple confirmed their vows at an outdoor ceremony under early autumn blue skies in the hills of Vermont, which were just beginning to show off their autumn wardrobe of reds and oranges, yellows, browns and purples. The ceremony, at the request of the couple, didn't last long and didn't need to.

But when I pronounced them legally husband and wife, the bride threw her arms up into the fall air and the whole place joined her in a cheer. Then it was on to a great dinner and lively dancing through the cooling evening in an old gray barn (pictured above) that had been repurposed as an event space. (The other photo here shows a horse-drawn cart used to bring the wedding party to the site of the ceremony.)

The jarring part of all this had to do with the fact that in recent months I've finally been reading Taylor Branch's magnificent three-volume history of the Civil Rights Movement, the beginning of which many historians date to the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped to lead in the mid-1950s.

It's a distressing, violent, detailed story of many efforts to overcome the kind of racial hatred that never left the U.S. after the Civil War ended slavery. Bitter words, bitter actions, bitter thoughts filled those deeply committed to racial segregation and white supremacy. The violence seemed to be everywhere, both South and North. The refusal of segregationists to see Black people as fully human was formidable and ugly.

And, of course, there still is resistance to justice, equality and equity today, even as finally more and more Americans are coming to understand that the racial issues in this country go much deeper than personal prejudice or bigotry. Rather, the issues are of a systemic nature, and we won't be able to achieve racial equity and justice until we find ways to undo old unjust systems (educational, financial, criminal justice, environmental) and replace them with systems that value the humanity of every person.

So as all that was in my head, I looked out at a wedding crowd that was roughly half white and half Black. And I know that we haven't achieved, even on this day, anything like racial Nirvana, but what I saw in front of me was beautiful. And whites didn't stick just with whites and Blacks with Blacks. No, there was lots of conversation and interaction across racial lines.

I found it all celebratory, even as I recognized that there no doubt were individual stories among those attending and participating in the wedding that would reflect the continuing disease of racism in America.

The only thing I heard that came even close to a problematic racial remark was when a groomsman at the rehearsal dinner noted that there would be a lot of dancing after the wedding and that, comparatively, a lot of white people aren't very good dancers. Well, it was said in jest and seemed to be taken that way by all who heard it, Black and white. No one got offended enough to speak up, no doubt because it was said in a good-natured, self-deprecating way.

But the roots of the remark, if traced deeply enough, have to do with the false and destructive image of happy slaves dancing around the plantation, an image that many pro-slavery people, including many Christians, tried to pass off as reality.

So even in light interracial moments, history lurks. And history ignored is history freed to do damage.

This marriage reminded me of several weddings on my side of the family, starting with my youngest sister, who married a Japanese-American. Their daughter then married a Korean-American. The daughter of another sister married an African-American. And a daughter of another sister married a Filipino-American, while her sister married a Chinese-American.

What all of them -- including the newlyweds -- had in common was that love and their common humanity were stronger cohesive forces than the degenerating force of bigotry and racism. When the newlyweds stood in front of me at this wedding to make their vows, they looked into each other's eyes, and it was clear that what they saw was someone to love and someone to love them back. Period.

There's an aspirational hymn we sometimes sing in my congregation, "O for a World," written by Miriam Therese Winter and Carl Gotthelf Gläser. Here's the first verse:

O for a world where everyone
respects each other's ways,
where love is lived and all is done
with justice and with praise.

That's the vision I saw at this marvelous wedding. May that world come soon.

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In the sad, distressing ongoing saga of federally sponsored, church-run boarding schools for Indigenous children, it now turns out that the Kansas Historical Society plans to investigate the grounds of the Shawnee Indian Mission in suburban Fairway, Kan., to see whether -- like elsewhere -- Indigenous children are buried there in unmarked graves. (I wrote about the mission site earlier this year here. And in May I wrote about the new federal report on this subject here.) It seems unlikely that children were buried in mass or unmarked graves at the Shawnee site, given that most of the children who attended the school lived with their families in nearby homes at the time. But let's see what turns up. What does seem true is that current Shawnee tribe members have some issues with what's happening now in this investigation. It's not clear why all this is proceeding without everyone agreeing on how and why to do it.

Autumn's soothing colors can prepare us for our own death


West Glover, Vt. -- When I arrived here in the Green Mountain state in late September, the curtain had barely gone up on nature's annual death performance.

That is, the hills still were mostly green. Only here and there could I see small signs of reddish or orange beginning to conquer the green leaves of deciduous trees. But even that was hard to see because of all the evergreens.

Vt-2Still, I knew the game was fixed. Death would overtake the hills as it has done annually forever.

And because we're not separate from nature, as Indigenous people have taught me, death will find us, too -- sometimes not bothering to wait until we've run out our biblically allotted time of three scores years and ten (I've beat that already).

But as our lives draw toward an ending, we should learn from the very system of nature of which we're a part. We should in some way go out singing, go out colorfully, go out rejoicing.

A funeral liturgy of the Episcopal Church says it well: "All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."

As my wife and I drove by a cemetery here with a friend, the friend noted that the earliest headstones there were from the 1600s. That may, at first, seem like a remarkably long time ago. But many of us fail to remember that people have lived and died on this land not for hundreds but for thousands and tens of thousands of years. This part of Vermont once was the tribal ancestral land of the Wabanaki and, nearby, the Arosaguntacook and the Mohawk peoples.

They, too, lived and died in nature's life cycles, save when they, like us, speeded up the process with the blunt tools of crime or war. They, too, felt the leaves of their own lives turn red, orange, purple and various shades of brown. They, too, knew that the fix was in, both for the leaves on the trees and for them.

The question, of course, is what we do in response to this knowledge. Do we panic and cram as much frivolity and acquisitiveness into the end of life as we can? Do we marinate ourselves in regret or even in nothing but happy memories?

Well, no doubt we'll do some of that no matter who we are. But how much better to use the gift of our remaining time (and it is a gift) giving thanks for the privilege of life and trying to help others see that it's fruitless to rail against the dying light.

It's not that we welcome death, exactly, not that we wish to aid its mortifying work. Rather, it's that we understand the rules, the patterns and maybe even the purposes of life so that we also understand the rules, patterns and purposes of death.

I do not wish to leave this life anytime soon. I love my life, even if it sometimes offers me up hard days among the luminous ones. But I know -- from watching Vermont's leaves lose their greenness and succumb to death -- that my time is coming. And so is yours. I hope only this: That when I go down to the dust, even at the grave I will make my song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

(The top photo here I took in Dorset, Vt., at the site of a wedding. More about that in my next blog post that will appear here on Saturday. I took the photo with the bird houses near West Glover, Vt. The photo below of Lake Champlain I took in the backyard of my brother-in-law and his bride in North Hero, Vt.)


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As Jews have just commemorated their High Holy Days, here is a column by a rabbi who speaks not just to Jews but to all of us. In it, he declares this truth about American Jews: "We are no longer passive victims." In the face of resurgent antisemitism, it's an important message, and people who are hosing the world with antisemitic hatred need to know it will not go unanswered or uncontested.