December 2004

Dec. 31, 2004

I’m often inspired by the way people react to disaster. That’s true not only of the way many people, including some of you, have responded to the Asian tsunami but also of many of the women who became widows on Sept. 11, 2001.

One of them was married to my nephew, Karleton D.B. Fyfe, who was a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. Haven, who recently remarried, decided to join others to help raise money to support other widows around the world, especially in Afghanistan. As they explain on their Web site,, they have formed a group called “Beyond the 11th” with a “mission to help support widows in other parts of the world who have been affected by war and terrorism. We’ve chosen to start in Afghanistan because after 9/11 we were bombarded by images and horror stories of women’s lives there.”

Although an event the group sponsored on Sept. 11, 2004, is obviously over, there’s still a way for you to contribute to this work. Go to the Web site and see. (The group’s goal of $100,000 has been surpassed by a few thousand dollars at last count, but the need is almost limitless.)

These women reaching out to other women reminded me of these amazingly gracious words that my sister Barbara, Karleton’s mother, spoke at the end of her eulogy of her son at his memorial service in North Carolina:

“And finally, there were 19 young men who commandeered the 4 planes on Sept. 11 who died as well. I want to say to their mothers that if you loved your sons and daughters the way I love mine, I then feel and know your loss, and my heart is broken for you as well.”

At one point her eulogy — as well as one I did — and many other tributes to Karleton were on the Web site,, but it appears as though much of the material there now is gone. But you can go to the site, click on American Flight 11 and scroll down to find Karleton’s name.

By the way, the epilogue in my book, A Gift of Meaning, is the first column I wrote about Karleton after 9-11.

Dec. 30, 2004

I’m doing some reading in preparation for a week-long seminar I’ll be co-teaching in July at Ghost Ranch, a national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico (

The class will be called “Finding New Life in the Wilderness.” One of the books my co-teacher, Dr. Edward Thompson, and I plan to use is called The Wilderness of God by Andrew Louth.

In it, oddly enough, I have found an illuminating remark that offers one more reason the 9-11 terrorists — and other suicide terrorists — got the idea of martyrdom completely wrong. The quote I’ll share with you today is offered in a Christian context, but its truth is, I think, universally applicable.

It comes from T.S. Eliot’s play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” in which Thomas á Becket preaches a Christmas Day sermon that includes these words:

“A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.”

It’s the desire for glory — among many other things — that negates the alleged martyrdom of people who crash airplanes into buildings or blow themselves and others up, delusionally dreaming of paradise. As Eliot has Becket say, martyrdom “is never the design of man.”

Dec. 29, 2004

Before I get to my main subject today, I want to urge all of you to respond to the terrible Asian tsunami crisis by giving what you can to help the relief agencies struggling to provide clean water, food, shelter and other necessities to desperate people.

There are many ways to do this, but let me suggest two. The first is the way my wife and I gave last night — online to the Red Cross. The direct URL for a donation is I designated our donation for international relief. Another way to help is by giving to a great Kansas City-area organization, Heart-to-Heart International. Here’s that agency’s Web site:

All religions and systems of ethics worthy of the name call followers to compassion and charity. We can all live that out today in response to this incredible natural disaster.

And now a different subject: One of my favorite magazines is Christian History, which recently added “& Biography” to its name ( (While you’re at the magazine’s site, you can sign up for a good, free newsletter that comes by e-mail.)

The magazine’s well-researched articles offer the kind of historical perspective that people of faith too often never learn about through their own faith communities. Lots of religious groups, in fact, do history — including their own — badly.

The current issue focuses on the Mennonites, Amish and Brethren sects of Christianity and describes various developments in their Anabaptist history. Too many Americans have a kind of ignorantly romantic notion about these “plain people,” imagining them to be uncomplicated products of uncomplicated history.

The reality is different — as it almost always is when we think we understand this or that out-of-the-ordinary religious movement. The current issue of the magazine includes good recommendations for several books that will add to our knowledge about the Anabaptists (the term means re-baptizers and is a reference to their early belief that infant baptism wasn’t effective and needed to be replaced by adult baptism).

Among the book the magazine that assistant editor Steven Gertz recommends: The Anabaptist Story (third edition) by William Estep; Martyrs Mirror by Thieleman J. van Braght; On the Backroad to Heaven by Donald Kraybill; Anabaptist World USA by Kraybill and C. Nelson Hostetter; The Riddle of Amish Culture by Kraybill; A History of the Amish by Steven M. Nolt; The Amish in the American Imagination by David Weaver-Zercher, and MennoFolk by Ervin Beck.

By the way, if you wind up subscribing to the magazine, I recommend you also order Issue 28 from the archives: “The 100 Most Important Events in Church History.”

Dec. 28, 2004

Michael Josephson is founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics (, and one of the best commentators on ethics and morals. He writes a regular commentary called “Character Counts!” that I recommend. You can find it at

I especially enjoyed this little Christmas story this Jewish thinker recently included in his commentary: "In 'Christmas Stories From the Heart,' compiled by Alice Gray, Jean Gietzen writes about a Christmas in 1943 in North Dakota.

"Her mom had bought a nativity set with small figurines but was disturbed to discover that the set included an extra baby Jesus. She felt sure that someone else`s set would be incomplete so she asked the store manager to put a sign in the window saying: 'If your nativity set is missing a baby Jesus, call 7162.' When she hadn`t received a call by Christmas Eve she made her husband trek to the store in 20-below-zero weather to check on the sign.

"When Jean`s father returned, his wife was gone but he shortly received a phone call from her. She asked him to bring the kids along with three blankets, a plate of cookies and a bottle of milk to a house at 205 Chestnut Street.

"When he arrived he found his wife talking with a woman and her two young children in a cold, dark home. The lady`s husband had abandoned his family days before, taking the bedding and furniture and leaving a broken furnace.

"While Jean`s mom distributed the blankets, cookies and warm milk, her dad cheerfully set about to fix the furnace. He called some buddies who quickly arrived with extra oil for the furnace, clothes, bedding, two lamps and toys. Together they transformed gloom and despair into joy and gratitude.

"How was it that Jean`s family was called to this mission of mercy? Well, the woman saw the sign posted in the store earlier that day and figured that anyone kind enough to worry about a missing figurine of baby Jesus would care enough to help her. She was right."

May we all be the kind of people who would worry about a missing figurine and care enough to help real people.

Dec. 27, 2004

Sometimes I run across words that are simply luminescent, fresh and – beyond all that – helpful in thinking about eternal things. Such words don’t always come from Christian writers, but the words I want to share with you today do.

They’re from Richard J. Foster, a spiritual formation teacher who may be most well-known for his 1978 book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth.

In the October issue of the quarterly Theology Today (, Foster is one of several people asked to ponder in print the meaning of salvation. (I’ve subscribed to Theology Today for years and find it invaluable. It’s published by Princeton Theological Seminary.)

Foster calls salvation a “daring goal” and then writes this:

“I must begin by stating flatly what the goal is not: The goal of salvation is not to get us into heaven. Properly understood, heaven is not a goal at all, but a destination. Heaven is vitally important, and it is part of the package, if you will, but it must never be the center of our attention. Heaven is only a glorious byproduct of something far more central. Salvation is a life, and when we have this life, physical death becomes merely a minor transition from this life to greater life. (I wish, at this point, Foster had added something like: “But that transition, if it’s to happen, depends completely on God, not on us.” But he didn’t.)

Then Foster writes these engaging words: “The real issue is not so much us getting into heaven as it is getting heaven into us. Besides, when we do get to heaven, we want to be the kind of person who will be inclined to stay there. We must always remember that the purifying fires of heaven are hotter than the fires of hell.”

Well, indeed. May we all be the kind of people who will be inclined to feel so much at home in heaven that we’ll want to stay there.

Dec. 25, 2004

Without comment today, I print President Bush's Christmas message. I'd be interested to hear how it strikes you.


Office of the Press Secretary

December 23, 2004

Christmas 2004

For 2,000 years, Christmas has proclaimed a message of hope: the patient hope of men and women across centuries who listened to the words of prophets and lived in joyful expectation; the hope of Mary, who welcomed God's plan with great faith; and the hope of wise men, who set out on a long journey guided only by a slender promise traced in the stars.

Christmas reminds us that the grandest purposes of God can be found in the humblest places. And it gives us hope that all the love and gifts that come to us in this life are the signs and symbols of an even greater love and gift that came on a holy night. The Christmas season fills our hearts with gratitude for the many blessings in our lives.

With those blessings comes a responsibility to reach out to others. Many of our fellow Americans still suffer from the effects of illness or poverty. Others fight cruel addictions, cope with division in their families, or grieve the loss of a loved one. Christmastime reminds each of us that we have a duty to love our neighbor just as we would like to be loved ourselves.

By volunteering our time and talents where they are needed most, we help heal the sick, comfort those who suffer, and bring hope to those who despair.

During the holidays, we also keep in our thoughts and prayers the men and women of our Armed Forces -- especially those far from home, separated from family and friends by the call of duty. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, these courageous Americans are fighting the enemies of freedom and protecting our country from danger. By bringing liberty to the oppressed, our troops are defending the freedom and security of us all. They and their families are making many sacrifices for our Nation, and all Americans are deeply grateful.

Laura joins me in wishing all Americans a Merry Christmas.


Dec. 24, 2004

Most of us are too busy with holiday matters on this Christmas Eve to spend a lot of time on blogs. So today I’ll offer you just one brief thought about the Texas woman who, we learned this week, has paid $50,000 to have her cat cloned. (

I’ll put aside any ethical questions about cloning and, instead, tell you that my late father, a man of wonderful cornball humor, used to talk about a man who bragged to him that he had a $100,000 dog.

Dad asked him where he got such an expensive animal.

“I got him in a trade for two $50,000 cats,” the man said.

Don’t send your cat stories to me. I won’t read them. But Christmas cheers to all.

Dec. 23, 2004

Yes, this is the Christmas season, and as a Christian I enter Advent each year with joy and expectation. But sometimes my reading is out of sync with the season. It’s that way this year.

I’ve just finished a short new book by Gerard S. Sloyan, Why Jesus Died, from Fortress Press ( Sloyan is an emeritus professor of religion at Temple University.

One of the things Sloyan does in this helpful volume is to raise the issue that became such a hot topic earlier this year with the release of Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ”: Do Jews somehow bear collective guilt for the death of Jesus?

The Christian faith, to its eternal shame, has been a source of anti-Judaism for centuries, all rooted in what theologians call the “Christ event.” Sloyan tries to get to some of the sources of that calumny — though it seems odd to me that he doesn’t focus more of his investigation on the way that Paul’s words have been misused over the centuries as a source of anti-Judaism, a subject I wrote about earlier this year when I focused on the work of Mark D. Nanos (, who teaches at Rockhurst University in Kansas City.

Here is Sloyan’s conclusion: The result of early Christian efforts to blame Jews for the death of Christ “began a centuries-long history of being stigmatized as the killers of Christ on the cross, when in fact they (Jews) would have repudiated to a person the small number of Jews in power who had had a part in the deed.”

Probably this is a good time of year to read Sloyan’s book. It’s a reminder that Easter, not Christmas, is the most important Christian holiday. But as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. says, trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.

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Dec. 22, 2004

I am endlessly fascinated with the intersection of science and religion. In fact, as part of my church work, I help with a group called the Kansas City Religion Science Dialogue Project (

So I was glad to see the discussion of “Intelligent Design” and Darwinism in a recent issue of Christianity Today I was especially pleased by the reasonable tone of the essay there by John Wilson, “Unintelligent Debate: It’s time to cool the rhetoric in the Intelligent Design Dispute.”

Wilson argues that a little humility might go a long way in the debate over whether Darwin is completely right, completely wrong or somewhere in the middle. Humility is one of the most important virtues recommended by St. Benedict in his 1,500-year-old Rule of Benedict. You can find a copy of the Rule at, operated by the beautiful Christ in the Desert Monastery near Abiquiu, N.M, just a few miles from Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center where I’ve taught each summer for the last 10 years.

Humility. I wish I could make the world marinate in it for a week. What a lovely place this might be.

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