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Islam is negotiating its place among religions in the U.S.

One of the most memorable things about being in a country in which the citizens are predominantly Muslim is the public call to prayer -- the adhan -- sounded out rhythmically five times a day by a muezzin, the name given to the one who does the calling.

Star_and_CrescentI remember being in a public market in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, once at adhan time and watching shops close up. Then I watched the virtue police going around to make sure no one was doing business during prayer time. Clearly, I wasn't in America.

The Muslim population of the U.S. -- variously (and imprecisely) estimated at 3 to 10 million -- is large enough now that some communities are passing local laws and ordinances to allow the adhan to ring out in public, as opposed to simply being heard inside a mosque. It's a sign, writes Leila Tarakji, the author of this article from The Conversation, that Islam is finding a welcome home in the U.S. (Tarakji teaches religious studies at Michigan State University.)

"The fact that the adhan can be heard in the streets of Minneapolis, Hamtramck and Astoria – alongside church bells and other sounds of worship – signifies that Muslim beliefs are not deemed less worthy, nor must they be confined to a private space," she writes. "It is a sign that Muslims are at home and welcome here."

As she notes, "The practice of calling worshippers to prayer is an important aspect of daily Muslim life, one that has a long history on American soil." Indeed, some of the first slaves dragged to what became the U.S. were Muslims.

One reason the number of people who embrace Islam today in the U.S. is hard to pin down is that generally mosques -- unlike most churches and synagogues -- don't keep detailed membership lists. Still, it's clear that the number of Muslims in America is growing. Which means non-Muslims and Muslims alike here are learning how to live together in peace and respect. That harmony, of course, hasn't always been present in the post-9/11 world.

Tarakji's article includes some good links that can help you understand Islam more fully:

"Adhan literally means 'announcement' in Arabic and refers to the Islamic call to prayer that takes place five times a day. The five daily prayers signify one of the five pillars of Islam that are traditionally considered obligatory for every Muslim. The prayers are performed in the direction of Mecca throughout the day.

"The practice of calling the adhan dates to the time of Prophet Muhammad, when it became the standard way to mark the beginning of each prayer’s time and to call Muslims to prayer."

America's religious landscape is changing daily. Although a majority of Americans still identify as Christian, the U.S. no longer is a landslide for Christianity, and there will be more harmony among U.S. citizens if we recognize that reality.

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On Monday evening of this week, at the annual membership meeting of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, members learned that MCHE now will be in charge of the maintenance of the 60-year-old memorial to the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. It's on the east side of the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park. If you've never seen it, have a look. It's fascinating. Here are a few photos of it. (I serve on the MCHE Board.)

Holo-mem-2 Holo-mem-2
















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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, it's still available for free here. It's about a woman who just was named Holocaust Educator of the Year, and she's from, of all places, tiny Lone Jack, Mo.

A (too?) deep dive into declining church membership

Keeping track of a process I sometimes think of as the Europeanization of American churches can be pretty disheartening. The trend in membership -- particularly of congregations that are part of Mainline Protestant denominations -- has been downward for several decades.

SanctuaryBut, of course, it's not the full picture of religion in the U.S. That is much more complicated, including the now well-known rise of the religiously unaffiliated (called the "nones") to somewhere around 30 percent of the adult population. But within all the downs, there are some ups, too.

You will find both ups and downs in this analysis of the trends from The author of the piece began his research to answer this question: "If denominations just managed to grow at the same rate as the general population of the United States, how large would they be today?"

It's an interesting question, though I'm not sure there has ever been any good reason to think that it would be normal for denominations to grow at the same rate as the general population. Be that as it may, the results of doing this research were pretty interesting.

The author says he picked "membership data on nine denominations. They are six in the mainline tradition: American Baptist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian Church USA, The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. Those six represent the vast majority of the mainline. There are three in the evangelical tradition included as well: the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)."

The author says one reason he picked those denominations is this: "The biggest blind spot here is non-denominational Protestant Christianity. There is absolutely no way to gather data on that tradition, but it’s clear that it’s growing incredibly fast."

Then he states the obvious: "The mainline is just a bloodbath. Five traditions are down by at least 30%. The ELCA is down 41%. The United Church of Christ is less than half the size it was in the late 1980s. The United Methodists are already down 31%, but with over 15% of their churches disaffiliating just this year, I wouldn’t be surprised in membership is down 40% or more by this time next year."

But there are denominations experiencing some growth: "There are two traditions that are up. The Assemblies of God has grown by over 50% in the thirty-five years. The PCA has doubled in size, as well."

As I say, all these statistics can be interesting and telling. But it's really hard to capture spiritual reality in numbers. For instance, lots of people have religious or spiritual experiences outside of institutional religion. The leaders of institutional religious bodies would like to find ways to draw them in, of course, but if there's one thing that's been true of American life for at least the last 50 or more years is that Americans aren't joiners in the way they used to be. So not only are churches and other houses of worship sometimes experiencing a decline in numbers, so are some social and civic clubs.

As for the concern some Christians have about church membership, it's helpful to remember that Jesus started out with 12 and ended up with 11.

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As this Daily Beast story reports, soon after evidence of a “catastrophic implosion” ended the search for five men aboard a privately operated submersible that had descended to view the wreckage of the Titanic, the Titanic International Society warned that lessons “about the dangers of hubris and over-reliance on technology… remain to be learned.”

It reminded me of W.H. Auden's magnificent poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," in which he describes the world's disinterested reaction to the fall of Icarus, depicted in Pieter Brueghel's painting of that name. Icarus, too, in trying to fly near the sun, was guilty of "hubris and over-reliance on technology." But, at least in Auden's poem, no one cared. As Auden writes, "everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

Humanity seems driven to discover what it hasn't seen or experienced before. And, on the whole, that's a good thing. But what we shouldn't do -- or even be allowed to do -- is recklessly disregard danger to ourselves and others. That devalues the gift of life. And, at least at first glance, that is what seems to have happened in the cases of both the Titanic and the submersible craft built to take people to go gawk at the disaster.

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P.S.: Here is an intriguing article, well argued, about why the increasingly popular term "Jew hate" is not a good substitute for antisemitism. See what you think.

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ANOTHER P.S.: You can get an email for free each time my blog publishes -- almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- by clicking on this link and filling out a simple form.

What even megachurches can learn from small congregations

When I was a child, my family and I were members of what I think of today as a small church, First Presbyterian of Woodstock, Ill. It had about 250 or so members back then, as I recall.

Small-churchToday, a small church is more often considered one that draws fewer than 100 persons to weekly worship. And those are the churches that Teresa J. Stewart seems to address in her new book, The Small Church Advantage: Seven Powerful Worship Practices that Work Best in Small Settings.

I say "seems to address," because, in fact, there is much here in this wise book that could and should interest larger congregations, especially those whose members and leaders often dismiss smaller churches as congregations that so far have failed to grow into large churches.

The New Testament, of course, gives positive witness to small congregations in that Jesus himself says this: "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

And as Stewart writes, "Christian worship is nothing less than a divine-human encounter. An actual meet-up between God and God's people." That encounter can happen in even the tiniest of congregations. "We need," she writes, "small, unexpected and unlikely encounters to grasp the fullness of the good news. Or perhaps so it can grasp us." The problem, she says, is that "small is treated as either defective or immature," but it need be neither.

Stewart says there are some 177,000 small congregations in the U.S., meaning "churches with fewer than 95 weekly worshipers," meaning that 70 percent of all congregations are small.

The problem, she says, is that large congregations "have become the goal." But there's no reason, she insists, that excellent worship can't happen in small congregations. And she spends much of the book suggesting how this can happen.

At its root, Christian theology is essentially incarnational, meaning that it recognizes God's decision to become human as Jesus of Nazareth and to be present -- then as a carpenter and itinerant rabbi and now as the Spirit of the resurrected Christ. It's that approach to theology, Stewart says, that can make small churches hum with life and ministry.

Stewart urges small congregations to resist being seduced into thinking they need to be megachurches. Resistance, in fact, is both necessary and holy, she argues. "Resistance," she writes, "is the quiet superpower of small groups, outsiders and underdogs."

Resistance, she insists, "shows up in every book of the Bible. In fact, the salvation story can't be told without it."

This book doesn't offer wispy word of insubstantial hope. Rather, it offers substantive ideas for bringing life, joy and flourishing back to small congregations. And if large congregations are wise, they'll be paying attention, too.

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John D. Pierce, executive editor and publisher of Good Faith Media, has written this devastating column denouncing false certitude about what scripture says and doesn't say. He compares the current Southern Baptist Convention's renewed insistence that only males can serve in pastoral roles to the earlier certainty that people advocating abolition of slavery in the 19th Century were going against the will of God as expressed in the Bible. Brilliant. Here's how people come to misuse scripture in that way: They decide on a position on an issue and then hunt around for something in the Bible that can be twisted to support that position. Today it's happening with the question of women as pastors and it's happening with blocking LGBTQ+ folks from full inclusion in some Christian denominations. And it's shameful.

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P.S.: As part of the job of this blog to educate people about matters of religion, here is an excellent piece from The Conversation that explains the various branches of Judaism. There will be a test, so read it carefully.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My childhood friend from India, Markandey Katju, later a justice on India's Supreme Court, has written this interesting article about the lack of business ethics in China and how it threatens not just India but the world. I thought you might enjoy reading his ideas about that.

Why we preach against poverty but don't fix it

All of the world's great religions teach that their followers should do what they can to alleviate poverty. There are, of course, different kinds of poverty, including poverty of spirit. But in this case I'm referring to a basic lack of resources needed to provide enough food, clothing and shelter.

PovertyFor Christianity, this emphasis begins in the Jewish scriptures where, among many other passages, we find this in Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

Jesus, who was born into poverty, is reported to have told his disciples that “the poor you will always have with you.” And some people have used that as an excuse to do nothing about poverty. But there are several better interpretations of what he meant. One is that he was quoting a passage from Deuteronomy. It ends this way:  “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” God was urging followers to fight against the poverty enveloping others. That’s what the “therefore” in that passage is there for.

Another interpretation is that he was aiming his remark at Judas Iscariot, who eventually would betray him. Jesus was telling him that one reason the poor will always be around is that Judas was stealing from the communal pot from which the disciples were to distribute alms. In other words, Jesus was being satirical -- bitingly so. Christians now regularly refer to what they call God’s “preferential option” for the poor, meaning that poverty regularly breaks God’s heart, and what breaks God’s heart should surely break ours.

Other traditions urge followers to work against poverty, too. Islam, for instance, establishes a system to financially assist the destitute and needy. Indeed, one of the “Five Pillars of Islam” is “zakat,” meaning the giving of alms to the poor.

And although Buddhism does value nonattachment toward material goods, it also recognizes that poverty is debilitating and needs to be addressed to relieve suffering.

So given all that and more, why does poverty seem so intractable, so permanent, so widespread? Pulitzer-prize winning author (of Evicted) Matthew Desmond, in his new book, Poverty, by America, says the answer is that a lot of people benefit from the existence of poverty and thus have no motivation to alter the economic systems that produce it so regularly and reliably.

It's a harsh charge and one that I wish weren't true. But I think Desmond has it exactly right when he writes this: “Poverty persists because some wish and will it to.”

The form of capitalism that exists in the U.S. today simply doesn't work for everyone. With some adjustments, it could work for all or nearly all, but the people who benefit from the current system stand in the way.

Desmond’s book is full of examples of how America’s economic system is rigged against the poor — and what that biased system costs the rest of us. I’ll just suggest that you read the book and decide for yourself whether his ideas make sense.

But here’s the core of his argument: “People benefit from poverty in all kinds of ways. It’s the plainest social fact there is, and yet when you put it like this, the air becomes charged. You feel rude bringing it up. People shift in their chairs, and some respond by trying to quiet you the way mothers try to shush small children in public places when they point out something that everyone sees but pretends not to. . .People accuse you of inciting class warfare when you’re merely pointing out the obvious.”

And this: “Poverty isn’t simply the condition of not having enough money. It’s the condition of not having enough choice and being taken advantage of because of that. When we ignore the role that exploitation plays in trapping people in poverty, we end up designing policy that is weak at best and ineffective at worst. . .Poverty in America is not simply the result of actions taken by Congress and corporate boards but the millions of decisions we make each day when going about our business.”

Religions, of course, urge their followers to be charitable. The problem is that when there is widespread charity (giving away food from a church pantry every day, for instance), as there is in the American economic system as it's currently constructed, it’s a sign that that system is broken. Desmond wants us to fix the system, even if that system seems to benefit some of us. How about let’s meet soon at a pay-day loan store and talk about all of this?

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The Southern Baptist Convention recently reiterated and strengthened its position that anyone serving in a pastoral role in any of its churches must be male. The author of this opinion piece thinks this is one more in "a wave of self-inflicted wounds," and I find that idea hard to refute. To cut off at least half of one's total membership on the basis of often-disputed and widely repudiated theology is almost certain to add to the large numbers of churches and members who have been fleeing the SBC in recent decades. Is this the right hill on which to die?

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P.S.: I don't usually give you blog readers links to New York Times stories because I know it can be difficult and/or impossible to get beyond its paywall. Still, this recent piece by Tom Friedman is well worth a read. It's about how Saudi Arabia and Israel are "reinventing themselves" and how the future, while still unknowable, can be better. Friedman concludes this: "If there was ever a time for America to at its best to be out here leading as much with its values as with its hard power, and inspiring, not just defending, it is right now -- when the future character of the region's two most influential states, and our two most important allies, are totally in play." I spent time in Saudi Arabia in 2002 and in Israel in 2012, and I'm pretty sure that if I returned to either one today I wouldn't recognize much about the political and cultural state of things compared with those years.

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ANOTHER P.S.: You can get an email for free each time my blog publishes -- almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- by clicking on this link and filling out a simple form.

If the religion of refugees is ignored, they won't thrive

In the last couple of years, I've done a bit of volunteer work to help settle refugees new to the Kansas City area.

Afghan-p-1This work began as a joint venture between my congregation and Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City to help furnish homes for Afghan refugees. Since then it has meant volunteering occasionally through Jewish Vocational Services to move furniture and set it up in various apartments for refugees from various countries. I don't have time to do a lot of this work, but I've found it interesting and useful.

(The photo here today shows several members of our team putting together a bunk bed for a soon-to-move-in family.)

That said, those of us who do this volunteer work rarely meet the family members who will live in the apartments we've helped to set up for them. So we're not often confronted with difficult questions about how these families -- some of them no doubt quite traumatized -- will find a new, acceptable and thriving life rhythm that will offer them opportunities to flourish and be who they really are.

I thought about all of this when I read this persuasive article by Trinidad Raj Molina, whom I first met when I wrote this Flatland column last year about Jerusalem Farm, an intentional community that is based in northeast Kansas City. Trinidad now is exploring the possibility of becoming a Jesuit priest or in some other way becoming formally part of the Jesuits.

His central argument in the piece is that the religious background, practices and needs of refugees often get ignored, making the transition to a new life in this country much more difficult than it needs to be.

"Today," he writes, "we witness the largest number of displaced persons in world history. Practically all the world’s refugees and asylum seekers are religious. Since most displacement comes from Syria, South Sudan, Venezuela, Myanmar and Afghanistan, we know the majority of displaced persons are Christian or Muslim."

But what care is taken to make sure these refugees can maintain some kind of cohesive religious life in their new locations? That, clearly, is a problem, Trinidad writes.

He tells the sad story of an Afghan refugee family that wound up living in Webb City, Mo., a community of about 13,000 people in the southwest corner of the state. One result was the brutal death of their 14-year-old son, Rezwan. You can read about this at the link to Trinidad's piece I've given you above.

"It’s clear," he writes, "that Rezwan and his family were vulnerable because they were isolated from anything that was familiar to them. They weren’t connected to their own people, nor to centers of shared culture and religion. Ultimately, the nationwide vigils helped raise funds for the family to move closer to a supportive Islamic community in Texas."

Refugee families aren't simply interchangeable pieces in a puzzle about where they should live next on their journey. Each family has a distinct history and separate needs. But Trinidad correctly calls out the need to pay attention to cultural and religious issues in helping to find these desperately needy people the help required to find a home here that works for them.

When we leave religion out of that equation we're simply asking for trouble, recognizing, of course, that the religious needs, if any, of each family may well be different.

As Trinidad puts it: "There are different degrees of religiosity. Not everyone who grows up with the majority religious practice of their country cares about religious observance. However, my experience is that for most families, the religious dimension of their lives is important."

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The national campaign to create a system of reparations for slavery continues, and as this RNS story reports, it now includes an online six-week Bible study that began yesterday led by the National Council of Churches. The class is further proof that the idea of reparations refers to more than money. Last week's Kansas City meeting on reparations, sponsored by the American Public Square and KCPT-TV, was helpful in that it gave those of us who attended an update on the newly formed reparations commission in KC and gave us a chance to hear from a city official from Evanston, Ill., which has a new reparations program that pays stipends to Black residents to be used to buy or improve homes. But much more education work must be done. Here's a link to a reparations piece I wrote recently.

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Unlike governments, religions often last thousands of years


The current celebration of France's abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel (pictured here) reaching 1,000 years of age gives us a chance to think about religious traditions that last and last.

The abbey in Normandy was built when Christianity was about half the age it has achieved today. The origins of the religious tradition from which Christianity sprang, Judaism, date back some 3,500 years. By contrast, Islam is about 1,400 years old, while Buddhism is something like 2,500 years old. And although many Hindus argue that what's now called Hinduism always has existed, scholars tend to date its origin to somewhere between 2300 BCE and 1500 BCE.

As you might well know, there is a fair amount of angst among American Christians today because of a decades-old decline in membership experienced by churches. The decline is real, but it's only part of the global picture. There are places in the world, especially Africa, where Christianity is growing quite a lot.

The sermon at my congregation last week focused on this uneven story and suggested that we worry too much about individual congregations or even denominations experiencing decline when in some places there is numerical and spiritual growth. That sermon began with a mention of a new book about church decline that I wrote about a few months ago here on the blog.

In some ways, given Christianity's decline in North America and Europe, it seems a bit puzzling that a place like the French abbey would get so much attention. As the AP story to which I linked you notes, for example, "One of the most popular French destinations outside Paris, Mont-Saint-Michel island attracted 2.8 million visitors last year, including 1.3 million for the abbey."

It's not unlike another French tourist site, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which is being repaired after a 2019 fire there. Sometimes houses of worship draw more visitors when they become something like museums.

I guess what we need is something like an eternal perspective. The fact that a small church in a suburb has run out of gas and been turned into an event space doesn't mean the end of religion across the globe. In fact, maybe that very event space can become a center of love and joy. And don't love and joy have something important to do with religion?

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The death of the Rev. Pat Robertson a few days ago offers another opportunity to think again about how American politics and religion got mixed together in the last several decades with terrible results, the worst of which was the way some branches of conservative Christianity have tried to make Donald Trump seem like the chosen instrument of God.

Robertson, who on his TV show and through other outlets, said a ton of ridiculous things, is, of course, not the sole cause of the rise of a president who was impeached twice and who now has been indicted twice (with more, no doubt, coming). Also to blame are the traditional Republicans who so feared Trump that they refused (and still refuse, in many cases) to declare that the emperor has no clothes. Beyond that, of course, the Democratic party, in its failure to understand and respond to middle-class, working-class angst about things that were changing around them, is also a culprit. Instead of guiding such fearful people through cultural and demographic changes, the party abandoned them to a party that used their fears to gain power.

As for Robertson himself, it's difficult to imagine how someone who, as the AP story to which I've linked you above notes, "blamed natural disasters on gays and feminists" could become so popular that he thought he could run a successful campaign for president himself. But that says a lot about the theological and biblical ignorance that seems to run rampant in America.

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Can mediocre preaching be improved? Maybe. Here's some help.

Great Christian preaching is -- how to say this kindly? -- rare.

Word-made-freshAnd no doubt even the best preachers -- maybe even Fred Craddock or Gardner C. Taylor -- had off days. But in my experience the reality is that the average preacher in the average church offers up a lot more exegetical mediocrity than brilliance.

So when I run across preaching that seems well above average, it's a surprise and an occasion for celebration.

The good news is that you will find many examples of excellent preaching in a new collection of sermons (and commentary) by the Rev. Dr. George A. Mason, senior pastor emeritus of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. It's called The Word Made Fresh: Preaching God's Love for Every Body. The book's official publication date is June 27, but it can be ordered now. Mason led that church for more than three decades. Today he is founder and president of Faith Commons, which, as its website says, "promotes public discourse rooted in the common values of many faiths."

In an introduction to one of the book's sections, a pastor named Allen Walworth describes Mason's preaching this way: "George carefully selects words like jewels, and then polishes and sets them in sentences designed to reflect light into the secret places of the heart. . .These sermons are a basket of flashlights, each of them pointing a beam of light at a different trajectory that might lead someone on the dark path back to their true home in relationship with God through Christ."

More than 20 years ago, under Mason's leadership, Wilshire Baptist severed its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention and, instead, became part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a less theologically rigid way to be Baptist, a way often associated with former President Jimmy Carter.

Far beyond a limited emphasis on personal salvation, therefore, Mason's sermons dealt with the great moral issues of the time -- war, poverty, racism, sexism and more. As I read his words, it's clear that he's not simply giving people simplistic answers from the Bible. Rather, he's using scripture to point people toward a God who liberates them to be of service to a wounded world.

Sometimes that leads him, at least briefly, to critique the words of other Baptists. For instance, in a 1996 sermon he told his congregants that he was "disgusted this week to read statements by a Southern Baptist seminary president," Mark Coppenger, the then-leader of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.

"He claimed," Mason said, "that Baptists are tragically losing the important idea that all people who do not know Jesus are 'bad.' I quote, 'Lost people are bad people. . .The person who is not saved is in fact the son of the devil, a rebel, hating the light. Now they can mask it and bad men do some good things, but at the core they are bad people.'"

That's a morally black-white, no-gray world that Mason has little use for because it's not just simplistic, it professes to limit the freedom of God to decide the status and fate of everyone. And Mason wasn't the only one taking issue with Coppenger's approach to Christianity. In 1999, the seminary board fired him, saying that his "expressions of anger have 'irreparably damaged his ability to lead this seminary.'”

Most of Mason's preaching, however, is devoted to providing what Walworth called "a basket of flashlights." Mason's job -- as that of any Christian preacher -- is to lead people to a deeper relationship with the divine and then to help them figure out how to bring life and goodness to a world in need.

And Mason clearly understands what it takes to do just that and what doesn't work.

As he said in a 2005 sermon, "(W)e are all more charmed into faith than reasoned into it. The heart draws us more than the head drives us to it.

"Think of it: How many of you put your trust in Christ because someone answered all your questions? I know I have never talked anyone into becoming a Christian. The most I can do is to lower the bar of objections. . .I was just like most children who grew up in the church. We are drawn to faith by the smells and bells. . .; by the stitching and color and symbols. . .; by the mystery of the waters of baptism; by the taste of Wonder Bread and wine at the Table; by the sound of voices singing and organ pipes piping and shafts of light that break in through the windows on Easter Sunday; by the gentle touch of a Sunday school teacher, and by a youth minister who was just the right blend of reverent and irreverent enough to make you want to be like him."

Perhaps most admirable, Mason understands what Orthodox Christian theologian David Bentley Hart understands, which is that Christianity is much less about the past than it is about not just the present but especially the future.

"Faith," Mason said in his 2022 farewell sermon at Wilshire, "always lives in the tension between the already and the not yet, the past and the future. It's a good thing for us to protect enduring values, but Christianity has a bias toward the future. . .Our work is ongoing to build a community of faith shaped by the Spirit of Jesus Christ."

As Hart has noted, Jesus promised the Kingdom of God but what we got instead -- at least so far -- is the church. And yet the Kingdom is coming and Christians must not lose that vision. In the meantime, our job is to love God, others and ourselves with energy and joy.

Mason's many sermons in this 400-page book can help, I hope, some of today's less-skilled preachers remember that.

(One small complaint: The title "The Word Made Fresh" is also the title of at least half a dozen other books. Can what now looks like a cliché be fresh? Hmmmm.)

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Will the twice-destroyed temple in Jerusalem ever be rebuilt? As this story reports, since 1987 a Jewish group there has been working to do exactly that. But, of course, it's complicated. As is all of Jerusalem and its history entwining Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The "salem" part of the city's name derives from a word that means peace. For at least 75 years, since the founding of modern Israel, it's been hard to find much "salem" there. The story to which I've linked you offers this brief history: "The faithful have their sights set on the large, tree-dotted compound in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City. Known as Temple Mount to Jews and revered as their holiest site, the compound has for centuries housed Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most sacred place in Islam. Those seeking to rebuild the temple recall the former place of worship, destroyed around 70 AD during the Roman period. According to Jewish tradition, their first temple was demolished in 586 BC by then ruler Nebuchadnezzar II at the same location." So we'll see. 

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Finally, a national strategy to unplug antisemitism

The recent announcement that the Biden White House is starting a major new initiative to fight antisemitism is not only welcome in this time of resurgent Jew hatred, it's also evidence of what can happen when you appoint the right people to work on government initiatives.

Antisemitism strategy reportJust over a year ago, Deborah Lipstadt, a brilliant scholar and author whom I've been able to hear speak in person twice in the Kansas City area, was confirmed as President Joe Biden's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, with the rank of ambassador.

She has been deeply involved in the design and roll-out of this new initiative, which, as the AP story to which I linked you in the first paragraph reports, includes "more than 100 steps the administration and its partners can take to combat an alarming rise in antisemitism." At the press conference announcing all of this, as the AP story notes, "Biden said the first U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism sends a 'clear and forceful message' that 'in America, evil will not win, hate will not prevail' and 'the venom and violence of antisemitism will not be the story of our time.'"

The link in the previous paragraph takes you to the full 60-page strategy, but here's an early key paragraph:

Together, we must acknowledge and confront the reality that antisemitism is rising, both at home and abroad. Loud voices are normalizing this venom, but we must never allow it to become normal. Antisemitism threatens not only the Jewish community, but all Americans. People who peddle these antisemitic conspiracy theories and fuel racial, ethnic, and religious hatred against Jews also target other communities — including Black and brown Americans; Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders; LGBTQI+ individuals; Muslim Americans; women and girls; and so many others. Our intelligence agencies have determined that domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy — including antisemitism — is the greatest terrorist threat to our Homeland today.

That last sentence bears rereading: "Our intelligence agencies have determined that domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy — including antisemitism — is the greatest terrorist threat to our Homeland today."

Domestic terrorism, like antisemitism, has been on the rise for several years. To keep up with developments in that field as they affect us in the Kansas City area, I recommend to you the work of my former Kansas City Star colleague, reporter Judy L. Thomas, who does a terrific job explaining all this to readers.

The federal government, of course, can't by itself fix this ancient hatred of Jews. Its roots are deep and include nearly 2,000 years of anti-Judaism found in Christian history. To read about that history, go to this essay posted elsewhere on my blog. I also recommend reading Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, by David Nirenberg.

If you want to be part of the solution in the Kansas City area, I suggest you find ways to support the work of these three agencies: The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee and SevenDays. (Disclosure: I serve on the boards of both the first and last agency just mentioned.)

If you're not from the KC area, please find similar groups and institutions that work to rid the world of this hatred wherever you are.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has written this USA Today opinion piece about all of this. His conclusions: "The strategy may not be perfect – as with any policy strategy there are areas where we and others will disagree – and it will not alone solve the scourge of antisemitism in America or globally. But this is a great and historic moment, the first time in the history of our country where the federal government has developed a comprehensive strategy to end hatred of Jews in our times.

"We are excited to continue to collaborate in the execution of this plan."

And the American Jewish Committee added its approval with this statement.

The Jewish newspaper The Forward has published this analysis of the administration's new effort to curb antisemitism. It's a good and thoughtful read and includes this observation: "Overall, the strategy represents quite an accomplishment. It’s rare that an administration lives up to its promises, and this White House followed through. But antisemitism is insidious, and the executives’ reach is limited."

As others have said, silence in the face of such evil means taking the side of the oppressor. I'm glad the Biden administration is not choosing silence. And I hope you won't, either.

All of that said, it's also true that the new federal initiative has critics, such as the authors of this opinion piece in The Tablet, which argues this: "The most serious flaw is that the strategy lacks any real consideration of how anti-Zionism, the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, almost invariably manifests as a politically correct version of antisemitism, a version that is spiraling out of control in America today."

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The move to religious disaffiliation among citizens of the U.S. is not a new story. But this RNS opinion piece offers some interesting thoughts about why the explanations for it can be myriad and complicated. What the author calls "the regime of choice" is, he says, "here to stay, posing distinct challenges to all American religious communities."

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