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

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A Jihad for Love is a documentary film about the struggles that Muslim gays and lesbians have with their faith. Jihad means “struggle” in Arabic, and particularly the struggle we have within ourselves to do the right thing. The movie will be shown June 29 as part of the Gay and Lesbian Film + Video Festival, which starts June 27. When I previewed it by myself, I had two overwhelming and contradictory reactions, which were renewed when I saw it a second time with a Muslim friend.

The first reaction was how incredibly beautiful Islam is. I would not expect most non-Muslim viewers to have this reaction. But I have been to some of the sacred sites the movie shows and I have participated in some of the Muslim rituals. I know how meaningful they are, and from my travels, I know family relationships in those cultures are so important they cannot easily be separated from an individual’s experience of the faith. I cannot get out of my mind the tenderness and devotion of a lesbian couple who trace their fingers over a passage from the Quran carved in stone in beautiful calligraphy as they seek to find their place in their faith.

In a way, this parallels, say, some Roman Catholics in our culture, who love the church, its music and liturgy and sacraments, who follow a vision of a loving Jesus, for whom the warmth of family embrace is molded by reverential practice of the faith, but who are officially “disordered” because they love folks of their own sex.

My second reaction was astonishment and grief at seeing beautiful and devout human beings suffering, with their lives threatened in the name of their faith. It would be easy to be angry, and no doubt many viewers of this film will rage, but the recurring feeling is sorrow. I don’t like hearing a Muslim authority talk about stoning and beheading as a punishment for loving another human being, or seeing a gay man being told he has a psychological illness.

As the film follows individuals and pairs in their jihad for love, we see fear, curiosity, anguish, grief, lamentation. But because they are unwilling to abandon their faith, the anger is restrained.

Locally, when I’ve asked Muslims from abroad or their children about their views on same-sex relationships, many respond by saying, “That is something we just don’t have discussions about.” (You’ll remember that the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that there are no homosexuals in Iran.)

Of course there is a long, and at times, honored tradition of same-sex relationships within Islam. The film includes a Pakistani holiday celebrating one such couple. But when the West colonized many Muslim countries, anti-gay laws were adopted.

In Arab and other traditional societies (remember that less than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab), the key to social order is the stability of family and tribal relationships. As long as these are maintained, private activity is, well, private. To some extent, this was true in the United States, as well, before the Civil War, after which homophobia became the concern that today still carries such weight. But now people no longer want to be so secretive, living in a marriage, for example, with an unacknowledged lover outside the marriage. We want to be out.

The film identifies traditional Islamic law, an adequate discussion of which is beyond the intent of the movie and the space of this column. But the film also identifies Islamic sources to permit, and even legitimize, same-sex relationships. One legal methodology mentioned in the film and identified by my Muslim friend is ijtihad, independent thinking. It was once a source in the development of Islamic law but, my friend says, has been neglected in favor of oppressive, automatic interpretations.

The award-winning documentary was directed by Parvez Sharma, who filmed in secrecy and obscured some of the faces. The stories unfold in countries that include India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa and France, with an escape to Canada.

The 81-minute movie shows at 4:45 p.m. Sunday, June 29, at the Tivoli Theatre in Westport. After the film, in cooperation with Open Circle, I will lead a panel and audience discussion. Panelists are Josef Walker (Christian), Ahmed El-Sharif (Muslim), and Lynn Barnett (Jewish). I’ll ask questions like, “What most surprised you about this movie?” and “How does the jihad you see portrayed in this movie compare with struggles you know about that people in your own faith have dealt with?” Dear reader, how have you and those you know struggled with sexuality and faith?

746. 081231 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
A wish list for faiths in 2009

A growing number of folks are, like me, convinced that one’s spiritual life is deepened by knowing about the faiths of others, and that our community is strengthened by mutual respect.
   In various ways over twenty organizations in the metro area are now putting these sentiments into action. Good. And to move forward, here is my 2009 wish list for the Heartland.
   * Form a Council of Congregations. Since 1989, we have been served by an Interfaith Council with members of more than a dozen faiths, from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, one member per faith. This may be the ideal arrangement for education. 
   But we also need a metro-wide organization through which all religious groups are able to exchange information, respond to urgent or long-term social needs, co-ordinate resources, and co-operate on issues of mutual interest. 
   The creation of such a group was the chief recommendation of the 30-some religious leaders of the Religion / Spirituality Cluster of then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver’s 1996 Task Force on Race Relations.
   In their opinion, a body organized through denominational offices would be ineffective. Each congregation, of whatever faith, needs to be represented. 
   * Create an interfaith chapel at KCI. A non-profit group should lease space at the airport so that we, like other great cities, can offer travelers a place for prayer, meditation and reflection. It would also enhance our city’s reputation far beyond the members of the North American Interfaith Network who will come here for their convention in June.
   * Welcome Freethinkers into the interfaith conversation. In the US, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, Deists and others, often called “Freethinkers,” number more than any religion except Christianity. These folks care deeply about humane values. They work as much as those of any faith to make a better world. They have much to contribute to, and learn from, interfaith dialogue. 
   * Access art to grow spiritually. Several groups are appropriating the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art as part of their interfaith explorations. There and at other facilities as well, they are discovering that even works with seemingly secular subjects often elevate the spirit.
   Kansas City offers ballet, opera, chamber, symphony and club music, as well as theater, film and other arts that help us understand the world afresh, and awaken and deepen the basic spiritual capacity to wonder, to sense the sacred where we might not have expected it. 
   May you, dear reader, and our beloved community be blessed in 2009.

745. 081224 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Let us proclaim the child

The oohs and aahs of the Plaza lights, the tree bestrewn with ornaments, the obligatory kiss under mistletoe, and other surprises, delights and excesses of holiday celebrations are secular devices to reawaken us, if we are not already dead in spirit, to nothing less than the wonder of existence. 
   Yes, I know the season’s catalogue of frustrations: waiting in lines, worrying about selecting an appropriate gift, disrupted schedules. There are plenty of opportunities for aggravation. 
   Still, the reason for a holiday—a holy day—is to have our eyes and ears and hands open for greeting and embracing the mysteries from which even the tinsel arises.
   Resting from routine and entering a time set apart from the ordinary, we may remember things that truly matter. And when the holiday is over, if we have been renewed and refreshed, we are able to see the miracle even in the everyday.
   For many years I have puzzled why theologians often rate Easter the highest and holiest day of the Christian calendar while the culture, at least in the last hundred years or so, has made Christmas the favorite sacred feast.
   I don’t think it is simply because Christmas has been colonized commercially. That answer is too easy. I think the reason is deeper.
   I think it has something to do with the story of the birth of a child.
    Sunday friends at an open house told me they had just become grandparents for the first time. I asked to see a picture of their grandchild, but no photo was handy. I insisted. So the granddad left the room, found his coat where a print was stowed, and then he produced the image I sought. 
   I like looking at newborns, even photos of newborns. And I liked this picture, which included the beaming dad with the baby. The dad himself appeared newborn. And I remembered  holding my own infant son in my arms.
   The Christmas stories, with no photos, no video, with different texts in only two of the four Gospels, removed by two thousand years from our own time, still invite us to behold, to cherish, to protect our highest hopes. 
   A babe awakening infinite love within us may be less complicated than Easter theology.
   Our culture is broken. We may have thrills but little genuine wonder. Without an enduring child-like sense of wonder, we focus selfishly on the bottom line which is actually the edge of disaster.
   If the holiday about the babe in the manger prepares us for divine life born afresh within us, then each day, trivial or tragic, can be filled with holy oohs and aahs.

744. 081217 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
One plan would change Christmas

While Christmas is holy for most Christians, Mike McKinney, pastor of the Leawood Baptist Church, finds the blending of pagan and commercial themes with Christianity troublesome. He suggests a reformation that respects both the secular fun and the sacred meanings that have been blended into today’s Christmas traditions.
   He says, “I like . . . the lights, the decorations, the music, . . . the stories, the pageantry and the atmosphere — but as a Christian I am frustrated” with the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ mixed with what he calls “a winter festival.”
   He says it is “not right to sing ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ as if they belong to the same holiday. It is not right to honor the birth of Christ the Lord and to celebrate the arrival of Santa Claus, the jolly old elf, within the context of the same holiday.”
   Last year late in the season he wrote me with his solution, and I thought it deserved discussion. So this year he has posted it on his church website, — click on “Fixing Christmas” to read his entire recommendation.
   He outlines how to “unblend” what he considers a “non-religious Winter Holiday” from the “sacred Christian Holiday.” He wants to keep both, but to keep them distinct.
   He provides a history of how Christmas has, and has not, been observed. For example, he notes that New England Puritans outlawed Christmas, and that Christmas was not declared a federal holiday until 1870.
   This year his comment on the commercialization of Christmas is especially interesting. He writes that President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to a week earlier in the calendar “in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and hopefully help the depressed economy.”
   His history says that “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” was part of a 1939 Christmas promotion by Montgomery Ward department store, and that “Frosty the Snowman” appeared in 1950.
   Even if you disagree with McKinney’s proposal, you’ll see that what we call tradition is relatively recent.
   He says he is “already pleased by more favorable responses than (he) anticipated.”
   His may be a worthy remedy within Christendom. But will greeting everyone with “Happy Holidays” honor all faiths?
   I know I will still goof up this month sorting out wishes for my friends: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah (Jewish), Blessed Yule (pagan), Eid Mubarak (Muslim), Habari Gani (Kwanzaa) or Season’s Greetings. It will take a while for us all as America learns to celebrate the blessings of our religious pluralism.

743. 081210 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Faith is bigger than beliefs

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim friends said I should see the Bill Maher movie, “Religulous,” so I did.
   I understood the title to be a fusion of “religious” and “ridiculous,” which did not give me much of a thrill.
   Although it is a light-hearted,  even comic, look at faith, I found the movie surprisingly depressing. My dismay takes three forms.
   *The first is that Maher, religion’s critic, often seemed to know more about the religion claimed by the person he was interviewing than the interviewee. 
   Granted, you don’t have to understand quantum mechanics to turn on a TV, and you don’t have to be a theologian to live a moral life. 
   But it is disconcerting to see folks presuming to know more about the Almighty than any mortal with a modicum of modesty should assert, not to mention their failures to understand their own traditions.
   *A second reason for my chagrin is that the film’s association of religion with superstition, narcissism, self-righteousness and violence is too often accurate.
   I want to say it doesn’t have to be this way, that faith uplifts us and helps us care about each other, but the history books and  the news offer too much support for the film’s thesis to ignore.
   Superstition, of course, is what the other person believes, not what I believe. And my faith is loving and uses force only when  necessary. It is other religions that are fanatic and violent.
   *My biggest problem with the film is that it treats religion mainly as a matter of belief. Many of the “atheist” books published recently also identify religion with beliefs.
   The film is especially depressing because this flaw, underling the film, reveals the shallowness of our culture’s approach to faith. Religion does not begin with words. Faith does not originate in a box of beliefs.
   Faith arises from experiences of the sacred, of transcendence, of a sense of the holy. 
   It may be a solitary walk through the woods, or holding an infant, or gazing at the stars, or hearing music performed so well you are astonished, or seeing an athlete achieve an unparalleled feat, or giving aid to someone in need, or a conversation in which you understood your friend as never before, or your friend understood you, or communing with a Higher Power.
   Such experiences say “Life is worth living” and are available to all people, whether they think themselves religious or not. 
   Words, stories, rituals, beliefs, communities and religions arise from sharing such precious experiences. But when beliefs become detached from these experiences, you get religulous. 
   Vern Barnet does interfaith work in Kansas City. Reach him at

742. 081203 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Waiting and arrival of Advent

Waiting can be a hard thing to do. If you are a parent who celebrates Christmas, you know how eager children can be for the gifts under the tree to be opened.
   Last Sunday many Christian liturgical churches in the West began a period of waiting called Advent, a time of expectation and preparation for Christmas.
  This year it may be difficult for preachers to speak about the promise of a savior without arousing a subconscious analogy with the period of waiting for a new President to assume office.
   Strict theology might regard identifying a political figure with the Christ as blasphemous. But popular religion can be compared to advertising, where examples provide the power to pull on the spirit, sometimes in untoward directions, sometimes bringing an ancient story to new life. 
   In America, this is a frequent phenomenon.
   John James Barralet’s 1802 engraving, “Apotheosis of George Washington,” presents our first President as a semi-divine figure with angels assisting him into heaven. 
   When Abraham Lincoln was shot on Good Friday in 1865, his death was compared with Christ’s. Popular oratory of the time proposed that while Christ’s death prepared humanity to enter heaven, Lincoln’s sacrifice was to bring people together to make a better world.
   Martin Luther King, Jr, used language that echoed the Mosaic vision of a promised land. He said, “I might not get there with you,” and his death tragically paralleled Moses, dying before he reached the destination.
   Especially because of today’s financial crisis, many Americans are waiting anxiously with hopes that the incoming administration will move us toward relief. A theological term for relief is “salvation.”
   New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has written about our situation in moral language: “This financial meltdown involved a broad national breakdown in personal responsibility, government regulation and financial ethics.” 
   He calls the results “the wages of our sins.”
   This period of Presidential transition certainly seems more orderly than the impatient Wal-Mart shoppers at a Long Island store who trampled an employee to death last Friday while they presumably were eager to buy gifts to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
   I am not sure we understand the virtue of waiting, and Advent is a season to test us with its paradox. 
   The paradox is that Advent means both waiting and arrival. Only in us and through us, as we wait in the present, can the eternal arrive. If, awaiting, we do the work of the healer, then the savior is now come.

741. 081126 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Give thanks for the gift of life

The auction was concluding. Finally a freshly baked pie was announced. It was bid up and up. Sold for $1,400! The buyer then donated the pie, and the bidding began again, with the pie selling for $900.
   The auction was last spring, but I thought of Thanksgiving. Not because the holiday and pie go together, but because of the story behind the pie and the reminder that every day is a day for giving thanks.
   The pie was baked by then-ninth-grader Cole Harbur in honor of his younger brother, Luke, who 11 years ago was a dying infant. Luke, healthy now, needed a liver transplant.
   The pie was ultimately given to Melody and Kris Drake, whose son Aaron died from an allergic reaction while camping in the Ozarks. The Drakes gave their son’s organs to save the lives of others, including Luke’s.
   Aaron’s father later said, “We felt as a family that if we could save other parents and grandparents the heartache of losing a child or relative by donating Aaron’s organs, then that is what we should do.”
   I had known Luke’s parents from the Rotary Club where Luke’s father, Nate, and I are members. I remember him and his wife, Kim, in their prayerful anxiety as they awaited help for their baby.
   Several years ago my best friend’s wife needed a kidney transplant. I went through the preliminary testing to see if I could qualify as a donor. Her sister was a better match, but that got me to thinking about how difficulties and tragedies can be partly redeemed through organ and tissue donation.
   Full disclosure: I now serve on the board of Gift of Life, the charity for which the auction was held. Gift of Life promotes organ and tissue donation, inspired by the Harburs’ experience.
   One of the things that impresses me about the organization is that it is full of lifesaving stories and that it is energized by donors and recipients and their families in continuing thanksgiving.
   Dave Jetter, for example, a heart recipient and a board member, has initiated a mentorship program, coordinated with medical facilities, to help guide prospective recipients and their families through the uncertainties of waiting for a transplant, the transplant procedures and the difficulties of recovery.
   But to know Dave is to know joy in the gift of life he has received, as I have found throughout the transplant community.
   So Cole’s pie in honor of his brother Luke — and of Aaron Drake — becomes for me a spiritual symbol of transforming tragedy into the gift of life, a cause for great thanksgiving.

740. 081119 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
The History of Marriage

Last Saturday several hundred people gathered near the Plaza to protest the vote in California against gay marriage. 
   Sometimes people say that marriage has always been between one man and one woman who love each other.
    But there are many contrary examples. Consider Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. Are we talking political alliances, procreation, property rights, honored servants, companionship, sexual opportunities — or love?
   Producing offspring was very important to early societies. In the Bible, Onan’s father forced him to have sex with his dead brother’s wife to perpetuate the family line. This custom, the “levirate” marriage, continued into Jesus’ time.
   Love is fickle, and what society needed was stability. Marriage did not originate in love between partners but as a compact between families or groups. 
   This is why in the Bible, most marriages were arranged by the parents, sometimes when the children were infants, though Isaac was 40 years old when Rebecca was selected for him.
   Women were like property. But David did not buy King Saul’s daughter; instead he proved his worthiness by presenting Saul with the foreskins of 200 Philistines.
   In the Christian era, Paul prohibited bishops from having more than one wife (1 Tim. 3:2), but Christians experimented with marriage in many forms.
   Marriage was not declared a sacrament within the Roman Catholic Church until 1215. Before then, weddings were often held outside the church because they were less about love than about social stability.
   The late Yale historian John Boswell documented Christian practices through the 18th Century of church unions of men in love. Male couples pledged fidelity for life, joined right hands before the altar, shared a cup of wine, heard biblical passages (such as Psalm 133), and received the priest’s blessing. 
   In America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) of Utah practiced polygamy until it was outlawed, and some break-away groups still favor it in practice.
   The 19th Century experiment in Oneida, N.Y., led by John Humphrey Noyes, prohibited monogamy. The community practiced complex marriage: every man was the husband of every woman, and every woman was the wife of every man. Exclusive relationships were forbidden because members of the “body of Christ” should love each and all. 
   Laws against blacks and whites marrying continued in the US until 1967.
   Increasing numbers of clergy in the US and in Kansas City  now perform same-sex ceremonies, and same-sex couples are asking for legal, as well as religious, recognition of their love and commitment.

739. 081112 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
City on a hill for others to see

The idea that America is special, “a city on a hill” seen by other nations, is often associated with a right-wing Christian perspective that God has chosen the United States for special blessings.
   The phrase was recently used by Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who attributed it to President Ronald Reagan who included it in his farewell address. The phrase had been employed earlier by President John Kennedy. Its ultimate source is Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in the Gospel of Matthew.
   In colonial America, the phrase originated with a problematic figure, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop was sometimes criticized by his fellow Puritans for failing to enforce the law. One time Winthrop excused a destitute man who had been stealing from Winthrop’s own firewood pile. Instead of punishing him, Winthrop told him to take what he needed for the rest of the winter. This, he told his critics, was how he cured the man of thieving.
    Winthrop’s “American exceptionalism” was the idea that America can offer the world a model of righteousness to inspire other nations. 
   President-elect Barack Obama, after winning the election Nov. 4, alluded to the original motto of the United States, “Out of many, one,” and affirmed America as the place “where all things are possible.” 
   After enumerating many kinds of differences among us, he asserted that Americans “have sent a message to the world,” an implicit recognition that other nations see the United States in a special light.
   We came of age with a Constitution that embraced religious diversity. Over the centuries that diversity has grown and deepened. 
   On Oct. 19, retired General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressed the false rumors that Obama is a Muslim by asking, “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s No. That’s not America.” 
   In contrast to that inclusive conception of America, North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole tried to brand her Christian opponent as an atheist. Echoing Powell, I would ask, Is there something wrong with being an atheist in this country?
   If America is exceptional in fact as well as in aspiration, it may arise from our having become the most religiously pluralistic of any nation on earth, a “city on a hill” for others to see. 
   We are not without religious problems and tensions, but we are all Americans. Blessed by exceptional diversity, we astonish other nations with our usual comity, now reaffirmed.

738. 081105 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Sacred a source of meaning

Sometimes I think the simplest question of faith—any faith—is this: Is life worth living? 
   It is a question of faith because no scientific analysis or chain of logic can yield an answer better than what one finds in one’ soul. 
   But another question, not so simple, may be more fundamental. It is the question asked by the opening event of the 2008 Festival of Faiths, a series of eight events from this Friday through Nov. 23. 
   That question—What is sacred?—will be answered through original works of art displayed from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday only, at the Rime Buddhist Center, 700 West Pennway. The exhibit is free. (For Festival information, visit
   The word “sacred” has many meanings, and I’m glad the Festival planners invited answers through art because ordinary language is often inadequate to express the sacred.
   You, dear reader, may think of rituals, or sites, or persons, or smells, or sounds, or texts, or times, or relationships that are so extraordinary that you consider them sacred.
   But what underlies all these examples or inflections of the sacred? 
   Among the many possible definitions of “sacred,” the one I like best is this: the sacred is the source of ultimate meaning. It is what our life depends upon and, also, for which we are willing to die.
   The religions of the world tend to find the sacred in different realms. 
   Primal traditions (like those of the American Indian) locate the sacred in the natural world where even the ground which  produces food, what life literally depends upon, is considered holy.
   Asian faiths (like Hinduism and Buddhism) find the sacred by looking within, often through techniques such as yoga and meditation. 
   Monothesistic religions (like Judaism, Christianity and Islam) identify God as the source of ultimate meaning, revealed in the history of covenanted community moving toward justice.
   Comparing Judaism and Islam can lead us to a curious paradox about the sacred. In some Jewish thought, the sacred is what is set apart. The sabbath, for example, is separate from the ordinary work week.
   In Islam, the sacred is not what is separate but rather what pulls everything together.
   While the words are different, the effect may be the same. We may need to separate out something as sacred because it remind us, or reveals to us, that the entire universe is sacred, for everything is interwoven and mutually dependent. 
     The tiniest thing may be sacred because it is a door opening us to the fullness of cosmic mystery and wonder.

737. 081029 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Telling the tale of Judith

Judith was so upset with the cowardly men in her city ready to surrender to a besieging army that she pretended to betray her own and, with her feminine wiles, seduced the enemy general, Holofernes, to trust her. To save her people, she cut his head off.
   The story is told in scripture, though Protestant versions of the Bible either omit it or consider it apocryphal, and it is not part of the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, though it was first written in Hebrew.
   Judith is not the first heroine in scripture. Many scholars consider the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) to be the oldest poem in the Bible. As a military commander, Deborah orders Barak to lead a coalition army to victory against the Canaanites; and another woman, Jael, pounds a tent peg into the enemy general’s head. 
   Yale University professor Harold Bloom argues that the oldest textual layer of Genesis and Exodus, which scholars call “J,” was written by a woman almost three thousand years ago.
   Women seem to have been equal to men in ancient Israel until the Babylonian exile, about 2580 years ago, when women’s abilities were debased. The book of Judith, written perhaps 400 years later, thus is an ironic comment on the patriarchy of the time in such masterful writing it has been called the world’s first historical novel.
   Virginia Blanton teaches an Anglo-Saxon version of the story, in which Judith is a Christian, to her English students at UMKC. Blanton notes that Judith appears in paintings variously, from a “robust maid horrified by what she must do” to “a shameless slut.”
   Linda E. Mitchell, professor of history and women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City notes that Judith was “as an iconic figure of independence and dissent” in the Renaissance, so the paintings were “political statements as much as aesthetic ones.”
   The Friends of Chamber Music brings a dramatic staging of a Croatian version of the story with musical idioms from medieval Dalmatia to Kansas City’s Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral Nov 8. 
   Amity Bryson, chair of the music department and director of women’s studies at Avila University, says the composer, Katarina Lavljanic´, draws materials from the earlier musical period “dominated by male composers,” but the feminine experience “adds a unique perspective” to this “21st century composition.”
   These three scholars have lots to say about Judith’s morality and gender roles. They will speak at 6:30 p.m. in Founders Hall before the 8 p.m. performance in the Cathedral sanctuary. For more information visit

736. 081022 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Enriching talks set

I first met retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die, in 2001 in California, and four years ago had a dinner table conversation with him here in Kansas City whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.
   Whether you agree with him or not, you can depend upon his eloquence and provocative passion for updating the church for the world today and tomorrow.
   I also had a dinner table conversation with scholar Bart D. Ehrman this spring when he was speaking in Lawrence, his home town, where he wowed his audience with his methodical analysis of the problem of an all-good and all-powerful God permitting unmerited suffering in the world. His Misquoting Jesus is a New York Times best seller. He teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
   Each of these men have written over 20 books. 
   Whatever your faith, or none, I am confident that you will find both of these men challenging and enriching your spiritual life when they come to the Unity Village for its Lyseum 2008 educatinal symposium, Nov. 3-6. 
   Spong’s speech, scheduled for  Nov. 4, is expected to reflect on the religious significance of the election results.
   But the speech I am most looking forward to hearing is “Chimpanzees, Bonobos and the Future of Theological Reflection” by Nancy R Howell, professor at Kansas City’s own Saint Paul School of Theology.
   Howell’s own publications include work on feminist and process theology and the interface between science and faith.
   She told me that the “religious puzzle that I’m addressing is the problem of human uniqueness, a concept we’ve used to distance ourselves from nature and our nearest genetic kin among animals.”
   Howell says that while Christian thought has focused on the relationship between humans and God, it has neglected how God relates to animals like chimpanzees and bonobos who “demonstrate remarkable social and intellectual skills” and seem to exhibit some precursor level of “moral behavior and religion.” 
   She says that asking the question, “How does God relate to bonobos?” may help us better answer the question, “How does God relate to humans?”
   The opening evening is free, and Unity Institute faculty member Paul Hasselbeck and I, your faithful columnist, are scheduled to debate, “Is God a Problem?” 
   Unity’s Thomas Shepherd notes that the Lyceum’s many presenters come from many religions and from as far away as Nigeria.
   For information and fees, visit

735. 081015 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
Infuse economy with values

If economics and religion are not images of each other, they at least interact in profound and often unacknowledged ways. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) and R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) are classics exploring this thesis in Christianity.
   Islam is friendly to business and encourages trade. Government interference with the markets is prohibited save for exceptional circumstances.
   As a young man, Muhammad himself was a merchant with such integrity and industry that a widow aware of his reputation hired him for her commercial affairs and later asked him to marry her. 
   Abdalla Idris Ali, twice president of the Islamic Society of North America whose Center for Islamic Education is located in Kansas City, notes that the Qur’an is a book of guidance with general principles, elaborated differently in different cultures. 
   During our conversation, he recommended Islamic Banking and Finance (1999) edited by Imtiazuddin Ahmad, following the “greed” and “fear” Ahmad  found at the root of the Southeast Asian financial  crisis when funds managers “panicked” in 1998. The book suggests the crisis could have been avoided with Muslim financial practices, which he summarized as “an interest-free, equity based, profit-sharing arrangement.”
   Here are three general principles derived from the Qur’an:
   1. Usury is forbidden. Out of compassion, one may lend money but may not charge interest. Money itself should not be treated as a commodity because it can lead to an unfair concentration of wealth.
   However, one may help finance another’s business by becoming an investment partner and sharing the gain or loss equitably. Islamic banking is based more on a relationship than on  collateral. Islam envisions an equity-based rather than a debt-based economy.
   In purchasing a car, this principle may be adapted to arrange installments with both buyer and seller seeking a satisfactory purchase price in a free market.
   2. Futures trading is a form of gambling, prohibited in Islam.  One cannot sell anything one does not own or does not yet exist. I cannot sell what my olive trees may produce until the fruit is actually on the tree. 
   3. Transparency is required. I may not sell a property or product without disclosing its defects or liabilities. Derivatives can be  so complicated they are hardly transparent and may impair one’s moral obligation to honor one’s contract.
    With the globalization of world finances, we may hear more about Islamic values.

734. 081008 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
When catholic is universal

“Integrity is more important than profits,” said Steve Roling last Friday as the Center for Spirit at Work began its program year with its first breakfast.
   Roling, now President & CEO of the Health Care Foundation of Greater KC, illustrated his point with a story from Ewing Kauffman, as Kauffman was developing what was to become a pharmaceutical giant. 
   “Mr K” had sent his negotiator to Europe to arrange a deal. The negotiator returned with extremely favorable results, but the gist of Mr K’s response was, “You are here boasting of your success, but how do you think your counterpart in Europe feels as he reports to his boss? Go back and make the deal fairer for his company.”
   Later the trust established between the two businesses benefited both greatly.
   Roling, formerly senior vice president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, publisher of The Kansas City Business Journal and staff member for Senator Thomas Eagleton, had story after story illustrating the spirit at work.
   Begun by Catholics, the Center’s programs feature civic leaders from all faiths — Irv Hockaday, Peggy Dunn, Henry Bloch,  Mahnaz Shabbir, for example —  addressing how their spirituality affects the workplace.
   Two years ago Vince Sabia of  Right Management, Inc., showed up with several colleagues for one of the Center’s breakfasts, only to discover the series adjourns in the summer. 
   He had looked forward to another opportunity “to reflect about the spirit in our work world and hear from leaders in our community and how these folks make good decisions involving spiritual principles.”
     From his disappointment that day and “realizing how uplifting” these sessions were to him, he joined the organization’s board and is now its president.
     For information, visit
    Catholic Sister Annie Loendorf, SCL, founded another organization open to those of all faiths, especially women, the House of Menuha, 801 East 77th St. 
   A two-hour program last Thursday led by Marlene Wine Chase, illustrates Loendorf’s view that “it takes a village to grow a woman’s soul.”
   She says the “village” is a “circle of trust” in which “each woman shares her story with others. Hearing each woman’s story is part of the sacred work of moving into the wisdom and compassion of deeper spirituality.”
   Last Saturday the House hosted a “roundtable” for area interfaith organizations.
   The House may also be used for individual retreats.
   For information, visit

0801001 The column does not appear today but will return. 
081001 unpublished because of space limitations

Last Wednesday I mentioned the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, a relief agency founded locally by lay Catholics, now serving impoverished people of all faiths in 25 countries. 
   Today I write about two more organizations founded by Catholics with an interfaith approach, both now beginning this season’s programs.
   The first is the Center for Spirit at Work. Its meetings feature area civic leaders addressing how their spirituality affects the workplace with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders in their fields, with names such as Irv Hockaday, Peggy Dunn, Henry Bloch and Mahnaz Shabbir. 
   Two years ago Vince Sabia of Right Management, Inc. showed up with several friends for one of the organization’s monthly breakfast meetings, only to discover the series adjourns in the summer. 
   He had looked forward to another opportunity “to reflect about the spirit in our work world and hear from leaders in our community and how these folks make good decisions involving spiritual principles.”
     From his disappointment that day and “realizing how uplifting” these sessions were to him, he joined the organization’s board and is now its president.
   Friday at the 7:30 breakfast at the Westin Crown Center, Steve Roling, President & CEO, Health Care Foundation of Greater KC, is the first speaker of this program year. 
   Roling’s career has included positions as publisher of The Kansas City Business Journal, head of the Missouri Department of Social Services and senior vice president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
   Anne Canfield, now vice president for communications at the Kansas City Art Institute, worked with Roling at Kauffman and says he “is an active listener and invites diverse opinions” and “creates an atmosphere of trust and respect in the workplace.”
   For information, visit
   The second organization, founded by Sister Annie Loendorf, SCL, is the House of Menuha, 801 East 77th St., open to women of every faith. 
   A two-hour program this Thursday beginning at 10 a.m., led by Marlene Wine Chase, illustrates Loendorf’s view that “it takes a village to grow a woman’s soul.”
   She says the “village” is a “circle of trust” in which “each woman shares her story with others. Hearing each woman’s story is part of the sacred work of moving into the wisdom and compassion of deeper spirituality.”
   The House may also be used for individual retreats.
   For information about a variety of programs, visit

733. 080924 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
The paradox in a paradise

Two minutes after I met local singer/songwriter Barclay Martin at a party before I ever heard him play, he was talking about paradox. The logo on his business card is a lion with butterfly wings, a rather paradoxical creature. 
      Paradox, equating things that seem opposite, is found in many religions. For example, the paradox of the incarnation, God become human in Jesus the Christ, is at the heart of Christianity.
   But what did Martin mean about paradox? 
   I listened to his new CD, “Dawn,” and began attending performances of the Barclay Martin Ensemble around town. 
   One paradox is that, like much great art, his folk-jazz-world music transforms the ordinary thud of life, or even its horrors, into beauty and healing. 
   Take his song, “Are You Listening?” One of my friends said the song could have been written for President George Bush, but I think it addresses the paradoxical and confused energies in all of us. 
   Except for the musical frame around its text, the song’s questions about the “religion of war” would be too much to bear. It pleads, “Please won’t you say there’s a better way to lead the world to freedom?” and hints at the paradox of “singing hymns” while the world is being destroyed.
   Which takes me to a paradoxical phrase that appears in a preview of the documentary for which he is creating the sound track: “This is paradise in hell.”
   The movie is “Zamboanga: Poverty/War/Music,” filmed in a poor region of the Philippines where terrorist groups are active. While the film still being edited, you can see the preview at
   Martin was invited to go to the Philippines by the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, the agency producing the film. Founded locally by lay Catholics, CFCA helps impoverished people of all faiths in 25 countries. 
   Martin’s assignment was to help create a concert to celebrate the beautiful community spirit that paradoxically is found among the people of the Zamboanga area, with its mix of Christian, Muslim and indigenous religious practices.
   At an early call for musicians, some teens showed up with electric guitars. Martin connected them with Filipino folk musicians who taught them traditional instruments. 
   A year later, ten thousand people showed up for the concert.
   The ultimate paradox is too big for this column and all the volumes of theology, but Martin’s music hints at it, that even in the hell we have made, we may make a heaven if we listen and see what we have done, and help one another.

732. 080917 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
Giant left a legacy of unity

Last week the world lost one of the most transformative figures in the recent history of Islam, Warith Deen Mohammed, sometimes called “America’s Imam.” He was the first Muslim to offer the invocation for the U.S. Senate.
   He had been scheduled speak in here last May, but at the last minute was called to an international consultation. 
   I cherish a photo I have when he was here in 1997 for the dedication of Al-Inshirah Islamic Center at 3664 Troost. He and the Center made it a point to invite non-Muslim leaders to the event, and I wrote a column about that.
   I had lived in Chicago when his father, Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, was regarded as a separatist Black Muslim leader.
   But his son, who changed the spelling of his name, brought members of his father’s group into mainstream America and mainstream Islam, and spoke not about separation, but about relationships.
   At the dedication, Mohammed said, “We are connected with all human beings. We all came from the same parents. God wants us to respect each other.”
   Rabbi Joshua Taub, then of Congregation B’nai Jehudah, applauded Mohammed’s theme and compared it with Jewish thinker Martin Buber’s statement that “all life is meeting.”
   Last Friday I found myself at the Islamic Center again. Imam Hanif Khalil had just returned from the funeral in Chicago with about 40 members of the mosque. Speaking about Mohammed’s death, Khalil noted that time consumes all things—“except good works, except the truth,” a reason for celebrating the leadership of Mohammed.
   Al-Inshirah’s Sheik Aasim Baheyadeen called Mohammed “a reformer as well as a teacher” and said Mohammed was the first to emphasize world-wide interfaith relations, which indeed led to the congregation’s Bilal Muhammed meeting the late Pope John Paul II in Rome.
   Local Muslim leader Ahmed El-Sherif had meet Mohammed at international meetings in Copenhagen, Rome and other sites. “He always emphasized engagement with people of all faiths in doing good works,” said El-Sherif.
   Resident Imam Rudolph Muhammad said he was “an example of patriotism to our country” and led the group to do “interfaith community development projects.”
   Muslims are now observing the holy month of Ramadan. Based on the lunar calendar, it takes 33 years to rotate throughout the seasons. 
   Chairperson Zareff Osman noted that Mohammed began his work in Ramadan 33 years ago, now fully completing this sacred cycle.

731. 080910 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
It is time to break bread together

I’ll come to Córdoba and Kansas City in a few paragraphs.
   In both major political parties, we have heard candidates saying, “I will fight for you!” 
   I am sick of fighting. I don’t want anybody fighting for me. I want healing. I want healing for our nation and the world. I’d rather break bread together than break faith with each other.
   I know that passages in the scriptures of several great religions use military metaphors in advising us how to deal with evil, even though other passages counsel peace. I know that religion has often been the excuse, if not the cause, for many actual wars.
   There may be times when battles are necessary. Still, I worry that our presumably civil discourse has lost its balance and that we forget that the pugnacious language we use deepens our divisions instead of lifting us above them. Metaphors may be figures of speech but they can also foment lasting acrimony.
   The great Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, is itself the scene of armies readying to destroy each other. Yet we read, “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.”
   Conflict has frequently visited the Iberian peninsula. Yet a thousand years ago, a multi-racial, religiously-diverse society flourished there. Muslim, Jew and Christian found respect and protection.
   While Christian Europe still slumbered in the Dark Ages, Córdoba, the greatest city in the West, was opulent with gardens and fountains. Its libraries transmitted learning from the ancient world to the rest of Europe. Its science, medicine and engineering made the Renaissance possible. Distinguished Muslim and Jewish theologians were born there, Ibn Rushd (known also as Averroes) in 1126 and Maimonides in 1135. 
   The Cordoba Mezquita, the mosque, is famous for more than 850 columns, none of identical height, supporting rows of double horseshoe, red-and-white-stripped arches, like a fantasy. 
   We need more examples today like those found so many years ago in Córdoba.
   On the seventh anniversary of a day of horror, 9/11, Jew Allan Abrams and Muslim Ahmed El-Sherif will join with Christians to break bread at 7 p.m. Thursday at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St.
   The organizers say the event is inspired by the Córdoba bread fest, “drawing upon the role of bread in the three Abrahamic religions and celebrating the historic period of religious tolerance in Spain during the Middle Ages.”
   Folks will be invited to a table with many kinds of bread. I think breaking bread together is much better than even merely metaphorical fighting.

730. 080903  THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
A window on world's religions

I met Jill Carroll three years ago in Turkey. I think she is one of the America’s most energetic young teachers of world religions. She will speak here this month.
   Carroll is professor and executive director of the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University. The latest of her three books, A Dialogue of Civilizations, looks at the ideals of Fethullah Gulen, a modern Turkish Muslim.
   In a phone interview last week, Carroll said that after 9/11 she was frequently asked, “Who are these Muslims and why do they hate us?”
   Since then, she has seen a “polarization” develop. On one hand, many folks “now have an understanding that the vast majority of Muslims are just like everybody else. They want to work, play, raise families and live in peace.
   “But there are others who, no matter how much evidence is presented, are convinced that Muslims are evil and dangerous.”
   She said this prejudice can be reinforced by religious and political backgrounds, but she does not think religious groups are behind the continuing mischaracterization of Barack Obama as a Muslim.
   Her assignment here is to discuss the “basic categories” of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths. In the process, she will explain why Platonism is a philosophy but Confucianism is a religion. 
   She says these basic categories of faith—scriptures, founders, rituals, ethics and so forth—help people see both parallels and differences among religions.
   When I asked her for an example of differences, she contrasted the Dalai Lama’s Buddhism “which never says everyone should be a Buddhist” with a traditional Christian position that “Jesus is the only way.” 
   Carroll noted that Marxists who thought religion would wither are now obviously mistaken. On the contrary, because religions are so important in our interconnected world, we must “find ways to live together even though we will never all pray to the same God.”
   The Rev. Patricia Bass, whose church will host Carroll, and who knew her when Bass ministered in Houston, told me she appreciated Carroll’s “ability to see the virtues of every religion.   She helps you fall in love with whatever religion she is teaching.
   “She combines her extensive knowledge with her deep passion and great sense of humor.”
   Carroll’s two-hour workshop, “The Worlds of Religion,” begins Sept. 14 at 1:30 pm at the Unity Church of Overland Park,

729. 080827  THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
Let politics convene with honesty

Minneapolis | The Twin Cities are preparing for the Republican National Convention, but I’m thinking of the Democratic convention 40 years ago as my host tunes in a TV replay of Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 acceptance speech.
   Telling the truth is a virtue in all faiths, but discerning the truth in political affairs is not always easy and can be costly.
   In 1968 I was preparing for the ministry at the University of Chicago. Just before the convention, an administrator who knew how furious I was with what I thought was an immoral war in Vietnam gave me the keys to a cabin in Wisconsin and told me to get out of town. 
   Otherwise I might have been one of the injured in the notorious battles between the protestors and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police.
   The admixture of faith and politics for me began earlier, at the end of 1962 when my pastor asked me, then an undergraduate in Omaha, to take a turn in the pulpit to reflect on how I saw the future. Most of what I said was about the need for our society to recover a sense of the sacred. And although Vietnam was not much of an issue then, I also said that I saw disaster there unless we changed course.
   It was a naïve opinion uninstructed by political concerns. I felt that a minister must be an informed citizen, so I read the papers carefully but had not learned that policy, politics and patriotism can be a jumble. I had never met a politician.
   After the service, I was told someone wished to speak with me. It was then-Senator Roman Hruska, Republican of Nebraska.
   Although President Kennedy was a Democrat, Hruska condescendingly told me in words I can never forget, “You need to shut up and support your President.”
   When President Johnson misconstrued events in the Gulf of Tokin in 1964 and widened the war, I worried that politics and honesty might be opposites. 
   It seemed to me in 1968 that the Democratic Party Convention was, by its contempt of those who urged facing the tragic mistakes of the war, saying again, “Shut up and support your President.”
   I see all that a bit differently now, and I have come to know a number of politicians I consider truly honorable. 
   But I still think honesty is a religious duty as we share with one another our best perspectives on matters that affect our community and nation. We need not agree, but from an open conversation, the truth is more likely to emerge than if we shut up.
   May this year’s conventions teach us anew our need for each of us to fulfill what our forebears spoke of as “our sacred honor.” 

728. 080820 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
Honoring an Interfaith Pioneer

The Kansas City area has lost one of its most persistent and energetic voices for interfaith understanding, Steven L. Jeffers, director of the Institute for Spirituality in Health at the Shawnee Mission Medical Center. He was killed last Thursday in an automobile accident.
   Largely because of his work, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council had selected the hospital to receive its institutional “Table of Faiths” award this Nov. 13. 
   Early in our friendship, he pumped me for names of folks from various faiths who might serve on the board of his Institute. But this was not window-dressing. In order to provide the best patient care, he felt honoring each patient’s spiritual path was essential.
   This was clear as he worked with physicians, nurses and other health-care workers, and in the many talks he gave around the community and nation as well as his publications. 
   Realizing that most health-care workers, including clergy, do not have a handy source of information about how the different faiths approach disease and accident, he initiated conferences and other programs. 
   A gargantuan project, over 500 pages as it neared completion, was “An Interfaith Resource for Physicians and Other Healthcare Providers.”
   Each of some 60 chapters sketched religious and free-thinker traditions from American Indian to Zoroastrian and detailed issues affected by faith from diet to care for the body at death. The manuscript was endorsed by an official of the American Academy of Family Physicians and others.
   Several members of the Interfaith Council, of which he was an at-large member, wrote me about Steve. Kathy Riegelman, Council convener, said Steve “was kind, generous, enthusiastic, patient, funny and incredibly intelligent. Steve had an easygoing way of being with people that made everyone feel comfortable.”
   Sheila Sonnenschein noted the many exclamation points following the word, “Blessings” with which he closed his emails. To her it “meant life, happiness, giving blessings to everyone, that he felt blessed, that he loved life.”
   Chuck Stanford wrote that “Steve was as passionate about his work of integrating interfaith understanding in health care as he was for life in general.”
   Barb McAtee said, “We can honor him by following his example and continuing his interfaith work.” 
   Steve attributed growth in his own Christian faith from learning about other faiths and loving the folks in interfaith work. Among other things, Steven L.  Jeffers was an interfaith pioneer.

727. 080813 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Chinese Plurality is a singular process

The opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics combined pride in China’s heritage with its assertion of new global and technological prowess. 
   With its GDP nearly tripling in the seven years since it won the contest to host the games, one senses the tension between both rapid change and cultural preservation.
   How much of the West will China imitate and how much of its own religious tradition will the new China claim?
    The first thing to know is that China has long been pluralistic. Just as Americans feel no cognitive dissonance in shopping at Sears one day and Dillards the next, so the Chinese have often drawn spiritual life from more than one religion. 
   This is because the faiths have often been seen as supplementing each other rather than exclusive. They offer partially overlapping world views, not competing theological statements. It is often difficult for Westerners to comprehend this, with our heritage of disputatious and violent church councils, religious wars and denominations splitting over the exact wording of creeds and interpretations of scripture. 
   In contrast, Taoist scripture says, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” This makes it hard to fight over theological formulations.
   While distinct religions can be identified (Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are the most important), some scholars prefer to talk about Chinese religion in the singular because even the import from India, Buddhism, was naturalized by a pervasive Chinese ethos.
   In rough comparison with the West, this spiritual ethos emphasizes process over thing and relationship over independence. It often honors nature (including human nature) as good rather than considering the world fallen and humans born depraved.
   The Chinese notions of process and conditions are becoming familiar in the West as yang and yin, complimentary energies always in flux. This contrasts with the Western conception of an independent, changeless God.
   Not until the 20th Century, when some American theologians adapted Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, was the idea of God as process much entertained within Christianity. 
   Chen-Chi Chang, teaching in the US, saw modern physics, from which Whitehead drew his views, as a confirmation of the Chinese instinct that nothing stands alone. 
   Chinese religion has been disrupted by more than a century of political turbulence during which time the West has become acquainted with China’s faiths. Ultimately, will Chinese spirituality affect us more than ours will affect them?

726. 080806 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
New look at fundamentalism

I grew up a fundamentalist Christian, as I called myself proudly. Although I no longer regard the King James translation of the Bible as the very word of God, I retain an enormous respect for the integrity and vision of those who follow the spiritual path of my youth.
   But my faith of those years is not the fundamentalism about which the Rev. Leroy Seat writes in his book, Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism.
   Like me, Seat respects the fundamentalism of his early life, but says that around 1980, his Southern Baptist affiliation was deserting its heritage for a “militaristic” and “political” twist he thought debased the Gospel.
   Although the term “fundamentalism” is often used pejoratively, it can be simply descriptive, a way of identifying a set of beliefs first published as The Fundamentals from 1910 to 1915. Seat also uses the term to describe the “Christian Right” of the last twenty-five years, but sought to do so without rancor.
   Seat, born and raised in Missouri, went to Japan in 1966 as a missionary and taught Christian Studies there until 2004 except for furloughs to the US where he saw friends purged from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville where he had earned his doctorate. He was also saddened by the turmoil in local churches.
   His book places these local events in a national context with Christians like Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Al Mohler.
   The book deals with fundamentalist approaches to the Bible, religious freedom, war, women, abortion, homosexuality and capital punishment.
   The book also looks at fundamentalism in other faiths.
   Seat told me his book is aimed at those who are “so fed up” they are tempted to leave Christianity altogether, and at those who have already left. He invites them to consider a different way of being Christian.
   He is working on a companion book, The Limits of Liberalism, partly because he thinks it is shameful that the “Christian Left” is more likely “to talk with Buddhists, for example, than with Christian Fundamentalists.”
   Now retired, Seat teaches part-time at Rockhurst University. 
   An open discussion about the book, led by the Rev. David E. Nelson, will be held Aug. 13 at 1 pm at the Mid-Continent Library Antioch Branch, 6060 N. Chestnut, Gladstone. 
   Nelson says, “The purpose of the discussion is not to win an argument but to win new friends.” Seat will participate.

725. 080730 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Art reveals special quest

“I want to show you something!” said the Rev. Scott Myers when he saw me walking by the Westport Presbyterian Church where he is pastor.
   He took me inside. What he took me to was not an ordinary church school exhibit. He and his team of Marian Thomas, Deanna Capps and Jeanne Reiss have created a course called Peace Quest that ranges across the ages and around the globe, as the materials from the exhibit show.
   I asked Myers to write about his experience with the 250 children who have been through the course. His enthusiasm came through with the exclamation points in the email he sent me. Here are some excerpts:
   “Ten years of teaching children peacemaking has changed my life! My thinking! My relationship with God! 
   “With children from the entire city, we’ve explored Secrets of Peacemaking in the Middle East, Africa, ancient Greece and Egypt, United States, Middle Ages and Renaissance, China, Korea, Hawaii, Native America. 
   “I’ve had the joy of telling children stories of Johnny Appleseed, Harriet Tubman, Buddha, Odysseus, Esther and Mordecai, St. Francis of Assisi, John Henry, Thoreau, John Muir, Sacagawea, St. Benedict and other peacemakers and dream keepers, pathfinders and pioneers, singers and story weavers, legends and folklore from all over the Planet Earth. 
   “Imagine children exploring—through stories, music, dance, art, lessons, games—what it has meant to be a human being riding this planet for the past four thousand years?
   “What if they could spend time with Haudenosaunee Indians and, as a collective art project create a Sacred Tree—then actually plant one outdoors?
   “What if they could walk an Underground Railroad trail in Quindaro, Kansas?
   “What if they could dance the Buffalo Dance? Virginia Reel? Michael Praetorius’ Christmas dances? What if they could beat an authentic Pueblo drum? Walk a Middle Ages prayer labyrinth? Build a sukkah (Jewish hut)? 
   “Would the children be different? More likely to become peacemakers themselves? Understand the world as a global village? More able to love enemies? Befriend nearby and distant neighbors? 
   “We gather with children and their families on Monday nights during the school year, hoping to breathe in the spirit of one ancient mystic who said: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.’”
   The exhibit runs through Aug. 15 at the church, 201 Westport Road, 9 am-2 pm weekdays and Sundays 9-noon. Next year’s program begins Sept. 29.

724. 080723 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Open book to differences

Recently I was asked to read a book before its publication and offer a promotional comment. 
   The author, eager to downplay differences among world religions because they seem to threaten world peace, assumed that I would like his emphasis on the universal truths God has embedded in all faiths.
   I think this approach is a mistake. To identify similarities as a way of promoting peace is very close to assuming that differences are dangerous. 
   The book argues that an individual’s mystical experience of cosmic oneness can be found in every faith. I am not smart enough to know if this is true. 
   But I do know that, however much I revere it, the mystical experience is not central to many faiths, and making it so distorts those traditions. While both Judaism and Islam, for example, have wonderfully rich mystical heritages, the chief expressions of those faiths are best characterized not as individual mysticism but rather by the primacy of community, answering questions like, “How shall we live together?” rather than “How are you and I and the tree and the sun and the ocean all one?”
   It is one thing to say that all people like entertainment, but it is another to say that everyone’s life revolves around entertainment. Every faith may have mystical threads but only in some faiths do they hold the garment together. 
   The book is framed as God’s truths in all religions, but not all religions even include a concept of God. 
   In Buddhism, for example, the idea of a Creator God is absent. No Creator God is needed to explain where the universe came from because, for Buddhists, the universe is a process in which all things mutually generate each other.
   And in forms of Taoism and Confucianism, a Creator is largely irrelevant to the concerns these faiths. 
   My problem with the book is, however, deeper than just some misinformation about several religions. I worry about colonizing another faith, interpreting someone else’s tradition using the ways of thinking that are familiar to me, rather than understanding another faith on its own terms. 
   It is but one step from emphasizing similarities to distorting the very religions purportedly praised. Similarities get wrenched from their contexts and are appropriated where their original meanings are lost.
   Yes, let’s enjoy actual parallels among traditions; but even more, let’s relish the astounding differences.
   If I sound a bit cranky, it is only because I want spiritual explorers to behold the real gems, not buy the costume jewelry unaware. 

723. 080716 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Kansas City rates high for its efforts

Two Italian Muslim leaders visited the United States last month to learn about interfaith work. How did Kansas City compare with Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles and Detroit?
   Pretty well.
   Under the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, the International Visitors Council here welcomed Wagih Saad Hassan Hassan (originally from Egypt) and El Hassan Sadiq (originally from Morocco).
   Hassan is the imam of the mosque in Reggio Emilia, and Sadiq is president of his mosque in Cremona. Both towns are in northern Italy near Milan.
   Both visitors said Kansas City displayed more genuine interfaith work than anywhere else they had been.
   They said that a discussion hosted by the Rev. Stan Runnels at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, was the most profound exchange of their trip.
   At that meeting, including African American leaders of Al-Inshirah Islamic Center, they learned about the “Abraham House,” a house built by Jews, Christians and Muslims through the auspices of Habitat for Humanity, thought to be the first house in the U.S. built by cooperation among folks of these three faiths.
   At a picnic sponsored by the Crescent Peace Society, they met Jewish, Christian and Muslim Americans with many ethnic backgrounds enjoying their friendships of many years.
   After his return, Hassan wrote local Muslim leader Ahmed El-Sherif that his time in Kansas City was “the best.” In other places, he said, interfaith activities were pursued like an obligation, but in Kansas City it is a passion.
   Hassan and Sadiq are not alone in rating Kansas City high for its interfaith pursuits. 
   Network CBS came here following 9/11 because of our depth of interfaith programming and in 2002 presented a half-hour special focused on us. 
   Our annual Martin Luther King Jr observances are second in size only to Atlanta, and for years have featured an interfaith celebration.
   Kansas City was selected last year as the site for the nation’s first Interfaith Academies, sponsored in part by Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, whose principal researcher, Ellie Pierce, said, “We consider Kansas City to be truly at the forefront of interfaith relations.” 
   This may be so because our style combines scholarship with relationships.
   In last 20 years, more than two dozen Kansas City organizations have come to work in the interfaith field.
   However, airports of other cities offer interfaith chapels to their visitors. I wish KCI did. 
   We still have lots of work to do.

722. 080709 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Concerns underscore ministry

Representing the interfaith movement, last Sunday I attended the service of installation for the Rev. D. Scott Howell “as pastor and teacher” of Country Club Congregational United Church of  Christ. 
   In the room where visiting clergy robed before the ceremony, the Rev. Dale Parson, a denominational official, thanked me for coming. 
   I responded, “As a former pastor, I know what a momentous occasion this is in the life of the congregation — and in the life of the minister.”
   “And for the interfaith movement and the entire community,” Parson completed my thought.
   While such services rightly focus on the covenant joining congregation and minister, it is also true that religious organizations participate in a larger social and civic network. 
   The ministry of the church to society was underscored by the preacher for the occasion, the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, who was born in Kansas City and now is an executive at the United Church of Christ national headquarters in Cleveland.
   In his sermon, Schuenemeyer listed these and other concerns, in his words:
   * the controversial preaching of a prophetic pastor whose now-former parishioner is a candidate for the President of the United States,
   * the radical witness for peace against a war that should never have been started in the first place,
   * welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons,  and solidarity in their struggle for marriage equality, and
   * the challenges of a city struggling through an exceedingly tough economy, with deep and historic racial tensions.
   Later Schuenemeyer added another issue:
   * our behaving and habits that contribute to the demise of the earth.
   Whether or not you agree with the positions implied by Schuenemeyer’s bullet points, they echo themes I hear not only within this particular denomination, but widely throughout Christianity, and indeed among Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, American Indians and other faiths. 
   Our secular culture, fueled by greed, fear and ignorance, presents us with three great disputes: What does it mean to be a whole person? What should the rules be for how we relate to each other? Is nature to be consumed or honored?
   Schuenemeyer’s bullet points are specific ways these larger questions are being asked. 
   Parallel rites in other faiths also lure professional and lay ministry, thus joined, into the holy joy of service within a congregation and to the community as such questions are explored.

721. 080702 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Artist weaves meanings into flag

What can be more patriotic than the flag? As an emblem of the 13 original colonies, and now 50 states, with the diversity of its peoples becoming one in spirit, our flag is woven with American history and hopes. 
   So when Navajo weaver Martha Smith responded to 9/11 by creating an image to commemorate that day, she chose to represent the flag as the border of her design.
   And within that symbolic border she placed the pixilated skyline of New York City with the Twin Towers standing, with the words, “united we stand.”
   You will want to see this weaving, and its companion, at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College through August 10 when it will return to its owner in Gallup, NM.
   Is the weaving an affirmation of what America was before 9/11, or as a statement of what America cannot be again, or is it a powerful and defiant, through understated, protest against the horror of that day, or as a statement of America’s endurance through this and all other calamities, or does it ironically reflect America’s vulnerability?
   The perfect simplicity of the design allows as many interpretations as there are feelings around the 9/11 attacks. A lesser artist could have sensationalized or trivialized the subject. 
   The museum’s director, Bruce Hartman, first saw the weaving in New York five years ago and immediately considered it one of the most important Native American works of the 21st Century. But after that sighting, he was unable to locate it, much less purchase it.
    Until two years ago when he happened to be snowed in near Gallup and saw it hanging in the back of a trading post. He could not convince the owner to sell it, but eventually the artist agreed to a commission to create a companion weaving for the Nerman. 
   But what would the companion look like? You can see it now below the first weaving. 
   The companion design seems inevitable. It copies the first flag-framed skyline — but without the Twin Towers. Talk about understated impact!
   These weavings gain extra significance when you remember that the Navajo have served in the Armed Forces well beyond their numbers, and the Navajo “code talkers” provided secrecy for military messages during WWII. 
   The Navajo tradition, with its stories of Spider Woman and her loom, has produced blankets, rugs and other textiles that are useful and beautiful, symbolic and spiritually expressive. For us now, from this indigenous culture, a powerful contemplation of the meaning of America today is woven.

720. 080625 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Sufi teacher raises a balloon

Last Thursday I went to hear a visiting Sufi saint speak. I came home with a smile on my face and gifts from him, including a prayer rug, photos of the Great Mosque in Mecca and of the saint himself, Maulana Zainulabedin Kazmi, with a shirt, socks, a tie, a piece of candy, phrases for dhikr (recitations to remember God) -- and a balloon.
   Like everyone at the lecture at the Tao Academy of Kansas City, I also was given a list of the 40 shaykhs in the Naqshbandi Tariqat (“Path”), which is the only order to trace its lineage back to Muhammad through the first Sunni caliph, Abu Bakr. 
   Several names in the list grabbed my attention, including al-Bistami (804-874), who developed the teaching of fana, “extinction,” the idea that when our ego fades we can realize God’s true nature, and baqa, revival within God. 
   And Maulana brought these ideas into his teaching that night in speaking about two kinds of knowledge, that which can be taught and that which is “poured into the heart.” Gosh, I need more of the latter, I realized.
   I liked his call to humility. He said a tree bows down when it is laden with fruit.
   A friend in the audience asked what the mystic Suhrawardi (1153-1191) meant by saying, “God reveals himself by veiling himself and veils himself by revealing himself.”
   I could not hear the mumbled answer, so I contacted my friend the next day. He said that whatever the answer was, he found himself several times pulling a balloon out of his pocket and smiling.
   My friend thought of Maulana as a trickster or the holy fool found in many religions, who play a kind of hide and seek, avoiding our serious questions because we need something deeper. By defeating the ego’s seeking precisions and explanations with their minute focus, we are poured beyond the question into the heart of the mystery of existence.
   Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) also wrote of veils. God hides himself  behind many layers of veils. But the greatest veil, and the last one to be removed, is believing one can see truth without a veil, to identify any idea or practice with God.
   This is why Jews prohibited idols and why Zen Buddhists  sometimes say, “Enlightenment is knowing there is no Enlightenment.” It is why Muslims say shirk, giving God any partner, is the worst blasphemy.It’s a way of saying, If you think you have the answer, you don’t.
   God, the ultimate truth, cannot be a possession of the ego. But God can pour himself into the heart when we let go.
   I prize the“veil” of the prayer rug, yes, but I particularly like the “veil” of the balloon. Religion is complete when, along with the profundities of the spirit and the disasters of our time, it embraces a child-like sense of awe and surprise, of festivity and playfulness.

719. 080618 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
The beauty of Islam

Several readers of last week’s column asked why I called Islam  “incredibly beautiful.” Based on decades of study, world travel and long friendships with Muslims, I answer with three hints.
   *Our indebtedness to Muslim culture is extraordinary. Try doing your finances using Roman instead of Arabic numerals, and you’ll get the idea. 
   Have you had your cup of coffee? The attempt 400 years ago to prohibit Christians from drinking coffee as a Muslim drink obviously has failed.
   Thomas Aquinas, for centuries the preeminent Christian theologian, was influenced by Muslim philosophers Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). The art, music and poetry of the Renaissance, out of which today’s world developed, were stimulated by encounter with Muslim thinkers.
   Who can see the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal or the great mosques throughout the world without awe? One image often used to identify Kansas City is Giralda Tower on the Country Club Plaza, a smaller version of what was once the minaret of the mosque in Seville. 
   *The five “pillars” of Islam present a spiritual path rousing admiration, if not imitation. 
   The first pillar is the profession of faith, that there is but one God and Muhammad is his messenger. In context, whether you agree or not, this simple statement serves to center and unify every aspect of how one lives one’s life.
   Second, prayer five times daily is a renewal of one’s commitment to submit to God’s will.
   Third, giving to the needy is a religious obligation.
   Fourth, in the words of Bill Graves, then Kansas Governor, Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan “to remind themselves that others hunger and to relieve the hunger of others, to practice discipline through self denial, to nurture family relationships and to strengthen commitment to God” and to recall the first revelations of the  Qur’an.
   Many Christian Lenten austerities are pale in comparison. 
   These first four pillars I have repeatedly observed, and from them I have taken inspiration. 
   The fifth pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca. While this is not possible for me since I am not a Muslim, I have witnessed how this ritual has deepened the faith of Muslim friends.
   *Speaking of Kansas City Muslim friends—they may be business people, professors, chaplains, elected to public office, appointed to government service, doctors, scientists or soldiers. They may fight fires, teach martial arts, report the news or manage a library.
   They are honest and generous, working to make America and the world better. They never seek to convert me. Their faith is beautiful.

718. 080611 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
A plea for gay Muslims

Jihad for Love is a documentary film about the struggles young gay and lesbians Muslims have with their faith. Jihad means “struggle” in Arabic, and particularly the struggle we have within ourselves to do the right thing. 
   The movie will be shown as part of this month’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
   When I previewed it, I had two overwhelming and paradoxical reactions.
   The first reaction was how incredibly beautiful Islam is. I would not expect most non-Muslim viewers to have this reaction. But I have been to some of the sacred sites the movie shows and I have participated in some of the Muslim rituals. 
   I cannot get out of my mind the tenderness and devotion of a lesbian couple who trace calligraphy in stone of a passage from the Qur’an as they seek to find their place in their faith.
   In a way, the film parallels, say, some Roman Catholics who love the Church with its music, liturgy and sacraments, who follow a loving Jesus, for whom the warmth of family embrace is molded by reverential practice of the faith, but who are officially “disordered” because they love folks of their own sex.
   My second reaction was grief at seeing devout young people suffering, with their lives threatened in the name of their faith. I don’t like hearing an imam talk about stoning and beheading as a punishment for loving another human being.
   As the film follows individuals and pairs in their jihad for love, we see fear, curiosity, anguish, grief, lamentation; but because they are unwilling to abandon their faith, the anger is restrained.
   Parvez Sharma made the film in secrecy and obscures some of the faces. The stories unfold in India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa and France, with an escape to Canada. We learn about the harsh traditional Islamic law, but also Islamic interpretations that   permit, and even legitimize, same-sex relationships. 
   It is ironic that Islam contains a long, and at times, honored tradition of same-sex relationships. The film includes a Pakistani holiday celebrating one such couple. But when the West colonized many Muslim countries, anti-gay laws were adopted.
   The 81-minute movie shows at the Tivoli Cinemas June 29, Sunday at 4:45. Following the film, in cooperation with OpenCircle, I will lead a panel and audience discussion. Panelists are Josef Walker (Christian), Ahmed El-Sherif (Muslim), and Lynn Barnett (Jewish). 
   I’ll ask, “How does the jihad you see portrayed in this movie compare with struggles you know about that people in your own faith have dealt with?”

[For background, I recommend Islamic Homosexualities by Stephen O Murray and Will Roscoe, NY University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8147-7468-7.]

{A longer preview of this movie appears in CAMP and to the left.}

717. 080604 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Happy Couples can start new traditions

Weddings belong to the happy couple and their guests, not to me, the officiant. I yield to their considered wishes, but I offer my  professional advice as we plan the ceremony.
   * For example, it does not make sense for a couple who have been living together for some time to appear at the ceremony from separate entrances, at separate times, with separate escorts. 
   Still, even older couples sometimes want the bride to be escorted down the aisle by her father, and it is important to honor that expectation.
   A wonderful variation, especially for a young couple, is for both of them to be escorted by their parents.
   * “Giving the bride away” treats her like property. I prefer to ask, “Who presents this woman to be married to this man and blesses their love?” to which her family responds, “We do.”
   Then I ask, “Who presents this man to be married to this woman and blesses their love?” to which the groom’s family responds.
   This avoids the sexism of archaic language and is easy to adapt for same-sex couples.
   * The exchanging of vows is the pivot of the ceremony. The couple can speak their vows directly to one another, without the “repeat after me” interference from the minister. 
   I suggest they compose their vows from various examples and from what is in their hearts, write them on parchment paper and read them in front of their guests. 
   This gives the guests something to see as well as hear and it  dramatizes the commitment. Some couples like to frame their vows for their home or include them in their book of wedding memories.
   * A few couples still insist on my saying, “You may kiss the bride.” The state has given me the right to solemnize marriages, but I am uncomfortable giving one partner permission to kiss the other. 
   I’ll tell the couple an embrace  is expected after I pronounce them hitched, and they’ll probably feel like kissing then. But they don’t need me verbalizing permission.
   * Sometimes couples want to acknowledge someone who cannot be present — an ailing aunt or a deceased grandfather. This can be done with a note in a printed program, if any, or by the officiant saying something like, “This day we remember . . . .”
   * In a planning session recently a couple told me that while their wedding day would be so very happy for them, they wanted their ceremony to recognize that not everyone is happy, that there is much sorrow and suffering across the planet.
   This couple’s marriage, I am sure, will better the world.

716. 080528 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Hope and change are possible

Preacher, author, editor of Sojourners magazine and frequent media guest, Jim Wallis will speak here at a June 8 banquet. His latest book is The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post Religious Right America.
   In an interview, he told me, “I believe we are seeing the beginnings of a new Great Awakening in America that could become another spiritual revival that will change big things in the world. 
   “Hope and change are really possible, and we can make a difference. People of faith have done big things before and will do them again.”
   It is a message that will be welcomed by the organization bringing him here, the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2).
   The Rev Eric D. Belt, one of the MORE2 co-chairs and pastor of St. Stephan Baptist Church, said that Wallis was especially skilled in helping people address folks “of different cultural backgrounds and races to bring about changes for equality and justice.” 
   But can religious organizations bring about such change more effectively than other agencies?
   Wallis replied, “Church-based ministry that serves those in need is important, but organizing a movement that can work for social justice is critical. 
   “And congregations have a central role in that organizing.  We can provide message and motivation – a sense of meaning, purpose and moral value that is often missing in the larger society. 
   “As a counter-cultural community, the church can have a prophetic public voice. 
   “And, as often the last standing social institution in many communities, churches have the institutional presence and constituency for effective organizing.”
   This can sound like politics, so I asked about that.
   Wallis said, “People of faith should insist on the deep connections between spirituality and politics while defending the proper boundaries between church and state that protect religious and non-religious minorities and keep us all safe from state-controlled religion. 
   “We should demonstrate our commitment to pluralistic democracy and support the rightful separation of church and state without segregating moral and spiritual values from our political life.”
   MORE2 was created in 2003 and now has 18 cooperating congregations in the metro area. It is linked to the national Gamaliel Foundation, with whose Chicago headquarters the young Barak Obama worked as a community organizer.
    For banquet information, visit or call 816-808-6604.

715. 080521 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
By their fruits you shall know them

Last week this column suggested that atheists should welcomed into religious conversations. 
   A reader who disagreed wrote that “if we know such people we should pray for them and . . . lay awake at night praying how we can bring them to Christ. 
   “If this is not what you believe, then I can understand why you are always willing to allow these people to continue in their pagan beliefs.”
   The writer also said that the “only interfaith conference in the Bible was Elijah and the prophets of Baal and we know what happened there.” (The Baal god was shown to be ineffective and the God Yahweh—sometimes translated “Jehovah”—was vindicated.)
   In my reply, I noted the Gospel interfaith stories of Samaritans. 
   Jews of Jesus’ time are reported as rejecting the Samaritans. (John 4:9)
   At one point Jesus was even accused of being a Samaritan and demon-possessed. Jesus denies being demon-possessed, but he does not say he was not a Samaritan, though he was not. Perhaps he did not wish to dissociate himself from those against whom prejudice was directed.
   Jesus also told the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30), in which a Samaritan acted with more compassion than the religious officials of his own tradition.
   In addition, when Jesus healed ten lepers (Luke 17:11), the only one grateful enough to express thanks was the single Samaritan. 
   Finally, when Jesus visited the Samaritan woman at the well, he said that salvation is from Jews; he did not predict that future salvation would come from the Christians. But he did go on to say, “Yet a time is coming and has now come, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23) 
   I am interested in those whose faith is found in spirit and in truth more than I am interested in what denomination or religious label, if any, they use to identify themselves. 
   Spirit and truth are much larger for me than mere creeds, as Jesus indicated in Matthew 25:31, where the righteous are described not by their beliefs but by feeding the hungry, giving drink to those who thirst, housing the stranger, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison. 
   Most of us may be less concerned with the theology in others’ heads than with the spirit in their hearts. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. . . . By their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matthew 7:18-20)
   Perhaps we should be less concerned over the species of the tree than whether the fruit is wholesome.

714. 080514 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Include atheists in making the world a better place

Should atheists be welcomed into religious conversations? Can agnostics, secular humanists and others sometimes grouped together as “freethinkers” make a contribution to people of faith?
   To answer these questions, let’s consider the thought and lives of some to whom such labels might be applied. 
   Some Athenians accused Socrates of atheism. Early Christians were considered atheists by the Roman authorities because they did not believe in the gods recognized by the Empire.
   Thomas Paine, whose Crisis papers fueled the American Revolution, was called a “dirty little atheist.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “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.” He was accused of atheism. So was Abraham Lincoln, who never joined a church.
   Paul Tillich, a towering theologian of the 20th Century, was also called an atheist. When he said, “God does not exist,” Tillich meant that the conception of God as a Supreme Being was too puny. God is not a being above others but rather being itself, the “ground of being” out of which all else arises. This understanding of God compares with the teachings of many Christian mystics.
   While Judaism developed the potent belief in one absolute Deity, to be a Jew does not require belief in God; the traditional requisite is to have a Jewish mother, and it is good to affirm the community’s rituals. 
   Some Unitarian Universalists use the word God, but few would think of God as a supernatural being. God might be the power that transforms people when they are really listening to each other.
   Neither Confucianism nor Taoism is founded on the belief of a Creator. The Tao is not God but rather the way of the universe works.
   Most Buddhists hold no belief in a Creator God. They prefer to be called “non-theists.” If you ask, “If there is no God, where did the universe come from?” you might be answered, “For us, the universe is an ongoing, interrelated process that, like your God, has no beginning and no ending.”
   While most Hindus believe in God, some branches of the faith are atheistic. Mimamsa, for example, teaches the importance of dharma, which can be translated as morality, duty and virtue.
   Another ancient Indian faith, Jainism, teaches respect for all creatures, advocates non-violence and encourages charity and good works such as building hospitals and animal shelters. It also is atheistic. 
   Personally, I want the conversation to include everyone who is helping to make the world better.

713. 080507 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Eighth-Century Mystic Has Teachings for Today

In the entire history of Hindu theology, perhaps no more influential figure can be named than Shankara, the 8th Century mystic who in his brief life of 32 years reformed and rejuventated Hinduism after nearly a thousand years of Buddhist ascendancy in India. 
   In a lineage begun by him, Swami Nishpapananda of the St. Louis Vedanta Society will speak here Sunday on “Shankara, the Great Teacher.” 
   In response to questions I sent Nishpapananda, he wrote me that Shankara, by the time he was 12, had a mystical experience which led him ultimately to travel “the length and breadth of India twice on foot, debating representatives of the different schools of thought and pointing out their deficiencies.”
   Shankara’s key insight was that reality is “non-dual,” ultimately undivided. The Sankskrit term for this school of thought is Advaita. 
   For Shankara, there is no real  difference between the individual person and the “conscious principle underlying and sustaining the universe” called Brahman — God, Nishpapananda said. 
   “This means that in the highest mystical experience, the world disappears completely. There is no subject or object in this experience; only the Divine Reality is. In the West mystics like . . .  (the Christian) Meister Eckhart, among others, had this experience,” Nishpapananda explained.
   The perception of divine reality within the mystical experience can be compared to awakening from the illusion of a dream. 
   I asked how one can achieve liberation from the illusion that things are separate from the divine. Nishpapananda replied:
   “Christ put it most succinctly: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ A pure heart is without desire or enmity. Purity comes from sustaining a moral course while pursuing secular goals. The Sanskrit term is dharma.
   “One learns from experience that the best that ordinary life has to offer does not solve the knotty problems of life and death. Then the mind turns towards God as an ideal, and to the path that leads to liberation. 
   “Prayer and meditation can then help cleanse the subconscious mind. But ultimately, liberation comes through grace.”
   In the 12th Century, Ramanuja developed an alternative philosophy, and in the 13th Century, Madhva produced a third view of how God and the individual are related, but Shankara’s teachings are often identified as the central message of Hinduism. 
   Nishpapananda’s talk begins at 10:30. The Vedanta Society is located at 8701 Ward Parkway. The website is 

712. 080430 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Classical Music's Spiritual Charms

Almost eight years ago in this space I called the loss of local radio station KXTR-FM a “spiritual devastation.” An AM spot continued the call letters, and programming from Boston was instituted. 
   With the return to local programming 24/7 at 1660 AM last month, a follow-up is in order. 
   I asked Patrick Neas, program director and morning show host, about the music he puts on the air.
   “For me, ‘classical’ and ‘spiritual’ are interchangeable terms,” he said, “because they both mean enduring, speaking from one generation to another, to different people, to different eras. It opens us to all humanity.
   “Music need not have been composed for a church — it could be ‘secular’ — but if it is classical, it nonetheless has power to transform people’s lives, to help them overcome difficulties.”
   Neas said that some works of music may be more spiritual than others. 
   Beethoven’s isolation from hearing loss, disappointments in relationships and other problems meant “he had to deal with these issues, and he could not deal with his art as before. His last quartets show us both the reality and the transcendence of suffering.”
   But classical music can have a spiritual impact even at an early age. Neas cited “The System,” a Venezuelan program that trains thousands of poor children to play instruments, increasingly known through one of its alumni, Gustavo Dudamel, who becomes the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next year. 
   Neas said The System shows that classical music can “reduce gang violence, lift people up, nurture them, train them to focus and give them power to overcome obstacles.”
   He laughed when I told him that I sometimes catch my son listening to classical music. “Classical music is the rebellious thing these days. It’s not what the corporations are telling kids to listen to. Classical music inspires passion in them. It enriches their entire lives.”
   Neas also discussed the station’s role in encouraging local performances.
   For example, Thursday at 10 am, Neas will host a one-hour interview with Ward Holmquist, artistic director of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, about John Brown which receives its world premiere here Friday. 
   The opera includes Brown’s activities in Lawrence, foreshadowing the Civil War. Brown invokes Moses and raises the perplexing and fundamentally spiritual question, “When is violence justified?”
   May I say “whew!” and “amen!” now that Neas is back doing KXTR’s programming? 

711. 080423 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Agnostic’s questions have biblical answers

In the church of his youth in Lawrence, with nearly every pew at capacity last week, Bart D. Ehrman, chairman of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, announced that he was an agnostic.
     He joked that atheists think agnostics are wimpy atheists and that agnostics think atheists are arrogant agnostics.
     How did he lose his faith? Ehrman said it was from asking the persistent question, “If God is both all-powerful and all-loving, why do innocent people suffer?”
     His lecture explored three of many biblical answers.
     The dominant answer in the Hebrew Scriptures is that suffering is God’s punishment for people’s wickedness, for their failure to keep the covenant established between God and Israel. God had intervened to bring the children of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, and God intervenes to reward and chastise.
     Ehrman called this the prophetic answer. The prophets, such as Amos, pronounced disasters on their own people because they strayed from fulfilling their obligation to be just.
     By about 150 years before Christ, a new answer developed within Judaism because the old one had failed to explain why the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered and God was not intervening.
     Ehrman called the new answer “apocalyptic,” which means revealed. It characterizes the Christian Scriptures.
     In this view, suffering is explained by a cosmic evil power contesting with God by hurting people, so it is impossible for humans alone to improve things. Instead we are called to place ourselves on God’s side.
     Ultimately God will vindicate his name and his people. God will compensate them for their suffering and punish unbelievers with eternal damnation.
     Jesus said this redemption is at hand. Paul thought his own generation would be the last. Ehrman gave examples of numerous predictions of imminent fulfillment from the last 2,000 years, including The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind book series.
     Ehrman’s own approach to the problem favors the view of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible that begins by saying all is vanity. The Hebrew word translated as vanity, hevel, means mist or vapor, which compares with the Buddhist notion that everything is transitory.
     Ecclesiastes says this life, often unjust, is all there is, with no afterlife for rewards or punishments. We should enjoy the simple pleasures — our companions, good food and good drink.
     To this Ehrman adds that it is impossible for him to enjoy life unless he also works to lessen the suffering of others.

710. 080416 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
Islamic Society leader to speak in Topeka

A woman and a convert to the faith is the president of ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, and she is drawing Muslims and non-Muslims alike to Topeka this Sunday to hear her speak. 
   ISNA describes itself as the largest Muslim organization on the continent.
   A Jew on the board of Interfaith of Topeka heard Ingrid Mattson on NPR. She spoke to fellow board member, Ashraf Sufi, a Muslim, who invited her. She wanted to hear Mattson discuss why the public does not hear more Muslims condemning terrorism, whether Islam is compatible with modernity and the role of women in Islam. 
   Rauf Mir, the Muslim member of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, served on the nominating committee that led to Mattson’s election as ISNA president. Mir said her interfaith work, scholarship and leadership are “compelling reasons for members of other faiths to attend the gathering at Washburn University.”
   I contacted Mattson at Hartford Seminary, where she is professor for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim relations. I asked her about interfaith work.
   She said that we often speak about other faiths out of ignorance and from bad information. She noted that her students from abroad were sometimes surprised to learn how important ethics can be for Christians since the images they had of Americans had come from TV, “which often depicts dysfunctional families devoid of much religious faith.” 
   And Christians, she said, “have many misconceptions about Islam.”
   Despite our commitments to our own faiths, “each of us is a flawed human being who can never realize the perfection of our religions,” she said. 
   “We are ethically compelled to learn about each other so at least we can fulfill our own responsibility to speak the truth.”
   “The Qur'an,” she said, “teaches us that religious diversity is God’s will, and that we should see the presence of the other as a challenge to do better ourselves, to ‘compete in good works.’
   “Religion in general has gotten a bad reputation as a cause of strife and discord in the world.  We need to show that that does not have to be the case.  We can remain committed to our (own) traditions, yet still work together for a better society.”
   There is no charge to hear Mattson speak at 2 pm at the Washburn Memorial Union. Also at the event will be Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, and Kansas Rep. Nancy Boyda. For more information, call Ashraf Sufi, 785-608-5879.

709. 080409 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
We can be alike, we can be different

The assignment offered me was to explain “Why what we have in common is more important than our differences.” I accepted the speaking engagement but said I would instead balance appreciating differences with similarities.
   I began my speech by acknowledging the urge we have to spotlight our similarities. Our world is in conflict, we are painfully aware of religious differences. We think that if we could only agree, the fighting would stop.
   But another path to peace is celebrating our differences rather than warring over them.
   Actually we value differences all the time, I said. People in love don’t usually emphasize how similar the beloved is to everyone else, but rather on how special he or she is.
   Consider the reverse. Suppose a husband said to his wife, “I was intimate with your best friend last week. You are so similar, the differences shouldn’t matter.”
   Or we go to a concert or a sporting event and expect to enjoy the skill of a great performer, but an announcer says that an amateur has been engaged instead because we are more alike than different.
   Or suppose you invite my son and me for dinner. I thank you and say that in preparing the menu, please keep in mind that my son has a severe cholesterol problem. When you serve BBQ and I ask that you excuse my son from partaking, but you insist, “BBQ is food, and all food is nutritious, so you should make him eat it,” you will lose my respect.
   I tried one more example with my audience. Would you prefer a town with restaurants offering many different cuisines or a town where the only entrée was a pabulum produced by blending together whatever might be on hand?
   We can see the varieties of the world’s faiths not as threats but as gifts.
   From primal faiths, for example, we can be reawakened to the sacred in the realm of nature. From Asian traditions, with introspective techniques like meditation and yoga, we can know ourselves more deeply.
   From the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions, a sense of a Power moving through history toward justice in covenanted community can correct the selfishness and greed of our age.
   Different people and different  cultures have different spiritual needs. Even in the span of our own individual lives, our spiritual needs may vary. Respecting those differences is itself sacred.
   I asked the audience, how many thought we are all like. Most hands went up. Then I asked how many thought we are all different. The same hands were raised. In spiritual matters, opposite statements can both be true.

708. 080402 THE STAR’S HEADLINE: 
There are many sides to the bible, author says

Bart D. Ehrman may be the hottest biblical scholar in America today. He’s been interviewed on The Daily Show, NPR, CNN, in The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He chairs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
   In his book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, he explains the texts that transformed him from a believer into an agnostic. His most recent book, his 19th, is God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. He also wrote a book debunking the historical claims associated with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
   At the end of my interview with him, I asked what he’d like readers to know about himself. He said, “I’m a Jayhawk by birth and always root for KU — unless they are playing Carolina!”
   He returns to Lawrence, where he was raised, Apr. 14 at 7:30 pm, to speak at the Plymouth Congregational Church,  925 Vermont.
   I also asked him, Can you explain briefly how you understand the diversity within early Christianity for those who think there is a single authoritative “autograph” version of the scriptures and unanimity among early Christian writers? 
   He responded, “Early Christianity was not one thing, but lots of different things, with different Christian groups teaching ideas that today would strike most Christians as absolutely ludicrous and even blasphemous. 
   “But each of these groups claimed to be representing the teachings of Jesus and his apostles (some of them taught that there were 30 gods, or that Jesus wasn’t really a human being, or that the Old Testament was inspired by an evil divinity, or that this world was the result of a cosmic disaster). 
   “You might wonder, why didn’t they just read the New Testament to see that they were wrong? 
   “The answer, of course, is that there was no New Testament yet, in the early centuries of the church. The New Testament emerged out of these conflicts, and represents the books that the ‘winning side’ decided should be considered scripture.
   “The other sides also had books, though, books that claimed to be written by the apostles of Jesus. Sometimes these alternative scriptures get re-discovered, and that’s where scholarship on early Christianity becomes especially fascinating.”
   In my interview, available in full at, Ehrman complained that attacks on religion by “the new atheists” —  Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens — are “surprisingly ignorant about religion.”

707. 080326 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Agree on terms before debating

Several weeks ago I suggested that focusing on personal stories helps people talk with each other about faith without arguing. Each person is an expert about one’s own experiences of the sacred; by sharing them, we understand each other better.
   But what if you want to have a friendly argument? There’s plenty to argue about.
   Is there a God? When does human life begin? Should the scripture of this or that religion be read literally? Why do the wicked prosper? What happens after death? Is life worth living? 
   Here are four guidelines for arguments.
   *Be sure you and your partner-in-argument know what you mean by the terms you use. For example, God can mean the creator of the universe, the ultimate judge we all face.
   But for some, God is not a being at all, certainly not a being supreme above all other beings, but rather the impersonal ground of being out of which everything arises, like the blank rolls of paper without which these words could not printed. 
     God can also mean the power or process that can transform us as we cannot transform ourselves, as when folks of different races listen to each other so well that they gain a sense of kinship unimaginable before.
     For some God is the word that summarizes all of the laws of nature. And for some God is nothing more or less than perfect love. 
   All these ideas of God, and more, are in the Western tradition. Primal and Asian faiths offer other conceptions as well.
   So if you are arguing whether God exists, be sure you know what you mean by God.
   *Discover whether you and your friend accept the same authority and evidence for your opinions. Is it scripture? Is it tradition? Is it ecclesiastical teaching? Is it a guru? Is it mystical experience?
   Each of these has its own problems. The Bible, for example, has been used to support many conflicting creeds. Reason can be clouded by background and temperament. Senses can be deceived far beyond simple optical illusions. 
   For some, the human body is evidence of divine design. For others, it is clear proof of mundane evolution through trial and error.
   *See how successful you and your partner can be in presenting each other’s position. This is a good check to gauge mutual understanding.
   *Finally, remember that if there were truly obvious and compelling answers to theological questions, you probably wouldn’t be debating them. Modesty about our own positions may remind us of the ultimate mystery too great to be contained in any human argument.

706. 080319 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
When is war a just war?

After five years, the moral, legal, political, military, diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, security and other dimensions of the Iraq War deserve reassessment, but this column focuses only on Christian “just war” theory for the reader’s own evaluation.
   Before the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity, often dated to 313, most Christians would not serve in the army. Early theologians Hippolytus, Tertullian and Lactantius condemned military service, and Origin (185-254), one of the great “church fathers,” promoted pacifism. Christians often would not serve as judges in capital cases because they held killing to be wrong.
   In 410 Christian Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, who were also Christian.
   This, and other disturbances, led Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) to borrow ideas about when war is justified from the Roman pagan Cicero (106-43 BCE). 
   Cicero’s theory included these points:
   * The purpose of war must be to establish justice and peace.
   * War must be waged by the legitimate authority of the ruler.
   * Violence must be restrained, not wanton.
   * Prisoners and hostages must be treated humanely.
   In 2004, Robert E. Johnson, Professor of Christian Heritage at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, identified for this space six components of Augustine’s “just war” theory, all of which had to be satisfied: 
   * The purpose of war must be to restore peace and secure justice with a reasonable chance of success.
   * War must be conducted under the direction of a legitimate ruler and be motivated by Christian love.
   * War must be a last resort, after all other options have been tried and failed.
   * War must have limited objectives; the total obliteration of an enemy is not permitted.
   * Safeguards against unnecessary violence, massacres and looting must be observed.
   * Noncombatants may not be molested. 
    “Just war” theory developed further under Aquinas (1225-1274) and Christians continue to refine it. Some consider the “Powell Doctrine” a secular expression of the theory.
      A further development in the theory concerns whether pre-emptive self-defense is justified. In 2002, when the Iraq War was still just a possibility, I asked Catholic scholar Garry Wills, in town to lecture at Rockhurst University, about the “just war” doctrine. He said that Iraq posed no immediate threat to us. Initiating war was forbidden.
   “People have threatened to kill me, and some of the threats are serious,” he said. “But I cannot take action against them until they actually show intent to come after me.” 

705. 080312 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Humanism is one solution to evil

When blameless people suffer, believers in an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God have some explaining to do. Why does such a God not intervene to prevent the individual agonies and the horrors of history that afflict upright, decent people? 
   Countless explanations have been tried. The book of Job defeats the argument that the victim must be denying one’s own wrong-doing. 
   John Milton’s Paradise Lost attempts “to justify the ways of God to men” by invoking the idea that the God’s gift of free-will involves the possibility of wrong choices and suffering. 
   Currently, a widely discussed solution is offered by John Hick who contends that unmerited suffering gives the soul an opportunity to grow.
   Others like Billy Graham simply proclaim a faith which says we cannot understand God’s ways.
   Anthony B. Pinn, professor of religious studies at Rice University and credited with over a  dozen books, is uncomfortable with any of these solutions.
   Also executive director of the Society for the Study of Black Religion, he is keenly aware of the suffering of slaves and their descendents in America 
   In his book, Why, Lord? — Suffering and Evil in Black Theology, he reasons that expecting God to generate good from evil can promote a sort of passivity that keeps us from challenging oppressive social structures. The idea that suffering can be redemptive lessens the recognition that evil is completely evil. 
   The book concludes, “what are the true possibilities for transformation when God’s intervention is not apparent, but is desperately appealed to? How strongly does one fight for change while seeking signs of God’s presence? Humanity is far better off fighting with the tools it has — a desire for transformation, human creativity, physical strength, and untapped collective potential.”
   Pinn values human liberation over belief in God. He calls his position a “Humanism,” and in an interview said he tends to capitalize the word because it “isn’t an extension of my earlier practices and faith claims. Rather it is a different religious practice.”
   Some may think of Humanism as an abstract, intellectual approach to issues of faith, but Pinn’s perspective arises from a heads-on confrontation with the real experience of evil. 
   Islam is a religious alternative some blacks find to “meet their spiritual needs” and provide “the disciplined life they desire.”
   Pinn speaks twice this week-end at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. Saturday at 7:30 p.m. he presents “A Religious Odyssey.” Sunday at 10 a.m. he discusses “Islam in America.” 

704. 080305 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
'Bodies' exhibit reveals spirit

As I approached the “Bodies Revealed” exhibit at Union Station, I offered a prayer something like this:
   “Infinite source of all, as I enter this exhibition, I honor the persons whose bodies I will see and revere. I give thanks for the gift of learning. With this encounter, I vow to understand and care for myself and others with greater compassion, and to use this opportunity to benefit others, in the profound mystery of the body as a vessel for life.”
   Just as a cathedral or temple is designed for worship but is not violated by tourists who may be inspired by viewing it when the worshippers are gone, so the body, the temple of the spirit, when vacated by the person, can inspire profound appreciation for the sacred gift of life.
   I recalled how humans have shown respect for the dead for at least 200,000 years. Early graves show bodies oriented to the east, bones placed in a fetal position, with tools and adornments, suggesting belief in some sort of rebirth or immortality.
   While some Middle Eastern cultures separated the living from the dead body as “unclean,” megalithic cultures in Ireland, the Aegean and elsewhere emphasized communion with ancestors whose spirits were embodied in menhirs, upright stones, an idea ridiculed in Jeremiah 2:27.
   Common in our own culture is viewing an embalmed body before burial, but Jews and Muslims practice immediate burial. 
   Cremation is thought to be a dignity offered the dead in Hindu and other faiths. 
   The traditional Parsi disposition of corpses in “towers of silence” offers the bodies to vultures, a practice that may shock those unfamiliar with the world view of that faith.
   But eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Christ to honor him in the Eucharist is shocking to those unacquainted with Christian tradition.
   Of all forms of body disposition, I wondered, except for organ donation, could there be any greater honor offered the deceased than the sharing of our humanity in reverent intimacy through such an exhibit?
   When, at the end of the exhibit, I was invited to touch and hold an actual human organ, I selected the brain. I silently said a prayer, then my fingers touched the holy convolutions of tissue which once housed ideas, sensations, desires—a personality. I was struck anew with the mystery and fragility of awareness. 
   A statement by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh spoke of the “dignity and miracle of human creation” revealed by a similar exhibition. 
   We spirits are made flesh. This exhibition proves this awesome truth.

703. 080227 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Right qustions open dialogue

How can you discuss religion without getting into an argument? How can you listen to others without feeling they are trying to convert you, and how can you present your own faith without appearing aggressive? 
   Can two people with different levels of knowledge about religious matters have a discussion on an equal basis?
   Can an Israeli and a Palestinian discuss religion in a way that sets aside religious and political conflict?
   The answer to these questions is yes — if the conversation focuses on not who is right and who is wrong but rather on personal stories. You cannot dispute someone’s own life experiences.
   A structured exercise can get the process going. In a conversation between you and your friend, start with five minutes each to speak without interruption as the other listens.
   It is sometimes helpful to begin with question. Here are some examples:
   *Can you tell me a story when the universe seemed to make sense to you or when you were overcome with a sense of awe?
    *What experiences have you had that point to the ultimate source of life’s meaning for you?
   *Was there a turning point in your life as you considered spiritual questions that helped shape who you have become?
   *Have you ever seen a painting or heard music or walked on the beach or in a forest or played sports or seen a sunrise or learned about science or worked a math problem or held a child or made love when you felt lifted out beyond your ordinary sense of self? 
   I like such questions because they welcome atheists, agnostics and humanists as well as believers into the conversation.
   In listening to someone answering such questions, it is important just to listen. It is not useful, even in your head, to criticize your friend’s choice of words or theological framework.
   What you want is to understand the experience as a genuine expression of what is precious or even sacred to your friend.
   Spiritual ideas cannot be fully comprehended except as they are embedded in stories. Religious terms can mean one thing to you, another to your friend. By listening to how your friend uses words in the context of your friend’s experience, your own ability to use the languages of faith will be expanded.
   Religion is really about stories. There are the stories in the sacred texts, and there are the stories of your own and your friends’ adventures in seeking to find guideposts within the overwhelming mystery of existence. 
   It can be a privilege and a treasure when you and a friend exchange intimate details of that adventure.

702. 080220 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Medicinal Marijuana is a topic for study

Suffering is the first fact of life that the Buddha taught, and his teaching is sometimes called a therapy. The “medicine Buddha” is a familiar image in the faith.
   Other religions also seek to relieve spiritual and physical distress. New Testament Christians prayed by laying hands on the afflicted. American Indian healing practices, such as Navajo sand painting and chants, are integral to the faith.
   Still, I was surprised to learn that Jewish, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist and other religious bodies are supporting some form of “medical marijuana” to relieve the suffering of those for whom no other drug is effective.
   This is not the place for political or even medical disputes, though I did talk with Dr. Eric A. Voth of the Institute on Global Drug Policy, who testified last week before a Kansas Senate committee against a bill that would create a defense for those whose suffering is relieved through marijuana when a physician writes that marijuana could help a patient, just as codeine, cocaine, morphine and OxyContin are available by prescription.
   One of the reasons Dr. Voth opposes the bill is because he believes marijuana has no medical value, the official position of the FDA. He was unaware of religious groups supporting his position, which he says is based on scientific study.
   Testifying in favor of the bill was former Kansas Attorney General Robert T. Stephan who emphasized he was not advocating legalized marijuana but urged Kansas to join with the 12 other states encouraging removal of marijuana from the FDA’s Schedule I to Schedule II to permit adequate research.
   Stephan, a cancer survivor himself, endured seven years of chemotherapy. For 15 years he visited cancer patients in Wichita and Topeka, he told me. 
   In his testimony he said,  “Some patients said  they resorted to marijuana to relieve their nausea. It is not right that they should be subject to incarceration because marijuana was their last resort for relief.”
   Stephan sent me a note from a woman whose sciatic nerve is exposed. 
    “I have been through basically every pain medication as well as surgery for placement of a spinal cord stimulator which quickly became ineffective and resulted in another surgery for placement of a morphine pump.
    “I also take methadone on top of morphine, and I still suffer with extreme pain.
    “Using marijuana strictly for relief of severe debilitating pain, I am completely pain free for approximately 6 hours or slightly longer.”
    She had considered suicide. No wonder religious groups are studying the issue. 

701. 080213 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
True listening an act of love

When I realized that last week’s column was the 700th in this series and that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I thought a little love letter to you, dear readers, would be in order.
   Writing about what you hold sacred, revealed in politics, work, sports, science, history, the arts — and even religion — is a weekly thrill. I like presenting perspectives that I myself might not share, and on occasion saying how things look to me.
   But the real thrill comes from the relationship we’ve developed, you and me. Some of you write me, some of you mention the column when you see me, some of you have invited me speak to your groups.
   Some have been less generous, like the reader who called the column, “pitiful, pusillanimous pabulum,” or the folks who want me to condemn Islam or Catholicism or atheism.
   To them, and all, I want to say that what we hold dear is much bigger than can fit into any words in this space.
   Religion is less about words than about experiences of awe and duty and despair and triumph and love. 
   It is about the great questions. Who am I, really? How are we alike and different, and how can we live together? What does the great longing that I feel mean? How can I make sense out of disappointment and suffering? Is there a purpose or destiny for us? Am I respecting or violating the creation, the harmony of nature? What does death mean? How do I want to live my life? 
   Our answers are often expressed in stories, personal stories and the stories of traditions.
   It may be the story of Moses or Jesus or Muhammad or Durga or Buddha or the Buffalo’s Wife or even evolution.
   You, dear readers, may cherish one story as sacred and at the same time understand that other folks take great meaning from their stories. Because we are a community, you want to appreciate their stories, too.
   An ancient story tells of blind men who encounter an elephant. One who feels a leg says the elephant is like a tree. Holding the tail, another says the elephant is like a rope. A third grasping the ear says the beast is like a hand fan. The one touching the tusk says the beast is like a solid pipe.
   But unlike the blind men in the story who argue the truth of the beast from their own limited vantages, you, dear readers, while affirming the integrity and power of your own experiences, are eager to hear what others say. 
   We may not be blind, but faith is about the infinite, and that is too large to grasp.
   Still, reaching beyond oneself into the mystery of existence is certainly a species of love. Happy Valentine’s Day.

700. 080206 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Sufism a school of mystical love

Perhaps no American spiritual movement is more identified with the experience of mystical love than Sufism.
   Sufi orders developed in Islam shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century. Early in the 20th, the Indian musician and Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan came to the West and developed what is called “Universal Sufism.”
   His American student, Sam Lewis, founded the “Dances of Universal Peace” which use materials from many faiths with chanting and movement as meditation.
   Wali Ali Meyer, the personal assistant and “esoteric secretary” to Lewis will lead a workshop in Kansas City Feb. 22-24 for the Shining Heart Sufi Community, founded here about 25 years ago.
   I asked Wali Ali about love. 
   “Sufism has been called the school of love, but it is not a school where it is particularly  important to conceptualize what love is. What is essential is to make it more and more a reality in one’s life, to realize it in all one’s relationships,” he said.
   “Ultimately one may come to feel as (the Sufi poet) Rumi has said that the Beloved (God) is all in all, and the lover but a veil over the Beloved. It is a universal phenomenon that pulses through every particle of the universe and connects everything.”
   Wali Ali is the head of the esoteric school for the Sufi Ruhaniat order, based in San Francisco. 
   Sufi orders are important because the teachings are transmitted from master to student through a lineage, more than by reading books. Mystical love is an experience more than an intellectual attainment. 
   Mystical love involves abandoning attachments to ways we identify ourselves that separate us and isolate us from others.
   Wali Ali is working with several others on the Wazifa Project, an exploration of the psychological and mystical meanings of the 99 names or characteristics of God traced to the Qur’an, used in meditation practices to experience the dissolution of the false self into the divine embrace.
   Of his visit to Kansas City, Wali Ali said, “The workshop will combine dances, walking attunement practices and sitting contemplation practices on Sufi themes based on classical and contemporary approaches. We will work a great deal with the 99 names of God as means for uncovering the potentialities in our soul and healing the places of disconnection. 
   “There will be opportunities for questions and discussion.  There is no prerequisite for attending.  All are welcome.” 
   Information is available at

699. 080130 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
The Abbey is a place to feel at home

Why do people leave ordinary society for a life set apart in a monastic setting? Can we learn from those who appear to have separated themselves from us?
   William Claassen traveled the world exploring such questions. His first book, Alone in Community: Journeys into Monastic Life Around the World, examined Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, and Sufi sites and the practices of their inhabitants.
   But his new book, Another World: A Retreat in the Ozarks, takes us just down the road to Assumption Abbey near Ava, MO, about 90 minutes southeast of Springfield. 
   “Rocket,” a rock’n’roll musician quoted in the first chapter, compares visiting Branson with the Abbey: “Well, at one you come back with souvenirs, and the other, you come back with a different perspective.”
   One of 40 some writers Claassen quotes about the monastic experience is Joan Chittister, OSB, who suggests that “it may be only from a distance that we see best. It may be those who do not have money who best know that money is not essential to the good life. It may be those who each have only a bed and books and one closet full of clothes in one small room to call their own who clearly realize what clutter can do to a life. It may be those who vow obedience to another who can sense what self-centeredness can do to corrode a heart.”
   Assumption is a Trappist monastery, like Gethsemani in Kentucky, made famous by Thomas Merton. In Claassen’s book, illustrated with his own photos, we learn how the Trappist monasteries originated, how they relate to each other, how they employ the Rule of St Benedict, how they support themselves, what the daily schedule is and how they welcome visitors.
   The book is a week’s diary, each chapter combining an account of each day’s activity with the reactions within Claassen, himself a guest.
   In addition, Claassen includes biographical sketches of five particular monks. In an interview, he explained why: “they represent to me the archetypal figures, . . . the abbot, the guest master, the business manager, the hermit, and the woodsman (laborer).” 
   Claassen believes that the monks “have much to teach our society.” Examples include “living simply, practicing the art of listening,  honoring ritual and ceremony, being good stewards of the land, maintaining a daily meditative spiritual practice, emphasizing cooperation rather than competition and honoring the value of silence.”
   More people visit monasteries than call them home. Claassen’s book shows why such visits can offer spiritual refreshment.

Claassen's first book was published in 2000. The new book was published by Sheed & Ward in November, 2007. He lives in Oakland, CA but was raised in Kansas. He has a masters in journalism from MU in Columbia.

698. 080123 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Speak your mind in church

Americans venerate the First Amendment. On one hand it prohibits the government from establishing religion while on the other it protects “the free exercise thereof.” But how can this balance be put into practice?
   This month many of us have attended events commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. a religious leader whose voice renewed the American dream for all citizens. He did this by shining the light of morality on immoral laws and practices in such a way that governments at many levels responded. He did not seek office. He sought to change hearts.
   The Rev. Thomas Are Jr. senior pastor at Village Presbyterian Church, examined the relationship between faith and politics in a recent sermon.
   He reminded his congregation of this passage in the Lord’s prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The work of the church includes both heaven and earth, Are said.
   Are noted that “prophets from Nathan to Jeremiah meddled in foreign policy. Paul tells us to pay our taxes because the state exists to uphold the good . . . . And Jesus—in some ways the most political of all — tells us that when we pray, we are to pray about kingdom matters. The Bible speaks to the whole human condition. There is nothing in our lives that God fails to care about.”
   Are picked a counter-example from Are’s own Presbyterian tradition.
   The theological giant at 1861 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America was James Henley Thornwell. 
   Are says, “Thornwell told the Assembly that the church was to focus on spiritual matters alone, that slavery was a political decision, and God does not speak to such issues through the church. It is not our duty to question slavery; we must devote ourselves to spiritual matters.
   “Arguably (slavery) was the most significant moral issue . . . and the Presbyterians said we should not talk about it.” 
   Are’s point was that the church should be a place of conversation, neither limited to concerns of the hereafter nor should it be a branch of earthly government.
   “We have become keenly aware of how dangerous it can be when church and state are joined together, when one’s commitment to God is collapsed with one’s commitment to the state,” he said.
   Without aspiring to hold the reigns of government, King knew how to generate conversation. His eloquent words and eloquent non-violent actions brought this nation closer to realizing the nation’s promise, that all of us are created equal.

697. 080116 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Let a candle light your way

Martin Luther King Jr taught the path of "nonviolent direction action" in seeking justice but religion and violence are horribly linked throughout history and today.
   Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a fellow Jew, Gandhi was murdered by a fellow Hindu, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was killed by a fellow Muslim and Christians killing Christians in Ireland is still a painful memory. What makes people of faith violent?
    "History is filled with examples of violence committed in the name of God," said the Very Rev. Terry White, dean of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, when I asked about a program the cathedral is offering Jan. 22 and 23.
    "Sacred stories in various traditions proclaim that God wreaks violence on the ungodly, and that God empowers God's people to do the same to those who do not believe correctly," White said. "Serious study of Scripture and examination of belief are essential if the cycle of violence, particularly so-called divinely sanctioned violence, is to cease."
    On Sept. 11, 2005, "the fourth anniversary of a day of great destruction and blasphemy, when horrible violence was claimed to have been done in God's name, and when, in response, calls for revenge and retribution were heard throughout the country and even in houses of worship," the cathedral inaugurated an "Altar of Reconciliation" in its tower entrance, White said. "We must not return evil for evil."
    Whatever the cause, the cathedral responds to community violence by burning a candle noting each murder in Kansas City.
   "The candle calls the faithful to pray for every victim, the alleged perpetrators of the crime, the families of victim and accused, friends, and too often due to age of victim and accused, classmates and teachers," White said.
    Next week's program, "Religion and Violence: Untangling the Roots of Conflict," moves beyond the community to consider the problem everywhere. It will combine a live webcast from New York with discussion groups at the cathedral.
    The Jewish speaker, Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth College, spoke here at an interfaith Martin Luther King Jr observance in 2005. Tariq Ramadan, author of Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity, will present a Muslim perspective. Christians include James H. Cone of Union Seminary, author of Black Theology and Black Power, and James Carrol, who wrote Constantine's Sword.
   The program will explore whether the solution to violence can be found within or outside of faith.
   To learn more contact Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral at or 816-474-8260. To access the webcast, log on to .

696. 080109 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Bud Fiedler, in fond memory 

Like everyone who knew Msgr. Ernest “Bud” Fiedler, I loved him, but I did not know him as long or as well as one of the casket-carriers, Jim Houx Jr.
   The ring on Bud’s little finger pictured in the 24-page booklet for his obsequies last Thursday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where he had been rector, has a story. 
   Bud served as an advisor at the first session of the Second Vatican Council and then was assigned to a Warrensburg parish where in 1963 he and Houx, then a student, met a high school event. They became friends.
   In those days Protestants were suspicious of Catholics who worshipped “in a strange language.” The Protestant churches were often antagonistic to each other as well. 
   Bud began inviting his fellow clergy to coffee, one by one, and ultimately spread the spirit of friendship all around. Bud transformed the town. 
   In 1968, the bishop approved Fielder presiding at the wedding for Houx and his bride, both not Catholic. After the two exchanged rings, Houx gave Fielder the ring which like the other two, was inscribed “one in Christ.”
   Bud often joked about going on their honeymoon as well. Bud’s Karmann Ghia was stranded in Springfield, so the happy couple gave Bud a lift on their way to New Orleans.
   Bud was later reassigned to Kansas City and Houx’s business brought him here was well. 
   Houx says, “You could not not  have a good time with Bud. He was preaching, teaching and healing without recognizing his power. He loved everyone as a child of God, and embraced Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists—everyone.” Houx often referred to Bud as “a ball of light and love disguised as a priest.  He was a community treasure.”
   In the early 90s, Bud and Houx talked about the culture’s placing profits above people, with spiritual values uplifted on Sunday and greed ruling the rest of the week. This led to the creation of what is now the Center for Spirit at Work, with speakers from the best of Kansas City business leaders.
   I cannot capture here the wonder of the things said about Bud at the wake and funeral. But the feeling with which Bishop Emeritus Raymond Boland presided, the glory of the music and the extraordinary arrangements by Msgr. Robert Gregory created a fitting and magnificent celebration of Bud’s life.
   Although the Catholic faith is not my story, the liturgy placed Bud’s life within the Christian narrative of love, service and community, enacted and confirmed by the people receiving the Eucharist, in the promise  of eternal life, with Bud a precious parable of the cosmic story. 

695. 080102 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Rumi a reed of spirituality

This column is a couple days late for the 800th anniversary of the birth of Jalaladin Rumi in 1207, but I expect the celebration of this mystic will continue to the end of time. 
   Mark di Suvero’s sculpture, “Rumi,” is outside the north end of the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. He is one of the most popular poets in America today.
   While the heap of books on my night stand constantly changes, there seems always to be at least one Rumi.
   I’ve written about him several times before, though not since I visited his shrine in Konya, in modern Turkey, where I also saw the order of “whirling dervishes” he founded.
   In what was then Anatolia, he had become a respected scholar in the post held previously by his father when he met and fell into a mystical love with an older man, Shams-e Tabrizi. We do not know if they were physically intimate, but we do know their friendship was a scandal and apparently led to Shams being murdered four years later, perhaps by one of Rumi’s sons.
   Rumi was shattered, and his laments were mixed with praise for a divine love that persisted:
   “I laugh like a flower, not just mouth laughter./ From non-being I burst forth with gaiety and mirth./ But love taught me another way of laughter./ The neophyte laughs according to profit and gain./ Like a shell, I laugh when broken.”
   The mystical transformation was so complete that in his longing for Shams, he found the body of his beloved everywhere — in a stone, a field, a jug of water, even within himself. The divine source of love penetrates the world, and when our eyes are open, everywhere we look we will find God.
   But this is possible only when we abandon the ego, when we surrender utterly to the love that, in the words of Kansas City Sufi musician Allaudin Ottinger, “turns grass green, puts the fresh look in babies’ faces, and makes the sun come up.”
   Rumi perhaps comes as close as anyone in pointing to the unexplainable union of yearning and satisfaction. “Every thirst gets satisfied except/ that of these fish, the mystics,/ who swim a vast ocean of grace/ still somehow longing for it.”
   In the words of J. W. N. Sullivan writing about Beethoven, “suffering is accepted as a necessary condition of life, as an illuminating power.”
   In the metaphor of the reed flute, Rumi suggests how we are separated from God, yet that separation makes song possible: “Listen to the story of the reed:/
Since I was cut from the reedbed, separated,/ I have made this crying sound./ The reed’s song is pain and comfort as one.”