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Faiths and Beliefs
a column by Vern Barnet every Wednesday in the FYI section of the Kansas City Star,
[printed and Star web versions versions and versions here may vary]
copyright The Kansas City Star.
correspondence with critics


Kwanzaa celebrates the human experience

LOS ANGELES--Kwanzaa originated here in 1966, after the Watts race riot. Its creator, Maulana Karenga, believed that the way to improve and enrich "African American life was the rescue and reconstruction of their culture."
   Kwanzaa was first called a "cultural" rather than a "religious" holiday. It is still is unmentioned in most religious reference books.
   I asked the Rev Cecil Murray of the Los Angeles First AME Church whether Kwanzaa has become important in the life of his congregation. "Yes, because it deals with the totality of human experience, and religion is what ties human experience together."
   He then listed the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
   "This is what all the religions of the world talk about," he said. "How can you extol a faith without also extolling an economic system that helps you feed the hungry, house the poor, educate the young, and provide jobs?
   "The seven principles are a supplement to the Ten Commandments."
   "We observe Kwanzaa at years's end to review how well we've done putting our faith into practice, and to plan to do better in the coming year." (Kwanzaa began Dec 26 and continues through January 1.)
   The Hanukahh candles kindled earlier this month recall the ancient Jews who, at the severest personal costs, secured liberty to practice their faith. Christmas candles glow in the season of darkness with divine hope. And the Kwanzaa candles, one lit for each principle, help in rediscovering a rich spiritual heritage.
   Whatever our religion, or none, we can all use more light.

69. 951220
Still mindful of ‘reverence for life’

LOS ANGELES--In 1958 the actor Hugh O'Brian (Wyatt Earp was one of his best-known roles) spent nine days in Africa with Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
   Schweitzer had given up promising careers as an organist and theologian to heal the sick in Lambarene, Gabon, for over fifty years. He became known as a one of the century's foremost humanitarians and spiritual leaders, faithful to his own phrase, "reverence for life."
   Schweitzer affected O'Brian deeply, and O'Brian thought beyond his own TV, movie and Broadway career to the future, and decided to honor Schweitzer's challenge to train "young people to think for themselves."
   The Hugh O'Brian Youth Foundation headquartered here is now the premiere organization of its kind in the country, with programs in all fifty states, presenting selected high school sophomores with different views on important issues and the challenge to form their own opinions.
   Last summer the Overland Park Rotary Club Foundation initiated its own leadership program for high school students, involving a range of people from community volunteers and business people to Kansas Governor Bill Graves. Instead of hoarding their success, the O'Brian people have offered every possible cooperation to the Rotarians to make the local program even better.
   Two thousand years ago, a great leader was born in a stable. But his work is unfinished. His work must become ours, as Schweitzer and O'Brian and countless others have recognized. The meaning of Christmas is less in the packages under the tree and more in the values and power of vision we offer to the children and to the future.

68. 951213
See your faith as others see it

This column is for Christians who would like hints about the difficulties those from other faiths may have in becoming Christians themselves.
   A Chinese woman who has joined a Presbyterian church struggles with the Christian doctrine of original sin. She wants to adopt the faith of her new country, but when she looks at the innocence of a baby, her Confucian training that we are born good makes more sense to her.
   A man from Africa cannot understand why Christians worship a God who, according to the Bible, commanded repeated genocidal massacre of the men, women and children of Canaan, even killing the cattle, as in Joshua 6:21.
   Mininder Kaur, a woman from India who has expended great effort at a Methodist church, is profoundly disturbed by the concept of a "chosen people," which causes Christians she has meet to think they are superior to others.
   She writes, "Here I am trying desperately to look beyond my own ignorance and prejudice to touch the heart of Christianity. But my every attempt seems to be countered by the Bible's negation of me as a spiritual compatriot attempting to walk the same path."
   She is disturbed by the arrogance of those who, without real study of other faiths, claim to know the "one true God."
   You may have responses to these people. But before you answer, be sure you ask, "How might Christianity as it is sometimes taught and practiced look to me if I were lovingly raised in another religion?"
   As those of various faiths meet, we have a chance to benefit from each other's views and thus to purify ourselves and our own traditions.

67. 951206
Music tells Christmas story

Advent, four weeks in Western Christendom preparing for Christmas, is a season of music. Indeed, the ancient story tells of angels singing.
   I asked John Obetz, organist at the RLDS Peace Temple in Independence, to discuss music that might not be as familiar to us as, say, Handel's "Messiah," but which expresses the season in a similarly moving way.
   He selected "A Service of Nine Lessons and Carols," first sung a hundred years ago in England, at King's College. "It is more than just music for listening," he explained, "because the audience becomes a congregation responding, as do the choirs and the soloists, to each of the biblical lessons."
   The lessons begin with the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, so that the need for a Redeemer is established. The lessons continue with prophecies of a Messiah, and conclude with gospel stories of the trip to Bethlehem and the birth of a Savior.
   In England the popularity of this work has "long outgrown the walls of the gothic chapel, with the service now televised world-wide."
   Religions constantly change, and so do their customs and holidays. This particular music embraces flexibility. Obetz, who will play at a Dec 10 performance of the work, says that the "Service" has been modified several times, "with lessons and music changing to keep the festival ever fresh and vibrant."
   Sunday's version draws from former and current adaptations not only in England but in this country where its popularity is increasing. Obetz will use various age and ethnic groups to respect the universality of the Christmas hope.

Sikhs’ clothing reveals their sacred intentions

Why do Sikhs wear turbans?
   A Sikh male is easily recognizable by the long scarf wound around his head. "The turban shows a sense of respect for God. We are always in the presence of our Creator," says Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, director of the 3HO Sikh Ashram in Kansas City.
   "Cotton cloth is a natural covering for the 'Tenth Gate' of yoga, a link between the human and the divine."
   Boys usually begin wearing a turban as soon as they are able to tie it. Turbans come in many colors, though some groups of Sikhs choose to wear only a particular color. Karta Purkh wears mostly white.
   Some Hindus also wear turbans, and not all Sikhs do.
   But there are five other signs, five "K's," which identify a Sikh who has joined the Khalsa brotherhood. These signs were instituted by the tenth Sikh teacher, Guru Gobind Singh (1675-1708), in northern India.
   1. Kesh is uncut hair. "It means we cannot improve on God's work."
   2. The kanga is the comb worn in the hair. "This reminds us to keep clean and to respect our bodies so we are always ready to worship God."
   3. The kara is a steel wrist band, an emblem of "slavery only to God."
   4. The kacchera, a kind of underpants, signifies "chastity or loyalty to one partner."
   5. The kirpan is a small dagger, sometimes embedded in the comb, which calls the "Sikh to be ready at all times to defend those who cannot defend themselves.
   "Sikhs wear these symbols to remind ourselves of our duty to our own consciousness," says Karta Purkh.
   I admire those whose sacred intentions are expressed even in the way they dress.

Pilgrims’ intolerance gives way to liberty

   In 1620, blown off course by a wintry gale, the Pilgrims landed not at their intended Virginia destination, but at Plymouth, where they were forced to govern themselves by their Mayflower Compact, patterned on a church covenant. This accident -- or was it Providence? -- is the first chapter in the mythic story of American democracy.
   A century and a half later, after the Revolution, the U.S. Constitution instituted a federal system, imitating the representative democracy of the Iroquois Federation. Since no state could prevail over the others in matters of faith, the First Amendment protected religious freedom, making a virtue of necessity.
   Still, we continued the "ethnic cleansing" of the native peoples, imported men, women, and children from Africa and enslaved them, and plundered and polluted the sacred land. Women could not vote.
   Many colonists came here seeking religious freedom for themselves but were ready to deny it to others. Yet as history unfolded, their intolerance was transformed into the genius of American liberty.
   Last Sunday at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, American Indian, Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Wiccan, and other greetings began an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration. Participants learned the meaning of gratitude in each tradition.
   America is purified and enlarged by these perspectives. We can be thankful that they enrich and deepen -- and now become part of -- the American story.
   Is this new chapter an accident, or is Providence again guiding us?

Theologian sees Trinity as key to dialogue

How can a Christian be open to other faiths?
   Theologian Shirley C. Guthrie says "Because God is active in the whole world, the task of Christian theology is to discern how God is present outside the Christian circle."
   In the past, the doctrine of the Trinity has been used to persecute Muslims and Jews. Guthrie, however, proposes a deeper understanding of the Trinity through which we can discover in those of other faiths "things about God that we have forgotten or never seen."
   God as Creator of all life everywhere cares for all human beings. God as Christ works to reconcile people, including our enemies, and to bring together those who have nothing to do with each other. God as the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says, "blows where it wills," and is not confined to Christians and the church.
   This week-end at Village Presbyterian Church, Guthrie, professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, will propose that such a Trinitarian approach toward God can be used not only for interfaith dialogue, but also to develop a clear response to the Christian Right and the Christian Left.
   Guthrie says his "Presbyterian Reformed tradition teaches openness, to subject everything we think we know to criticism, to re-examination and to correction in the light of the God we come to know in Scripture."
   He quotes an old saying, "To be Reformed means to be always being reformed by the word of God."
   As God remains active in the world, so the Reformation is not finished, and we must actively pursue it. But we must begin by reforming ourselves, before we try reforming others. Others may teach us.

Why must a peacemaker die by such violence?

Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu, Sadat was killed by a Muslim, and Rabin was assassinated by a Jew. Why do individuals hate and fear--and sometimes kill--leaders of their own faith?
   And why do those of one religion persecute those of another religion? Christians lifting swords against Muslims during the Crusades fails to imitate the life of Jesus, and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia ignores the parable of the Good Samaritan.
   Even Martin Luther wrote of Jews that "their synagogues (should be) set on fire and their houses destroyed. Herd them into stables. Take their prayer books from them. Forbid their rabbis to praise God in public. Take their money and jewelry, gold and silver, from them since everything they possess has been stolen through usury."
   Today Pat Buchanan calls us into "a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America."
   Dear reader, have you noticed that people in the grip of anger, greed, or lust for power sometimes use religion to act righteous?
   And sometimes people think God wants their selfish allegiance to a particular group or cause rather than to recognize that we are all a part of each other.
   So they answer "evil" with evil, and evil increases. But when we respond to evil with understanding, evil is diminished.
   The warrior Rabin became a peacemaker. He did not resolve all injustices. That may never happen. But he, with Arafat, had the strength to begin understanding, to diminish evil, and to practice not narrow fear, but expansive faith.

Faiths start to talk about sexuality

Most cultures support at least some same-sex behaviors, but the world's religions present a range of views about what we now call homosexuality.
   Islam requires that one not act upon sexual desires for someone of the same sex, according to Dr. A. Rauf Mir, who cited several passages from the Qur'an. Such acts would be regarded as sinful, as is adultery.
   Shoho Michael Newhall, a Soto Zen monk in Kansas City recently, said that Buddhism focuses not on the gender of the partners so much as on whether the loving is free of attachment. When we seek satisfaction of desire instead of simply surrendering to the unfolding process of loving, we can be "scattered" in the illusion that there is single right way.
   In some cultures males become men only through sexual initiation with men. In other cultures certain individuals adopt roles normally played by the opposite sex. The term "berdache" has been applied to such persons in over a hundred North American Indian tribes. The berdache was often revered as we might honor a saint, because of the spiritual powers that spring from the extraordinary.
   Within Christendom are many opinions about homosexuality, as there remain many opinions about abortion and the ordination of women, and as there used to be many opinions about slavery.
   My own question is this: Why does our society portray men fighting and killing each other so much more often than men loving each other?
   October, gay and lesbian history month, is now over, but dialog among those of different faiths on sexuality is just beginning.
   [ My own view is that love which is unconditional, regardless of race, gender, status, and other such presumptive qualifications, is blessed./ In a world of hatred and violence, should not unconditional love, whoever it appears, be blessed? ]

Muslim call to prayer is a reminder of God’s supremacy

What is the Muslim call to prayer?
   One of the five "pillars" or chief requirements of Islam is salat, prayer. Since salat is performed five times throughout the day, it is a pervasive and constant reminder of God's supreme place in our lives, according to Imam (prayer leader) Bilal Muhammed of the Kansas City Masjid Inshirah (Solace Mosque).
   The act of prayer begins with the adhan, or call to prayer, performed for oneself or by a muezzin (crier) from a place facing east or from a minaret (a tower connected with a mosque).
   Here is the text of the adhan, but without the repetitions and with explanations in parentheses: "Allah (Arabic for the Creator) is greater (than anything). I bear witness that nothing deserves worship except Allah. I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Come lively to prayer. Come to cultivation. Allah is greater. There is no god but Allah."
   Imam Muhammad says that the call to prayer is not a song in the Western sense, but more a chanted cry. The "tune" goes back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and the rhythm is based on the long and short vowels of Arabic. (The similar practice in worship of chanting the Qur'an, the scripture of Islam, also reveals the musicality of the language.)
   The cry has an urgency that draws us to understand that whatever we are doing is not as important as God.
   The cultivation we are called to is spiritual. When the call is heard by a group, social cultivation, an expression of spiritual kinship, is more obvious, he said.
   Whatever our faith, we need such cultivation.

60. 951018
Violence in America: numbing, addictive

   "All religions teach the futility of violence, but our society has become so secular that it no longer believes this is a moral universe," said Huston Smith, perhaps the greatest living teacher of world religions, in Kansas City last week.
   Smith cited the Buddhist teaching of karma which insists that hurting others in any way, even speaking ill of them, ultimately leads to one's own suffering. Similarly, he said, Christianity teaches that what we sow, we will reap.
   But such ideas make no sense to a disconnected culture, where thoughts about consequences are too difficult for short attention spans.
   Smith sees our situation deteriorating.
   He mentioned a teacher who discovered a number of her students had considered murder, some for "revenge" and some from "peer-pressure."
   America is "addicted" to the excitement of movie and TV images of violence. "The entertainment money-makers" deepen the addiction.
   "Some of us are so numbed that only violence can make us feel alive," he said. He worries not just about what is on TV, but also about the increasing number of children who watch TV by themselves. "It is human interaction that makes us human," he said, "not watching TV alone.
   "The current Western image of the human is pathetic. We have lost a vision of the immensity and dignity of the human soul," he said.
   Yet Smith sees the increasing interest in world religions as a hopeful signal. "The subject of religion is the human spirit, capable of courage and compassion." Uplifting images may help us see that we are connected to what we do, and with one another.

Compassion emphasized in Buddhism

Why are Buddhists sometimes reluctant to discuss their beliefs?
   "Maybe because their practice is in front of them and their beliefs are in back of them," said Shoho Michael Newhall, a Soto Zen Buddhist monk in Kansas City last weekend to lead a retreat.
   "The original teaching of the Buddha has very little to do with beliefs. The Buddha was concerned with the human condition. His approach to what troubles us was pragmatic. So he recommended not beliefs but instead taught how to practice three things: dhyana (meditation), sila (basic morality) and prajna (wisdom)."
   The Buddha did not answer questions about the soul, about God, or about death. Instead he focused on compassion, ways to relieve suffering. Some westerners begin meditation, for example, to reduce stress.
   Newhall cited a Roman Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi who have both been ordained as Buddhist priests while continuing to lead within their own traditions. "They can do this because Buddhism is more a practice of compassion than a set of beliefs."
   But can one meditate alone? Newhall said, "As social beings, we need to practice with a community.  Otherwise one's complete self is not recognized. Even if one must practice alone, it is helpful to have a spiritual teacher or friend to help you see how you are developing."
   Newhall added that "meditation is not a ticket to a state of bliss. It is hard work and demands total engagement."
   It is easy to discuss beliefs. But practicing compassion in every sphere of life perhaps requires fewer answers and more, well -- practice.

A schism between sports and spirituality

The deaths last month of two youths shot near an Olathe football field contrast sharply--and tellingly--with the spiritual origin of sports.
   Take the ancient Greeks. Even when city-states were at war with each other, they ceased hostilities in sacred truce so their athletes could travel safely and play together in the Olympics.
   Sports, music, theater, art and other cultural activities sprang from religious festivals. The Olympic games, for example, honored the goddess Hera, and later the god Zeus. And victory was no more important than the grace and sportsmanship of the contestant.
   Our culture fragments athletics and spirituality. A prayer before the game is so disconnected from what actually happens on the field, it is like covering your mouth before you cough.
   Can sports nowadays arise from spiritual impulses? How can the players and spectators grow spiritually from an athletic contest?
   When winning and violence become more exciting than the playing, such questions make no sense.
   Winning at all costs and violence result from our secularism. Power, money, and self-aggrandizement replace joy in human capacities and relationships.
   In the last few decades, however, theologians and others as diverse as Johan Huizinga, George F. Will, Michael Novak, and George Leonard, show how games from baseball and bodybuilding to wrestling and whist are actually explorations of religious values.
   But when we forget we are playing, demonic values tear us apart, and even murder becomes possible.

Technology makes us seek guidance

   "Evolution is a fact," says anthropologist H. James Birx, in Kansas City last week for several lectures. "The evidence is overwhelming.
   "The question is, how do you interpret this fact?"
   Birx contrasts material with spiritual explanations in his 1991 book, Interpreting Evolution: Darwin and Teilhard de Chardin.
   It was the spiritual interpretation developed by Teilhard that attracted an overflow crowd at Rockhurst College Thursday night, perhaps the largest gathering of people interested in Teilhard in Kansas City since the Missouri Repertory Theater produced Wendy MacLaughlin's Crown of Thorn in 1982.
   Birx later said interest in Teilhard continues to grow, now 40 years after his death. Why?
   Perhaps because people want to reconcile science and religion. But Birx suggests another reason, unthinkable until recently: we need guidance on how to use new powers. "We now can direct our own evolution--microscopically, as in changing human DNA, and macroscopically, as in creating or colonizing other planets."
   Teilhard, a Jesuit paleontologist who helped discover Peking Man, believed that the universe is spiritual, evolving through dead matter, then life, and then human self-consciousness, toward planetary super-consciousness, by which he understood Christ, the Omega Point.
   For him, God guides through evolution. What begins as a manifestation of gravity evolves into a response to the sun in photosynthesis, and on, to humans responding to one another, and ultimately to full consciousness of God.
   Teilhard's evolutionary guidance is called "love."

Science and religion commingle in his mind

Bitterly disappointed in the religion I learned as a child, in high school I became a militant atheist. I swapped faith for science.
   One Sunday in 1960 as I switched radio stations, I heard talk about the theory of evolution. I listened. The speaker praised a new book by a deceased Jesuit paleontologist. Roman Catholic authorities had prohibited the book's publication while the author, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was alive.
   It was science, but it was also religion--a careful description of how God was manifesting through the process of evolution. Uniting mysticism and science, it was an idea that in a few weeks took me back to church, and ultimately into the ministry.
   Teilhard believed that even the smallest particle of matter participates in a universal process in which increasing organization with diversity leads to higher and higher levels of awareness. What begins as a response to gravity evolves into a response to the sun in photosynthesis, and on, to humans responding to one another. He believed a divine evolution of love is leading us to a planetary "unanimous Thought," by which he understood the Second Coming.
   My own thinking has continued to evolve these 35 years since, but Teilhard opened me to many ways of faith.
   Teilhard has affected many others, as I learned when the Missouri Rep produced Wendy MacLaughlin's play about Teilhard's own life.
   He may affect yours if you hear anthropologist H. James Birx lecture at Rockhurst College (501-4607) on "Teilhard and Evolution" this Thursday evening.

Professor defines spirituality

Last Wednesday this column showed how in many traditions and languages, the word "spirituality" is a metaphorical expansion of "breath."
   Ed Canda, professor at the University of Kansas and founding director of the Society for Spirituality and Social Work, responded to the column:
   "Spirituality, like the breath that inspires and enlivens everyone, is common to all people and all religions. When we chose to live in a spiritual way, we grow in love and understanding.
   "Spirituality is our yearning for meaning and purpose, the search for morality and truth. It is our life-long development of a sense of being a whole person, with self-respect and love towards others.
   "It is so basic to being genuinely human than many cultures don't have a special word for it.
   "In Confucianism, spirituality is the pursuit of wisdom and work to make a society that benefits everyone.
   "In Zen Buddhism, spirituality is the quest for enlightenment--the insight into who we truly are, realizing our connection with everything, and desiring to help all fellow beings.
   "For Jews, Christians and Muslims, spirituality can lead to awareness of a personal and loving God, present in the world.
   "The spiritual way leads to a sense of the sacredness of all things, right in the midst of daily life. When we have this awareness, we naturally want to respect and care for all that exists.
   "American Indian spiritual teachers put it well: Spirituality is the way to walk in a sacred manner, to walk in harmony with the beauty all around us and within us."

Spirituality energizes and moves us

{This response does not answer whether the spirit arises from within us or is given to us from without.}
What is spirituality?
   The English word "spirit" derives from the Latin for "breath." Words like "expire" retain this root meaning. "Inspiration," breathing in, has been metaphorically expanded to refer to what excites or enlivens us.
   A couple weeks ago I spoke at a church about sexuality. Few in the group saw any connection between sexuality and spirituality. [This split indicates the secularization, which is to say, fragmentation, of our age.]
   Yet one way of understanding spirituality is what inspires, what moves, what turns you on.
   For example, Adam came to life when God breathed into his nostrils. An early Hebrew word for "soul" means wind or breath. [The term recognizes that we sometimes feel exalted, sometimes depressed.]
   A similar Arabic term for "spirit" can mean the breath used in kindling a fire. There is certainly spirit in the classic rock song by The Doors, "Light My Fire."
   The Sanskrit term for the soul, atman, means breath. The Greek word for soul from which we derive "psychology" also means breath, life.
   In Chinese, this vital force is ch'i, the breath that informs the world, expanding and contracting, making every being spiritual, even stones.
   Here are some ways we use "spirit" in English:
   - The Kansas City Spirit Festival was held last week-end.
   - The spirit of the law is more important than the letter.
   - Let's show team spirit!
   - She is a free spirit.
   While specific religions give particular meanings to "spirituality," its underlying sense is that which energizes us with significance. Cooking, business, sex, taking a walk, and even church activities can be spiritual when we let the Infinite breathe into them.

Could church council benefit KC?

Why doesn't Kansas City have a Council of Churches?
   Many cities our size, and many smaller, have some means through which churches relate to each other. Kansas City does not. Our interfaith groups are friendly but fragmented.
   Maurice Culver, national president of Project Equality, spent his sabbatical in 1990 to study the need and interest in forming such an organization in Kansas City.
   Culver recalled that several decades ago, local Protestant congregations operated the Kansas City Council of Churches. It was replaced in the 1960s by the Metropolitan Inter-Church Agency, which expanded the membership to include the Roman Catholic Diocese. MICA folded in the late 70s.
   "Since then, a variety of groups have focused efforts in particular directions, but no general, area-wide co-ordination of churches has appeared," he said. "For example, Cross-Lines Cooperative Council and reStart provide direct services to people in need, and are supported not by a Council of Churches but by groups of many faiths."
   Culver's study gathered both local and national data. He wanted to see if a Council works best composed of regional bodies, of congregations, of individuals, or of some mix of these.
   He also surveyed attitudes about the work a Council might perform, such as interfaith education, work on public policy issues, direct services, or just supplying mailing lists.
   "Funding is the problem," he said, "perhaps because no one has clearly defined what its functions and goals would be, and how it would serve its members and Kansas City."

Men, women and theology’s role

A popular course at KU is "Religious Perspectives on Selfhood and Sexuality." I asked Dr. Robert Minor, who teaches the course, about it.
   "At times prophets and seers have challenged what their cultures assumed about what it means to be a person, and what 'male' and 'female' mean," he said. "For example, Paul wrote to the Galatians that 'there is neither male nor female' for those 'in Christ.' (Galatians 3:28) Even in a highly patriarchal culture, in many cases the Early Church opened its doors to full participation by women.
   "But often traditions which began in opposition to the surrounding cultural norms eventually absorbed those norms in order to survive. Two thousand years later, women in many Christian settings are just now beginning to be recognized in the spirit and intention of Paul's insight."
   Turning to other religions, Minor said it is probable that a sexist statement attributed to the Buddha was invented by later writers. Other religious founders also may have similarly challenged prevailing cultural norms in a variety of ways.
   Minor cited I Thessalonians 5:26 as another example from the Early Church. Paul instructed the men of his day to "Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss."
   "Today it is almost unthinkable to follow Paul's advice. 'Real men' don't kiss. In our society men fear being close to each other in this way.
   "If a culture is homophobic, patriarchal, capitalist, and classist, its scriptures are likely to be reinterpreted to conform to these current social norms," he said.
   Perhaps we all have a lot of studying to do.

Painter looks for the holy

A poor Jewish girl sits on her cot in a simple room, a rug separating her feet from the cold floor. A cloth is suspended behind her to give her privacy.
   Into this ordinary scene from the ancient world, an unprecedented light now appears. It turns the eyes of the girl onto itself. She looks, she listens, she yields. She yields, according to the sacred story, as no one has ever yielded before or since.
   We call this Gospel episode "The Annunciation." An angel tells Mary she will bear the Son of God. Many artists have painted this scene, but none with more conviction than the black American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, an exhibit of whose work closes August 20 at the Nelson Gallery.
   Many of Tanner's religious paintings convince us that the holy is to be found in the ordinary, a theme that unites African-American and Jewish experiences of oppression, evoked in his "Wailing Wall" of Jerusalem.
   The power of the Gospel, Tanner seems to say, is not in earthly magnificence, but in yielding to the evidence of God in our everyday settings.
   Ordinary bread is upheld in his painting "Pilgrims at Emmaus," at that moment just before Christ vanishes from the astonished men. Is Tanner suggesting divine presence in every scrap of bread blessed when our eyes are truly open? (Luke 24:31)
   His study for "The Thankful Poor" portrays such devotion. A bearded black man and his son bow their heads in gratitude before empty plates.
   Are our deepest hungers nourished by yielding, by thanksgiving, by beholding God's presence in the ordinary?

Bound by ties forgiveness, hope

It was my first trip to Japan. A Shinto priest I roomed with in graduate school, his wife and their friends showed me their country and explained their faith with exceeding generosity.
   Now in their home, early in August, I was enjoying their hospitality. But one evening my friend apologized for his mother who would leave the next morning to travel to a memorial service. She made this trip each year, he said. He translated my wishes
to her for a good journey.
   Later it dawned on me. She was going to Hiroshima. Her husband had been killed in the blast. My friend had never really known his father because my country, then at war with his, dropped the atomic bomb.
   This column is not about military or political decisions, or whether the bomb was justified. It is about the human spirit.
   Several years later I was in Japan again. On August 6, I went myself to Hiroshima. Though restrained by dignity, the memorial service was full of emotion. Releasing hundreds of doves signaled an eternal hope.
   Then I went through the museum. I did not anticipate how shocked I would be by the muted but still overwhelming texts and photographs.
   This past week-end, as the world reviewed what happened fifty years ago, my own son asked me about war and forgiveness. I imagine my friend and his daughter have had such talks.
   The bond between us is more than personal. My country, the only nation to drop the bomb, and his, the only nation to receive it, are bound spiritually. We are bound to remember, to enjoy mutual forgiveness and to work with others to realize an eternal hope: perpetual peace for our children.

Open minds find a world of religions

A professor I admired shocked and disappointed me with a statement just before I finished college. Ever since I have been trying to prove him wrong.
   He said it is impossible for a person of one religion or culture to understand another.
   There is lots of evidence to support his view. American Indians, for example, were considered savages by many educated Europeans who colonized America.
   Chester Ellis, Executive Director of the Heart of America Indian Center, says that Indian spirituality was not recognized by missionaries "until the 1930's," 440 years after Columbus. Indians were punished for speaking their native tongues, and their attempts to practice their traditions were interpreted by the government agents, "usually missionaries," as rebellion.
   I don't see a lot of praying in the grocery store. In most secular life, saying table grace is an embarrassment. Yet, as Ellis points out, the Indians offered prayers both before the hunt and when the animal's life was taken for food. Call this rebellion?
   Ellis says that Indian spirituality regards everything, even a stone, as part of a living relationship with "Mother Earth."
   I think this is beautiful and profound--and a perspective which would heal our environment more powerfully than mere technological fixes.
   Some callers responding to this column insist that religions other than their own are "wrong," even "evil." Was my professor right? Or when we listen to people like Ellis, can we begin to understand?

Street preachers ask the right questions

As welcome as trumpeters and guitarists may be at Westport Road and Pennsylvania, a lot of weekend revelers are not exactly thrilled to find Christian witnesses working the street with signs and tracts.
   To me, however, such vigorous declarations of faith add more than local color. Entering the midst of the "devil's domain" with bars on three corners, they care enough about others to proclaim a message of salvation, even if they themselves are ignored or reviled.
   Yes, I, too, have been accosted and discovered that while these people are eager to talk, they don't often listen well. But many of us are not really listening to each other, anyhow.
   Still, I wonder, are we more in danger from such witnesses or from those who scorn spiritual discussions or confine them to one compartment in their lives? How do we explain our blindness to the casual devastation wrecked upon us by Judge Dredd and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers?
   When I was 16, I spent my entire summer earnings to print a tract I had written, "Calling All Teens," outlining, with scriptural citations, what I thought was God's plan of salvation.
   But before I could distribute many tracts to my schoolmates, I read Tom Paine's Age of Reason and Bertrand Russell's "Why I am not a Christian." It was the greatest spiritual crisis of my life. Agonizing, I finally decided that what I had been certain of now had to be trashed.
   My views have, I hope, matured since then. But I learned a great lesson: that I could be wrong.
   I do not ask the corner preachers to stop. But I do suggest more humility and openness on all sides.

Eckankar? ‘The light and sound of God’

   Joseph Tittone, minister of the Kansas City ECKANKAR Center, calls his faith a "religion of the light and sound of God." He says "these are twin aspects of the Holy Spirit, found in all religions. Christians know the story of Paul blinded by the light, and of the sound of the rushing wind that visited the disciples at Pentecost.
   "ECKANKAR teaches simple spiritual exercises to experience and recognize such presences of the Holy Spirit, or ECK, in our daily lives. Singing the word Hu, an ancient name for God, is a simple method, but each person may find some techniques more helpful than others.
   "Our purpose in living is to become co-workers with God. This means to serve others with love. If you are giving love, you are on the right path for you.
   "Many people have had a mystical experience but don't understand it. For some ECKANKAR can help. But ECKANKAR does not seek converts because ECKists believe the truth is found within each person. [ ]Those interested in ECKANKAR need not leave their own religion to benefit from ECKANKAR teachings. We never enter another person's spiritual space without an invitation.
   "We don't tell people what to do, but we do believe that we reap what we sow, if not in this life, then in another. That's why love is so important."
   ECKANKAR teachings were made public by Paul Twitchell (1908-71) in 1965. He is believed to have been the 971st in a lineage going back to Atlantis. The current spiritual leader is Sri Harold Kemp. About 200 ECKists live in Kansas City. For information, call 931-0850 or 1-800-LOVE GOD.

Buddhism continues to grow in city, nation

A bell sounded, two candles were lit, three sticks of incense burned, and a chant in the ancient Pali language was intoned. Saffron-robed monks sat in front on a platform at Unity on the Plaza as a roomful of Americans had come this Saturday morning to learn about Buddhism from a Thai teacher.
   The greater Kansas City area already has become home for several very different forms of Buddhism, including the Japanese-originated Soka Gakkai, a Tibetan-based Shambhala group, and a Korean-led Zen center.
   Arranged by Suree Weroha, this new Thai offering underlines the fact that Buddhism, now the fourth largest world religion, continues to grow from its arrival in America in the 1830s.
   After a wonderful lecture, the questions poured out, including the inevitable query: "Don't Buddhists believe in God?"
   The lecturer gently answers, "God is not a part of the Teaching. Rather we should concern ourselves with how to live." Buddhism does recognize "the Law of Nature" and the "interconnectedness of all things."
   One of the Thai monks knew my teacher Garma C. C. Chang, who thirty years ago warned me not to be mislead by the English phrase "Buddhist deities." Unlike a Creator-God who wills things for his people, "Buddhist deities" are metaphors for spiritual activities, just as Freud's id, ego, and superego do not show up on a brain scan, but are names for psychological functions. They do not make a Supreme Being; they are processes, relationships, laws of nature.
   Such explanations can frustrate us into hostility and rejection--or intrigue us enough to understand our own traditions better.

Just a colorful piece of cloth?

In the early days of Christianity, many died horribly because they refused to worship the statue of the Roman emperor. Those Christians believed only God is holy, and no statue deserved the piety the Romans demanded.
   The Christians had accepted the Ten Commandments from the Jews, one of which prohibited making and serving such idols.
   Some Christians have protested even religious images because they feared the easy confusion of the image with what it represents.
   To demand worship or belief against one's will is unworthy if not impossible. It is right to inspire devotion, but it is wrong to compel it.
   Now the United States House of Representatives has committed both mistakes, confusion and compulsion, in voting for a constitutional amendment to prohibit the "physical desecration of the flag."
   In the last few days, I have saluted the flag often. I honor the flag as a symbol of American ideals. But I do not confuse these ideals with a rectangle of fabric. And I am alarmed that my nation, constituted with the ideal of freedom of religion, would by this amendment make sacred a mere "physical" piece of cloth.
   I am offended when the Statue of Liberty is used to sell a watch, underarm deodorant and most recently, a nasal strip. The flag itself is usurped for countless commercial uses. But I am not compelled to buy.
   More serious than burning a flag is allowing hunger, violence, pollution, greed, prejudice and injustice to mar the American ideals.
   While I now salute the flag, if the government makes it an idol, I must be willing to suffer as the early Christians did.

Humanity and the wisdom of the ancients

Last Saturday at 7:30 in the morning, several hundred people watched a Greek play on the south steps of the Nelson Gallery from an astonishing period of religious revolutions 2500 years ago. The actors wore masks, yes, but no computerized special effects were needed to compel interest.
   Oedipus saved a ravaged land and became king, unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother, horrible actions ordained by the gods. When he discovered what he had done, he tore out his eyes in anguish. Once a hero, now exiled, Oedipus is reduced to begging and seeks refuge at Colonus.
   His redemption transforms his pride to love, which, the poet Sophocles shows, "frees us of all the weight and pain of life."
   As Sophocles observed that virtue cannot prevent calamity, others of this remarkable era questioned the meaning of human suffering.
   In China, Confucius examined the past and the conflicts of his day, and developed an ethical system that served the Middle Kingdom for two thousand years. In the workings of nature his contemporary Lao Tzu discerned a Way, the Tao, and counseled "going with the flow"--even through loss.
   In India, the Buddha taught release from suffering by recognizing that the self is an illusion, while Mahavira found a way to free the soul from material bondage.
   In the land of the Bible, Deutero-Isaiah prophesied that gracefully enduring unmerited violation can call others to spiritual understanding.
Today Hollywood entertains with lots of people getting hurt. The special effects dazzle the eye, but cannot replace the wisdom of the ancients to bring healing to the heart.

Baha'i faith is the ‘newest world religion’

What is the Baha'i faith?
Melvin Page, Jr,, a Kansas City Baha'i leader, answers:
   "The Baha'i faith is the newest of the world religions. Only recently has the public come to recognize that it is, in fact, a major religion, one worthy of study and reflection.
   "The Baha'i faith began in Persia (now Iran) in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. It was directly preceded by the Babi faith, founded in 1844 by the Bab, whose name means "Gate" or "Door." He foretold the coming of a new Prophet of God, just as John the Baptist had foretold the coming of Christ.
   "In 1863, a distinguished Persian nobleman announced that he was not only the One promised by the Bab, but also the Promised One of all the world's religions, Who would usher in an age of peace for all humankind. His name was Baha'Ullah, which means 'the Glory of God.'
   "Baha'Ullah called upon women and men to give up their prejudices and to recognize the kinship of all humankind as children of one, loving God. He said the time had come for humanity to unite under a common faith. He revealed a plan for world civilization to be built on a foundation of love and justice."
   Originating from Islamic traditions, the Baha'i faith came to the United States in 1892, and to Kansas City by 1945. The Baha'i temple in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette is world-famous.
   Like the other monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, the Baha'i faith looks toward a future in which present hopes will be fulfilled.

Love and marriage and weddings

How many weddings will you attend or hear about this month?
   Each ceremony is an opportunity for us to place into a larger, spiritual context the love and commitment of two people finding each other.
   In some Christian weddings the happy couple's bond signifies "the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church."
   The erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon becomes an allegory pairing God and his people. Every marriage is a new fulfillment of the model of Adam and Eve.
   Plato gives an ancient Greek version of the idea of "soul-mates." His "Symposium" specifies that originally all humans had two heads, four arms, and so forth, until the gods split them, some into two men, some into two women, some into one man and one woman. Ever since humans have searched for their other halves. Finding one's other self gives the sense of being compete lovers often enjoy.
   Sufi theologians have often understood God as a lover and our task to see God's love everywhere. The mystical jihad, holy struggle, is to find divine beauty in everyone, in every place, and to disregard lesser thoughts about others, in order to love as God loves. Connie Rahima Sweeney, a Kansas City Sufi leader, says the lover imitates "Ya Ghaffar," God's forgiving nature, and "Ya Ghaffur," which does not even notice the faults of the other.
   Linda Prugh of the Vedanta Society of Kansas City cites Swami Vivekananda's advice that if you can't see God in everyone, start with your spouse: "As long as you can both see the ideal in one another, your worship and happiness will grow."

The language of faith often is voiced in song

Test both your musical and religious knowledge with this quiz. Answers below. Five right is an excellent score.
   1. George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin did much to define American music. What was their religious heritage?
   2. The Beatles song "Inner Light" uses the scripture of what faith?
   3. The Who were influenced by Meher Baba, regarded as a master in what tradition?
   4. What American wrote an opera using the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, and adapted the cyclic rhythms of India for much of his music?
   5. John Cage developed his musical philosophy from what faith?
   6. In what religion is the call to prayer regularly sung?
   7. What faith's scriptures contain hymns of other faiths?
   8. What Kansas City choir, now in its 6th year, combines participation from African American Gospel, traditional Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon/RLDS, Jewish, Muslim and other traditions?
   9. Next season the Lyric Opera presents works which involve devilish temptation. How many of these operas can you name?
   10. The first Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production, in 1951, presented a new opera by Gian Carlo Menotti to celebrate what Christian holiday?
   ANSWERS: 1. Jewish. 2. Taoism; the text is Chapter 47 of the Tao Te Ching. 3. Sufi. 4. Philip Glass; the opera is Satyagraha. 5. Zen Buddhism; he was also interested in Taoism. 6. Islam. 7. Sikhism. 8. The Harmony Celebration Choir, with 35 groups uniting for the annual concert. 9. Gounod's Faust, Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Douglas Moore's Devil and Daniel Webster. 10. Amahl and the Night Visitors is a Christmas story.

Stories of floods teach spiritual lessons

Our stories of the waters in Kansas City have not yet reached biblical proportions, but they continue an enduring fascination with floods.
   A Sumerian tablet inscribed 4100 years ago tells about a fierce rain from the gods that destroys the world. Ziusudra builds a ship and survives.
   In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim brings kin, animals and gold into a house on a barge. After the storm, Utnapishtim opens a window and frees birds until one finds land and does not return, signaling dry land. Utnapishtim leaves the barge and offers a sacrifice on the top of a mountain.
   Scholars say the Genesis account of Noah is "cut and pasted" from versions written 2850 and 2450 years ago, based on these earlier tales. Compare Gen. 6:20 with Gen. 7:2.
   Stories of a universal flood are widespread. They appear in Mayan, Inca, Greek, Egyptian, Iranian, Hindu, Australian and other traditions, but no such deluge is found in the myths of tribal Africa, north and central Asia, and pre-Christian western Europe.
   In some stories the flood is punishment from the gods. In others, it is simply a way of erasing the gods' mistakes so they can try again. Still others ascribe the waters to odd sources, like the tears of a deserted husband.
   Although insurance companies still use the phrase "acts of God" to designate such calamities, we are more likely to attribute floods to meteorological than theological causes.
   Nonetheless, these stories can still teach many spiritual lessons. One lesson is that even something necessary for life like water can kill in excess. Another lesson is that destruction can lead to renewed life.

Challenge for everyone: Love

Exactly twenty-five years ago today, I was ordained. In the midst of academic and professional pomp, an overly generous friend said that my chief qualification for ministry was that I was "a lover."
   Too often I have failed my friend's estimation. Being right has sometimes been more important to me than being loving. At times I've been more interested in influence than compassion.
   This is a terrible confession for a clergyman to make. Religious leaders should challenge the usual ways, not confirm or participate in them.
   With hate radio blaring as never before, the popularity of violent entertainment, deepening economic injustice, an exploding industry of vengeance, and groups arming in Christ's name, the calling to return good for evil is easy to forget.
   Love is a calling, and not just for the formally ordained.
   Love calls all human beings to consider one another, regardless of the car we drive, the deodorant under our arms, or other advertising traps, regardless of the groups and parties which sometimes isolate us from one another.
   Love calls us together, regardless of our age, gender, race, education, social status, physical abilities, sexual orientation, politics, or wealth.
   And I have learned that love calls us together regardless of our religions.
   While I can't always answer every response to this weekly column, your calls, dear readers of many religious backgrounds, confirm and enlarge my faith that all of us are ordained to love.

‘Similar’ is far from ‘same’

In the many years I have taught world religions, one question inevitably arises at the outset of every class: "All religions are basically the same, aren't they?"
   This view, often favored, troubles me. Facile proofs of similarity, such as texts extracted from various traditions that look like the "Golden Rule," may distort what is significant about each faith.
   Some claims, like "Every religion teaches belief in God," are uninformed. And sometimes the similarities, while accurate, offer little new information, just as saying "all people need food" is pretty obvious.
   Recently, however, I've become more sympathetic to this view. It may be that every person has some sense of the "sacred," which can be described as what is most real, what gives meaning, what is truly important. And every culture reports experiences of the sacred, and responses to the sacred, which include wonder, gratitude, faith, and service.
   Further, and more darkly, as the great religious scholar Mircea Eliade explains: We exist and are shaped as we are because we are embedded in a chain of life involving death in order that we may live and transmit life.
   This statement may be self-evident, but I don't think it is obvious or trivial. It underlies the vegetation and hunting rituals of tribal peoples as well as the Christian understanding of redemption through Christ, resplendent in the wine and the wafer of the Eucharist or communion.
   Perhaps all religions are, in part, ways of honoring the life given for us and ways of enhancing that gift through our transmission of it to the future.

Weddings signify a spiritual union

For most of us today, a wedding celebrates the love between two people. But love has not always been the main object of the ceremony. In the past, weddings have been used to arrange political alliances, settle property rights, or sanction sexual relationships.
   In most traditions now, the wedding is a spiritual initiation.
   SUFI. Allaudin Ottinger, a Kansas City Sufi leader, performs ceremonies using vows from Pir Inayat Khan, including the question, "Will you consider this woman (man) to be your husband (wife) as the most sacred trust given to you by God?"
   Ottinger says that a wedding celebrates the partners' recognition of the divine in each other. Marriage, which is "a union greater than the sum of its parts," includes "daily tests" through which the spouses polish each other, like gems.
   CHRISTIAN. The Rev. Celena Duncan, pastor the Metropolitan Community Church of Johnson County, says that a holy union ceremony for those of the same gender is spiritually no different than a Christian heterosexual wedding. In both cases, a couple comes before God to ask a blessing on their relationship. Both are serious commitments, "with deep meaning and dignity."
   The ceremony reminds the couple to put God at the center of their partnership and as they interact with others in all activities.
   JEWISH. Rabbi Mark Levin of Congregation Beth Torah says that the Jewish wedding ceremony is called Kiddushin, Hebrew meaning "to make holy." The consecrated partners become separate from others and are special to each other. When the ceremony is completed, the couple spends a short time by themselves before joining the guests at the reception.

America owes apology to Muslim community

Religious prejudice runs deep. Despite immediate local and national Muslim condemnations of the Oklahoma City bombing, many of us made stereotypical presumptions about the terrorists.
   Some of the most gentle, generous Kansas Citians I know are Muslim, serving other Americans without regard to faith. Yet the Islamic Center received a bomb threat, and Muslims felt under attack.
   Dan Miller, an elder in the Church of the Nazarene and a member of the Christian Jewish Muslim Dialogue Group here, believes "America owes Arabs and Muslims an apology for personal harassment and threats against property.
   "As an evangelical Christian I say: These are our terrorists, not theirs. Oklahoma City, like the madness of Waco and recent violence at abortion clinics, stems from conservative Christian culture. We must admit this if we want to break the cycle of blaming others.
   "Some leading evangelicals have refrained from condemning the militia movement because it contains 'good people.' I believe conservative Christians can heal our culture better by confronting, rather than ignoring, our own violence, as we have rightly confronted mainstream America about its unwholesome directions. 'Good Christians' among the paramilitaries helped bring Hilter to power."
   While the memorial service last month might have been even more effective had a Muslim speaker been given a prominent role, Mr. Miller may be right in saying that the best way we can help America heal is to model love and respect for who differ from us. "As the parable of the Good Samaritan suggests, our neighbors include those of all races and beliefs."

Buddhists spread lessons of compassion

What are the spiritual dimensions to our lives? Hope? Gratitude? Love? And how are poisonous forces we feel within us--like anger, greed and ignorance--transformed into positive values like compassion?
   A stunning visual answer to such questions is now nearing completion at the Nelson Gallery. With brightly colored sand, two monks are creating an intricate mandala, a complex image unfolding these dimensions from the center of existence.
   Only with the Dalai Lama's approval in the last decade has it been possible for any but initiates to see such work, and never before in Kansas City.
   "A mandala is not created as an art form per se, but to further religious goals," says curator Doris Srinivasin. Day after day, the spiritual impact of the monks meditating and working has become obvious, especially on children.
   Unlike most art, this ritual art is meant to be destroyed. Marc Wilson, museum director, says the mandala is more "process" than "product." The hundreds of hours of labor end Saturday at 2 pm when the mandala is "dismantled" and given to Brush Creek.
   All things, the Buddhists say, are transitory.
   What remains is the blessing we receive, which is itself an unfolding process of learning compassion, learning that the various energies portrayed in the mandala are really within us. And that we can construct our own mandalas.
   Some think the world is becoming one in ways unseen, but perhaps we in the American heartland can glimpse this process in the gift of the mandala by the monks exiled from Tibet.

Wheel is a symbol of unity

No people have suffered the murder of families, attacks against their faith, the destruction of culture, and forced exile with greater grace than the Tibetans. Their response to horror has been to bless their enemies and to find ways to adapt and continue. Who better to show us the meaning of compassion?
   At a ceremony last week welcoming monks here from the Dalai Lama's monastery, Mayor Emanuel Cleaver spoke about suffering in Kansas City and everywhere, and the universal power of compassion to heal.
   The monks are constructing a sand mandala at the Nelson Gallery this month. This mandala, or diagram of spiritual powers, is called "The Wheel of Compassion," and displays the possibility of transforming hatred, anger, and thirst for revenge into understanding, beauty, and embrace.
   We all need this gift in our personal lives--and in our society which tolerates poverty and exploitation, and pays big money for entertainment glorifying violence.
   The monks' meditation produces the visible art which converts the slaughter of their kinfolk and the desecration of their way of life into compassion for all living things. It grows slowly, almost a grain of sand at a time.
   After it is completed, on April 29, it will be scooped up and given to the Brush Creek waterway, which, Mayor Cleaver said, will connect cultures in our own community on both sides of Troost.
   The participation of American Indian, Baha'i, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, and Unitarian Universalist leaders in their varied garb at the ceremony demonstrates both the richness and the urgency of the hope.

Sorrow turns to time of renewal

I preached my first Easter sermon a few days after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was 1968, and the times were difficult. The enormity of the murder challenged the Easter message of hope.
   I was not able then, nor am I now, to answer all the historical and theological questions about the story of the betrayed, crucified and resurrected Christ.
   But those who followed the non-violent, often misunderstood King could imagine the experiences of the friends of Jesus when he was killed. The story Christians recall this week is as much about shaken followers as about a slain leader.
   Preaching justice for the outcast and poor creates enemies. Proclaiming life outside the establishment threatens the existing order. The followers knew the dangers.
   Still, who could prepare for his death?
   The followers scattered. They were disoriented. They questioned the values they had witnessed in the life of their teacher. They asked, Is the path of love really possible in a corrupt world?
   Yet something happened to gather the followers together again, to renew their commitment to love's power, stronger even than death. To affirm love just when it seems defeated is a great miracle.
   The joy of Easter is not just colored eggs, hopping bunnies, new spring clothes or prosperity. As King lives on in Kansas City's multiplying efforts for harmony, so Easter joy is feeding Christ when we feed the hungry, clothing him when we cloth the poor, caring for him when sick, and visiting him in prison (Matthew 25:35-36).

Zoroastrianism is based on goodness

Among the many religions now practiced in Kansas City is the ancient faith which we call Zoroastrianism, after the Greek form of the founder's name. About 120 follow this tradition in the greater metro area.
   I asked Dr. Daryoush Jahanian, a leader in Kansas City, to describe his religion.
   “According to one estimate, Zarathushtra, the prophet of ancient Iran, was born on 1767 B.C.E. He established a monotheistic religion and based his teachings on the three principles of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, and he emphasized our liberty and freedom of choice. His teachings were followed by the ancient Persians.
   "Cyrus, one of the Zoroastrian kings, liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylonia, returned them to Palestine, and contributed towards the reconstruction of their temple. Because of this, he was anointed in the Bible (Isaiah 45:1).
   "Other Zoroastrian kings, Darius and his successors, have also been named and praised in the Bible for following the same policy. They extended freedom of religion to other nations as well.
   "The three Magi who visited Jesus at his birth came from Persia and were Zoroastrian priests.
   "After the Arab rule was extended to Iran in 638 CE, many Zoroastrians migrated to India where they are known as "Parsis" (from a pronunciation of "Persia"). Highly valuing education and good works, they are known there and around the world for producing scientists, industrialists, and philanthropists, and for founding schools and universities and charitable organizations."

True compassion waits

This month The Star focuses on "compassion" in its year-long values series.
   The world's religions offer many exemplars of compassion. The Christian story of Jesus, who defended the poor, the outcast and the stranger, and who gave his life for all sinners, is well-known.
   A similar compassionate ideal in Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva.
   One begins the path of compassion by giving up attachments, addictions, compulsions, inhibitions, co-dependencies and unwholesome habits, in search of the only thing worth having: final, perfect and complete Enlightenment. By comparison, wealth, pleasure, fame and power are worthless.
   The bodhisattva reaches the very threshold to this Enlightenment.
   But the compassionate bodhisattva voluntarily refrains from stepping across until all other sentient beings are brought to the same threshold.
   (In Buddhism, salvation is not just for humans, but for all beings capable of suffering, including horses, dogs, cats, grasshoppers, and even the grass.)
   It will take a very long time to bring all beings to this threshold--forever.
   By vowing to save all beings from suffering, in identifying the self with the welfare of others, and in endlessly postponing entrance to Enlightenment, the bodhisattva relinquishes attachment even to Enlightenment, and thus paradoxically achieves the only possible enlightenment.
   A world-famous image of this ideal, "Seated Guanyin," is in the permanent collection at the Nelson Gallery. And in April, the Nelson hosts Tibetan monks creating a "Wheel of Compassion" mandala, expressing the bodhisattva path.

Many writers worked on Bible

How many people wrote the Bible?
   Professor David Wheeler of Central Baptist Theological Seminary answers the question: "Many." He says that those who ascribe the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) to Moses and attribute all of the letters traditionally assigned to Paul will count fewer writers, while those who recognize oral traditions transmitted by many people will tend toward a higher estimate.
   Professor Larry McKinney of Midwestern Baptist agrees and notes that some scholars think that the work of editors and redactors of the Pentateuch may have continued even into the Persian period, centuries after the death of Moses.
   The Biblical texts are better understood as products of faith communities over 1200 years of development, rather than the writings of individual authors, according to Professor Harold Washington of Saint Paul School of Theology. These communities and classes of people exhibit varying perspectives, concerns, tensions and reconciliations, such as the Northern Israelites, and southern Judeans, the priests, and the sages. He notes that even books like Isaiah exhibit community authorship.
   Isaiah is also cited by Professor Gregory Prymak of Park College as a collective, "workshop" product. He estimates Biblical writers number at least in the "hundreds" and perhaps even more.
   Professor Robert E. Crabtree of the Nazarene Seminary counts nine basic authors of the New Testament and 30 of the Hebrew Scriptures. He believes that God chose particular persons to write, and they were divinely guided with responsibility for other
material they may have incorporated in their books.

Test your world-religion IQ

If you can answer more than two of these questions, consider yourself exceptional.
   QUIZ. 1. More people consider themselves part of what religion than any other in the world?
   2. What religious leader, an athlete when young, spent 13 years trying to get his government to listen to him, but refused a post when he learned it was just to shut him up?
   3. What great religious teacher declined to acknowledge the existence of God?
   4. The founder of what faith is almost always represented naked?
   5. What lawgiver of what people had a speech impediment?
   6. What accountant began a new religion?
   7. What faith's scriptures are generally arranged according to the length of its chapters?
   8. Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of the Oversoul came from his study of what religion?
   9. What country was home to both ancient Zoroastrianism and modern Baha'i?
   10. How many people wrote the Bible?
   ANSWERS. 1. Christianity. 2. Confucius, in China. 3. The Buddha. 4. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, in India. 5. Moses, the great prophet of the Hebrews. 6. Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, especially important in what was then northern India. 7. The Qur'an of Islam has 114 main divisions called surahs, approximately arranged in descending order of length. 8. Hinduism and its teaching of Brahman. 9. Iran. 10. This question is too difficult to answer in a sentence, so watch for several responses in
this column next Wednesday.

Sacred diagrams help map the universe of spirituality

What is a mandala?
   A mandala is a sacred diagram of the universe. It is not an astronomical chart but a spiritual map of otherwise invisible realms.
   Mandalas vary greatly and appear in many religions, from Navajo sand paintings to Tibetan Buddhist practices. The rose window of the Chartres Cathedral is a famous Christian instance of the mandala.
   Hindu mandalas may have originated four thousand years ago. Marcella Sirhandi, professor of art history at the Kansas City Art Institute, says "the form has persisted because it has so many meanings and because it is a powerful aid for meditation."
   The mandala (the word means "circle") is often divided into quarters and sometimes elaborated with seemingly innumerable subdivisions.
   "Some depth psychologists have found that mandalas appear in dreams and can signify psychological balance, integration, and health," according to psychiatrist Dr. Richard Childs, president of the Friends of C. G. Jung of Greater Kansas City. "The four psychological functions or ways of accessing reality--thinking, emotion, sensation, and intuition--can be enshrined within the mandala's completeness."
   Whether the mandala is an image of the world or a projection of the mind, the device invites the practitioner to embrace and balance the whole of sacred reality from the center of one's being. This is attempted by imaginatively entering the fields, energies, and relationships displayed by the mandala.
  During April, Kansas Citians will have the opportunity to observe the creation and destruction of a "Wheel of Compassion" mandala at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Carnival Lent cycle offers time of renewal

Tuesday was Mardi Gras, ending the annual season of partying and excess observed in much of the Christian world. Today, Ash Wednesday, begins Lent, a sober time of penitence. These opposite moods are part of a larger religious cycle.
   CARNIVAL.-- Historically, Mardi Gras is the culmination of Carnival, a word derived from "flesh," as in carnivore, meat-eating, and Incarnation, the embodiment of God in the human form of Jesus. In former times, Roman Catholics observed Lent by fasting from meat, but ate meat during Carnival, which in some places starts after Epiphany, January 6.
   "Mardi Gras," a French term, means "Fat Tuesday," and concludes the Carnival masquerade balls and parades, best known in this country in New Orleans.
   LENT.-- An Old English term meaning "lengthening days," springtime, is the origin of our word "Lent." In the Christian calendar, Lent refers to the 40 weekdays before Easter. Abstaining from meat and other forms of self-denial imitate the 40-day fast of Jesus (Matt. 4:2 and Luke 4:2).
   Ash Wednesday initiates Lent with the sprinkling of ashes on the heads of penitents, following a custom begun in Ninth Century Gaul.
   THE CYCLE.-- Carnival upsets social norms and Lent reinforces them. The masks, revelry, and indulgent behavior expected during Mardi Gras are not acceptable most of the year. Lent invites introspection and self-discipline.
   We err, however, if we think Lent alone is the period of spiritual cleansing and refreshment. We are renewed as well by exploring roles outside of usual boundaries, by merry-making as much as by repentance. The persistence of this cycle throughout the centuries proves as much.

House prayer is not inclusive

Should Jews and other religious minorities be ignored or dismissed when a chaplain prays on behalf of a legislature to the Creator of us all? The question is raised by the practice of the new Kansas House chaplain, who ends the prayers all taxpayers support "in the name of Jesus," and declines a more inclusive approach.
   Few theologians insist that one must use this phrase to be a Christian. In fact, it is not in the prayer that Jesus taught, known as "The Lord's Prayer" (Matt. 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4). Some Christians question public prayer itself, on the basis of the advice Jesus gave to pray privately, in one's closet (Matt 6:5-6).
   Theologian John Swomley questions whether the chaplain is violating the Bill of Rights of the Kansas Constitution which prohibits state preference for any one "mode of worship."
   I asked the Reverend William E. Murphy, senior pastor of Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church in Overland Park, to draft a more inclusive prayer. This is his example:
   "O God, many are your names and multiple are the expressions of those who seek and know your presence. We praise you for taking comic delight in our many antics, monologues, and performances upon this legislative floor. It is in our playfulness that we might discern and savor the gift of a mutual and reciprocal existence. It is in the rehearsing and reading of our lines that we may discover the greater plot. It is with our informed conscience that we must recognize and welcome sovereign duty who enters
stage right! Remembering all your holy names, we thank you for casting us on the human scene. Amen."

Many faiths tell stories of love

Our celebrations of sweethearts, family, and friends on Valentine's Day are usually personal. But stories of affection from various faiths call us to a larger perspective, that God is the source of love.
   FROM HINDUISM. Prince Rama won the beautiful Sita as his bride when, in a contest, he alone was strong enough to string the bow of the god Shiva. Later Rama was unfairly banished to the forest, and Sita went with him. There she was abducted, but Rama at last defeated the armies guarding her and regained her and the kingdom. A sequel proves that she remained true to him through the ordeal, and their love was sanctified.
   FROM ISLAM. At age 25, Muhammad began to work for Khadija, a widow who owned a caravan business. She was impressed with his prudence and integrity. His respect for her deepened into love, although she was 15 years his senior. They married. Later, when Muhammad began to hear God, she was the first to see the truth revealed to him. Their happy marriage was marred only by the early death of three of their seven children.
   FROM JUDAISM. While King David's passion for Bathsheba began with sin, David's youthful devotion to Jonathan is a model of friendship under the most difficult circumstances. The Bible says they made a covenant and kissed, and their souls were "knit" together. Both sought God's will to serve the people. The jealous King Saul, Jonathan's father, sought to kill David, but Jonathan helped his friend escape. When events turned and Jonathan was slain, David lamented: "thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women."
   Such stories remind us that even in our own lives friendship and love are divine gifts.

Church follows ancient teachings

Three familiar branches of Christianity are the Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. But other branches like the Coptic Orthodox Church still follow ancient ways and, rejecting the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, emphasize the unity of Christ's nature.
   The term "Copt" is derived from the Greek word for "Egyptian."
   The Coptic tradition includes Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril. For four centuries, the church of Alexandria was about as important as Rome. It provided the context in which Christian monasticism arose. Coptic art now attracts great admiration.
   Led monthly by a priest from St Louis, about 30 Kansas City families from Egypt worship at the St Mark Coptic Church in Merriam. Board member Adel Tadros describes his faith:
   "The Coptic Church was founded by St Mark the Apostle in Alexandria about 43 AD. St Mark was the first of our patriarchs. The present patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, is the 117th in unbroken succession to occupy the chair of St Mark in the see of
   "The Coptic Church is conservative and preserves most carefully the Christian faith in its earliest and purest form, passed on from generation to generation. It is a deeply spiritual and even mystical church with an emphasis on the holiness and the
mysteries of the faith.
   "But at the same time, it is a strongly doctrinal church holding to the canons of the Holy Scriptures, the Apostolic and Orthodox creeds, the teachings of the church fathers, and the first three Ecumenical Councils."
   Kansas City can be proud to offer a home to this ancient and sometimes persecuted faith.

What does ‘covenant’ mean?

"Civil religion" is what scholars call understanding national life in the categories of faith. Lincoln, for example, interpreted the Civil War as God's working through horror to establish justice.
   More recently, since his nomination and in last week's State of the Union address, President Clinton has spoken of a "New Covenant." Cantor Paul Silbersher of Temple B'nai Jehudah provides us with background for this term:
   Twenty-six hundred years ago, the prophet Jeremiah saw and attacked the evils of urban poverty and the depravity of wealthy, influential leaders. He denounced social injustice and governmental corruption.
   The people and leaders alike, said Jeremiah, failed to discern that God is to be served by righteousness rather than by ritual.
   During the days of Moses, there was a period of faithfulness to God, but then the people rebelled and began to worship idols.
   God, therefore, would punish the people and would establish a "New Covenant" with Israel and Judea. Each individual's task was to see to the greater good of society and not just one's own good alone--to care for one another.
   Yet the individual within the nation is very important in God's sight. Wherever men and women seek God with a whole heart, they will find God.
   Finally, the word "covenant" (President Clinton's reprise of a "New Deal"?) and "contract" (as in House Speaker Gingrich's "Contract with America") are not the same. A contract allows for renegotiation and change, while a covenant like Jeremiah's, once
entered into, can never be broken or changed.

Alhambra palace reflects the sacred as well as the secular

GRANADA, Spain -- Here at the Alhambra, this 35-acre fort and palace complex on a plateau above the city, I review three pages photocopied from a world religions textbook by former Kansans Denise and John Carmody.
   I reread the key sentence which brings me here: The Alhambra "suggests the Muslim notion of how religion and secular life ought to interpenetrate."
   The Moors surrendered this place to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 and it fell to vandalism. Later Napoleon blew up a section. Still, the remaining delicacy, proportion, and playfulness awaken a reverence that justifies the Carmodys' claim.
   Room is added to room as garden follows garden, imitating the endlessness of God's resources. Most of the rooms themselves are multi-purpose, as God cannot be defined or limited. Even where presumably love-making was arranged, chaste, intricate geometrical patterns of up to 6-fold symmetries appear in the dado, with Arabic inscriptions above.
   The fountains, pools, gardens, and decorative detail, such as 5,000 cells in one honey-comb cupola, were inspired by medieval tales of Solomon's splendor and Muslim visions of Paradise.
   A mosque is no more spiritual than this. God rules everywhere. This is why even shops and warehouses were built with magnificent facades.
   But the wealth of the Alhambra is not its greatest beauty. Its beauty is its unending celebration of God's presence.
   I think of my house. Besides hanging a plaque that says "God bless this home," how, when I return, can I confirm my modest dwelling as God's place?

God’s power in… flamenco music?

MADRID, Spain -- It is way past midnight. I sit in a back room with 50 others who passed through the restaurant to become part of flamenco.
   Some men sing. Others play guitars.  A woman dances a mature embrace of both desire and desolation. She lifts the crowd into religious ecstasy.
   The crowd shouts "Al-lay!" and I recognize the Andalusian pronunciation of the Muslim term for God, "Allah!"
   Few art forms are so clearly indebted to so many religions as flamenco. The hand gestures arise from Hindu dance, and the cante, the song, is a rich reminder of Jewish, Arabic, early Christian, and gypsy scales and rhythms.
   A guitarist from Kansas City at my side whispers, "Blues and flamenco are both born in pain," and I see the yearning which shapes this art. Somehow this art, like faith, transforms brokenness and disappointment into praise.
   It is not an airy praise, however. Unlike ballet where the dancer defies gravity on tiptoes, the flamenco dancer's feet claim a rootedness to the earth that frees the spirit.
   In Seville, at El Patio Sevillano, I had talked to professionals who dazzled me with perfection. Eduardo, 23, said simply that "flamenco is life." Lupe, 43, said flamenco is "first spiritual," and only secondarily dance and music technique.
   When I planned this trip, Jody Edgerton, an international consultant in Kansas City, told me I would find Spain's soul in flamenco. I found even more. From its many sources, I found in flamenco God's universal power to heal the heart.

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Dream of harmony becomes a reality in this old Spanish city

CORDOBA, Spain -- The expanse seems endless within the mosque. With a friend, I watch sunlight slowly slide between 850 columns, none of identical height, supporting the famous rows of double horseshoe, red-and-white-stripped arches, like a fantasy.
   This was the largest mosque in the world, and a thousand years ago Cordoba was the greatest city in the West. While Christian Europe still slumbered from the Dark Ages, this city, opulent with gardens and libraries, transmitted and developed learning from the ancient world. Its science, medicine, and engineering made the Renaissance possible.
   Anticipating the expansive dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., this was a multi-racial society where Muslim, Jew, and Christian found respect and protection.
   Distinguished Muslim and Jewish figures were born here, Ibn Rushd (known also as Averroes) in 1126 and Maimonides in 1135. Both were physicians and theologians. Both pondered whether reason or revelation is more important in religious life.
   Ibn Rushd conveyed the classical proofs of God's existence. His influence on Christianity, through St Thomas Aquinas and others, has been enormous.
   More than agreement, Maimonides has inspired continuing respect throughout the centuries. The Kansas City Maimonides Society was founded in 1991. Its work, like others in the US, includes education and provision for the medically indigent.
   In our time the Cordoba mosque has become the site of a yearly interfaith celebration. May such expansiveness ever grow.

KC has a tie to Islam in its sister city

SEVILLE, Spain -- Here is the original Giralda Tower from which the smaller version was copied for the Kansas City Country Club Plaza, at 47th and Nichols Parkway.
   During Islamic expansion in Spain, the 1184 structure was a minaret, that part of a mosque from which Muslims are called to prayer. The mosque has since been replaced by the Seville cathedral, and in 1558 a belfry was added to the tower.
    Even with the reproduction of Giralda in Kansas City, we forget our indebtedness to Islam. For example, we seldom consider what life would be like if we still used Roman, rather than "Arabic" numerals.
   But my real reason for walking up the 35 turns in the ramp inside the tower was not esthetic or educational. It was devotional. I wanted to walk where conceivably Ibn Arabi had walked.
    Ibn Arabi, who taught in Seville until 1200, can be compared to some Christian and Jewish mystics. He greatly influenced Dante.
   According to Ibn Arabi, God yearns to be known, and so creates each person as a manifestation, a "veil" of Himself, through which in love we can know God so long as we do not mistake the veil for the Reality.
   This approach enabled Ibn Arabi to learn from a variety of people, including an early initiation from a 95-year old woman.
   As the Kansas City Country Club Plaza draws upon Moorish themes from our Sister City, so we can draw upon each other, wildly improbable and various as we are, as reflections of God's yearning to be known in all His splendor.


link to The Kansas City Star. -- Search for "Barnet"