091230 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Time can be on your side
I’m about to turn over the calendar, and an old
Missouri farm expression comes to mind: “What’s time to a hog?”
We are people, but do we know much
more about time than a hog?
Did the Mayans know? The disaster
film, “2012,” is based on a reading of the Mayan calendar that the world
will end then. The Mayans were indeed preoccupied with prodigious stretches
of time, but the movie is fantasy, not scholarship.
St. Augustine famously wrote, “What is time?
If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who
asks, I do not know.”
Different languages have different
grammatical “tenses” beyond simply past, present and future, indicating
different kinds of concerns about time.
The ancient Greeks even had two distinct
terms for time. Chronos is the kind of time you see on a clock, ordinary
time, one minute after another. Our image of Father Time and the outgoing
year ultimately derive from the way the Hellenistic world envisioned the
god by that name.
The name also gives us terms in English
like chronic, chronicle and chronology.
The second word for time was kairos,
meaning the right time for something special to happen. The dictionary
in the back of my Greek New Testament defines kairos as time “viewed as
an occasion rather than an extent.”
To adapt the line from a Cialis commercial,
it is when ”the moment is right.”
Chronos is a quantity to be measured
but kairos is a quality to be felt.
Chronological time is often viewed
as an enemy. Carpe diem, seize the day, wrote Horace. Poets ever since
have been warning that time waits for no one.
This idea was anticipated in scripture
passages like Ecclesiastes 8: 15 and Isaiah 22: 13, confounded as “Eat,
drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Temporal contingency is often contrasted
with eternity, understood as the endless, unhurried extension of time.
But Zen presents eternity as a way
of living fully now, and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “He
lives eternally who lives in the present.”
Such a now is not the ever-evaporating
tick of the clock or the irresponsible, narrow narcissism demanding a satisfaction
this very instant, but rather an expansion of awareness of the infinite
reach of history and all possibilities, when we sense that everything ultimately
works. Desire becomes simple awe. In sports and the arts it’s sometimes
called being “in the zone.”
[T S Eliot's lines, "If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable"
may seem to be contrary, but "The Four Quartets" mey develop the theme
toward a similar perspective.
[The eternal present
brings all of the past and all of the future into a stilled awareness,
even in the midst of excitement. It is not awaiting for the next tick of
the clock but rather complete fulfillment. While "time may be nature's
way of keeping everything from happening all at once," such eternity is
a total immersion in the network of relationships implied in each moment.
[“Eternity is in love
with the productions of time,” wrote poet William Blake, a motto for Process
Heidegger's major work was Being and Time, argues that time “persists
merely as a consequence of the events taking place in it.” The common exerience
of other people's distant kids growing up more quickly than our own illustrates
his point. If you spend time in a cave with little to do, as has been documented,
you are likely to underestimate how much time has passed because there
are few events to mark the passage of time. But without giving a clear
direction for future events and little interest in the past, one can ask,
What's time to a hog?]
To be fully present to our selves
and to one another may be more wonderful than even — pardon the expression
— hog heaven.
797. 091223 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
A star in darkness
Why is Christmas more popular than Easter? After
all, the high point of the Christian calendar is Easter, marking the resurrection
of Jesus following his crucifixion and death, according to the scriptures.
Is it not more stupendous to be raised from the dead than merely to be
Perhaps, but birth itself is miraculous,
and religions sometimes underline the miracle by compounding marvels in
For example, Augustus, emperor at
the time of Jesus, was said to be the son of a god. Further, accounts of
gods born of virgins, found in many cultures, were particularly popular
in the age that produced Christianity.
What made the story of Jesus difficult
for Roman citizens to accept was not the virgin birth but the
a Supreme Deity would leave celestial perfection to accept the limitations
of human form and be born in a manger for there was no room for Him at
the inn that starry night.
Augustus, after all, was at the top
of “the food chain,” quite unlike the peasant class into which the Christian
This gives special poignancy to the
theological doctrine of incarnation, God becoming flesh, the infinite entering
finite, the eternal’s advent into the realm of history. The Christian claim
is astounding, that God appears in the humblest of forms.
(From the Latin root, carnis,
“flesh,” we get not only the words “incarnation” and “reincarnation” but
also “carnivore,” meat-eater, and “carnival,” originally the festival before
the fasting of Lent.)
But while incarnation theology is
worth profound contemplation, I don’t think that’s what makes Christmas
[The doctrines of original
sin or inherent depravity do not spring to my mind when I hold a baby.
And according to scripture, Jesus said, "Except ye be converted, and become
as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew
It is often said that Christmas is
for children. I think it is for the child in each of us. We treasure seeing
the wonder of a new-born babe because it reminds us of our own potential,
sometimes forgotten. When we gaze into a child’s eyes astonished even by
the tinsel of the season, we ourselves are refreshed.
That’s perhaps why we try to please
children, sometimes with gifts, to see that natural delight which in turn
arouses within us our sacred sensibilities. Jesus himself cherished children.
A Pueblo clown figure in the new American
Indian galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art looks at his hands
the way an infant discovers the miracle of his or her body.
I worry that our culture, with its
consumerist binges, tries to buy wonder instead of seeing it in the simple
miracle of moving fingers and toes. You cannot put a price tag on that.
And, for Christians, finding the child
anew within each of us may be indeed an incarnation, a gift of God, if
we see the star in the darkness, the divine in the stable trough.
796. 091216 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
KC'S many interfaith stories
I don’t care if you have a dozen graduate degrees
and can answer a thousand obscure doctrinal questions about any religion
in the history of humankind. Your efforts to understand another person’s
faith will be impaired until you listen to the stories of that tradition
and that person’s life — and tell your own.
Such stories reveal how we are transformed
by encounter with the sacred, conceived of in many ways.
Kansas City has its own stories, many
of them. One story with many characters is a developing interfaith tale
that brings folks of every faith from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian,
together here and across the globe.
It started with a baker’s dozen of
friends in 1989, each from a different religion. It became a conference
of 250 in 2001, a city-wide observance of the first anniversary of 9/11
and last month a luncheon of nearly 600 people hosted by the Greater Kansas
City Interfaith Council.
That 2001 conference inspired Donna
Ziegenhorn to train a team to interview some 80 area folks of every faith
about their lives, which she wove into a play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy,”
produced now 20 times, most recently for a capacity crowd last month.
The play portrays a Muslim college
student from our town in New York on 9/11, a Holocaust survivor who ran
a bakery here, a former Tibetan monk who escaped to freedom over the Himalayas,
the encounter of a Hindu couple with a Shawnee cowboy and other true stories.
The Festival of Faiths, now in its
third year, brought Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and
perhaps America’s most influential interfaith leader, to Kansas City last
month. His own story of discovering the interfaith imperative in his own
faith inspired several audiences here, youth and adult.
Another chapter in our story was celebrated
last month with those filling Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community
College when the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging presented
the music of Kansas City’s Barclay Martin, who worked with young people
in Zamboanga, the Philippines, leading to a concert there with an interfaith
audience of 10,000. His discoveries there enrich us here.
Next month, former Kansas Citian Audrey
Galex returns with her Winter’s Light program, which has been part of Atlanta
for six years now. The evening, adapted for Kansas City, begins with a
children’s story time and includes music, dance and an art display. The
Jan. 23 program at Goppert Theater, Avila University, starts at 7:30 pm.
Lots is happening here. To be part
of Kansas City’s interfaith story, visit www.kcinterfaith.org.
2009 Dec 12
wrestle with who should receive Communion
by HELEN T. GRAY
Marialice Searcy, 83, of Kansas
City has attended Mass all her life and couldn’t imagine not receiving
Holy Communion. . . . .
All faiths share a sense
Every religion includes sacramental
acts like Communion that convey transcendent meaning through tangible forms.
Here are three examples.
American Indians practice
a kind of communion by sharing a calumet, a smoking pipe. The intentions
of the community are carried by the smoke to the sacred powers. The sanctified
unity of the Indian participants is solemnized through the shared pipe,
just as for some Christians the church is the body of Christ realized through
the Eucharist. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has several examples of
Hindu worship includes prasad,
food offered to a deity, then returned, blessed and empowered, and then
consumed by the worshipper. Eating someone’s leftovers is ordinarily offensive,
but accepting the leftovers from a god expresses the worshipper’s veneration.
Commonly the food is a fruit, a sweet or a dollop of milk, sugar, flour
and butter mixed together. Anyone may partake.
A Sikh building for worship
includes a langar, a kitchen-dining hall where a communal meal is offered
without charge by volunteers, not clergy. Often, those who are able sit
on the floor to emphasize the equality of all people under God, regardless
of earthly status or faith, important in the historical context of the
caste system and the different religions of India. The langar thus expresses
sharing with a sense of the unity of all humanity in contrast to other
faiths whose sacramental practices are restricted to their members.
| Vern Barnet, Special to
795. 091209 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Focus on relationships
Many people are surprised to learn that Buddha declined
to teach that God exists. But what is even more surprising is his teaching
that the self does not exist. In fact, the Buddha taught that clinging
to a sense of the self is a source of suffering.
To understand this doctrine, it may
be helpful to look at the historical context in which the Buddha preached,
newer insights and then possible practical values.
*History. The religion of the
Buddha’s time proposed that each person is a self, reborn repeatedly until
the effects of one’s actions (karma) are extinguished. This self, or soul,
was regarded as individual, eternal, unchanging, unitary, autonomous, separate
The Buddha regarded such a self as
an illusion. We are the product of uncountable influences and conditions.
When you take them all into account, there is nothing left. We are the
consequence genetic, historical, geographic, social and other factors.
We are a network of relationships with no discrete parts.
This is counter-intuitive because
most of us have a strong sense of who we are, separate from others. Culture
encourages us to create our own identity.
*Science. But evolutionist
Richard Dawkins has speculated that the brain’s work of developing models
of the world from our senses finally became so sophisticated that it was
able to make a model of itself.
That model is just a reputation, not
reality. We see a pattern and ignore what doesn’t fit in the pattern. Further,
as optical illusions illustrate, we may see what is not there.
We can never understand ourselves
as others see us because we can never get outside ourselves to see ourselves.
Neuroscientists have learned that
the brain makes decisions before we become conscious of them.
And sometimes we even speak of being
“of two minds” about something. Psychologist Paul Bloom says we are composed
of competing selves “continually popping in and out of existence. They
have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving,
and plotting against one another.”
We are different characters in worship,
at the stadium, at a party, in doubt, in agony, in joy.
*Practice. The Buddha’s point
was not to deny the conventional self, the model, but not to be deceived
by it or enslaved to it.
Rather than a narcissistic and futile
focus on self-esteem, we can put our attention on relationships. We can
be freed of the trouble to prove we are worthy by acquiring wealth, power
or prestige. Unfettered by the model’s limits, in whatever circumstance
we find ourselves, we can simply do the right thing.
794. 091202 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Honoring Eliot Berkley
When the history of interfaith relations in Kansas
City is written, Eliot Berkley will be named as one of those who prepared
the way for the Heartland’s unique style of bringing folks from many faiths
Other cities have developed their
interfaith organizations around common projects or issues rather than by
a broader approach of learning about the varied faiths within their communities.
Here education is the key.
A son of Kansas City, Berkley took
degrees from Harvard and Princeton. He taught at what was then the University
of Kansas City and the Kansas City Art Institute where he became dean.
In 1955, he founded the International
Relations Council whose work is non-partisan and explores all sides of
issues without taking policy positions on them. Promoting awareness of
the importance of international relations was his goal.
Interfaith work here has followed
a parallel model, generally designed to raise awareness and promote understanding.
In my own work, I’ve benefited greatly from Eliot’s example and advice.
The inaugural speaker for the IRC
was Eleanor Roosevelt, who, among other achievements, chaired the drafting
of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes
freedom of religion, specified in some detail.
Another cardinal speaker was Bruce
Laingen, charge d’affaires in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.
As with our domestic debates, foreign
affairs and international relations are often intimately entwined with
One of my favorite examples of Berkley’s
ground-breaking approach is the conference he convened here in 1986, two
years before the founding of the North American Interfaith Network and
three years before our own Interfaith Council was created.
The conference, “Islam and the Muslim
World,” was cosponsored by the American University. Not only did Berkley
feature a practicing Muslim of national stature, a former ambassador and
State Department official, and a scholar from Georgetown University, he
also involved local experts, including a curator from the Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art and Christian and Jewish leaders.
Berkley retired in 1994 but his work
continues Friday at noon with the annual lecture in his honor.
The speaker is Allison Stanger, whose
new book, One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power
and the Future of Foreign Policy, has attracted much attention, including
by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Newsweek
For information, visit www.irckc.org
or call 816.221.4204.
793. 091125 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Give thanks, feel blessed
The mystics speak of separation and loss but still
claim the world is holy, sometimes conceiving the world as God’s body.
Our own community is repeatedly touched by wickedness and deprivation,
but the dark makes radiance all he more a miraculous glory. Some of the
most unfortunate among us have turned their misery into a life of delight.
Even the most desperate act or condition may be turned to some larger purpose.
Past and living spiritual traditions
of the world may suggest three steps by which we may approach the mystics’
*Awe. Our everyday work for limited
and relative ends distracts us from the infinite, implicit all around us.
The sacred is at the periphery of our awareness.
Yet there are moments when we are
awe-struck, in looking at the sky, in relationships of love, in transitions
of life and death, in art and sports and learning, and whenever we suddenly
become alert to what really counts. While we usually repress it, our nature
is to live with a kind of wonder beyond terror and fascination.
*Gratitude. From moments of awe —
we might call them revelations — we find ourselves giving thanks. Our holiday
tomorrow embraces not only our personal lives but also the awesome and
improbable history of our nation embracing every faith in a secular Constitution
that signals all liberties and proposes an enlarging providence for everyone.
*Service. Gratitude is stunted unless
it matures into service. For what we have been given, we are impelled to
share with others in whatever ways we can, through neighborliness, charity
and local to global citizenship.
These three steps can be taken in
any order because each can lead to the others. The simple act of offering
food, even wearily or insincerely, may arouse a sense of amazement at our
Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity
for us to rehearse, if not feel, gratitude. Sometimes acting as if we are
grateful can help us develop a genuine sense of gratitude. Deliberately
setting aside a day to give thanks, putting it on our calendar, is a reminder
of the attitude we must attain if we wish spiritual health.
The mystics say our separateness from
one another and from God (or whatever term they use for ultimate reality)
is an illusion. Giving thanks can reconnect us.
Pretending well, placing ourselves
in a scene where we, if our hearts were truly open, would feel awe and
gratitude and the urge toward service, is sometimes the best we can do.
And sometimes recognizing that we
are doing our best is sufficient to bring to us the overwhelming feeling
that we are indeed blessed.
792. 091118 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Enjoying a feast of diversity
Twenty-five years ago on the Sunday before Thanksgiving,
folks from many faiths met to share a meal and give thanks for the religious
liberty we enjoy in this nation.
I had the privilege of presiding over
that meal and those each year since. This Nov. 22 will be the last time
I perform this happy duty.
The act of giving thanks led to deepened
relationships among the participants and, in 1989, the formation of what
is now the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
This annual ritual has been unusual
in several ways.
*Each year a different institution
has hosted it — Village Presbyterian Church, Rockhurst University, Grace
and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Saint Monica Catholic Church, Temple
B’nai Jehudah, Central Baptist Seminary, Rime Buddhist Center, among others.
This year the dinner will be held
at the Islamic School of Kansas City, 10515 Grandview Road.
* Brief words of gratitude are offered
from 15 faith groups, from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian.
*A full Thanksgiving meal is eaten
as participants read from American historical and aspirational texts. Traditional
Thanksgiving hymns add to the festive feeling.
*Children are welcome participants.
They ask questions about the food, such as “Why do we have turkey?” and
“Why do we have pumpkin pie?” and “Why is there a vegetarian option?” and
adults answer from the printed program.
I try to give the last question to
the youngest child: “Is it time to eat?” The adults joyously respond, “Yes!”
*Since 1999, the dinner has honored
business, religious, media, governmental, community and artistic leaders
in our metro area who have contributed to the spiritual life we enjoy here.
This year we give thanks for Cynthia
Siebert, founder, president and artistic director of the Friends of Chamber
Music, for her local, regional and national leadership offering the transformative
power of music through programs of the highest quality for people of all
*The 6-8 p.m. dinner is not an expensive
or formal fund-raiser. It is a family and interfaith celebration of our
unity in diversity, promised in the American motto, E pluribus unum, From
many one. The subsidized cost is $25 for an adult, $20 per child.
Reservations can be made by visiting
www.cres.org, or calling OpenCircle, (816) 931.0738.
Although I’ll no longer lead this
Kansas City Thanksgiving Sunday tradition, I’ll always give thanks for
the joy of companions of all faiths expressing gratitude for our heritage
of an enlarging spiritual adventure.
791. 091111 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
The third annual Kansas City Festival of Faiths
is in full swing. Eboo Patel, the Muslim founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith
Youth Core was scheduled to be last night’s keynote speaker, and
Thursday is the Interfaith Council’s annual Table of Faiths luncheon. You
can find a full schedule of events for the 23-day festival by visiting
The metro area has become recognized
nationally for our interfaith work — and internationally as well. For example,
the International Visitors Council of Greater Kansas City responded to
African guests from four nations interested in interfaith work by scheduling
five interfaith experiences for their two days here earlier this month.
In the midst of these festivities
designed to help us understand the many faiths of our neighbors, some caution
may be in order.
The term “interfaith” originally meant
a relationship between two or more faiths. Increasingly it is being used
to celebrate what different faiths have in common.
I worry about this subtle change in
usage. In the warmth of easy sentiment, we melt together into a pot of
Talking and working together is a
good thing, and discovering our shared humanity is essential to civic trust
and global peace.
But we need to appreciate, not submerge,
our differences. Why go to New York or San Francisco or Paris or Mumbai
to find only what we have at home? Why put everything in the food mart
into a blender? Why have different religions at all?
Instead of the melting pot, I’d prefer
a mosaic metaphor.
A few years ago one reader of this
column called to thank me for writing something about similarities between
several traditions. As I listened to her, I regretted writing as I had.
“I just love your column because you
point out how all religions are basically the same,” she said.
I asked her how many religions she
had studied other than her own.
She replied, “I don’t have to learn
anything about other religions because I know they are, in the end, just
Such an attitude defeats the purpose
what “interfaith” once meant. It’s like a person not caring who one marries
o one’s friends are because people are all basically
the same and anyone will do.
But the fact is that the spiritual
character of Hinduism and Judaism and Wicca are markedly different. If
we ignore the differences, what is there to learn?
Should we cede the term “interfaith”
to those who focus on commonalities? What term could we use for cherishing
how different peoples have discovered such amazingly different ways of
approaching the ultimate mysteries of existence?
790. 091104 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Spiritual gifts are found in many colors
The leaves of October were resplendent, color everywhere.
Now November is awash with many hues of the spirit. Here are three
examples — just as the month begins.
¶ Joan Chittister, one of America’s
most celebrated nuns, will speak Saturday at 9 a.m. on “The God They Never
Told Me About: A Convergence of Opposites,” at Country Club Christian Church,
6101 Ward Parkway, www.cccckc.org. The event is free.
She told me that she will discuss
how she and others have come to question the “definitions and images of
God that we have been given in the past. . . .
“Religion is meant to shape our spirituality,
but it is possible to be ‘religious,’ meaning institutionally regular,
correct and creedal, without having any personal encounter with God whatsoever.
Spirituality is the encounter of the soul with the divine.”
She supports interfaith efforts because
the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel teaches that learning from one
another, “can make our own traditions deeper, fresher and clearer than
¶ This Sunday at 5 p.m., the
Barclay Martin Ensemble, the Sampaguita Choir and Sinag-Tala Dance Group
of the Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City will celebrate the release
of a CD with music and a film clip from the forthcoming documentary, “Zamboanga:
Poverty, War, Music,” produced by the Kansas City-based Christian Foundation
for Children and Aging, www.cfcausa.org.
Martin wrote the music as part of
his work in the Philippines with young people which resulted in a concert
there with an interfaith audience of 10,000.
You can make reservations for the
free concert at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall by calling
¶ The third annual Kansas City
Festival of Faiths keynote speaker is Eboo Patel, the Chicago founder of
the global Interfaith Youth Core, featured last Saturday on The Star’s
Jon Willis, who has worked this past
year to develop interfaith activities for young people here, says he hopes
that “adults will come hear his message on how we need to change the conversation
about faith and religion by empowering youth of all backgrounds and faiths
to come together to create understanding and respect by serving their communities.
“I also hope that youth will come
and be inspired by his vision of how they can make a difference right now
. . . with (other) youth from all over the metro area.”
You can purchase $15 tickets ($10
youth) to hear Patel speak Tuesday at 7:30 at Beth Shalom, 9400 Wornall
Road, by visiting www.festivaloffaithskc.org.
789. 091028 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Differences are illuminating
Conversation among folks of different faiths sometimes
highlights perceived similarities in their traditions. Sometimes interfaith
exchange may driven toward superficial agreement because those involved
don’t really understand the religions being discussed. Sentimental conclusions
like “We are more alike than different” can short-change the purchase of
For example, primal, Asian and
monotheistic faiths present different understandings of time.
*Organic. Unlike the relentless clock
moving ahead regardless of what we do, with minutes, hours, days and years
mechanically measured, American Indian time is natural, organic. Traditionally,
ceremonies are not fixed by the calendar, anymore than the leaves fall
from the trees on exactly the same day each year. Elders, not the clock,
decide when the time is right for a festival to begin, sometimes with just
a few hours notice to their communities.
*Circular. For Asian faiths like Hinduism,
time is prodigious. Here’s an example. Brahma, the creator god, opens his
eyes and a universe comes into being. When he closes his eyes, the universe
ceases to exist. One Brahma lives for 432,000 years. After he dies, another
emerges atop a lotus that grows from the god Vishnu’s navel. Vishnu sleeps
on the cosmic ocean. Counting these Brahmas, one after another, would be
like counting the drops of water in the ocean, and the ocean is endless.
The Hindu conception of time is circular,
repetitive. There is no ultimate meaning to history. The universe is lila,
*Unrepeatable. The monotheistic faiths,
on the other hand, see time as a straight line, with a beginning, a defining
event, and an end. Christians, for example, have traditionally believed
the universe was created only once. Some believe God made the world
about 6,000 years ago.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all
find enormous significance in history, for God is a power moving through
time toward justice.
The Exodus (in Judaism), the birth,
life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (in Christianity), and
the Hijra, the migration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina (in Islam), are
defining events in which believers see God intervening in human communities.
Many of these believers anticipate
a new heaven and a new earth when the human adventure will end with the
judgment of all and the redemption of nature itself.
Each view of time, organic, circular
or unrepeatable, is embedded in the stories the various faiths tell. Ignoring
such differences impoverishes our appreciation of the many ways human beings
have met the mysteries of existence and tried to align with them.
788. 091021 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
This art speaks to the soul
Fall is the new springtime, at least spiritually,
in Kansas City. Here are two previews of November’s flowering of blessings
from a personal perspective.
*When I was a boy in Omaha, my grade
school introduced me to the Joslyn Art Museum. Because I was a kid, adults
thought I’d be interested in American Indian stuff, not European painting.
But as a kid wanting to be grown up, I discounted “Injun” exhibits being
pushed on me and focused instead on the “real” art.
Not until adulthood did I begin to
see the beauty of native art. The 1977 “Sacred Circles” show at the Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art stunned me with spiritual import.
So I can hardly wait for the Nelson’s
American Indian Celebration week-end Nov. 14-15, with new galleries featuring
some 200 works of art from before colonization to the present.
I asked Gaylord Torrence, the museum’s
curator of American Indian Art, why some folks still dismiss indigenous
works. He said that until recently we have assumed that spiritual values
are best conveyed in painting, sculpture and other forms removed from every-day
American Indian art — pottery, clothing
and other items for everyday use — was deemed mere craft, not worthy of
Yet these functional objects are charged
with sacred meaning. Torrence showed me an exquisitely detailed cradle
for carrying an infant. The finest children’s car seat I’ve ever seen is,
in comparison, rude and physically and spiritually insulting, an impersonal
contrivance purchased from a store.
*When I was a teenager, my angst was
intense, my spiritual life inexplicable. Somehow I discovered Beethoven’s
five “Late String Quartets.”
They became my spiritual hospitals.
Now, decades later, they reveal an infinite cosmos in which the soul experiences
everything — and everything is in ultimate order.
The C-Sharp Minor Quartet begins with
what Wagner described as “the most melancholy sentiment ever expressed
in music.” By the time I hear the sixth variation in the fourth movement,
I know I have reached holy ground. The daggers in the last movement are
finally bent by mystic fire into halos, rising above and sanctifying all
grief, fear and strife.
Musicologist Laurie Shulman has speculated
that Beethoven intended the quartets “to transcend earth, to achieve redemption,
to regain spiritual fulfillment . . . .”
The C-Sharp Minor Quartet
performed Nov. 7 by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Folly Theater
as part of a Friends of Chamber Music program (www.chambermusic.org).
787. 091014 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
A theology of disability
For over a year I’ve been riding Kansas City buses
regularly. Bus travel has become something of a spiritual adventure.
While most of the bus drivers are
cheerful (that in itself is an upper), and while I give thanks to be relieved
of the stress of driving in increasingly difficult traffic, and while I
appreciate those who think environmentally, and while I salute the health
benefits for those who put their bicycles on the front rack of the
bus for a portion of their journey,
what really stirs my soul is seeing in action the
commitments we as a nation have begun to make to the disabled.
For example, when a person in a wheel
chair wants on, a bus platform lowers to welcome the rider, and the bus
driver routinely adjusts seats and then straps the wheel chair securely
Never have I witnessed a driver act
as if this is an inconvenience. I have heard no passenger complain
about the delay.
Last week one of America’s most accomplished
and inspirational figures, Helen Keller, was honored by having her bronze
likeness as a child installed in our nation’s Capitol. Keller was blind
and deaf, but, aged 7, with help from her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned
to communicate when one hand felt the stream of water from a pump and the
other felt the manual spelling of “water.”
From that insight, she grew up to
aid many others with disadvantages and became not only a writer and social
leader for Americans, but for the whole world.
In the installation ceremony, House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “people must be respected for what they
can do rather than judged for what they cannot.”
Among many local groups assisting
those with disabilities is the Jellybean Conspiracy (www.jellybeanconspiracy.org).
This organization enables young folks
with disabilities to offer theatrical performances.
One evening last month I saw
an example of this joyous entertainment, which the organization has presented
in more than a dozen states as it continues to expand.
That evening Jellybean offered what
seems to me to be a theology of disability, wrapped up in a song by New
Zealand country music singer, Eddie Low, who grew up with visual impairments.
Low gave the song to Jellybean.
Here is the song’s chorus: “I am a
person./ I am a child of God like you./ I’ll live my life/ And I’ll survive/
With just a little help from you.”
None of us is completely independent.
Our needs are routinely supplied by others. As the bus drivers, Keller’s
teacher and the Jellybean volunteers prove, to help those with special
needs is an opportunity to celebrate their dignity and exercise our own
in the sacred trust we have with each other.
786. 091007 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Minister lived heart and soul
In a sermon following a grim diagnosis, Forrest
Church, minister to All Souls Unitarian Church in New York for 30 years,
said, “The word human has a telling etymology: human, humane, humility,
humus. Dust to dust, the mortar of mortality binds us fast to one another.
. . .
“ . . . I didn’t become a minister
until I performed my first funeral. When death or dying comes calling at
the door, like a bracing wind it, clears our being of pettiness. It connects
us to others. More alert to life’s fragility, we reawaken to life’s preciousness.”
Bill Tammeus, former Star columnist,
wrote me that “Forrest was a remarkable man who was comfortable in his
own skin but endlessly engaged in the mysteries and complexities of life.
“His always-questioning brain did
not surprise me because I also had known his father a bit back in the 1970s,
the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, who also was full of penetrating questions.
“Forrest understood that faith doesn’t
mean having all the answers. Rather, it means being able to live confidently
even though you still have questions.”
The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, minister
of Community Christian Church, met Forrest in the aftermath of 9/11 in
New York. Shortly after Church’s death last month at 61, Hill wrote his
congregation about Church. Hill, who welcomed Church to Kansas City several
times, mentioned some of Church’s two dozen books and other achievements.
“But an even greater grace was the
sheer joy one could share with Forrest, talking baseball, politics, theology,
family dynamics, books, history, Idaho lore, the wonders of New York City,
the glories of Kansas City barbecue, and the blessedness of the pastoral
life,” Hill said.
Even Church’s scholarly writings were
full of soul, and his pastoral books went straight to the heart.
His honesty about his own flaws and
failings inspired others to understand themselves as he connected with
his own congregation and wider circles. Pride and pettiness disappeared
and humility became his humanity.
Hill noted “how his love and care
were persistently, passionately present.”
Indeed, last year Church told The
New York Times, “I have never been more in the present.”
I met first Forrest in the late 70s.
While already accomplished and gracious, like other children of prominent
figures, at times he seemed to need to prove himself.
When last I spent time alone with
him, that was long gone. He was clear and clean. In an intensely personal
way that was also universal, he was fully present and full of love. What
else, really, is a saint?
785. 090930 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Faiths share fire fascination
I’m teaching a course on world religions at Avila
University this term. To initiate study of the prehistoric origins of spiritual
practices, I asked the students to form teams, to imagine themselves as
cave guys and gals and to list experiences they might have had that would
cause them to feel awe and wonder.
Such feelings may have generated early
religions, and it is hard to think of any religion today that does not
still contain a sense of fascinating or fearful mystery at its core.
Rudolph Otto and subsequent scholars
have elaborated theories of the holy as astonishing and compelling power
or powers giving meaning to our lives. Even current atheist writers recognize
In a short time, most of my student
teams had about a dozen items on their lists, from the rising sun to childbirth.
But the item that seemed to appear on most teams’ lists was fire.
Indeed, fire remains fascinating and
fearful, joyous and terrible. We celebrate with lit candles and fireworks.
We fear fire’s power to destroy homes, lives and forests.
Two years ago, following the “WaterFire”
installation on Brush Creek, a work of art in which thousands of us one
perfect night found delight, if not rapture, I wrote about the universality
of fire and fire symbolism in religions of the world.
But this summer, I was grilling salmon
on cedar planks in my back yard when I suddenly sensed myself in a line
with those who, perhaps 750,000 years ago, domesticated fire. The powers
of fire led not only to cooking, warmth, light in darkness, protection
from wild animals and such, but also to working metals found in the earth,
And I also thought, in my wild back
yard, about the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The English
title of his book, “The Raw and the Cooked,” suggests the tension between
nature and culture that religious myths seek to resolve.
The Hindu god of fire is Agni, related
etymologically to the English word ignite. I recalled when I was a parish
minister, writing two verses honoring Agni and setting the words to the
hymn tune Brandenburg, dating from 1653. (Hindus use ghee, clarified butter,
as a fuel.)
“Agni, thy face shines with ghee/
As we behold thy mystery./ Thou Fire, filling sky and night:/ Protect us
with thy guiding light./ As we burn, thy combusting flame/ Changes, consumes,
yet stays the same.
“From fire to fire each world goes;/
Passion begets, renews and flows;/ With light and warmth you preserve,/
Creating power, life and nerve./ Yet you destroy as life you feed:/ Fierce
and beautiful is thy deed.”
784. 090923 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Event offers insight on other
The Star’s food section last week ran a story about
Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting during daylight hours. On-line comments
from readers ranged from appreciative to hostile. Some appeared to be innocently
ignorant, like the one who speculated that Jews observe Ramadan.
Even well-intentioned folks sometimes
have problems sorting misinformation about various faiths from the truth.
And even reading completely accurate articles and books can be much less
effective than getting to know your neighbor of another faith.
In 2003, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior
pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, preached a series
of sermons about world faiths, which later became a book. He not only studied
the different religions, he interviewed members of our community who practiced
those faiths and presented videos from those interviews as part of his
There simply is nothing like knowing
another faith through the lives of those who live it.
Now the church is hosting a one-day
workshop sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, “Kansas
City: A Neighborhood of World Religions,” Sept. 30.
The Rev. Russell Brown, pastor of
support ministries, says learning about other faiths is a “way (the church
has) of respecting the community to which we belong.”
Susan Choucroun will present Judaism
at the workshop. I asked her what she would like folks to know about her
faith. Her reply included, “Jesus was Jewish” and “Chanukah is not the
American Indian spirituality will
be presented by the Rev. Kara Hawkins. She says her faith guides her life
“by an awareness that as I walk in the One Spirit that connects all seen
and unseen, that I am not alone and can therefore call on the assistance
of my ancestors and the holy ones to guide me.”
Muslim presenter Mahnaz Shabbir wants
folks to know that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is an Abrahamic
faith, that Muslims from around the world are diverse and that Islam is
a religion of peace.
She says that “due to a few people,
Islam has been demonized as a radical religion. If people spent some time
with practicing Muslims, they will find we (Muslims and non-Muslims) are
all the same and that we want our families to grow and prosper.”
“Kris” Krishna, the Hindu presenter,
is traveling and could not be reached for comment for this column.
I’ve been asked to present an overview
of faiths practiced in our metro area and discuss different attitudes we
can adopt toward our neighbors.
For more information, visit
or call the Shannon Clark, the Council’s executive director, (913) 548-2973.
783. 090916 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
SEEKING JUSTICE ON COUNCIL
Last month I served the Kansas City City Council
as chaplain, to open the council’s legislative sessions with an invocation.
I had done this last in February,
2007. The mood in the chamber was very different then.
Last month saw the decision by a court
finding flaws with a city ordinance governing volunteers in City Hall,
the vote of the Council to rewrite the ordinance to correct the flaws and
the mayor’s veto of the ordinance, regarded as aimed at his wife.
A suit arising from a complaint about
the mayor’s wife had just been settled, costing the city over half a million
dollars. And there were other contentious issues being debated.
Praying in such an atmosphere required
especially serious preparation so as to avoid entangling my own opinions
with my duty to find words that would neither avoid the situation nor enflame
it. On one hand, prayer would be abstract and irrelevant unless the conflicts
were recognized. On the other, taking sides or proposing solutions would
be pastoral misprision; impartial inspiration was my task.
So in each prayer, I called attention
to the meaning of the physical space, from the statues of Confucius inside
and Lincoln outside to the setting overlooking Ilus Davis Park with its
Bill of Rights monument.
Before the prayer on my last
day, I spoke directly to the Council. Based on my experience with
several civic groups, I suggested the Council members themselves take turns
When I joined the Overland Park Rotary
Club decades ago, for example, the invocation was routinely assigned to
clergy. I accepted the duty. But soon I discussed this with my clerical
colleague. We developed a practice where everyone in the club, lay and
ordained, could take turns.
It is a stretching experience to pray
for folks right in front of you, and members learned about each other and
themselves through the process.
Here’s what I said to the Council
“Honorable Council Members, before
today’s prayer, I’d like to thank you for the privilege of this month’s
“I have sought language that might
be accessible to people of all faiths — and those of none.
“As a citizen, I have strong opinions
about the matters considered in this chamber; but as your chaplain, rather
than advancing my personal agenda, I have tried the severe discipline of
revivifying the words on the wall behind me (which conclude, ‘Let honor,
truth and justice rule within these walls’).
“May I respectfully recommend this
discipline to you, so that in the future, each of you, in turn, before
the time of debate, take this place and try this way of praying on behalf
of your colleagues. Thank you.”
The text of the prayers can be found at
782. 090909 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
HOLOCAUST STORIES APPLY TO US TODAY
If you lived under Nazi-like rule,
would you risk your own life, and that of your family, to hide those whose
faith made them hunted by the state? Or if yours were a suspect faith,
how would you survive when you were slated for elimination?
Former Star columnist Bill Tammeus
and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of the New Reform Temple — both friends of
mine — have spent years gathering stories of how folks in such situations
The result is their new book, “They
Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.” Kansas
Citians will recognize many familiar local names in the list of acknowledgements
of the dozens of those who helped make the book possible.
Two-thirds of Europe’s nine million
Jews, most of them in Poland, perished under the Nazis.
Tammeus, a Christian, was particularly
intrigued by the Jewish survivors. Cukierkorn was especially interested
in the non-Jewish rescuers. Both concluded that the remarkable stories
they collected were not about saints but about ordinary people. This is
why this book applies to us today.
Tammeus told me, “I hope readers understand
that they need not be perfect people to make moral choices. Even small
acts of kindness can have tremendous — and often unexpected — consequences
Cukierkiorn said, “The Holocaust is
not about God, it is about people. The Holocaust is the result of a few
people’s actions and the inaction of most of the people involved. We are
responsible not only for what we do but also for failing to act when action
I asked, “What made ordinary people
— Christians, Muslims, apparently non-religious people, and even anti-Semites,
save Jews from the Nazis?”
They replied that in many cases, it
was friendship, not identification with a particular faith label. What
mattered most was a sense of sharing the human condition, a belief in the
inherent worth of each person.
You can read my complete email interview
with the authors at www.cres.org/people.
The book concludes with resources
and a “Readers’ Guide” with discussion questions for each story. The book’s
own website, www.theywerejustpeople.com, mentions some specific stories.
Facebook users can search by book title for more information.
All of the proceeds from the book
sales go to Holocaust education and related charities.
The authors and four survivors will
speak at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public
Library, and the authors will speak Sunday at 1 p.m. at Community Christian
Church, 4601 Main St. Both events are free.
Click here for the
781. 090902 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
WORK AS A FORM OF WORSHIP
If you are too young to remember the Tonight Show’s
Johnny Carson and his routine of Carnac the Magnificent, the swami who
could respond to the content of sealed envelopes before they were opened,
you can find examples on YouTube.
I enjoyed the hilarious and long-running
gag, but I still worry that too many people think of the jokes when they
hear the word “swami” rather than the honor the designation indicates when
given to a spiritual master in the Hindu tradition.
Let me tell you about a swami coming
here to speak Sept. 11 at KU’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
Swami Sridharananda, born in 1925
in Calcutta, was initiated into the Ramakrishna Order by a disciple of
perhaps the swami most famous in the West, Swami Vivekananda, who astonished
Americans and others with his eloquence and insights at the 1893 World
Parliament of Religions in Chicago. People are still studying his speeches.
I mention this because lineage is
Swami Sridharananda began his training
as a hospital janitor.
Earlier he had met an old monk now
staying in same ashram with him. The monk was so respected by others that
no one dared to sit near him.
When the monk saw the novice doing
hospital clean-up, he told him, “You are blessed to have this job. This
is the best way to learn Vivekananda’s philosophy that work can be worship.
It is the attitude towards work, not the type of work that is important.”
I learned that Swami’s subsequent
career — including supervising the construction of a hospital in India
and opening Vedanta centers in Australia and New Zealand, and I was intrigued
by what most of us would consider his lowly beginnings. So I emailed Swami
about work as worship.
His response first contrasted the
two. He described work as ego-driven, an activity “motivated by desire
Worship, on the other hand, is the
“pursuit of peace, tranquility, joy and ecstasy.”
The two can become one when one offers
every activity to God. When whatever one does is a service beyond one’s
egoistic desires, then work is transformed into worship.
Many of us judge ourselves and others
by the kind of employment we see and the wealth produced as an indication
of status. In the eyes of God, is the CEO better one who cleans the toilet?
Swami Sridharananda may not be Carnac,
seeing inside a sealed envelope, but perhaps he can see deeply into the
For more information about Swami,
visit www.vedantakc.org and click on “Special Events.”
780. 090826 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Glimses into the soul
Even if you were invited, would you dare to peer
into another person’s soul? To have someone you had never met open one’s
deepest longings, secrets and scars to you could be a gift of immeasurable
value, but wouldn’t you be hesitant to intrude into such sacred space?
Most of us may not be equipped to
receive such a gift directly from a stranger, but the American artist Fazal
Sheikh, a winner of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, becomes our
intermediary with intimate photographs from India now on exhibition the
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
I almost tremble as I write “exhibition”
because the word could inaccurately suggest an objective display rather
than this powerful encounter with real people through their images.
Curator April M. Watson says, “Many
of us experience the numbing effects of a typical newscast, which often
relies heavily on shock and awe to report the world’s problems. But Sheikh
is a listener rather than a voyeur, working within communities for extended
periods to gain a better understanding of their situations. His photographs
reflect this considered, thoughtful approach, helping to bring viewers
within his subjects’ moral reach.”
We see character, not cartoon.
Because of the consent of the person
photographed — one looks straight at us, piercing through all our defenses,
another permits only the back of her covered head to be shown — we are
given access to others’ vulnerabilities in a way that enlarges us.
And it also makes us ask the troubling
question, “Do I have some responsibility to help, if not with these people,
with those in my own community who are abused and dispossessed?”
There are actually two sets of real
people, young and old, whose testimonies we can read along side their pictures.
The “Ladli” (Beloved Daughters) collection
is an encounter with devalued girls, whether still in their neglected innocence
or after brutal rape.
The “Moksha” (Release) collection
gives us widows, some of whom have found balm with others in a community
devoted to the god Krishna in the holy city of his birth, Vrindavan.
One exquisitely wrinkled face with
an ultimate calm and eternal eyes tells me she had seen it all and somehow
survived with a dignity untouched by, but revealed through, appalling misery.
The mystics of many faiths have declared
that seeing another person truly requires us to open our own hearts. These
photographs may remind us to look more deeply into others and fulfill ensuing
responsibilities if we wish to grow our own souls.
Sheikh will be in Kansas City Sept.
10 to talk at the Nelson about such projects.
779. 090819 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Always offer compassion
From earliest human life, religion and medicine
have been entwined. The Hippocratic Oath was originally taken in the name
of Greek gods, for example.
But from about the time of American
Civil War, medicine has often looked more to scientific and technical advances
than to faith.
However, medical missionaries have
been impelled to provide healing services to those in need here and all
over the world.
Micah Flint, CEO of INMED, an organization
based in Kansas City working to equip health care professionals to serve
in medical missions, identified David Livingstone in the 19th Century,
and Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa in the 20th among those who desired
“to live a life for others in a world that lives for self.”
At my second INMED conference, held
this spring at UMKC, I heard a 21st Century hero, in my opinion of such
rank, Gary Morsch, founder of the global relief organization based in Olathe,
Heart to Heart International.
Morsch, also a colonel in the reserves,
told of being on duty in Kosovo where he was asked to see an elderly Muslim
woman dying from breast cancer. There was nothing he could do except give
her a little relief from pain.
She was struggling for breath. He
knew she would die that night. He explained that no one could do anything
for her. But he wanted to do more, so he, a Christian, asked if he could
pray for her.
The missionaries with him thought
that if she didn’t accept Christ, she’d be damned for eternity. Morsch
prayed instead that God would give her comfort. She said she wanted to
go outside to die. He obliged.
As he told the story, his voice broke.
“Are you ready?” he asked the woman.
“Yes,” she said as she looked up at
the stars. “I can see my father. They are calling.”
Morch asked, “Do you believe you will
be with God forever?”
“I do,” she replied.
“I will see you on the other side,”
Morsch said. Then she died.
Morsch was not interested in theological
argument. The point is that, even without medicines to cure, it is always
possible to show compassion.
Flint told me that at these international
annual conferences, “over 1,300 health care professionals have learned
the skills for medical missions, heard from today’s medical missionary
heroes and caught a vision to care for the least served of this world,
including those in our own community.”
Beyond health care professionals,
Flint said INMED also serves others “who see the need and want to do something
INMED offers a cross-cultural healthcare
competency symposium Oct 2. Visit inmed.us.
778. 090812 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Is this miracle' real? and does it matter?
Did Jesus dictate an important message to the world
from 1965 to 1972 to an atheist with Jewish background who went to Catholic
mass frequently? Why did she die fearful, angry and resentful?
What happens when a gay psychologist
at the Columbia University Medical School and his older married colleague,
both highly regarded in their field, collaborate on a secretive project
that neither intended?
Did those most involved with the publication
of this spiritual manuscript benefit from the teachings they present to
And, the question that concerns me
the most: How do I write respectfully about something that millions of
people revere as divine revelation that I privately consider the inferior
product of a troubled mind?
All questions but the last, and many
more, are answered in a new book, A Course in Miracles: The Lives of
Helen Schucman & William Thetford, by historian Neal Vahle.
Vahle’s 250-page book is something
of a miracle itself because he gathers together previously unpublished
materials and fresh interviews with the surviving principals associated
with A Course in Miracles.
The Course can be ranked as
the first and most important of “New Age” revelations of texts. Its successors
include The Celestine Prophesy by James Redfield in 1993 and Conversations
with God in 1995 by Neale Donald Walsch.
I first encountered the Course
shortly after its 1976 publication as I learned home study groups were
seeking to understand it and apply its wisdom to their lives. I was curious
about how this document came into existence.
Vahle’s book does not propose any
theory, natural or supernatural, of the composition of the course. One
of his readers, the well-known psychology professor Charles Tart, calls
the material “channeled.”
After considering the raw material
in Vahle’s book, I theorized that Schucman used the “dictation” of the
Course to bind Thetford into a co-dependent relationship with her.
Did she keep “channeling” for those seven years by intuiting exactly what
spiritual material would fascinate him?
Vahle politely told me that he “cannot
support” my interpretation.
Vahle’s book is valuable precisely
because, from the facts and accounts he has assembled, the reader can make
one’s own judgment about what really happened.
And to answer the last of the opening
questions: The Course emphasis on recognizing and healing fear and
manifesting love everywhere has benefited many people. Vahle’s book reminds
me I’m simply not smart enough to tell other people what will help them
I asked Vahle what impressed the dozen or so people he interviewed about
the Course. He listed these five points:
is regarded as a wise elder brother rather than the Savior.
2. They seemed
to have little interest in, or attraction to, institutionalized religion,
particularly traditional Christianity.
focused their belief in an inner guide, an inner light.
regarded the Course teaching about recognizing and dealing with
fear as a key. to spiritual growth.
5. They emphasized
the importance in manifesting love in personal relationships.
regarded the Course
teaching about recognizing and dealing with fear as a key. to spiritual
book is available through Amazon.com at Lives-Helen-Schucman-William-Thetford/dp/B0029D317K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249488532&sr=1-1
777. 090805 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Faith guides us to justice
No religion is so other-worldly that the idea of
justice in this world is neglected. Even Buddhism, where the great virtue
is compassion, teaches that an ethical life here and now is a preliminary
and necessary step toward enlightenment.
Jesus is a divine model of forgiveness,
but even as Christianity is practiced, forgiveness is often in tension
with demands for justice.
Last week as I reported for jury duty,
I contemplated the force of faith in guiding us away from seeing justice
as the whim of the powerful toward seeing that law is rooted in something
that transcends the instant case.
Previously I’ve served as jury foreman.
This time I was part of a group of 65 citizens questioned — voir dire —
for perhaps four hours from which 12 jurors were selected for a serious
criminal case involving armed robbery, rape and other charges.
As the prosecuting and defense attorneys,
with the judge’s clear direction, sought to find unbiased jurors for the
case, I thought about former methods of determining guilt in the Western
tradition, such as trial by ordeal using water or fire or other horrible
methods by which God was expected to provide a miraculous sign of innocence.
Over the centuries we have evolved
a more humane system in which we expect each other to do what had previously
been assigned to God. Evidence produced must be carefully monitored. The
law must be faithfully and impartially applied. With a presumption of innocence,
a unanimous verdict by 12 peers, in most criminal cases, is required to
find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
As prospective jurors were interviewed,
I was shocked and dismayed by the number of people in this randomly selected
group of citizens who, in fulfilling their oaths to tell the truth, disclosed
that they, members of their families or close friends had been raped. Our
world is full of distress and pain.
It would be unfair to expect anyone
so traumatized to be unaffected in sitting in judgment on another, despite
one’s purest efforts to remain objective.
Yet all of us bring experiences and
opinions that influence our decisions. Our memories are fallible. Citizen
jurors have a dreadful responsibility, yet no system seems better to assess
the truth and find justice.
Although atheists have a point that
the law should eschew theological language, still the oath to tell the
truth ending in “So help me God,” is rooted in the universal impulse to
fulfill the ultimate and sacred claims we have on one another, even those
we have never met.
When the citizen does this, the courthouse
can become not merely a chamber of law but a temple of justice.
776. 090729 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
A union of equal partners
I’ll get to the reason why he left town in a moment,
but first some praise for the Rev. Jim Eller, who led his last service
as minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church July 19.
The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, pastor of
the nearby Community Christian Church, spoke at a reception afterwards.
“It is rare and precious and joyful to have a colleague with whom you can
connect so solidly,” he began.
Using bodily metaphors such as Eller’s
sharp mind, a pastoral heart, feet determined to walk with those on the
margins and to stand with those without power, compassionate hands and
a spine with the courage of his convictions, Hill praised Eller and his
work with the city’s clergy to benefit them and the community.
Eller’s community involvement included
the ACLU and KKFI community radio. The first Equity Service Partner award
from the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2) read,
in part, “Every encounter with Eller . . . exposes one to his sense of
faith, his commitment to all people everywhere and his sense of the spiritual
attainment possible for all.”
Among other recognitions, the Greater
Kansas City Interfaith Council honored him as its first “Board of Faith
Advisor” and thanked him for providing a home for the Council.
Eller’s advice was frequently sought
by officials of his own denomination which he served in various capacities
including as president of the Prairie Star Ministers Association.
At Eller’s final service, the congregation
awarded him the status of “minister emeritus” for leading the congregation
into unprecedented growth and other achievements of his ten-year tenure.
Now, why would anyone leave such a
Eller previously served churches in
Oklahoma where his wife was a United Methodist minister.
When Eller accepted the call to the
Kansas City church, he and the Rev Jeannie Himes agreed that they would
stay at most ten years unless she also found a position here worthy of
When that did not happen, Jim, though
he loved the church and the church loved him, moved with her to where she
was wanted as minister, a suburban Oklahoma City church.
“She’s thrilled to be back in the
ministry,” Eller told me. Eller himself is exploring a number of opportunities
to work in the social justice field.
Ministers of different traditions
marrying each other is not common, and the story of Eller and Himes illustrates
not only a union of equal partnership and respect for each other’s careers,
but also proves the transcending miracle of intense and intimate commitment
to both one’s own and one’s partner’s different faiths.
775. 090722 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
The further paradox of enlightenment
Last week I wrote about a particular Buddhist notion
of “enlightenment” which claims, in effect, that enlightenment is knowing
there is no enlightenment.
This paradoxical statement arises
from the Buddhist teaching that selfish desires lead to suffering, and
that even the desire for enlightenment is selfish. Only by abandoning the
desire can one achieve the liberation of enlightenment.
But there is another famous problem
in Buddhism. Is enlightenment sudden or gradual?
On this question, two Japanese Zen
Buddhist schools have sometimes been contrasted. Rinzai Zen emphasizes
the sudden flash of enlightenment, whereas the Soto school has often been
characterized by progressive attainment.
Nevertheless Rinzai master Hakuin
— who developed the famous koan (puzzle), “What is the sound of one hand
clapping?” — over the course of his life identified several flashes
of illumination, each more complete than the earlier one.
Some suggest that conservative
Christian theology celebrates the soul’s sudden conversion, a discontinuity
with the previous way of relating to God, from rebellion to submission.
Liberal theology, on the other hand,
promotes a gradual perfection of character through training and education,
as the soul gains a clearer understanding of God’s will, step by step.
This Christian distinction between
conservative and liberal roughly corresponds to Rinzai and Soto Zen.
On my first trip to Japan many years
ago, I planned to study briefly at Mt. Koya, the original headquarters
of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. The manager told my interpreter it would
be more profitable for me to count the petals on a lotus blossom than to
talk to the chief priest about enlightenment, but I put my question to
“Is enlightenment sudden or gradual?”
With no hesitation, he answered, “It
is sudden with gradual preparation.”
After contemplating this question
for years, I suddenly saw what seemed obvious.
We may not have a religious experience
every time we worship, for example, but any religious practice can gradually
sensitize us, ready us, for sudden insight.
Can we compare the sudden-gradual
polarity in theology to quantum physics? The wave is gradual, the particle
discontinuous. In a sense both are real and in a sense both are artifacts
of our reference frames.
In our everyday lives, perhaps it
is easier for us to notice the sudden, yet we presume a continuity, even
a unity that embraces both insight and ignorance in a comforting and ultimate
Enlightenment can be compared to orgasm in many ways. One is that "gradual
preparation" is like forplay and sudden enlightenment is like orgasm itself.
A famous comparison
between the two Zen schools mentioned in the article is this saying: "Rinzai
for the general, Soto for the farmer." The samurai were noted for quick
strikes while the agriculurist depends on steady growing.
of the Soto school, said, "To study the way [to enlightenment] is to study
the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is
to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to
remove the barriers between one's self and others."
finitude paradoxically intimates the infinite.
KartaPurkh Khalsa writes:
Sat Nam Vern:
Enjoyed your most recent columns on enlightenment. Reminds me of a conversation
I once had with a friend about death. We were both young, in our twenties
and of course "immortal" But we did discuss how we would like to die (if
that would ever happen to US). Would we prefer a long drawn out process
(sometimes painful) where we could make amends as best we could and
say goodbye to loved ones and so forth, Or, would we prefer it come upon
us quickly and with no time to be afraid or sad? Our conclusion was of
a Zen nature, and I quote? "Doesn't everyone die instantly?"
774. 090715 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
On seeking enlightenment
People pursuing a spiritual path often ask about
Some say that enlightenment is a state
of understanding, acceptance and peace, perhaps even bliss with miraculous
powers. To achieve this blessing, one must abandon ordinary pursuits and
master a religious discipline such as meditation or yoga.
A story, told various ways in the
Zen Buddhist tradition, suggests a different idea of enlightenment.
A holy man was preaching quietly to
a crowd on one side of a lake. A priest from a rival tradition kept interrupting
the sermon with interjections of a chant he learned from his own teacher.
Finally the holy man asked the priest
if he would like to say something.
“The leader of my faith is so enlightened
he can stand on one side of this lake with a brush and through the air
perfectly inscribe the scriptures on a scroll on the other side of the
lake,” he boasted. “Can you perform such feats?” he challenged.
The holy man replied, “No, I can only
perform wonders such as eating when I am hungry, sharing what I have with
others and forgiving when I am insulted.”
This second understanding of enlightenment
eschews magic and draws our attention instead to the everyday miracles
In the Christian tradition, Paul wrote
similarly: “I may have faith strong enough to move mountains, but if I
have no love, I am nothing.”
I once asked Huston Smith, the author
of the best-selling book, “The World’s Religions,” about enlightenment.
He told me of a conversation he had with the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, I
think it was, where the Dalai Lama presides over the Tibetan Government
All day ordinary folks brought their
problems to the Dalai Lama and he listened to them and sought to help.
When Smith had a chance to talk with
the Dalai Lama, he asked the Dalai Lama if he was enlightened or aspired
to be enlightened.
In his exhaustion, the Dalai Lama
laughed and said enlightenment might be a good thing — perhaps in
life he might seek it, but now there were so many people to help, how could
he turn his attention away from their needs which were truly more important?
The paradox for religious seekers
is this: we can see clearly and attain enlightenment only when we abandon
attachment to selfish desires which distort our perceptions. But as long
as we selfishly desire even enlightenment, that very desire impedes achieving
This is why a religious discipline
such as meditation may be best when it has no goal, for enlightenment may
be the freedom of knowing there is no enlightenment to seek.
773. 090708 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Faiths grapple with gay rights
I’m not sure there has been a more divisive issue
within mainline Protestant denominations than homosexuality. Episcopalian,
Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and other groups have been torn, deciding
whether to accept and even ordain those who have made a commitment to love
a person of the same sex.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches
that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” though gay and lesbian Catholics
meet in support groups.
This issue troubles other faiths as
well, here and abroad. For example, viewers of “City of Borders,” a film
shown during the June 26-July 2 Kansas City Gay & Lesbian Film Festival,
saw how Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Christians joined forces to prevent
a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem in 2006.
The film festival ran during the 40th
anniversary of the New York City 1969 “Stonewall Riots” which some people
regard as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
Another important year for homosexuals
was 1996, when the Defense of Marriage Act became law. The legislation
defines marriage for federal purposes as a legal union exclusively between
one man and one woman and allows states to ignore same-sex marriages performed
in other states.
Since that time, numerous political
figures have been found to have violated marriage vows, including
Clinton, Tom DeLay, Eliot Spitzer, Rudolph Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, David
Vitter, John Ensign and, now, South Carolina governor Mark
Sanford. Some in this list favored the DOMA legislation. Clinton,
for example, signed it.
Some may wonder how effective the
law has been defending heterosexual marriages.
John Barbone, pastor of Spirit of
Hope MCC, a church serving the gay community, told me that his members
feel diminished when those who have the rights of marriage violate their
vows while denying those rights to same-sex couples who are faithful in
keeping their vows.
“The hypocrisy of such men acting
as if their relationships are better than ours places us as second-class
citizens, no matter how devoted we are to our partners,” he said.
He also decries the current U.S. military
policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” as a spiritual violation. “It is stupid
for men and women to pretend to be something they are not,” he said.
Forty years ago sexual acts among
same-sex partners were illegal in every state but Illinois. Not until 2003
were they legal everywhere in the United States.
In my opinion, faith communities have
been crucial these past 40 years in developing fuller understandings of
personhood and how society might respect its citizens as spiritual beings.
NOTES FOR THIS WEBSITE:
Robert Livingston,Jim McGreevey, Kwame
Kilpatrick, Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa,
and John Edwards
should have been included in this list. Excluded for reasons cited: Larry
Craig (arrested in a men’s restroom), with
his wife standing with him, denied he is gay. Pastor
Ted Haggard is not in politics. Proponent
of laws against pedophilia, Mark Foley
is not married but his solicitation of House pages led to his resignation.
Sarah Palin announced her daughter, Bristol,
a leader in the abstinence movement, was pregnant during the presidential
campaign, and would marry the father, but the father has declined to marry
the mother of his child.
Among the countries that recognize same sex marriages are Canada, Spain,
Sweden. Israel recognizes such marriages performed elsewhere. States where
same-sex marriages are or will be legal include Massachusetts,Connecticut
, Iowa, Vermont, Maine New Hampshire. Some other states and localities
recognize some same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships.
773comment left column]
772. 090701 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
CROSSROADS PASTOR TAKES ON TOUGH QUESTIONS
A tough question, especially for American Christians
celebrating Independence Day this week-end, will be addressed by Jack F.
Price, pastor of Crossroads Church of Kansas City.
A member of the congregation
asked about a survey showing that a higher percentage of Christians
than those not affiliated with any church supported the use of torture,
“so why should anyone participate in an organization that is worse than
the general population in its concern for others?” The questioner feels
torture violates his understanding of Christian teaching.
In April the Pew Research Center’s
Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that the more often Americans
go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected
Price told me he’ll expand the question
to include the problem that “the church has supported slavery, segregation,
sexism and homophobia.”
Price, an American Baptist minister
who has served the church since 2002, opens himself up to such questions
each summer when he offers an “Ask Jack” sermon series, now underway.
Another question yet to be addressed
this year is, “Why do bad things happen to good people who deserve better?
The recent Air France tragedy reminds me that the old answers of ‘It’s
God’s will,’ or ‘We don’t question God’ just don't work for me any more.”
And there are eight more such questions
in the series.
My “Ask Jack” question was this: Why
do you do it?
He answered that his congregation,
“radically inclusive and radically free,” encourages discussion of difficult
questions rather than ignoring them or relying on pat answers.
Price, who holds a doctorate from
Princeton Theological Seminary, said that faith is more important than
belief. Faith for him is not so much a set of doctrines as it is “trust,
commitment, how you choose to look at the world.”
Recognizing that different people
have different life experiences allows, even requires, different understandings
of God. And the same person, at different points in one’s faith journey,
may find different beliefs meaningful.
“I choose to see the world within
God, even though my understanding of God’s nature has changed many times.
As we grow older, our choices are more conscious,” he said.
Price is finishing a book growing
out of his ministry here and on the East Coast, “Finding Faith: A Pastor
Responds to Twenty Critical Questions of Faith.”
The church website, www.crossroadschurchkc.org,
contains samples, Enotes, of his approach to such questions.
771. 090624 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
SCRIPTURES TO LIVE BY
Folks sometimes ask me, “What are your favorite
scriptural passages?” Apr. 29 I answered with Jewish, Christian and Muslim
texts. Today we’ll look at three Asian treasures.
*“When men lack a sense of awe, there
will be disaster” begins chapter 72 of the Tao Te Chingin
the Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English version of this ancient Taoist classic.
Some translations use the word “fear”
instead of “awe,” but in either case the warning means that unless we are
aware of what counts, we are in danger.
Our desacralized culture can easily
distract us. There is nothing wrong with talking on a cell phone; but if
you are in heavy traffic, you better pay attention to the road.
An economy leveraged by those
more focused on their pay than on working for the common good leads to
widespread hurt and failure.
More generally, when our preoccupation
with the partial overwhelms feeling the whole miracle of existence, the
impulse to share what we have with others weakens and we become crazed.
But with awe we can see that the universe
is, in William Blake’s words, “infinite and holy.”
*The Heart Sutra may
be the most commonly chanted Buddhist text. In English, it is less than
300 words long.
Half way through is the astonishing
claim that there is “no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering,
of the cessation of suffering nor of the path” — in effect denying the
Four Noble Truths that the Buddha himself taught.
So here is a Buddhist text that seems
to undermine the very foundation of Buddhism. I know of no parallel text
in any other religion.
But Buddhism, at least in theory,
is based on undermining itself. It is an ancient Post-modernism, calling
into question any description of reality, including its own, because humans
crave descriptions of reality more than reality itself.
*The Hindu Bhagavad Gita
2:47 teaches to “act without attachment to the result,” advising us that
our minds become polluted when we desire an end more than simply doing
what is right.
Inaction is not an option. But only
with a clear head can we discern our responsibility and act on it, as if
it were a sacrament.
We cannot be sure of the ultimate
result, only of the integrity of our act. The outcome is in God’s hands.
These scriptural passages urge me
to pay attention to what counts, to regard any human system of thought
or picture of reality with caution, and to do the right thing without worrying
about the consequence.
This column was quoted on Barbara's Buddhism Blog
2009 June 25:
770. 090617 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Sharing Interfaith Stories
Among the young people coming to Kansas City to
learn about interfaith work are three who told me about their spiritual
They will be joining others, including
adults with decades of experience in the field, June 25-28 at the conference
of the North American Interfaith Network at Unity Village.
Joshua M.Z. Stanton of New York is
studying to be a rabbi. He says, “As someone who came of age after Sept.
11, I view active outreach to other religious communities as a necessity
rather than an option.”
Audra Teague of Columbus, Ohio, also identified
9/11 as a turning point. Immediately after the attacks, she organized an
interfaith prayer service in Washington, D.C., where she was then working.
“I am drawn to interfaith work because
I have experienced firsthand the harm to community and family when religious
differences lead to isolation and separation,” she said.
She attended the NAIN conference last
year in San Francisco and describes it as “an amazing spiritual, intellectual
and relational experience.”
Stephanie Hughes, who grew up in “a
rural coal-mining town in southern Illinois,” emphasized her “sense of
how inter-connected we are.”
Hughes is interested in human relationships
and “the way we as individuals connect to a text or story, and the way
we seek to connect with one another, and with God.
“It follows that I ought seek out
different perspectives, different stories, and others who are seeking in
ways different than mine. I believe inter-religious dialogue ought
to be a spiritual discipline, something we pursue as we seek to widen the
possibilities of our encounters and understanding with God, and a growing
ability to abide and cherish differences.
“If I do not remain open to the ideas
and experiences of others, I not only miss out on chances for a richer
life, but I am less a child of God—I believe God intends us to make community
with one another, and openness to interfaith encounters and endeavors is
essential to that,” she wrote me.
She graduated last month from Union
Theological Seminary, and with Stanton founded the peer-reviewed Journal
of Inter-Religious Dialogue, www.irdialogue.org.
The Journal, Stanton says, is “set
up so that young people like myself have the opportunity to solicit advice
from more experienced leaders and scholars.”
Actually, these three young people
sound pretty mature to me. They—and the conference—offer us a future of
faiths purifying and supporting each other.
For their complete interviews and
information about NAIN, visit www.cres.org/nain.
769. 090610 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Little agreement about when life begins
Little agreement about
when personhood begins
expands the printed
and on-line text in The Star.]
Why is abortion thought of as murder in some religious
perspectives, but not in others?
Everyone agrees that a fertilized
egg is human at least in the sense that other cells are human. The conception
and other cells of the body, say, blood or skin cells, contain the full
DNA genetic code.
The argument is about whether the
single fertilized cell, or its development in the womb, is a person with
When the soul comes into being is
a theological, not a scientific, question. Still, it becomes part of a
moral and political debate when laws are sought to enforce one view on
If the conception is not a person,
destroying it cannot be murder, even if abortion is regrettable or even
Biblical law suggests that a fetus
is not a person. Exodus 21:22-23 describes a situation where a pregnant
woman is assaulted and the fetus killed. The penalty is merely a fine.
But if the woman is killed, the assailants’ punishment is death.
W. A. Criswell, former president of
the Southern Baptist Convention, seems to have held this view when he said,
“it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother
that it became an individual person.”
On the other hand, some theologians
teach that “ensoulment” occurs at the moment of conception, a view decreed
in 1869 by Pope Pius IX. Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalms 139:13 are sometimes used
to support this opinion. In 1886 Pope Leo XII prohibited
all procedures that directly killed the fetus even if performed to save
the life of the mother.
Others, following physicians who consider
that pregnancy begins with the attachment of the developing cells to the
wall of the uterus, say personhood begins with this implantation.
For others, personhood begins when
the possibility for twinning has passed. Otherwise, if a soul were given
to an embryo and then the embryo divided, who would get the soul? Or would
each baby have half a soul?
St. Augustine did not call early abortion murder because he considered
early stages of pregnancy vegetable or animal in nature. Only when the
body became human-like was it animated by a human soul. St Jerome required
the development of limbs before considering abortion murder.
Of course we
should remember the anti-sex thinking of many theologians before the modern
era and even today. Augustine condemned sexual pleasure even in marriage.
Many condemned oral or anal sex. At some points in Christian history, masturbation
was regarded as more sinful than rape because rape could lead to new life
while masturbation wasted seed. And today the Roman Catholic Church still
St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle,
said ensoulment occurs at quickening, when the mother feels movement within
her womb, thought to be about 40 days after conception
a male and 80 days for a female). Dante thought the soul appeared when
the brain developed. Pope Innocent III said abortion was murder only after
quickening. Pope Gregory XIV placed quickening at 116 days.
Similar variations of opinions have
occurred in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths and secular thought.
Through science we know know that far more abortions occur naturally, often
without the woman's awareness of fertilization, than by human intervention.
Some wag says this makes God the world's greatest abortionist.
Avoiding theology, the Supreme Court
set “viability” as the time when certain legal protections could apply.
In practice, most religions allow
abortions to save or protect the life of the mother. Some faiths allow
it in cases of fetal malformation or rape.
The Dalai Lama, perhaps like many
of us, views abortion negatively, but says it should be “approved or disapproved
according to each circumstance.”
Calling abortion murder may inflame
discussion more than inform it.
passages used to oppose abortion include Job 10:9-12 and 31:15, Psalms
51:5, Isaiah 49:1 and 49:5, Luke 1:41-44, and Galatians 1:15. Ecclesiastes
4:2-3 and 7:1 have been used to support abortion.
My first experience
with a problem pregnancy was with a 10-year old fertile girl (hard to call
her a woman) who had been raped by her uncle and was in danger of dying
if the pregnancy were not terminated. Should the doctor who aborted the
pregnancy be considered a murderer? or a savior of the girl's life?
768. 090603 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Weddings celebrate love
I like weddings. Presiding over my first one forty
years ago, I was probably as nervous as the bride and groom, but I’ve long
since come to relax and savor the proceedings.
After all these years, I sometimes
find myself performing the weddings of the offspring of those I had married
years ago, a thrill I could not have imagined when I was a young minister.
But the fun still starts when I meet
with a couple to plan their ceremony. It’s interesting to hear how the
What I most like to ask is, “Would
you name one or two things that you really like about your future spouse?
Speak your answer directly to your beloved.” You can imagine what hilarious
as well as tender things I have heard.
I recently met a young man and woman
who had thought, after their failed first marriages, that they would never
find someone who would fit both them and their children. I was glad they
brought the young ones along to the planning session because the good time
the kids were having with each other reinforced what a superb match the
parents are for each other, and I said so.
A couple I married last month wanted
humor within a reverent ceremony. They decided their wide circle of friends
should be acknowledged with my opening the wedding ceremony by explicitly
welcoming those “from KState — and KU — also honoring Mizzou.”
Both bride and groom played a lot
of sports and were particularly known for soccer, so the wedding rings
were presented to them on a soccer ball, a touch that rang true with the
Whether the wedding is traditional
or unusual, simple or elaborate, whether there are two witnesses or hundreds,
whether it is a religious ceremony blessing a same-sex couple or
also a legal contract between a man and a woman, whether the couple is
young or old, whatever the complications of their or their families’ spiritual
allegiances or none, whatever the social standing, my job is to keep the
focus on the love being celebrated.
That’s one reason that I like meeting
the families and friends as they tell their stories and share their hopes
for the couple.
For a wedding is never just between
two people, even if some of the relationships are strained. Weddings and
holy unions, like other forms of commitment, are strong fibers from which
society is woven.
At receptions, I especially like the
exuberant three- and six- and ten-year-olds dancing with their grandparents.
I see generations created and supported as love is transmitted with a joy
I call holy. With all the bad news, it makes me believe there is a future.
767. 090527 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Art exhibit is an eye-opener
Not since high school when I saw the rings of Saturn
through a telescope, and when through a biology microscope I saw paramecia
conjugating (blush!), have I had so much fun with a lens as at the “Art
in the Age of the Taj Mahal” special exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum
The Museum supplies magnifying glasses
because the detail is often so astonishing.
But in a sense the whole show is a
lens through which we can view a vanished culture, noted at times for an
interfaith mood still too rare today.
The 80-some objects prove the exhibit’s
slogan, “Beauty is in the details.”
This may be a surprise because when
we think of the monumental Taj Mahal, we think wide-angle, rather than
This is understandable. Curator Kimberly
Masteller, who will be part of a Gallery Walk Sunday at 1:30, told me that
the “Taj was legendary in Europe from the time of its creation . . . .”
Not immensity — intimacy is what we
see, works for the private enjoyment of the Muslim court.
With rulers Akbar, Jahangir and Shah
Jahan, that court cultivated religious tolerance in the land of Muslims,
Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, Jews and Christians.
Many of us have misconceptions of
Islamic history which is actually full of rulers and scholars eagerly exploring
and appropriating materials — including religion — from other cultures.
Evidence in this exhibit includes
an image of a Jesuit priest (Akbar asked Jesuits to educate him about the
Yogis and Sufis seem to be depicted
with equal intent.
Jahangir wrote “It is a very good
book if one hears it with the ear of intelligence” on a translation of
a Sanskrit text about the Hindu god Rama.
While Jesus is a beloved figure in
Islam and the Qur’an mentions Mary more often than Christian scriptures,
seeing them in Mughal paintings influenced by the Christian style is an
One of my favorite paired paintings
is of Yusuf, also known as Joseph (Qur’an 12 and Genesis 37), a figure
in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
He is depicted being rescued from
the well where his jealous brothers dumped him. He emerges not in tatters
but in finery that suggests his inner dignity.
The companion in the exhibit shows
him tending sheep in plain clothes, with a halo and extraordinary beams
In both portrayals one senses the
serenity that comes from loving acceptance of God’s will.
The lens of this exhibit into a century
where many faiths were respectfully studied may help us see a future beyond
the misunderstandings, misuses and squabbles of the present.
766. 090520 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Politics, not faith, in the Middle East
The new Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. says that
some Americans may have a misconception that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
is rooted in religious antagonism between Jews and Muslims when the
issues that cause conflict are actually political.
Sameh Shoukry, posted to Washington
last September, sat down with me last week following a meeting of the International
Relations Council during his visit to Kansas City.
He was here just days before the Egyptian
president comes to Washington, and just weeks before President Obama goes
to Egypt where he will address the Muslim world.
Egypt, the largest Arab nation, is
90 percent Muslim, and has been at peace with Israel for thirty years,
he pointed out. While most Palestinians are Muslim, some are Christian,
and their political aims are not Muslim or Christian but shared Palestinian
aims, he said.
Further, despite the hardships brought
on by political strife, there are many friendships between Jews and Muslims,
“both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories.” He said many of them
are working for peace.
“Muslims hold Jews and Christians
in respect. The prophets of both faiths are held in reverence by Muslims.
Within the attachment we all have to our own faiths, we hope to build upon
our common values and belief in God to bridge the political differences
that divide,” he said.
These three religions emanated from
the same part of the world, and all are based on peace, he added.
I asked if the Egyptian government,
with its minority Christian, Bahá'í and Jewish populations,
was politically secular. Citing the Egyptian constitution, he said that
was a fair characterization, while recognizing that most Egyptians have
a strong feeling for their faith for day-to-day personal issues.
Sharia, Islamic law, and secular law
are seen as complimentary and have been “successfully merged over the years,”
The ambassador highlighted education
several times during the evening, and I asked him about that. He said that
the Muslim faith advocates learning. In that spirit, Egypt offers free
university education and graduate training to all on a competitive basis.
He favors Egyptian students studying
in the Kansas City region, which he called “the Heartland,” because he
sensed we here share the same values as Egyptians.
He was not surprised when I told him
that some Americans associate Islam with violence. He said he understood
about 9/11, and how religion can be misused by political ideologies. All
the more reason for interfaith dialogue, he said.
765. 090513 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
KC makes the perfect setting
Today’s column may not affect your spirit in a very
personal way, but it may lift up “Kansas City spirit” by noting a few examples
of why the North American Interfaith Network chose Kansas City for its
conference June 26-28.
* NAIN was organized in 1988 at a
conference at which more Kansas Citians participated than any other city
except the hosting city, Wichita.
* When our Interfaith Council formed,
it was noted for its inclusion of more faiths than many other interfaith
groups. Religions from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, participate
* After 9/11, CBS-TV did a half-hour
special on how our interfaith leadership responded to the terrorist attacks.
* In 2007, we hosted the first international
“Interfaith Academies,” at which a the principal researcher for Harvard
University's Pluralism Project, one of the cosponsors, said, “We consider
Kansas City to be truly at the forefront of interfaith relations.”
* And the multi-faith Life Connections
Program at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS, which brings
spiritual resources to inmate rehabilitation, has been called the model
for the five pilot programs funded through the faith-based initiative of
the federal government.
Still, it takes a special person to
pull an international group here. Susan Cook, raised by her Creek Indian
father to “find truth in every religion,” discovered the same teaching
in The Urantia Book. Her involvement with the Urantia Fellowship
led to her election as chair of its interfaith committee.
She decided local immersion was also
important, and began working with, and eventually became a member of, the
Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
Also involved with NAIN, she worked
to bring that international organization’s annual meeting here.
“The NAIN board and members are going
to be delighted to meet all of us (here) and see first hand the interfaith
work happening in this city,” she told me. “Kansas City is a wonderful
city of many faiths and cultures working beautifully together.”
Shannon Clark, executive director
of Council, who attended last year’s conference in San Francisco, said,
“I hope that members of the many faith communities throughout Kansas City
will attend the conference and learn more about the various faiths in our
own backyards as well as across the country.”
The program includes local faith groups
presenting devotional and artistic experiences.
Details about the conference, “Experiencing
the Spirit in Education - The Challenge of Religious Pluralism,”
can be found at nain.org.
Click here for Q & A with Cook
and Clark and a news release.
764. 090506 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Inclusion debate continues
Should atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, deists
and others, often called Freethinkers, be included in interfaith organizations
with Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and all other faiths?
Professor Richard J Janet of Rockhurst
University thinks not, and his elegant essay explaining his reasoning was
stimulated by my suggestion in this space that Freethinkers have much to
contribute to, and learn from, interfaith dialogue.
And he invited me to respond to his
position. Both his essay and my comment will appear in the May Thomas More
Center newsletter which you can obtain by emailing him, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The two opinions also appear at [Freethinkers.htm].
In brief, Janet grants that while
Freethinkers may do much to benefit others, he says that “Freethinkers
do not share the experience of belief. . . . No matter how noble their
intentions or sincere their ideas, Freethinkers do not belong in groups
dedicated to dialogue on religious faith.”
His essay notes, correctly, I think,
that some Freethinkers “ridicule and savage religious faith as delusional
The attacks of writers such as Richard
Dawkins and Sam Harris bother me, too. I grant that they sometimes make
a fair point in associating religion with ignorance, hypocrisy, oppression
and violence. But such writers too often confuse foul expressions of faith
with faith itself.
Still, most Freethinkers I know are
not strident. On the contrary, they are modest about their positions. Some
even are church members.
My basic disagreement with Janet is
that belief is less important to interfaith dialogue than the capacity
to experience awe and wonder, to be moved to gratitude and matured in service
If religion involves the search for
what is of utmost importance, then every Freethinker I know deserves a
seat at the interfaith table, even if the term “religious” is discomforting
to some because they have experienced the distortions of faith.
In my own thinking, I call that awesome
sense of ultimate importance or utmost concern “the sacred.” I have never
talked with a Freethinker who did not have a sense of the sacred, even
if he or she eschewed use of such terminology.
Regardless of belief or unbelief,
I want to hear the stories of how people experience wonder, are inspired
to serve others and live with the fundamental questions of faith.
These questions are not specific queries
like “Is there a God?” They are more universal, more basic to the human
spirit like “Is life worth living?” and “How can we better understand,
honor, and share the wonder of being alive?”
763. 090429 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Scriptural passages to live by
Folks sometimes ask for my favorite scriptural passages,
so today, with citations from Hebrew, Greek and Arabic texts, I begin a
series of occasional columns.
*Ecclesiastes 9:11 teaches that “the
race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread
to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men
of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.”
This verse cautions us from thinking
that success is solely a product of one’s own effort, and reminds us that
even superior character may not be rewarded or recognized. Ambition, work
and merit may produce very little if circumstances do not cooperate.
For example, weather may have been
the reason for England’s 1588 victory against the Spanish Armada.
This year marks the bicentennial of
Charles Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On
the Origin of Species, but if Darwin had not been high-born socially
and if Alfred Russel Wallace had not suffered the loss of his specimens
in a shipboard fire, we might credit Wallace with the theory of evolution.
If Bill Gates had not had access to
a computer in 1968 when he was 13, at the cusp of the computer revolution,
his career might have been very different and his wealth minimal.
*Matthew 25:35-46 tells of a king
who commends righteous folk who fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink
when he was thirsty, housed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when
he was naked, visited him when sick and in prison. But the righteous ask
when they had done these things. The king responded, “Inasmuch as you have
done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto
This passage’s examples remind us
that when we care for others, we are doing the work of the sacred realm.
*Here are two excerpts from the Qur’an.
First, 2:256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” Second, 109:6:
“Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.”
I know from personal experiences abroad
and many years with the Muslim community here that these passages are honored,
whereas, frankly, I have often been beset by fellow Christians urging their
particular interpretations upon me.
Historically, with few exceptions,
Islam has avoided seeking conversions. A person’s faith must be freely
embraced if it is to be a sacred path to inspired living rather than a
set of chains anchored in a corner of meaninglessness or hypocrisy.
These passages from Jewish, Christian
and Muslim scriptures are favorites because they help me understand this
world and how to live in it with others.
762. 090422 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Does the concept of souls extend to animals?
After Bo, the Obama girls' puppy, lives a good,
long doggy life, will it go to heaven? Why do some churches bless animals
on St. Francis Day? What place do animals have in a sacred world view?
Here’s a sampling of animals in religious
*The Bible reports both a serpent
and an ass speaking. In today’s America, the fabulous Easter bunny is a
spiritual residue of ancient awe at springtime’s fecundity.
*In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana,
the monkey god Hanuman assembles an army of monkeys to defeat an evil king.
Some Chinese call themselves “Descendants of the Dragon.” The dragon represents
beneficent powers in favorable rains and waters.
*Ancient Egyptians portrayed most
of their gods in animal forms. Most American Indians have regarded animals,
considered relatives, on a par with human beings, and some have even regarded
bears, eagles and other animals as their ancestors.
*This contrasts sharply with some
Christians who believe that humans were separately and especially created
to have dominion over animals. Others believe that God’s design enabled
humans to evolve from earlier life forms.
Now comes a Kansas City theologian
asking Christians to think about God’s relationships with animals, particularly
primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos.
Citing recent scientific studies,
Nancy R. Howell, professor at the Saint Paul School of Theology here, proposes
to expand theology’s focus on humans to include others of God’s creatures.
In a forthcoming publication, she
gives examples of primates seeming to experience awe, their remarkable
communication abilities, their care for each other in complex social relationships
and even their use of deception to arouse sympathy for themselves.
I asked her if God is concerned with
their spiritual life.
She said, “I am convinced that God
enjoys relationships with creatures other than humans. The lives of all
creatures are enriched because of the presence of God (who) is much more
complex, compassionate and interesting than our (traditional) theological
formulations have imagined . . . .
“Christian concepts of the soul (have
been) based on presumptions about the differences between humans and animals.”
But she says there is a “genetic and
evolutionary continuity between humans and animals,” so she questions such
a strict distinction.
She poses an intriguing question:
“will we reconsider with more nuance how we define the human soul or will
we include animals in our concept of the soul?”
761. 090415 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Understanding the Jewish Jesus
Christianity claims about 2.1 billion people, and
Islam numbers about 1.5 billion. These are the largest two world faiths.
But a much smaller religion, with
only about 14 million adherents, has had enormous influence on these two
faiths. With less than one quarter of one per cent of the world’s population,
largely found in roughly equal numbers in two nations, the United States
and Israel, Jews, along with Christians and Muslims, are bound together
by Abraham as a founding figure in their stories.
But it is the figure of Jesus who
divides Jews and Christians. In my experience, many Christians fail to
fully appreciate the Jewish tradition from which Christianity emerged.
One problem is that many Christians
don’t know about the rich developments within Jewish life and thought over
the last two thousand years. Judaism today is not the Judaism of the first
century depicted in the Christian scriptures.
A second problem is that many Christians
extract Jesus from his essential Jewishness.
This theme will be elaborated by a
Jew, Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt
University Divinity School, when she speaks Apr. 24-25 at Village Presbyterian
Church, (913) 671-2381.
Her book, “The Misunderstood Jew:
The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus,” has been called “a searing
challenge from the heart of Judaism to the conscience of Christianity.”
I asked her why Christians need to
understand Jesus as a Jew of his time. She responded, “If we get first-century
Judaism wrong, we’ll get Jesus wrong.
“Some Christians incorrectly regard
Jesus as the only Jew who respected women, showed compassion to the sick,
aided the poor and counseled non-violence.
“They view his Jewish context as comparable
to the Taliban, if not worse. Seeing Jesus within Judaism helps to avoid
such inaccurate anti-Jewish teaching and to deepen understanding of his
For example, “first-century Jews knew
that parables were not just sweet stories. By doing the history, we learn
how ‘the Prodigal Son’ is not necessarily about repentance; how ‘the Good
Samaritan’ would have shocked . . . and how the ‘Parable of the Leaven’
may have gotten a rise out of” those who heard Jesus tell it.
The power of a tradition does not
merely lie in its number of adherents. Minority scholars such as Levine
can offer our overwhelmingly Christian culture, otherwise speaking and
listening only to itself, the very insights it needs to more completely
understand Jesus, the human being Christians teach is also God.
[For more information and the complete interview,
760. 090408 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Storytelling brings understanding
Interfaith understanding often begins with stories,
first personal stories and then the canonical stories of the great religious
But learning how to tell the stories
of our own lives and learning the stories of others can lead to the surprise
that stories we claim as our own are actually shared, and even prefigured,
This is likely to be the case for
those who attend the Kansas City performance of “Inanna, Queen of Heaven
and Earth,” by New York City storyteller Diane Wolkstein Apr. 17. She will
appear with Broadway’s Geoffrey Gordon who will play several instruments
to evoke the atmosphere of the 4,000–year Sumerian old story.
Except, Wolkstein says, the story
is about us today. For example, the connection many men and women in our
culture feel to Mary, often also called “Queen of Heaven” by Catholic and
Orthodox Christians, is evidence of a trans-cultural heritage that reveals
inherently human questions about who we really are when the externals of
our lives are stripped away. She says it “is the great human story of death
It begins with “lusty, earthy, sensuous”
springtime, and ends with profound self-knowledge and awareness of how
the world works.
Wolkstein worked with Samuel Noah
Kramer whose ground-breaking 1956 book, History Begins with Sumer,
demonstrated the sophistication of that ancient Iraqi civilization and
our debt to it. He and Wolkstein together wrote a book about Inanna before
his death in 1990.
I asked Wolkstein why personal storytelling
is important, even in our electronic age.
She replied, “Storytelling unites
people with spirit and art. A storyteller cannot tell well without the
enthusiasm and contribution of those present (who) create with the storyteller
a sacred place for new spirit to appear.
“Storytelling is really community
art” igniting and awakening people’s imaginations and hearts. “So, upon
hearing a good story, they start to dream again.”
Wolkstein has told the story
of Inanna to audiences on five continents in places such as the Smithsonian
and the British Museum.
Here Wolkstein will not only tell
the story. She will also lead a workshop Apr. 18 where participants will
have opportunities to develop their storytelling skills by listening to
others and by telling their own stories.
In voicing one’s own story to appreciative
listeners, one can often come to a fuller understanding of what has come
out of one’s own mouth.
The Friends of Jung bring her here.
For more information, visit their website, kcjung.org.
My full interview with Wolkstein appears at cres.org/story.
759. 090401 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Prayers for our ears, too
Who listens to prayers?
Without a doubt, most people think
of prayer as directed to a listening God or to the gods or to an intercessor
or to a spirit.
This underlies some humor, as in this
story. The man, running late, circles the block several times before an
important meeting. Frantically he prays, “God, if you’ll give me a place
to park, I’ll go to church every Sunday, give a tenth of my income to charity,
stop fooling around with all those women and never take another drink the
rest of my life. Please, God, I’ll do anything for a parking spot!”
Immediately, miraculously, a car pulls
out and the man sees the empty space. He concludes his prayer, “Never mind,
God, I found one.”
The joke depends on the idea of God
listening, and in this case, responding.
But whether or not a supernatural
power hears prayers, prayers heard by mortal ears can even in themselves
The folks last week who created and
then heard a group prayer at the Raytown Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast were
deepened in their understanding of each other’s concerns.
Sponsored by the Raytown Community
Inter-Faith Alliance, the group prayer has become an annual tradition.
Here’s how it works. Before the main
part of the program, people at their tables are asked as teams to
write their local, national and global prayer requests on different colored
index cards. Folks from government, business, non-profits, young
people, retired people — citizens of all kinds join in the discussion of
their sacred desires.
During the program, a committee collects,
studies and arranges the cards. Then the cards are used as the basis for
a group prayer after the Pledge of Allegiance.
This year the prayer was woven together
by a committee of Dawn Weaks of Raytown Christian Church, Adam Smith of
Raytown Community of Christ and Kim Ross of One Spirit United Methodist
The prayer included perhaps a hundred
subjects, such as schools, disparities of wealth and caring for the earth.
One item, skillfully phrased, went
something like this: “help us to learn from each other’s perspectives on
controversial issues like homosexuality.”
Since the entertainment, presented
by St. Louis area singers Susan Drake and Julie Jennings, who are
United Church of Christ ministers and a lesbian couple, was universally
and enthusiastically applauded, the Raytown human ears seem to have heard
and responded to the prayer.
Michael Stephens of Southwood United
Church of Christ chaired the event. He said that truly hearing each
other is itself a powerful answer to prayer.
758. 090325 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Yearning for the divine
How does one express the deepest longing of the
soul for union with the divine while every fiber of one’s being pulls the
other way rabidly?
I thought I knew the sovereign answer,
at least in English. John Donne (1573-1631), Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral
in London, conveyed the anguish of human frailty seeking the transcendent
in his “Holy Sonnet” 14.
But although I have loved and studied
the poem for decades, the setting John Adams gives it in his opera “Doctor
Atomic,” recently produced by the New York Metropolitan Opera and broadcast
on KCPT, reveals a wider context with greater emotional punch than I had
(For the text and 8-minute video,
The opera focuses on “the father of
the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer. “Trinity,” the name of the bomb
test, was likely inspired by the Donne poem.
Oppenheimer was a physicist familiar
with world literature. In fact, when he saw the initial blast of the first
bomb, he quoted lines by heart from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita,
which he could read in Sanskrit.
The first act of the opera closes
as Oppenheimer, singing the Donne sonnet, agonizes over whether his work
will lead to the destruction of the world.
In the sonnet, Donne compares himself
to a city under siege.
Patricia Cleary Miller, professor
of English, chair of the Humanities Division at Rockhurst University and
herself a poet and critic, says the “poem presents Petrarchan metaphors
of love as war, and the medieval romance plot of the fair damsel rescued
from the evil castle by the brave prince.”
Donne’s “prince” is God, and he begs
God to “batter” his heart because he is helpless to yield to God without
God’s violent rescue.
Miller notes that Reason, personified
in the poem, is called God’s viceroy, and is “supposed to protect humans
from error,” but is himself imprisoned, weak or untrue.
Then comes a sexual metaphor in this
poem of faith: Donne is a partner desiring a different lover. Verging on
blasphemy in a paradox so shocking because it seems irresistible, he concludes:
“Take me to You, imprison me, for
I,/ Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except
You ravish me.”
I had always read the poem as a plea
so desperate that God’s favorable response was assured.
But the operatic setting is darker,
perhaps despairing. And with Oppenheimer singing it, it becomes not just
a personal cry, but the cry of all humanity for rescue from the evil of
which we repeatedly prove ourselves capable.
Still, is not the longing itself a sign
of the divine?
757. 090318 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Welcome weary travelers
Reader Gaile Varnum saw that my wish list in a recent
column included an interfaith chapel at Kansas City International Airport.
Whether travel involves business,
a vacation or adventure, a wedding, a funeral, a new child, leaving home
for school, military deployment or some other purpose, transit is often
a transition that deserves spiritual reflection and support, especially
in the often raw setting of an airport.
Varnum agrees and wrote me about some
of the airport chapels she has discovered. And she wrote this:
“I have been visiting airport chapels
since my ‘Road Warrior’ days as a professional speaker. Because chapels
have represented healing and comfort to me since childhood, I have looked
for chapels to visit in airports as well.
“As a traveler, I am always pleasantly
surprised whenever I find one; most often, the space is tucked away and
fairly difficult to locate. But once there, I sit down, breathe in the
holy air and thank my God for a respite from the hustle of travel.
“I realize that my own journeys are
not unlike those of early pilgrims.
“When I sit in an airport chapel,
I often do not see the antiseptic seats or the few potted plants that brighten
the space. I see instead sojourners from the past of every stripe imaginable;
I consider how grateful I am for the safety of having ‘made it this far.’
“I think back to all the travelers
before me who welcomed a moment’s peace in their busy day exactly as I
do in that moment. I imagine how connected to my fellow travelers I am.
“I observe a woman praying her rosary
before boarding her next flight. Another time, I see a Muslim, leading
his son in tow, and finding a prayer rug to fold himself upon, facing Mecca
and the kaaba.
“Whenever I visit an airport chapel,
I first always look for the visible signs of multi-faith worship or prayer.
“Not all chapels are truly inclusive.
Recently, I read a note in the chapel guest book from a fellow traveler
at Chicago Midway: ‘Why have you no menorah, at least, for the Jewish faithful
If KCI is to recognize the spiritual
diversity of the Heartland and to be truly international, it should join
other major airports by dedicating a space for what Varnum calls “time
to get still.”
I do not want government taxing us
to support religious activities, but faith and secular groups could rent
and furnish a space welcoming all who travel, making their trip more meaningful
as we realize that we are all pilgrims on this planet, as the planet itself
whirls through space with our lives unfolding.
756. 090311 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Crisis is an opportunity
Sheldon Stahl, a hero of mine, died last week. He
was 76. Today’s column concludes with his words.
Stahl’s career included serving as
business economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and as dean
of the Rockhurst University School of Management.
Financial statistics never clouded
his moral compass. Indeed, for him they clarified the obligations we have
to one another and buttressed his intense commitment to fairness.
Nowadays much is said about the “moral
hazard” of the government bailing out businesses that created and took
reckless risks. Does the huge public rescue reward, and perhaps encourage,
Stahl and I discussed this in the
context that our society, indeed the world, is now so interwoven that fairness
is difficult to achieve. It isn’t fair for you to be forced to subsidize
your neighbor’s foolish mortgage when you have played by the rules, but
if the house gets a foreclosure sign in front of it, the value of your
own property sinks.
Still, Stahl thought a spiritual problem
more fundamental than the “moral hazard” issue is largely missing from
I had mentioned how dismayed I was
at the request made of us following 9/11: go shopping.
Surely, I said, life is more about
faith, hope and love than about buying things. Surely defining ourselves
and our worth in terms of purchasing power rather than by the richness
of experiences we can offer one another is a perversion of what it means
to be human.
Surely encouraging curiosity, inventiveness
and service would have been a better vision of how to move forward in those
Do our current crises give us another
chance to re-examine what is truly important?
He picked up my question and agreed
to write about it for this space.
In his last email to me, he cited
GDP and job loss numbers, but insisted that “behind the mass of statistical
data . . .there are countless human faces” afflicted by misplaced values.
He wrote that many of us “remain caught
up in our frenetic lifestyles that assign high priority to ‘getting and
“In embracing consumerism, we may
have struck a Faustian bargain. There is a real danger that we may have
traded our humanity for the soulless acquisitiveness of things, becoming
faceless and less caring to our neighbors and to our communities. . . .
“Now more than ever, our current crises
offer us an opportunity to reach out and to regain that virtue of humanity
that undergirds a civil society.”
Stahl was a man of such virtue.
755. 090304 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Finding healing for a world in distress
Faithful readers of this column might perceive a
lament underlying much of what appears here: we finite humans are broken,
disconnected from one another, from our natural environment and even from
appreciating the mystery of our own individuality.
In our culture a sense of wholeness—holiness
is the theological term—is difficult to maintain. Competing partial agendas
vie for our attention, like a stream of endless commercials on TV with
each claiming to be what we urgently need. We are distracted on every front.
Too rarely do we sense the sacred,
the source of life’s meaning in society, in nature, in personhood.
How can we discover and honor the
power on which our lives depend—which we usually push to the periphery
of our awareness?
Answers came from Jewish, Christian
and Muslim panelists last week when the National Council of Jewish Women,
Greater Kansas City Section, presented a luncheon program entitled “Healing
in a Fractured World.”
Rabbi Jonathan Rudnick, Kansas City’s
Jewish community chaplain, said that spirituality involves connecting.
He said the Hebrew term shalom, often
used as a greeting and understood to mean “peace,” has a deep meaning of
Connecting, reaching toward wholeness,
may be a struggle, but we are blessed with meaning as we struggle.
The Rev. Heather Entrekin, pastor
of Prairie Baptist Church, reminded the audience of 335 men and women that
“God is present among us” and can be heard even in a child’s voice or a
She said that the overwhelming events
of 9/11 and our current economic distress make it clear that church cannot
be a “spiritual Tylenol,” but that we can instead learn to see signs of
God’s generosity all around us.
Shaheen Ahmed, a founder of the Crescent
Peace Society, noted that adversity can rouse us to remember God.
This truth applies incident by incident,
and it is also built into Islam ritually. For example, the hunger Muslims
feel by choosing to observe Ramadan, the month of fasting, reminds them
that others hunger not by choice, and those able must provide for those
She said that the Qur’an requires
Muslims to honor all faiths and to aid all who suffer, regardless of their
All three of the speakers, in one
way or another, met my lament by saying that our fractured world requires
us to struggle within it, not to be distracted or numbed by it. Only by
recognizing that we are broken can we reach toward wholeness, paradoxically
present when our eyes and hearts and hands are open.
754. 090225 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Leader following, setting example
Jon Willis is one of several young interfaith leaders
emerging in Kansas City. He has no long scholarly resume in the field of
religion, but he has two children, aged 7 and 4, and wants a better world
He heeds — and is acting on — the
words and example of youth organizer and writer Eboo Patel, a member of
the Obama Faith Advisory Council.
Patel writes that “the 21st century
will be shaped by the questions of the faith line. On one side of the faith
line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one
interpretation . . . is a legitimate way of being, believing and belonging
on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or killed.
“On the other side of the faith line
are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different
creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together.”
I met Jon earlier this year at his
church, Second Presbyterian, when he convened a group of adults and young
people from several faiths (and none) to think about how young people can
be supported in their desire to make friends across faith lines.
His Facebook page, “Supporters of
the Interfaith Youth Alliance of Kansas City,” says, “We come together
as religious pluralists (aiming) . . . to bring youth together from different
religious and moral traditions for cooperative community service and dialogue.”
Willis says that parenting
for him includes “sharing my own faith and beliefs, including the importance
of serving others. I want to prepare young people for the world that they
are going to encounter, which will include meeting people from all cultures
and faiths in our increasingly global society.
“I also want to enable them with the
skills to express to others the core beliefs that are important to them
and to instill in them the ability to have meaningful dialogue and relations
with people from different backgrounds who may hold very different beliefs.”
This Saturday he will host a free
workshop at his church for those interested in engaging youth through interfaith
projects. The program begins at 12:30 for youth leaders, a dinner for leaders
and youth at 5:30 and a training program for 9th-12th grade youth from
7 to 9 pm.
Willis is not trying to establish
a local branch of Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, but to draw from Patel’s
experience and from local ideas to promote “inclusiveness rather than totalitarian
ideologies, with the importance of service to others, a value that people
of all faiths and non-faiths share together, with dialogue and relationship-building
between youth of different religious and moral traditions.”
For information, write Willis at email@example.com.
753. 090218 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Lincoln address evokes Power
The sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
were written in languages most of us do not understand and in cultures
and circumstances so different from our own that scholarly guidance is
But is there an American text that
encapsulates the wisdom found in all three of these monotheistic faiths?
I can’t think of a better response
to this question than the Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln.
Although he never became a church member, and in some ways his religious
views were unconventional, Lincoln grappled with what may be the central
concern about history in these three great religious traditions.
My job at a one-day workshop arranged
by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council Mar. 25 at the United Methodist
Church of the Resurrection is to present an overview of the world’s primal,
Asian and monotheistic faiths.
To do this, it will be simple to find
American Indian songs to express the love the primal faiths have of nature.
And reciting Asian chants easily provides at least an inkling of how the
sacred can be discovered by turning inward.
But because most of us are so immersed
in a worldview shaped by the monotheistic faiths, I will use Lincoln’s
non-scriptural text to help us see our own tradition afresh.
In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln asks
what Jews, Christians and Muslims have asked about events in the various
contexts of their own scriptures: What is history telling us about how
humans can best live together?
The question is not about the trees
and rivers, as in primal faiths. It is not about the content of our consciousness,
as in Asian traditions. These questions are also worthy, but different.
In 1865, the Civil War was ending.
Lincoln asks what the woes of the War mean.
He names the wickedness of slavery
as an offense God could no longer tolerate. The War is the punishment due
to both North and South for having permitted the offense to continue for
Like the monotheistic prophets before
him, Lincoln’s faith was that, even through fallible human actors, a power
moves through history toward justice,
And Lincoln, eschewing partisanship,
concludes, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness
in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish
the work we are in; . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just
and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
As we struggle with events of our
own time, the monotheistic faiths, expressed in scripture and echoed by
Lincoln, remind us of a power larger than the day’s news to which we can
752. 090211 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
A Pope's legacy lives on
Pope John Paul II died in 2005 but he is still bringing
folks of different faiths together, even here in Kansas City.
First, some history.
The New Testament records tensions
between the Jewish community and the Christian movement which began within
it. By the end of the First Century, developments at the rabbinical Academy
of Jamnia and the adoption of the Christian story by non-Jews led to the
painful separation of what became two distinct faiths.
Christian persecutions and pogroms
against Jews have littered the centuries since, though, for the most part,
Jews enjoyed protection in Muslim lands.
Not until 1979, nearly two thousand
years later, did the most prominent leader within Christendom, John Paul
II, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, bring the power of his office
toward redeeming this history by visiting Auschwitz and, in 1986, a synagogue.
(He was also the first Pope to pray in a mosque.)
How this happened is movingly recounted
in the exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another,” which continues at Union Station
through March 27.
I spoke with exhibit co-creators Rabbi
Abie I. Ingber and James P. Buchanan, both of Xavier University in Cincinnati,
and with Ron Slepitza, president of Avila University, who arranged for
the show to come here.
They emphasized the boyhood friendships
of Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope. He lived in an apartment owned
by a Jewish family in Wadowice, Poland. There Jews and Christians intermingled
Wojtyla lost track of one Jewish soccer-playing
friend, Jerzy Kluger, during the Nazi occupation and WWII, but their friendship
later was restored. The first person to receive a private audience with
John Paul II was his Jewish boyhood friend.
That exemplified a pattern of reaching
out, which included the 1986 and 2002 gatherings at Assisi with leaders
from many faiths, part of the reason we now have an Interfaith Council
in Kansas City.
On the show’s opening night last week,
Ahmed El-Sherif, a Muslim, viewed the exhibit where he met Rabbi Ingber.
Within seconds they exchanged kisses three times as is the cultural custom.
Not only had they both known John Paul II, but Ingber also knew of El-Sherif’s
uncle who had worked with the Vatican in promoting interfaith understanding
and had served as ambassador to Germany and Japan from Jordan.
John Paul II’s legacy continues to
bring folks of all faiths together. Perhaps you, viewing this exhibit,
will reach out to someone of another faith and help rescue the world from
the slights and horrors of religious prejudice.
751. 090204 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
What did the founders say?
How do you resolve the argument whether the United
States was founded as a Christian nation or whether the nation was intended
to be wholly secular?
One way to assess these extreme positions
is to look at the founding documents, and to examine what the founders
said and didn’t say.
This is the approach taken by Jon
Meacham, editor of Newsweek and author of American Gospel: God, the Founding
Fathers and the Making of a Nation. With wit and charm, Meacham spoke here
to about 500 people last week to conclude the second annual Festival of
Meacham said that this approach might
appeal to conservatives because it honored our nation’s inception and our
founders’ original intent. And it might appeal to liberals because it is
“empirical,” based on evidence rather than a projection of particular theological
Meacham believes the evidence reveals
a middle ground, with the founders scrupulously avoiding aligning the government
with any particular religion. Sectarian faith could not be the basis of
Still, Franklin, Washington, Jefferson
and others developed a vague, non-sectarian notion of divine providence
guiding the nation.
Meacham is working ground plowed by
scholars such as John Dewey (1934), Sidney Mead (1963), Robert Bellah (1967),
Forrest Church (2004) and Randall Balmer (2008).
In response to those who cite “in
the Year of our Lord” at the end of the Constitution to prove the nation
is Christian, Meacham called the phrase a “date stamp.” (It is an English
translation of Anno Domini. Nowadays it often appears as the abbreviation
“A.D,” used even by atheists.)
In his speech, Meacham noted the European
religious wars our founders saw were destructive. He summarized our own
religious history from colonial America through the views of many presidents.
As an editor, he expressed particular
admiration for Ronald Reagan’s skill in “improving on Jesus,” by adding
the word “shining” to the beginning of the phrase, “city on a hill” (Matthew
5:14), one of the phrases now associated with the Reagan presidency.
But Meachem did not quote Reagan referring
to the Bible at a 1980 convention of evangelical Christians in Dallas:
“All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide
have their answer in that single book.”
And when Meacham said Biblical “literalism
is for the insecure,” I’m not sure he avoided the extremism and personal
attacks from which he sought to save us.
750. 090128 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Inauguratintg many ideas
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength,
not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus
— and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture . . . .”
So spoke President Barack Obama in
his inaugural address.
While Obama is a Christian, and his
call to “set aside childish things” comes from Christian scripture (I Cor.
13:11), others can recognize themes in his speech that resonate within
their own traditions. And in today’s America, these themes have become
widely familiar. Here are three examples.
*Economic justice. More clearly
than any other people, the ancient Hebrew prophets developed a passion
for the poor, victimized by oppressive financial dealings.
When Obama said, “Our economy is badly
weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility,” he joined the concern
of Amos 2:7: “they trample down the poor like dust, and humble souls they
With the insights of the Jewish experience,
Obama said, “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”
*Unity beyond divisions. Muhammad,
more decisively than other religious founders before him, united disparate
and fractious tribes whose fierce blood loyalties were superseded only
by the idea of submission to one God.
Centuries later, Nanak, the first
guru of the Sikh faith, said, “there is no Muslim; there is no Hindu,”
meaning that such labels cloak our true nature.
Beyond loyalties to ethnic groups
or political parties, Americans unite with what Obama called the “noble
idea . . . that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to
pursue their full measure of happiness.”
He expanded this idea, predicting
that “the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; (and) as the world grows
smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
*Duty. No scriptural exposition
of duty surpasses the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. It teaches to “perform every
When Obama spoke of “duties to ourselves,
our nation and the world,” he said that “a new era of responsibility” requires
us not to “grudgingly accept (our duties) but rather seize (them) gladly,
firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit,
so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”
This recalls the insight from the
modern Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore, that in acting, duty becomes joy.
These examples suggest that from diverse
threads of many faiths a strong American fiber is woven.
749. 090121 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
One God, many meanings
God is not mentioned in the United States Constitution,
adopted in 1787. It is uncertain when the practice of appending “So help
me God” to the presidential oath or affirmation prescribed by the Constitution
began, but there is no contemporary evidence of this practice until decades
after the nation was founded.
Though all presidents have referred
to the divine, the word “God” does not appear in a presidential inaugural
address until 1821. George Washington concluded his first inaugural address
by appealing to “the benign Parent of the Human Race.”
All of our early presidents preferred
circumlocutions such as “Providence,” “that Almighty Being who rules the
universe,” “Fountain of Justice,” and “Patron of Order” in their addresses.
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote of the
“Creator” and “Nature’s God” in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, also
wrote that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty
gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
While “civil religion” has shaped
our nation, sectarian preference has been eschewed. For example, John Adams
and the U.S. Senate in 1791 declared that “the government of the United
States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
And in 1937, when prayers at presidential
inaugurations were begun, clergy from several faiths, not just one, were
part of the ceremony.
In the embrace of this American pluralism,
is there some way that nonbelievers can favorably interpret the intent
of those who use the word “God” on public occasions?
Last Sunday, Episcopal Bishop Gene
Robinson tried to be inclusive by invoking a “God of our many understandings.”
One way of looking at these understandings
is to group them into three traditional categories.
The first is the God of nature, the
evidence for which many find in creation, and who may be felt looking at
nature’s grandeur or fury—a flood as an “act of God.”
A second understanding is of a personal
Higher Power guiding the individual’s life toward self-realization and
A third is the God of history, a power
moving through the ages toward freedom and justice. Such a God calls us
beyond labels to care about each other, about all nations and about the
future of the planet.
I like the circumlocutions of our
founders, the ongoing struggle in our diversity to uplift our “many understandings,”
and each person’s opportunity to find beauty in others’ attempts to recognize
the sense of wonder which may save us from disaster.
748. 090114 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
A Question of Balance
Martin Luther King Jr was Christian. Jewish support
for him underlined a universal march toward human dignity. And a Hindu,
Mohandas Gandhi, was, in King’s words, his “guiding light” for non-violent
Gandhi in turn was influenced by Muslim
and other sources transmitted through history. But the origin seems to
All that came to mind when I heard
Alvin Sykes respond to a hostile question late last year.
Sykes is the Kansas City living legend
who, last fall, achieved the passage of the Till Bill, signed by President
Bush, to enable the Justice Department to pursue unsolved civil rights
crimes. Its name comes from Emmett Till, a 14-year old African-American
who was brutally murdered in 1955 after he may have whistled at a white
woman. A trial ended in acquittal by an all-white jury, and reaction helped
fuel the Civil Rights movement.
The hostile question I heard came
from an African-American. It was something like, “Aren’t you just going
to stir up a white backlash by reviving old hatreds with new investigations
of what happened decades ago?”
Sykes, also an African-American, responded
with perfect balance and precision. He said that no backlash has occurred.
In fact white people who know the guilty are coming forward to bring them
Balance and precision are possible
for a person of any faith, but Sykes’ particular communication style suggested
a Buddhist flavor. I later learned that Sykes is a 34-year long lay member
of the Soka Gakkai International-USA Buddhist organization. When he was
18, he was introduced to this form of Nichiren Buddhism by jazz musician
Sykes was 11 when King was assassinated.
Since King was a man of peace, the riots that followed made no sense to
him. He dropped out of school and studied the law at the library where
he discovered possibilities for justice in the system that had been ignored
His work led to the 1983 conviction
of Raymond Bledsoe who murdered Steve Harvey, a local jazz musician, with
a baseball bat.
Sykes, who has been the subject of
recent stories in national publications and NPR, says that Buddhism teaches
“open-minded communication,” also a part of King’s and Gandhi’s method.
An example. Oklahoma Republican Sen.
Tom Coburn kept the Senate from acting on the Till Bill for 15 months.
Sykes met with him. Open-minded communication eventually won Coburn’s support.
Coburn told the Senate, “I can’t say enough about (Sykes’) stamina,
his integrity, his forthrightness, his determination.”
King’s march, shaped by many faiths,
Sykes will be feted for his work Feb.
20 from 6 to 9 pm at the Bruce Watkins Cultural Center.
747. 090107 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
A Papal exhibit of blessings
What happens when people of different faiths get
to know each other?
A stunning story of a youthful interfaith
friendship leading to a world-changing career, affecting even Kansas City,
opens Feb. 3 at Union Station. It is the exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another.”
It chronicles one strand in Pope John
Paul II’s interfaith outreach, beginning with his growing up in Poland
in an apartment owned by a Jewish family. His boyhood friendship with Jerzy
Kluger, a Jew, lengthened into a life-long commitment.
While the exhibit focuses on Roman
Catholic-Jewish relations, the late Pope advanced interfaith relations
with all religions.
In 1986 the Pope’s interfaith gathering
in Assisi, the town of St. Francis, included leading figures of 12 world
religions. This meeting was a critical link in the chain of events that
led to the creation of what is now the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
The Pope’s example inspired a conference
called “A North American Assisi” in 1988 at which the North American Interfaith
Network (NAIN) was launched, near here, in Wichita.
The conference was described in The
New York Times as the “first of such nature and scope on the continent”
since the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
Kansas City was represented by more
folks than any other city except the hosting city. The conference
became the spark that ignited the growing fever among friends of different
faiths meeting here since 1985 to form the Interfaith Council. The Council
counts 15 members of faiths from A to Z — American Indian to Zoroastrian.
(Incidentally, NAIN’s annual conference
is scheduled to come to Kansas City this June.)
Other Kansas City interfaith connections
with the late pope include a 1999 meeting of the Pontifical Council for
Interreligious Dialogue with delegates from 20 faiths. Among the 230 delegates
was Kansas City’s Bilal Muhammed, at that time imam of the Al-Inshirah
Islamic Center on Troost.
John Paul II was the first pope in
history to visit a synagogue. He also was the first to visit a mosque.
He expressly apologized to Jews and Muslims for Christian treatment of
those faiths throughout the centuries, and modeled including all faiths
in the human family.
He said, “as we open ourselves to
one another, we open ourselves to God.”
For skeptics who ask if friendships
with those of other faiths can strengthen one’s own faith, a keen response
might be another question, “Is the Pope Catholic?”