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Faiths and Beliefs
Star tag: Vern Barnet does interfaith work in Kansas City. Reach him at
a column by Vern Barnet every Wednesday in the Kansas City Star,
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 2009 Columns
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See columns
770. 09.06.17 Sharing Interfaith Stories
765. 09.05.13 KC makes the perfect setting
Q&A with Susan Cook and Shannon Clark
747. 09.01.07 A Papal exhibit of blessings
661. 07.05.09 What is your faith quotient?

Q & A -- Susan Cook

1. How did you get interested in interfaith explorations? 

I was elected chair of the Urantia Fellowship Interfaith Committee. When I was interviewed by the Council for the position, I explained I was raised by my Creek (Native American) father who urged me to find truth in every religion. When I found The Urantia Book, that is exactly the direction it offered as well - "embrace truth where you find it and spend time with as many religionists as possible to understand and accept different viewpoints."

2. How did you get connected with NAIN? 

I found NAIN through a friend. I went to their yearly conference which was held in Las Vegas that year and fell in love with the group of many faiths as well as their service work to network faiths together for common service goals.

3. When  and why did you get involved with KC interfaith? 

When I was elected Interfaith Chair, I googled interfaith in Kansas City. Vern Barnet's name was everywhere. I emailed him, called him and basically pestered him until he agreed to meet me. He introduced me to CRES and the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and I've been working with them ever since. I have been accepted by the Council and am now a Member-at-Large.

4. Why did you seek to bring NAIN to KC? and what do you hope NAIN folks will find out about KC? 

I enjoy creating the conference atmosphere and bringing people together. The NAIN Board and members are going to be delighted to meet all of us and see first hand Interfaith work happening in this city. I'm proud of the work we do and that so many of us are working in this area. Kansas City is a wonderful city of many faiths and cultures to work beautifully together. My hope is that NAIN can help them expand their friendships even wider on this planet.

5. What do you hope KC folks will learn about NAIN? and about Interfaith?

There are those of us who believe steadfastly that Interfaith work will change the planet. Work is being done with sometimes 4 or 5 different faiths and cultures planning and creating together as a team to bring goodness to those in need. Since the GKCIFC  is seeking to bring education to Kansas City I thought it would be a tremendous opportunity to meet religionists from all over the country and be able to network with them.

We can love one another, we can accept one another, and we can live and work together to move in a forward motion toward common goals. My great hope is that the people of Kansas City who attend NAIN will watch us, ask us questions and participate. It's a deep experience that can change lives. 

Q & A -- Shannon Clark

1. Why did the Council welcome NAIN to KC for this conference?

The Council has been a member of NAIN for several years and supports their desire to bring together individuals from interfaith organizations throughout the country. We are excited to be able to host this year and share with the others what the GKCIC has been focusing on over the past year. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to learn from others and share what we have to offer as well.

2. What will KC folks provide the guests from around the continent? 

Members of the Council will provide the interfaith blessing for the opening ceremony as well as faith presentations throughout the weekend. Many members will be demonstrating the traditions of their faith through music, dance and other artistic expression.

3. You have less than a year with the Council. Are you looking forward to meeting people from around the country who have similar agency positions?

I was able to attend the NAINConnect last year in San Francisco and was inspired and motivated by meeting other individuals who share the same goals as those of the Council. Now that I have almost a year of experience and a greater grasp on the interfaith "world", I look forward to meeting other Executive Directors of similar organizations and learning about their governance, programs and goals. It is so important to share and learn from others, especially when we all have the same goal of brining together individuals of diverse faiths and backgrounds.

4. Any other comments?

The NAIN board is made up of a diverse group of intellectual, caring and fun individuals. They put a tremendous amount of effort into making NAINConnect a success. All of the individuals planning the conference are volunteers who give up their time to put together an amazing weekend. I am inspired and motivated by their dedication. I hope that members of the many faith communities throughout Kansas City will attend the conference and learn more about the various faiths in their own backyard as well as across the country.


Susan Cook, Co-Chair of NAINConnect 2009
The North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) or 816-716-4944


The North American Interfaith Network (NAIN), along with The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and SpiritPath at Unity Village, will be holding its annual conference - NAINConnect 2009 - at Unity Village, MO June 26-28. The theme of the conference is: “Experiencing the Spirit in Education: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism”, focusing on interfaith education throughout the nation. This conference represents interfaith groups representing over 20 diverse faiths from all over the country who come together once a year to network, learn, and deepen relationships with one another. 

The goal of NAINConnect 2009 is to bring higher education and the grass roots organizations and leaders together in the spirit of learning from one another. NAINConnect 2009 will feature Professors and Leaders from the highest centers of education presenting about interfaith issues. Please consider joining us for the weekend or for one day – we want you to experience NAINConnect 2009. For registration and workshop information, including bios of the featured presenters, please visit

The North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) is a non-profit association with membership of interfaith agencies and organizations throughout Canada , the United States and Mexico. The purpose of NAIN is to provide communication, understanding and mutual strength among interfaith organizations, agencies and offices of denominations, religious, and educational institutions. For more information about NAIN and for registration information for the NAINConnect 2009, please visit

from young NAIN registrants

Dear Students/Scholars--

Congratulations on your selection as a scholarship recipient for the NAIN conference in Kansas City June 25-28. If you have a chance, you'll want to visit the world-famous Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art with its astonishing Chinese collection (among others) and the award-winning new Bloch building which glows at night.
     But I'm writing you now to ask that you respond to each of the following questions so that I can weave your answers together into my weekly Wednesday column in The Kansas City Star. . . . You can reword the questions to suit your own concerns and situation. Your answers can be a sentence or a paragraph long or longer, as you wish. You can pick and choose -- you don't have to answer every single point. . . .

1. What is your faith background/journey and how does that fit into the rest of your life? How do you understand terms like "religion," "faith," and "spirituality"? Have you had an experience or experiences which might be described as an encounter with the Sacred or the Holy? If so, please describe.

2. Why are you interested in interfaith activities? What previous experiences, if any, have you had? What are you doing currently in this field? Have you encountered situations where you thought interfaith understanding helped illuminate a problem or issue -- or where interfaith understanding was lacking? If you belong to a religious community or tradition, to what extent does it support interfaith relations?

3. Why do you plan to attend the NAIN conference? What do you hope to gain or contribute to the Conference through the panel and beyond? Do you think young people have a special energy or responsibility or insight to offer the future? How does interfaith work relate to other issues that may concern you, such as the environment, people's sense of who they are as individuals, and how we live together as a society and as a world community?

4. What would you like my readers to know about you?

Audra Teague:

1. My religious experience growing up was a mixture of Quaker, Southern Baptist, and Episcopal-on-Easter traditions. In my adult life, I have moved away from some of the divisive experiences I had as a child, and have been drawn to more indigenous practices, earth-centered and woman-centered spirituality, and reflection upon my direct experiences of Spirit. I am a member of First Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbus, Ohio, because I feel it is a space where I can grow spiritually in whatever direction I will, use whatever God-language I choose, and learn through other people's different experiences and spiritual paths. 

2. My interfaith experience began in college, when my spiritual path took me away from the traditions of my family.  It has been a defining challenge my entire adult life to work with family members to maintain strong relationships in the midst of very different worldviews. 
      My first public interfaith work occurred immediately after September 11th, when I helped to organize an interfaith prayer service in Washington DC for the very diverse clientele and community members I served through a shelter for homeless women and families living in low-income housing. Since then, I have worked as an interfaith community organizer for various social issues, and am now working specifically on interfaith peace issues. I find spirituality and religious expression to be central to many people's consciousness and experiences in life.  I am drawn to interfaith work because I have experienced firsthand the harm to community and family when religious differences lead to isolation and separation.  I strongly believe that our religious cultures and experiences of Divine Spirit can help us to overcome separation as we acknowledge difference in order to build healthy, life-affirming communities in which all members are valued and welcomed.

3. I attended NAIN last year in San Francisco, and had an amazing spiritual, intellectual, and relational experience. I am looking forward to focusing on the theme of interfaith education and increase my skills so that my work in Columbus will be more grounded in the wisdom of others around the country. I am looking forward to meeting other people my age, as I did last year, to exchange stories and inspiration. While we may offer less experience to the interfaith movement than some of our elders, I believe  we may bring different sensitivities to the pulses of our world that come out of our own intercultural and inter-spiritual experiences. 

4. I am 30 years old, got my B.A. in Russian Studies from the University of Virginia back in 2001... have subsequently done a year of service with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (during which time September 11th occurred, thus my experience in DC leading the interfaith prayer service), then the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, then I was trained in Columbus, Ohio as a community organizer for the DART network of congregation-based community organizations, then started my M.A. in Vermont at SIT Graduate Institute. I have since completed a graduate certificate from SIT in "Psycho-social Foundations of Peace-building" and am currently working on my thesis for my M.A. in "Social Justice in Intercultural Relations." I am a staff member at the Interfaith Center for Peace - was just promoted to Executive Director last Monday, in fact! 

Joshua M. Z. Stanton:

1. Though I consider myself a person of faith, I struggle with the term because it is often used in contrast with the word science. I am a person who believes in both a higher power and scientific method as an important means for people to study and gain an understanding of the world. Faith and science are fundamentally interrelated rather than contradictory, based on my worldview.

2. As someone who came of age after September 11th, I view active outreach to other religious communities as a necessity rather than an option. Our hope for peace lies in the ability to connect scholars and clergy, grassroots initiatives and established forums, young people and the elderly through the common pursuit of learning and work for the common good. It’s that understanding that keeps me so interested in the field.
     My current goal is to help bridge the gap between scholarship and action, since doing so would strengthen both pursuits. To that end, I co-found the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ ( a free web forum that combines a peer-reviewed journal with regular columns on best practices from the field, analyses of current events, book reviews, and more. Our goal is to build a virtual community of inter-religious leaders to advance both scholarship and work for the common good. We have been graced with a wonderful Staff and Board of Scholars and Practitioners to guide our work and enable us to continue growing as an organization.

3. The NAIN conference provides a unique opportunity for people of all backgrounds to learn about new approaches to inter-religious work. Ongoing learning is essential to my personal growth as a future rabbi and a person who seeks to promote inter-religious collaboration throughout my life.
      I believe in the strength of inter-generational partnerships, particularly in inter-religious work and study. The perspective that experience brings is significantly complemented by the vigor of youth and ability that many young people possess to ask questions. Well-structured, inter-generational partnerships hold remarkable potential, particularly when seeking new ways to address inter-religious issues and foster collaboration.
      The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ ( is set up so that young people like myself have the opportunity to solicit advice from more experienced leaders and scholars within the organization itself. I     have benefited immensely from this arrangement and believe that other groups would benefit from similar inter-generational teamwork. In this respect, we may be able to debunk the purported ‘generation gap’ and create successful inter-religious partnerships at the same time. 

4. I strongly believe that all people hold kernels of wisdom. I want others to feel comfortable sharing their insights with me, irrespective of their backgrounds. Dialogue is at its heart a practice as much as it is a means towards another end. The whole goal of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ ( is to provide a forum through which people can share their insights with one another for the benefit of the inter-religious community. But such interchanges often begin on a personal basis and require habituation. 

Stephanie Hughes:

1. I grew up in a rural coal-mining town in Southern Illinois; my parents were not churchgoers, but I started going as a child to Missionary Baptist churches—they always had a bus or van for “unchurched” kids like me.  I rode the “Son-Shine Bus” for years, memorizing Bible verses for donut holes.  I loved church—I wrote songs and sang “specials,” and attended many, many revivals.  When I was in high school, one of my teachers invited me and my family to the local Episcopal church.  It resonated with my dad’s childhood Catholicism (to which he has since returned), so we started attending.  At that time in my life, the rich tradition and embrace of reason in the Episcopal church also resonated with me.  When I went away to college, I attended the campus Episcopal church; I remain Episcopalian.  Although I sometimes attend worship in Catholic churches and have a soft spot for Baptist gospel hymns and preaching, the Episcopal church is my home and where I am spiritually fed.
     I have had experiences where I feel in a most physical, immediate, and holy way the presence of God.  In them, I sense how inter-connected we are, and how meaningful the links between us are.  I also am given a great sense of hopefulness.  In my most spiritually possible moments, I trust that in community we will be most God-like, and that our lives have deep meaning and beauty.  It’s hard to explain, but the idea of long strands of gold, woven throughout an unbelievably rich tapestry—this starts to be an example for the way I understand God’s movement in our lives, and the way we are sewn together irrevocably.

2. As I said, I believe that we are profoundly connected.  I also am an abiding scholar of literature and history—and in this study I am also mainly interested in relationship—the way we as individuals connect to a text or story, and the way we seek to connect with one another, and with God.  It follows that I ought seek out different perspectives, different stories, and others who are seeking in ways different than mine.  I believe inter-religious dialogue ought to be a spiritual discipline, something we pursue as we seek to widen the possibilities of our encounters and understanding with God, and a growing ability to abide and cherish differences, relationships, and lasting dialogue with one another.  If I do not remain open to the ideas and experiences of others, I not only miss out on chances for a richer life, but I am less a child of God—I believe God intends us to make community with one another, and openness to interfaith encounters and endeavors is essential to that.

3. If young people have any special energy or insight, it may just be that we are more used to feeling unsettled in the world, and so more likely to experience the disequilibriums that come when we encounter and digest new information and experiences.  One aspect of being comfortable with an inter-religious encounter is an unspoken acceptance that one’s own perspective isn’t necessarily “right.”  This is so difficult, but it’s necessary to being human as well—we like to think we are in control, but we are not.  We learn most when we can experience relationships and ideas for ourselves, and work to assimilate them into our own stories.  If we can “set the table” for authentic dialogue, we are also setting up a meaningful forum for real learning and growth.

4. I’m a schoolteacher returning to the classroom this fall after three years in seminary.  I always feel blessed to get to work with so many young people—with their energy, their spirits, their curiosity.  I hope that as I continue to learn how to foster, facilitate, and participate in authentic dialogue, it will make me a better teacher.

of column 773. 090708:
Faiths grapple with gay rights

What planet are you living on again? As a gay person, that is borderline insulting. I can't think of a single entity that promotes anti-gay propaganda more than the church. And I mean darn near any church. The ones that offer support are the extreme exception. And many of those offer that old "hate the sin, not the sinner" support that accepts gays who are not practicing what comes natural to them.

I understand the anger and frustration in the previous comment. However, without the discussion in the churches, much less progress would have been achieved. And in KC, people of faith were leaders in responding to the AIDS crisis with compassion and understanding and actual medical and financial support. A large segment of the population is involved with religious organizations, and without the eruption of debate within them, leading to the ordination of say, Bishop Robinson, and many others, society as a whole would likely be even more repressive. The writer needs to recognize there are many churches, and within them, many points of view, increasingly favorable.

Current research show that "homosexuals" make up 1-2% of our population. Yet, how is it that the "gay rights" discussion and issues dominate the headlines?

trapblock, I believe GLBT rights are the human-rights issue of our time. We are talking about PEOPLE here: and individual lives matter whether a group composes 1% or 50% of our population. 
     And apparently there are enough people, both gay and straight, who see this as a valid issue. 
     I'm a homeschooler -- and did you know that some conservative Christian homeschoolers even see gay marriage as a threat to their homeschooling freedoms? People who join the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, headed by Michael Farris who is also involved with the Coalition on Revival, get regular notices about pending legislation that could affect homeschoolers and, gay rights is seen as a threat by them.
     How ridiculous is that? As you can see, conservatives make it a headline-issue every bit as much as liberals do.

Good insight Panzie. I think there is a small group of very wealthy people funding this as part of their agenda; just follow the money trail (but I don't doubt conservatives are fueling this in some way).
     My kids go to a public school with a very good principal who is gay. I like the man but I see this as a threat too. The school systems have been very influenced by this well-financed agenda for "rights" of this super-minority group and I don't want my children exposed to it.
     You and I have been down this road before; I don't believe that Truth is up for grabs. We are free to choose good or evil we are not free to determine what IS good and what IS evil.


Gay marriage debate

Vern Barnet is right to expose the hypocrisy of those who uphold the Defense of Marriage Act’ and yet violate their vows (7/8, “Faiths grapple with gay rights”). He is wrong to intimate that such hypocrisy justifies gay marriage. 

Barnett employs a gay pastor’s view to express his own, in my humble opinion.

Gay marriage further disintegrates marriage and its fundamental purpose: to create, protect and empower children to become responsible heterosexual lovers in their own right. Two mommies or two daddies can not engender that.

In truth, children suffer most from the mess we have made of marriage, a mess that has now morphed into gay marriage. For their sake, let us expose and rid ourselves of marital hypocrisy so that marriage can be empowered to withstand all its adversaries, including gay marriage. 

Andrew Comiskey,Kansas City


   1. The column's purpose was not limited to pointing out the hypocracy of those who favor DOMA and yet violate their own marriage vows: the point here is that DOMA did nothing to protect the sanctity of their marriages. Indeed DOMA has no documentable effect whatsoever in preserving marriages.

   2. The letter writer assumes the purpose of marriage is to raise children. But we allow those who cannot have children, or do not wish to have children, to marry because most of us think marriage is about love and strengthening of that relationship by social recognition. Children may be a part of that, but are not necessarily so. Further gay couples in fact can provide excellent parental care for children, their own biologically (by one partner) or those they adopt.

Bill Tammeus and
Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn
authors of 
They Were Just People

Tammeus response
Cukierkorn response

1. What was it like for you (emotionally, spiritually) to leave Kansas City early in the 21st Century and go to sites in Poland and elsewhere in search of what happened in a time few people remember? Did it get easier or harder as you collected the stories?

I was overcome in Poland by a sense of absence because it is a land of strangled memory. What broke my heart was not just the lives cut short, but also the lives never lived because of the murder of 6 million Jews.

Curiously, I had always been fascinated by poland since that is the land of birth of my grandparents and generations back going as far as the expulsion from spain (1492) and possibly before.  In krakow is buried Nathan Nate Shapira(died 1633) a kabbalist, chief rabbi of Prague and Krakow and one of my earliest relatives i know of his place of burial.
     The painfull part was to be in Poland and to be looking for waht is not there anymore. The Nazis not only killed the Jews but destroyed most sign of Jewish material culture.  Synagogues were razed, tombstones were used to pave streets, etc . . . .

2. How would you like the book to affect its readers? What would you like it to accomplish?

I hope readers understand that they need not be perfect people to make moral choices. Even small acts of kindness can have tremendous -- and often unexpected -- consequences for good. Jacques grasped this as a lesson before I did. But he's right.

I hope people will gather that the choices that we make can have profound and lasting effect on others.

3. How did the interests you each had as you began your research differ (from your partner's)? Do you perceive a convergence or further divergence or both?

I found it intriguing that I, the Christian, was most engaged by the stories of the Jewish survivors while Jacques, the Jew, seemed more touched by the non-Jewish rescuers and their reasons for risking their lives. I think that's still true, though I think both of us now better understand each other's attraction to the opposite side of the stories.

Bill was fascinated by survivors, I am by rescuers.  perhaps it is because I grew up with survivors, so they were not novelty (so to speak). We trully got a long well and our friendship grew and solidified through this process.

4. How has writing the book changed you? How has writing the book affected your assessment about the causes of human cruelty and compassion? How has writing the book affected your hopes that peoples of all faiths can be assured of their safety? You both are men of faith. How do you confront the mystery of how a presumably caring Deity could have permitted such suffering even among those who escaped from death? (Cf. your "attempts to infuse it with redemptive meaning inevitably fail.") In the stories you tell, do you see a divine hand at work or lucky human intervention?

Doing this work has made me more aware of both human failure and human grandeur. As one who claims Calvin as a theological father, I'm well aware of the human capacity for evil. I have no full explanation for that capacity but recognize it in myself. I do not and cannot blame God for, as you put it, permitting such suffering. Rather, I recognize that God suffered with the sufferers and was present to those who sought and sensed God's presence.

The Holocaust is not about God, it is about people.  The Holocaust is the result of a few people's actions and the inaction of most of the people involved.  We are responsible not only for what we do but also by failing to act when action is needed.

5. What made ordinary people -- not saints -- Christians, Muslims, apparently non-religious people, and even anti-Semites, save Jews from the Nazis? Do these stories suggest that building friendships may be more important to secure a humane future than intellectual understanding of one another's faiths? (Sorry for this leading question -- do what you want with it!)

In many cases, the people who saved Jews knew them as friends or business associates or both before the war. What mattered was their common humanity, not their attachment to a different faith tradition. An intellectual understanding of such different traditions can and should come but it must necessarily follow an understanding of one's shared human condition.

The motives that lead people to choose to rescue someone else were as diverse as there are individuals.  the common factor were values and a a belief in the inherent worth of every human being

6. The Nazis went after Gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents as well as Jews. Can you offer any speculations about their being protected during the period when they were to be rounded up and sent to camps? Does your research suggest anything about human nature to you that someone researching their fates, as you have done about Polish Jews, might possibly discover?

I find it difficult to draw broad conclusions about the rescuers, whether of Jews or others. Each had unique reasons for risking life. But I think it can be helpful to study such cases and to talk about our own possible responses so that we might, in the end, do the right thing when confronted with such choices.

I would say that if such research was done, it probably will yeald the same results.  Rescuing was not about Gentiles, jews, Gypsies, etc. It was about people.

7.  What would you like readers to know about your website?

Where it is: And that we now have a Facebook page about the book, which FB members can find by searching on the title of the book. There, we hope, some good discussions about the questions the book raises will happen.

see Bill's answer

8. Do you have any additional short statement you'd like to offer my readers?

I think this book lends itself to use by all kinds of study groups, young and old, especially with the Readers' Guide at the end.

BUY MANY OF THEM! All royalties will go to Holocaust Education and related charities.  Bill and I will not make a cent out of book sales.



Time can be on your side

I’m about to turn over the calendar, and an old Missouri farm expression comes to mind: “What’s time to a hog?” 
   We are people, but do we know much more about time than a hog? 
   Did the Mayans know? The disaster film, “2012,” is based on a reading of the Mayan calendar that the world will end then. The Mayans were indeed preoccupied with prodigious stretches of time, but the movie is fantasy, not scholarship. 
  St. Augustine famously wrote, “What is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”
   Different languages have different grammatical “tenses” beyond simply past, present and future, indicating different kinds of concerns about time. 
   The ancient Greeks even had two distinct terms for time. Chronos is the kind of time you see on a clock, ordinary time, one minute after another. Our image of Father Time and the outgoing year ultimately derive from the way the Hellenistic world envisioned the god by that name.
   The name also gives us terms in English like chronic, chronicle and chronology.
   The second word for time was kairos, meaning the right time for something special to happen. The dictionary in the back of my Greek New Testament defines kairos as time “viewed as an occasion rather than an extent.” 
   To adapt the line from a Cialis commercial, it is when ”the moment is right.”
   Chronos is a quantity to be measured but kairos is a quality to be felt.
   Chronological time is often viewed as an enemy. Carpe diem, seize the day, wrote Horace. Poets ever since have been warning that time waits for no one. 
   This idea was anticipated in scripture passages like Ecclesiastes 8: 15 and Isaiah 22: 13, confounded as “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
   Temporal contingency is often contrasted with eternity, understood as the endless, unhurried extension of time.
   But Zen presents eternity as a way of living fully now, and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “He lives eternally who lives in the present.”
   Such a now is not the ever-evaporating tick of the clock or the irresponsible, narrow narcissism demanding a satisfaction this very instant, but rather an expansion of awareness of the infinite reach of history and all possibilities, when we sense that everything ultimately works. Desire becomes simple awe. In sports and the arts it’s sometimes called being “in the zone.”
   [T S Eliot's lines, "If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable" may seem to be contrary, but "The Four Quartets" mey develop the theme toward a similar perspective.
   [The eternal present brings all of the past and all of the future into a stilled awareness, even in the midst of excitement. It is not awaiting for the next tick of the clock but rather complete fulfillment. While "time may be nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once," such eternity is a total immersion in the network of relationships implied in each moment.
   [“Eternity is in love with the productions of time,” wrote poet William Blake, a motto for Process Theology, surely.
   [Philosopher Martin Heidegger's major work was Being and Time, argues that time “persists merely as a consequence of the events taking place in it.” The common exerience of other people's distant kids growing up more quickly than our own illustrates his point. If you spend time in a cave with little to do, as has been documented, you are likely to underestimate how much time has passed because there are few events to mark the passage of time. But without giving a clear direction for future events and little interest in the past, one can ask, What's time to a hog?]
   To be fully present to our selves and to one another may be more wonderful than even — pardon the expression — hog heaven.

A star in darkness

Why is Christmas more popular than Easter? After all, the high point of the Christian calendar is Easter, marking the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion and death, according to the scriptures. Is it not more stupendous to be raised from the dead than merely to be born?
   Perhaps, but birth itself is miraculous, and religions sometimes underline the miracle by compounding marvels in their stories.
   For example, Augustus, emperor at the time of Jesus, was said to be the son of a god. Further, accounts of gods born of virgins, found in many cultures, were particularly popular in the age that produced Christianity. 
   What made the story of Jesus difficult for Roman citizens to accept was not the virgin birth but the idea that a Supreme Deity would leave celestial perfection to accept the limitations of human form and be born in a manger for there was no room for Him at the inn that starry night.
   Augustus, after all, was at the top of “the food chain,” quite unlike the peasant class into which the Christian God arrived.
   This gives special poignancy to the theological doctrine of incarnation, God becoming flesh, the infinite entering finite, the eternal’s advent into the realm of history. The Christian claim is astounding, that God appears in the humblest of forms. 
   (From the Latin root, carnis, “flesh,” we get not only the words “incarnation” and “reincarnation” but also “carnivore,” meat-eater, and “carnival,” originally the festival before the fasting of Lent.)
   But while incarnation theology is worth profound contemplation, I don’t think that’s what makes Christmas popular. 
   [The doctrines of original sin or inherent depravity do not spring to my mind when I hold a baby. And according to scripture, Jesus said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)]
   It is often said that Christmas is for children. I think it is for the child in each of us. We treasure seeing the wonder of a new-born babe because it reminds us of our own potential, sometimes forgotten. When we gaze into a child’s eyes astonished even by the tinsel of the season, we ourselves are refreshed.
   That’s perhaps why we try to please children, sometimes with gifts, to see that natural delight which in turn arouses within us our sacred sensibilities. Jesus himself cherished children.
   A Pueblo clown figure in the new American Indian galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art looks at his hands the way an infant discovers the miracle of his or her body.
   I worry that our culture, with its consumerist binges, tries to buy wonder instead of seeing it in the simple miracle of moving fingers and toes. You cannot put a price tag on that.
   And, for Christians, finding the child anew within each of us may be indeed an incarnation, a gift of God, if we see the star in the darkness, the divine in the stable trough.

KC'S many interfaith stories

I don’t care if you have a dozen graduate degrees and can answer a thousand obscure doctrinal questions about any religion in the history of humankind. Your efforts to understand another person’s faith will be impaired until you listen to the stories of that tradition and that person’s life — and tell your own.
   Such stories reveal how we are transformed by encounter with the sacred, conceived of in many ways.
   Kansas City has its own stories, many of them. One story with many characters is a developing interfaith tale that brings folks of every faith from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, together here and across the globe.
   It started with a baker’s dozen of friends in 1989, each from a different religion. It became a conference of 250 in 2001, a city-wide observance of the first anniversary of 9/11 and last month a luncheon of nearly 600 people hosted by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
   That 2001 conference inspired Donna Ziegenhorn to train a team to interview some 80 area folks of every faith about their lives, which she wove into a play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy,” produced now 20 times, most recently for a capacity crowd last month.
   The play portrays a Muslim college student from our town in New York on 9/11, a Holocaust survivor who ran a bakery here, a former Tibetan monk who escaped to freedom over the Himalayas, the encounter of a Hindu couple with a Shawnee cowboy and other true stories.
   The Festival of Faiths, now in its third year, brought Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and perhaps America’s most influential interfaith leader, to Kansas City last month. His own story of discovering the interfaith imperative in his own faith inspired several audiences here, youth and adult. 
   Another chapter in our story was celebrated last month with those filling Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College when the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging presented the music of Kansas City’s Barclay Martin, who worked with young people in Zamboanga, the Philippines, leading to a concert there with an interfaith audience of 10,000. His discoveries there enrich us here. 
   Next month, former Kansas Citian Audrey Galex returns with her Winter’s Light program, which has been part of Atlanta for six years now. The evening, adapted for Kansas City, begins with a children’s story time and includes music, dance and an art display. The Jan. 23 program at Goppert Theater, Avila University, starts at 7:30 pm.
   Lots is happening here. To be part of Kansas City’s interfaith story, visit

2009 Dec 12

Denominations wrestle with who should receive Communion


Marialice Searcy, 83, of Kansas City has attended Mass all her life and couldn’t imagine not receiving Holy Communion. . . . .


All faiths share a sense of communion 

Every religion includes sacramental acts like Communion that convey transcendent meaning through tangible forms. Here are three examples.
American Indians practice a kind of communion by sharing a calumet, a smoking pipe. The intentions of the community are carried by the smoke to the sacred powers. The sanctified unity of the Indian participants is solemnized through the shared pipe, just as for some Christians the church is the body of Christ realized through the Eucharist. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has several examples of the pipe.

Hindu worship includes prasad, food offered to a deity, then returned, blessed and empowered, and then consumed by the worshipper. Eating someone’s leftovers is ordinarily offensive, but accepting the leftovers from a god expresses the worshipper’s veneration. Commonly the food is a fruit, a sweet or a dollop of milk, sugar, flour and butter mixed together. Anyone may partake.

A Sikh building for worship includes a langar, a kitchen-dining hall where a communal meal is offered without charge by volunteers, not clergy. Often, those who are able sit on the floor to emphasize the equality of all people under God, regardless of earthly status or faith, important in the historical context of the caste system and the different religions of India. The langar thus expresses sharing with a sense of the unity of all humanity in contrast to other faiths whose sacramental practices are restricted to their members.

| Vern Barnet, Special to The Star

Focus on relationships

Many people are surprised to learn that Buddha declined to teach that God exists. But what is even more surprising is his teaching that the self does not exist. In fact, the Buddha taught that clinging to a sense of the self is a source of suffering.
   To understand this doctrine, it may be helpful to look at the historical context in which the Buddha preached, newer insights and then possible practical values.
   *History. The religion of the Buddha’s time proposed that each person is a self, reborn repeatedly until the effects of one’s actions (karma) are extinguished. This self, or soul, was regarded as individual, eternal, unchanging, unitary, autonomous, separate from others.
   The Buddha regarded such a self as an illusion. We are the product of uncountable influences and conditions. When you take them all into account, there is nothing left. We are the consequence genetic, historical, geographic, social and other factors. We are a network of relationships with no discrete parts. 
   This is counter-intuitive because most of us have a strong sense of who we are, separate from others. Culture encourages us to create our own identity.
   *Science. But evolutionist Richard Dawkins has speculated that the brain’s work of developing models of the world from our senses finally became so sophisticated that it was able to make a model of itself. 
   That model is just a reputation, not reality. We see a pattern and ignore what doesn’t fit in the pattern. Further, as optical illusions illustrate, we may see what is not there.
   We can never understand ourselves as others see us because we can never get outside ourselves to see ourselves.
   Neuroscientists have learned that the brain makes decisions before we become conscious of them.
   And sometimes we even speak of being “of two minds” about something. Psychologist Paul Bloom says we are composed of competing selves “continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.”
   We are different characters in worship, at the stadium, at a party, in doubt, in agony, in joy.
   *Practice. The Buddha’s point was not to deny the conventional self, the model, but not to be deceived by it or enslaved to it. 
   Rather than a narcissistic and futile focus on self-esteem, we can put our attention on relationships. We can be freed of the trouble to prove we are worthy by acquiring wealth, power or prestige. Unfettered by the model’s limits, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves, we can simply do the right thing. 

Honoring Eliot Berkley

When the history of interfaith relations in Kansas City is written, Eliot Berkley will be named as one of those who prepared the way for the Heartland’s unique style of bringing folks from many faiths together.
   Other cities have developed their interfaith organizations around common projects or issues rather than by a broader approach of learning about the varied faiths within their communities. Here education is the key.
   A son of Kansas City, Berkley took degrees from Harvard and Princeton. He taught at what was then the University of Kansas City and the Kansas City Art Institute where he became dean. 
   In 1955, he founded the International Relations Council whose work is non-partisan and explores all sides of issues without taking policy positions on them. Promoting awareness of the importance of international relations was his goal. 
   Interfaith work here has followed a parallel model, generally designed to raise awareness and promote understanding. In my own work, I’ve benefited greatly from Eliot’s example and advice. 
   The inaugural speaker for the IRC was Eleanor Roosevelt, who, among other achievements, chaired the drafting of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes freedom of religion, specified in some detail.
   Another cardinal speaker was Bruce Laingen, charge d’affaires in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.
   As with our domestic debates, foreign affairs and international relations are often intimately entwined with religion.
   One of my favorite examples of Berkley’s ground-breaking approach is the conference he convened here in 1986, two years before the founding of the North American Interfaith Network and three years before our own Interfaith Council was created.
   The conference, “Islam and the Muslim World,” was cosponsored by the American University. Not only did Berkley feature a practicing Muslim of national stature, a former ambassador and State Department official, and a scholar from Georgetown University, he also involved local experts, including a curator from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Christian and Jewish leaders.
   Berkley retired in 1994 but his work continues Friday at noon with the annual lecture in his honor. 
   The speaker is Allison Stanger, whose new book, One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy, has attracted much attention, including by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria.
   For information, visit or call 816.221.4204.

Give thanks, feel blessed

The mystics speak of separation and loss but still claim the world is holy, sometimes conceiving the world as God’s body. Our own community is repeatedly touched by wickedness and deprivation, but the dark makes radiance all he more a miraculous glory. Some of the most unfortunate among us have turned their misery into a life of delight. Even the most desperate act or condition may be turned to some larger purpose.
   Past and living spiritual traditions of the world may suggest three steps by which we may approach the mystics’ vision.
   *Awe. Our everyday work for limited and relative ends distracts us from the infinite, implicit all around us. The sacred is at the periphery of our awareness.
   Yet there are moments when we are awe-struck, in looking at the sky, in relationships of love, in transitions of life and death, in art and sports and learning, and whenever we suddenly become alert to what really counts. While we usually repress it, our nature is to live with a kind of wonder beyond terror and fascination.
   *Gratitude. From moments of awe — we might call them revelations — we find ourselves giving thanks. Our holiday tomorrow embraces not only our personal lives but also the awesome and improbable history of our nation embracing every faith in a secular Constitution that signals all liberties and proposes an enlarging providence for everyone.
   *Service. Gratitude is stunted unless it matures into service. For what we have been given, we are impelled to share with others in whatever ways we can, through neighborliness, charity and local to global citizenship.
   These three steps can be taken in any order because each can lead to the others. The simple act of offering food, even wearily or insincerely, may arouse a sense of amazement at our utter interdependence. 
   Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity for us to rehearse, if not feel, gratitude. Sometimes acting as if we are grateful can help us develop a genuine sense of gratitude. Deliberately setting aside a day to give thanks, putting it on our calendar, is a reminder of the attitude we must attain if we wish spiritual health. 
   The mystics say our separateness from one another and from God (or whatever term they use for ultimate reality) is an illusion. Giving thanks can reconnect us.
   Pretending well, placing ourselves in a scene where we, if our hearts were truly open, would feel awe and gratitude and the urge toward service, is sometimes the best we can do.
   And sometimes recognizing that we are doing our best is sufficient to bring to us the overwhelming feeling that we are indeed blessed.

Enjoying a feast of diversity

Twenty-five years ago on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, folks from many faiths met to share a meal and give thanks for the religious liberty we enjoy in this nation. 
   I had the privilege of presiding over that meal and those each year since. This Nov. 22 will be the last time I perform this happy duty.
   The act of giving thanks led to deepened relationships among the participants and, in 1989, the formation of what is now the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
   This annual ritual has been unusual in several ways.
   *Each year a different institution has hosted it — Village Presbyterian Church, Rockhurst University, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Saint Monica Catholic Church, Temple B’nai Jehudah, Central Baptist Seminary, Rime Buddhist Center, among others. 
   This year the dinner will be held at the Islamic School of Kansas City, 10515 Grandview Road.
   * Brief words of gratitude are offered from 15 faith groups, from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian.
   *A full Thanksgiving meal is eaten as participants read from American historical and aspirational texts. Traditional Thanksgiving hymns add to the festive feeling.
   *Children are welcome participants. They ask questions about the food, such as “Why do we have turkey?” and “Why do we have pumpkin pie?” and “Why is there a vegetarian option?” and adults answer from the printed program.
   I try to give the last question to the youngest child: “Is it time to eat?” The adults joyously respond, “Yes!”
   *Since 1999, the dinner has honored business, religious, media, governmental, community and artistic leaders in our metro area who have contributed to the spiritual life we enjoy here. 
   This year we give thanks for Cynthia Siebert, founder, president and artistic director of the Friends of Chamber Music, for her local, regional and national leadership offering the transformative power of music through programs of the highest quality for people of all faiths.
   *The 6-8 p.m. dinner is not an expensive or formal fund-raiser. It is a family and interfaith celebration of our unity in diversity, promised in the American motto, E pluribus unum, From many one. The subsidized cost is $25 for an adult, $20 per child. 
   Reservations can be made by visiting, or calling OpenCircle, (816) 931.0738.
   Although I’ll no longer lead this Kansas City Thanksgiving Sunday tradition, I’ll always give thanks for the joy of companions of all faiths expressing gratitude for our heritage of an enlarging spiritual adventure.

Embracing differences

The third annual Kansas City Festival of Faiths is in full swing. Eboo Patel, the Muslim founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core was scheduled to be last night’s  keynote speaker, and Thursday is the Interfaith Council’s annual Table of Faiths luncheon. You can find a full schedule of events for the 23-day festival by visiting
   The metro area has become recognized nationally for our interfaith work — and internationally as well. For example, the International Visitors Council of Greater Kansas City responded to African guests from four nations interested in interfaith work by scheduling five interfaith experiences for their two days here earlier this month. 
   In the midst of these festivities designed to help us understand the many faiths of our neighbors, some caution may be in order.
   The term “interfaith” originally meant a relationship between two or more faiths. Increasingly it is being used to celebrate what different faiths have in common. 
   I worry about this subtle change in usage. In the warmth of easy sentiment, we melt together into a pot of mush.
   Talking and working together is a good thing, and discovering our shared humanity is essential to civic trust and global peace.
   But we need to appreciate, not submerge, our differences. Why go to New York or San Francisco or Paris or Mumbai to find only what we have at home? Why put everything in the food mart into a blender? Why have different religions at all? 
   Instead of the melting pot, I’d prefer a mosaic metaphor.
   A few years ago one reader of this column called to thank me for writing something about similarities between several traditions. As I listened to her, I regretted writing as I had.
   “I just love your column because you point out how all religions are basically the same,” she said.
   I asked her how many religions she had studied other than her own. 
   She replied, “I don’t have to learn anything about other religions because I know they are, in the end, just like mine.”
   Such an attitude defeats the purpose what “interfaith” once meant. It’s like a person not caring who one marries or wh
o one’s friends are because people are all basically the same and anyone will do.
   But the fact is that the spiritual character of Hinduism and Judaism and Wicca are markedly different. If we ignore the differences, what is there to learn? 
   Should we cede the term “interfaith” to those who focus on commonalities? What term could we use for cherishing how different peoples have discovered such amazingly different ways of approaching the ultimate mysteries of existence?

Spiritual gifts are found in many colors

The leaves of October were resplendent, color everywhere. Now November is awash with  many hues of the spirit. Here are three examples — just as the month begins.
   ¶ Joan Chittister, one of America’s most celebrated nuns, will speak Saturday at 9 a.m. on “The God They Never Told Me About: A Convergence of Opposites,” at Country Club Christian Church, 6101 Ward Parkway, The event is free.
   She told me that she will discuss how she and others have come to question the “definitions and images of God that we have been given in the past. . . .
   “Religion is meant to shape our spirituality, but it is possible to be ‘religious,’ meaning institutionally regular, correct and creedal, without having any personal encounter with God whatsoever. Spirituality is the encounter of the soul with the divine.”
   She supports interfaith efforts because the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel teaches that learning from one another, “can make our own traditions deeper, fresher and clearer than before.”
   ¶ This Sunday at 5 p.m., the Barclay Martin Ensemble, the Sampaguita Choir and Sinag-Tala Dance Group of the Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City will celebrate the release of a CD with music and a film clip from the forthcoming documentary, “Zamboanga: Poverty, War, Music,” produced by the Kansas City-based Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, 
   Martin wrote the music as part of his work in the Philippines with young people which resulted in a concert there with an interfaith audience of 10,000.
   You can make reservations for the free concert at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall by calling (913) 469-4445.
   ¶ The third annual Kansas City Festival of Faiths keynote speaker is Eboo Patel, the Chicago founder of the global Interfaith Youth Core, featured last Saturday on The Star’s Faith Page.
   Jon Willis, who has worked this past year to develop interfaith activities for young people here, says he hopes that “adults will come hear his message on how we need to change the conversation about faith and religion by empowering youth of all backgrounds and faiths to come together to create understanding and respect by serving their communities. 
   “I also hope that youth will come and be inspired by his vision of how they can make a difference right now . . . with (other) youth from all over the metro area.”
   You can purchase $15 tickets ($10 youth) to hear Patel speak Tuesday at 7:30 at Beth Shalom, 9400 Wornall Road, by visiting

Differences are illuminating

Conversation among folks of different faiths sometimes highlights perceived similarities in their traditions. Sometimes interfaith exchange may driven toward superficial agreement because those involved don’t really understand the religions being discussed. Sentimental conclusions like “We are more alike than different” can short-change the purchase of real insight.
    For example, primal, Asian and monotheistic faiths present different understandings of time. 
   *Organic. Unlike the relentless clock moving ahead regardless of what we do, with minutes, hours, days and years mechanically measured, American Indian time is natural, organic. Traditionally, ceremonies are not fixed by the calendar, anymore than the leaves fall from the trees on exactly the same day each year. Elders, not the clock, decide when the time is right for a festival to begin, sometimes with just a few hours notice to their communities.
   *Circular. For Asian faiths like Hinduism, time is prodigious. Here’s an example. Brahma, the creator god, opens his eyes and a universe comes into being. When he closes his eyes, the universe ceases to exist. One Brahma lives for 432,000 years. After he dies, another emerges atop a lotus that grows from the god Vishnu’s navel. Vishnu sleeps on the cosmic ocean. Counting these Brahmas, one after another, would be like counting the drops of water in the ocean, and the ocean is endless.
   The Hindu conception of time is circular, repetitive. There is no ultimate meaning to history. The universe is lila, god’s play.
   *Unrepeatable. The monotheistic faiths, on the other hand, see time as a straight line, with a beginning, a defining event, and an end. Christians, for example, have traditionally believed the universe was created only once.  Some believe God made the world about 6,000 years ago. 
   Judaism, Christianity and Islam all find enormous significance in history, for God is a power moving through time toward justice. 
   The Exodus (in Judaism), the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (in Christianity), and the Hijra, the migration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina (in Islam), are defining events in which believers see God intervening in human communities.
   Many of these believers anticipate a new heaven and a new earth when the human adventure will end with the judgment of all and the redemption of nature itself.
   Each view of time, organic, circular or unrepeatable, is embedded in the stories the various faiths tell. Ignoring such differences impoverishes our appreciation of the many ways human beings have met the mysteries of existence and tried to align with them.

This art speaks to the soul

Fall is the new springtime, at least spiritually, in Kansas City. Here are two previews of November’s flowering of blessings from a personal perspective.
   *When I was a boy in Omaha, my grade school introduced me to the Joslyn Art Museum. Because I was a kid, adults thought I’d be interested in American Indian stuff, not European painting. But as a kid wanting to be grown up, I discounted “Injun” exhibits being pushed on me and focused instead on the “real” art.
   Not until adulthood did I begin to see the beauty of native art. The 1977 “Sacred Circles” show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art stunned me with spiritual import.
   So I can hardly wait for the Nelson’s American Indian Celebration week-end Nov. 14-15, with new galleries featuring some 200 works of art from before colonization to the present. 
   I asked Gaylord Torrence, the museum’s curator of American Indian Art, why some folks still dismiss indigenous works. He said that until recently we have assumed that spiritual values are best conveyed in painting, sculpture and other forms removed from every-day activities. 
   American Indian art — pottery, clothing and other items for everyday use — was deemed mere craft, not worthy of spiritual expression.
   Yet these functional objects are charged with sacred meaning. Torrence showed me an exquisitely detailed cradle for carrying an infant. The finest children’s car seat I’ve ever seen is, in comparison, rude and physically and spiritually insulting, an impersonal contrivance purchased from a store.
   *When I was a teenager, my angst was intense, my spiritual life inexplicable. Somehow I discovered Beethoven’s five “Late String Quartets.” 
   They became my spiritual hospitals. Now, decades later, they reveal an infinite cosmos in which the soul experiences everything — and everything is in ultimate order. 
   The C-Sharp Minor Quartet begins with what Wagner described as “the most melancholy sentiment ever expressed in music.” By the time I hear the sixth variation in the fourth movement, I know I have reached holy ground. The daggers in the last movement are finally bent by mystic fire into halos, rising above and sanctifying all grief, fear and strife. 
   Musicologist Laurie Shulman has speculated that Beethoven intended the quartets “to transcend earth, to achieve redemption, to regain spiritual fulfillment . . . .”
   The C-Sharp Minor Quartet will be performed Nov. 7 by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Folly Theater as part of a Friends of Chamber Music program (

A theology of disability

For over a year I’ve been riding Kansas City buses regularly. Bus travel has become something of a spiritual adventure.
   While most of the bus drivers are cheerful (that in itself is an upper), and while I give thanks to be relieved of the stress of driving in increasingly difficult traffic, and while I appreciate those who think environmentally, and while I salute the health benefits for  those who put their bicycles on the front rack of the bus for a portion of their journey, 
what really stirs my soul is seeing in action the commitments we as a nation have begun to make to the disabled.
   For example, when a person in a wheel chair wants on, a bus platform lowers to welcome the rider, and the bus driver routinely adjusts seats and then straps the wheel chair securely in place. 
   Never have I witnessed a driver act as if this is an inconvenience.  I have heard no passenger complain about the delay.
   Last week one of America’s most accomplished and inspirational figures, Helen Keller, was honored by having her bronze likeness as a child installed in our nation’s Capitol. Keller was blind and deaf, but, aged 7, with help from her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned to communicate when one hand felt the stream of water from a pump and the other felt the manual spelling of “water.” 
   From that insight, she grew up to aid many others with disadvantages and became not only a writer and social leader for Americans, but for the whole world.
   In the installation ceremony, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “people must be respected for what they can do rather than judged for what they cannot.”
   Among many local groups assisting those with disabilities is the Jellybean Conspiracy ( 
   This organization enables young folks with disabilities to offer theatrical performances. 
    One evening last month I saw an example of this joyous entertainment, which the organization has presented in more than a dozen states as it continues to expand.
   That evening Jellybean offered what seems to me to be a theology of disability, wrapped up in a song by New Zealand country music singer, Eddie Low, who grew up with visual impairments. Low gave the song to Jellybean.
   Here is the song’s chorus: “I am a person./ I am a child of God like you./ I’ll live my life/ And I’ll survive/ With just a little help from you.”
   None of us is completely independent. Our needs are routinely supplied by others. As the bus drivers, Keller’s teacher and the Jellybean volunteers prove, to help those with special needs is an opportunity to celebrate their dignity and exercise our own in the sacred trust we have with each other.

Minister lived heart and soul

In a sermon following a grim diagnosis, Forrest Church, minister to All Souls Unitarian Church in New York for 30 years, said, “The word human has a telling etymology: human, humane, humility, humus. Dust to dust, the mortar of mortality binds us fast to one another. . . .
    “ . . . I didn’t become a minister until I performed my first funeral. When death or dying comes calling at the door, like a bracing wind it, clears our being of pettiness. It connects us to others. More alert to life’s fragility, we reawaken to life’s preciousness.”
   Bill Tammeus, former Star columnist, wrote me that “Forrest was a remarkable man who was comfortable in his own skin but endlessly engaged in the mysteries and complexities of life. 
   “His always-questioning brain did not surprise me because I also had known his father a bit back in the 1970s, the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, who also was full of penetrating questions.
   “Forrest understood that faith doesn’t mean having all the answers. Rather, it means being able to live confidently even though you still have questions.”
   The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, minister of Community Christian Church, met Forrest in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York. Shortly after Church’s death last month at 61, Hill wrote his congregation about Church. Hill, who welcomed Church to Kansas City several times, mentioned some of Church’s two dozen books and other achievements.
   “But an even greater grace was the sheer joy one could share with Forrest, talking baseball, politics, theology, family dynamics, books, history, Idaho lore, the wonders of New York City, the glories of Kansas City barbecue, and the blessedness of the pastoral life,” Hill said.
   Even Church’s scholarly writings were full of soul, and his pastoral books went straight to the heart. 
   His honesty about his own flaws and failings inspired others to understand themselves as he connected with his own congregation and wider circles. Pride and pettiness disappeared and humility became his humanity. 
   Hill noted “how his love and care were persistently, passionately present.”
   Indeed, last year Church told The New York Times, “I have never been more in the present.”
   I met first Forrest in the late 70s. While already accomplished and gracious, like other children of prominent figures, at times he seemed to need to prove himself.
   When last I spent time alone with him, that was long gone. He was clear and clean. In an intensely personal way that was also universal, he was fully present and full of love. What else, really, is a saint? 

Faiths share fire fascination

I’m teaching a course on world religions at Avila University this term. To initiate study of the prehistoric origins of spiritual practices, I asked the students to form teams, to imagine themselves as cave guys and gals and to list experiences they might have had that would cause them to feel awe and wonder. 
   Such feelings may have generated early religions, and it is hard to think of any religion today that does not still contain a sense of fascinating or fearful mystery at its core.
   Rudolph Otto and subsequent scholars have elaborated theories of the holy as astonishing and compelling power or powers giving meaning to our lives. Even current atheist writers recognize such experiences.
   In a short time, most of my student teams had about a dozen items on their lists, from the rising sun to childbirth. But the item that seemed to appear on most teams’ lists was fire.
   Indeed, fire remains fascinating and fearful, joyous and terrible. We celebrate with lit candles and fireworks. We fear fire’s power to destroy homes, lives and forests. 
   Two years ago, following the “WaterFire” installation on Brush Creek, a work of art in which thousands of us one perfect night found delight, if not rapture, I wrote about the universality of fire and fire symbolism in religions of the world.
   But this summer, I was grilling salmon on cedar planks in my back yard when I suddenly sensed myself in a line with those who, perhaps 750,000 years ago, domesticated fire. The powers of fire led not only to cooking, warmth, light in darkness, protection from wild animals and such, but also to working metals found in the earth, advancing civilization.
   And I also thought, in my wild back yard, about the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The English title of his book, “The Raw and the Cooked,” suggests the tension between nature and culture that religious myths seek to resolve.
   The Hindu god of fire is Agni, related etymologically to the English word ignite. I recalled when I was a parish minister, writing two verses honoring Agni and setting the words to the hymn tune Brandenburg, dating from 1653. (Hindus use ghee, clarified butter, as a fuel.)
   “Agni, thy face shines with ghee/ As we behold thy mystery./ Thou Fire, filling sky and night:/ Protect us with thy guiding light./ As we burn, thy combusting flame/ Changes, consumes, yet stays the same.
   “From fire to fire each world goes;/ Passion begets, renews and flows;/ With light and warmth you preserve,/ Creating power, life and nerve./ Yet you destroy as life you feed:/ Fierce and beautiful is thy deed.”

Event offers insight on other faiths

The Star’s food section last week ran a story about Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting during daylight hours. On-line comments from readers ranged from appreciative to hostile. Some appeared to be innocently ignorant, like the one who speculated that Jews observe Ramadan.
   Even well-intentioned folks sometimes have problems sorting misinformation about various faiths from the truth. And even reading completely accurate articles and books can be much less effective than getting to know your neighbor of another faith.
   In 2003, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, preached a series of sermons about world faiths, which later became a book. He not only studied the different religions, he interviewed members of our community who practiced those faiths and presented videos from those interviews as part of his sermons.
   There simply is nothing like knowing another faith through the lives of those who live it.
   Now the church is hosting a one-day workshop sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, “Kansas City: A Neighborhood of World Religions,” Sept. 30.
   The Rev. Russell Brown, pastor of support ministries, says learning about other faiths is a “way (the church has) of respecting the community to which we belong.”
   Susan Choucroun will present Judaism at the workshop. I asked her what she would like folks to know about her faith. Her reply included, “Jesus was Jewish” and “Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.”
   American Indian spirituality will be presented by the Rev. Kara Hawkins. She says her faith guides her life “by an awareness that as I walk in the One Spirit that connects all seen and unseen, that I am not alone and can therefore call on the assistance of my ancestors and the holy ones to guide me.”
   Muslim presenter Mahnaz Shabbir wants folks to know that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is an Abrahamic faith, that Muslims from around the world are diverse and that Islam is a religion of peace.
   She says that “due to a few people, Islam has been demonized as a radical religion. If people spent some time with practicing Muslims, they will find we (Muslims and non-Muslims) are all the same and that we want our families to grow and prosper.”
   “Kris” Krishna, the Hindu presenter, is traveling and could not be reached for comment for this column. 
   I’ve been asked to present an overview of faiths practiced in our metro area and discuss different attitudes we can adopt toward our neighbors.
   For more information, visit or call the Shannon Clark, the Council’s executive director, (913) 548-2973.


Last month I served the Kansas City City Council as chaplain, to open the council’s legislative sessions with an invocation.
   I had done this last in February, 2007. The mood in the chamber was very different then. 
   Last month saw the decision by a court finding flaws with a city ordinance governing volunteers in City Hall, the vote of the Council to rewrite the ordinance to correct the flaws and the mayor’s veto of the ordinance, regarded as aimed at his wife. 
   A suit arising from a complaint about the mayor’s wife had just been settled, costing the city over half a million dollars. And there were other contentious issues being debated.
   Praying in such an atmosphere required especially serious preparation so as to avoid entangling my own opinions with my duty to find words that would neither avoid the situation nor enflame it. On one hand, prayer would be abstract and irrelevant unless the conflicts were recognized. On the other, taking sides or proposing solutions would be pastoral misprision; impartial inspiration was my task.
   So in each prayer, I called attention to the meaning of the physical space, from the statues of Confucius inside and Lincoln outside to the setting overlooking Ilus Davis Park with its Bill of Rights monument.
    Before the prayer on my last day, I spoke directly to the Council.  Based on my experience with several civic groups, I suggested the Council members themselves take turns praying.
   When I joined the Overland Park Rotary Club decades ago, for example, the invocation was routinely assigned to clergy. I accepted the duty. But soon I discussed this with my clerical colleague. We developed a practice where everyone in the club, lay and ordained, could take turns. 
   It is a stretching experience to pray for folks right in front of you, and members learned about each other and themselves through the process. 
   Here’s what I said to the Council Aug. 27:
   “Honorable Council Members, before today’s prayer, I’d like to thank you for the privilege of this month’s duty.
   “I have sought language that might be accessible to people of all faiths — and those of none. 
   “As a citizen, I have strong opinions about the matters considered in this chamber; but as your chaplain, rather than advancing my personal agenda, I have tried the severe discipline of revivifying the words on the wall behind me (which conclude, ‘Let honor, truth and justice rule within these walls’).
   “May I respectfully recommend this discipline to you, so that in the future, each of you, in turn, before the time of debate, take this place and try this way of praying on behalf of your colleagues. Thank you.”

The text of the prayers can be found at Council Prayers.


   If you lived under Nazi-like rule, would you risk your own life, and that of your family, to hide those whose faith made them hunted by the state? Or if yours were a suspect faith, how would you survive when you were slated for elimination?
   Former Star columnist Bill Tammeus and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of the New Reform Temple — both friends of mine — have spent years gathering stories of how folks in such situations actually acted.
   The result is their new book, “They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.” Kansas Citians will recognize many familiar local names in the list of acknowledgements of the dozens of those who helped make the book possible.
   Two-thirds of Europe’s nine million Jews, most of them in Poland, perished under the Nazis.
   Tammeus, a Christian, was particularly intrigued by the Jewish survivors. Cukierkorn was especially interested in the non-Jewish rescuers. Both concluded that the remarkable stories they collected were not about saints but about ordinary people. This is why this book applies to us today.
   Tammeus told me, “I hope readers understand that they need not be perfect people to make moral choices. Even small acts of kindness can have tremendous — and often unexpected — consequences for good.”
   Cukierkiorn said, “The Holocaust is not about God, it is about people. The Holocaust is the result of a few people’s actions and the inaction of most of the people involved. We are responsible not only for what we do but also for failing to act when action is needed.”
   I asked, “What made ordinary people — Christians, Muslims, apparently non-religious people, and even anti-Semites, save Jews from the Nazis?” 
   They replied that in many cases, it was friendship, not identification with a particular faith label. What mattered most was a sense of sharing the human condition, a belief in the inherent worth of each person. 
   You can read my complete email interview with the authors at
   The book concludes with resources and a “Readers’ Guide” with discussion questions for each story. The book’s own website,, mentions some specific stories. Facebook users can search by book title for more information. 
   All of the proceeds from the book sales go to Holocaust education and related charities. 
   The authors and four survivors will speak at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library, and the authors will speak Sunday at 1 p.m. at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St. Both events are free. 

Click here for the complete interviews.


If you are too young to remember the Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson and his routine of Carnac the Magnificent, the swami who could respond to the content of sealed envelopes before they were opened, you can find examples on YouTube.
   I enjoyed the hilarious and long-running gag, but I still worry that too many people think of the jokes when they hear the word “swami” rather than the honor the designation indicates when given to a spiritual master in the Hindu tradition.
   Let me tell you about a swami coming here to speak Sept. 11 at KU’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
   Swami Sridharananda, born in 1925 in Calcutta, was initiated into the Ramakrishna Order by a disciple of perhaps the swami most famous in the West, Swami Vivekananda, who astonished Americans and others with his eloquence and insights at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. People are still studying his speeches. 
   I mention this because lineage is important.
   Swami Sridharananda began his training as a hospital janitor. 
   Earlier he had met an old monk now staying in same ashram with him. The monk was so respected by others that no one dared to sit near him. 
   When the monk saw the novice doing hospital clean-up, he told him, “You are blessed to have this job. This is the best way to learn Vivekananda’s philosophy that work can be worship. It is the attitude towards work, not the type of work that is important.”
   I learned that Swami’s subsequent career — including supervising the construction of a hospital in India and opening Vedanta centers in Australia and New Zealand, and I was intrigued by what most of us would consider his lowly beginnings. So I emailed Swami about work as worship.
   His response first contrasted the two. He described work as ego-driven, an activity “motivated by desire for wealth.”
   Worship, on the other hand, is the “pursuit of peace, tranquility, joy and ecstasy.”
   The two can become one when one offers every activity to God. When whatever one does is a service beyond one’s egoistic desires, then work is transformed into worship. 
   Many of us judge ourselves and others by the kind of employment we see and the wealth produced as an indication of status. In the eyes of God, is the CEO better one who cleans the toilet? 
   Swami Sridharananda may not be Carnac, seeing inside a sealed envelope, but perhaps he can see deeply into the human heart.
    For more information about Swami, visit and click on “Special Events.”

Glimses into the soul

Even if you were invited, would you dare to peer into another person’s soul? To have someone you had never met open one’s deepest longings, secrets and scars to you could be a gift of immeasurable value, but wouldn’t you be hesitant to intrude into such sacred space?
   Most of us may not be equipped to receive such a gift directly from a stranger, but the American artist Fazal Sheikh, a winner of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, becomes our intermediary with intimate photographs from India now on exhibition the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
   I almost tremble as I write “exhibition” because the word could inaccurately suggest an objective display rather than this powerful encounter with real people through their images.
   Curator April M. Watson says, “Many of us experience the numbing effects of a typical newscast, which often relies heavily on shock and awe to report the world’s problems. But Sheikh is a listener rather than a voyeur, working within communities for extended periods to gain a better understanding of their situations. His photographs reflect this considered, thoughtful approach, helping to bring viewers within his subjects’ moral reach.”
   We see character, not cartoon.
   Because of the consent of the person photographed — one looks straight at us, piercing through all our defenses, another permits only the back of her covered head to be shown — we are given access to others’ vulnerabilities in a way that enlarges us. 
   And it also makes us ask the troubling question, “Do I have some responsibility to help, if not with these people, with those in my own community who are abused and dispossessed?”
   There are actually two sets of real people, young and old, whose testimonies we can read along side their pictures.
   The “Ladli” (Beloved Daughters) collection is an encounter with devalued girls, whether still in their neglected innocence or after brutal rape.
   The “Moksha” (Release) collection gives us widows, some of whom have found balm with others in a community devoted to the god Krishna in the holy city of his birth, Vrindavan. 
   One exquisitely wrinkled face with an ultimate calm and eternal eyes tells me she had seen it all and somehow survived with a dignity untouched by, but revealed through, appalling misery.
   The mystics of many faiths have declared that seeing another person truly requires us to open our own hearts. These photographs may remind us to look more deeply into others and fulfill ensuing responsibilities if we wish to grow our own souls.
   Sheikh will be in Kansas City Sept. 10 to talk at the Nelson about such projects.

Always offer compassion

From earliest human life, religion and medicine have been entwined. The Hippocratic Oath was originally taken in the name of Greek gods, for example.
   But from about the time of American Civil War, medicine has often looked more to scientific and technical advances than to faith.
   However, medical missionaries have been impelled to provide healing services to those in need here and all over the world. 
   Micah Flint, CEO of INMED, an organization based in Kansas City working to equip health care professionals to serve in medical missions, identified David Livingstone in the 19th Century, and Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa in the 20th among those who desired “to live a life for others in a world that lives for self.”
   At my second INMED conference, held this spring at UMKC, I heard a 21st Century hero, in my opinion of such rank, Gary Morsch, founder of the global relief organization based in Olathe, Heart to Heart International.
   Morsch, also a colonel in the reserves, told of being on duty in Kosovo where he was asked to see an elderly Muslim woman dying from breast cancer. There was nothing he could do except give her a little relief from pain.
   She was struggling for breath. He knew she would die that night. He explained that no one could do anything for her. But he wanted to do more, so he, a Christian, asked if he could pray for her. 
   The missionaries with him thought that if she didn’t accept Christ, she’d be damned for eternity. Morsch prayed instead that God would give her comfort. She said she wanted to go outside to die. He obliged.
   As he told the story, his voice broke. “Are you ready?” he asked the woman.
   “Yes,” she said as she looked up at the stars. “I can see my father. They are calling.”
   Morch asked, “Do you believe you will be with God forever?” 
   “I do,” she replied.
   “I will see you on the other side,” Morsch said. Then she died.
   Morsch was not interested in theological argument. The point is that, even without medicines to cure, it is always possible to show compassion.
   Flint told me that at these international annual conferences, “over 1,300 health care professionals have learned the skills for medical missions, heard from today’s medical missionary heroes and caught a vision to care for the least served of this world, including those in our own community.”
   Beyond health care professionals, Flint said INMED also serves others “who see the need and want to do something about it.”
   INMED offers a cross-cultural healthcare competency symposium Oct 2. Visit

Is this miracle' real? and does it matter?

Did Jesus dictate an important message to the world from 1965 to 1972 to an atheist with Jewish background who went to Catholic mass frequently? Why did she die fearful, angry and resentful?
   What happens when a gay psychologist at the Columbia University Medical School and his older married colleague, both highly regarded in their field, collaborate on a secretive project that neither intended?
   Did those most involved with the publication of this spiritual manuscript benefit from the teachings they present to others?
   And, the question that concerns me the most: How do I write respectfully about something that millions of people revere as divine revelation that I privately consider the inferior product of a troubled mind?
   All questions but the last, and many more, are answered in a new book, A Course in Miracles: The Lives of Helen Schucman & William Thetford, by historian Neal Vahle.
   Vahle’s 250-page book is something of a miracle itself because he gathers together previously unpublished materials and fresh interviews with the surviving principals associated with A Course in Miracles.
   The Course can be ranked as the first and most important of “New Age” revelations of texts. Its successors include The Celestine Prophesy by James Redfield in 1993 and Conversations with God in 1995 by Neale Donald Walsch.
   I first encountered the Course shortly after its 1976 publication as I learned home study groups were seeking to understand it and apply its wisdom to their lives. I was curious about how this document came into existence.
   Vahle’s book does not propose any theory, natural or supernatural, of the composition of the course. One of his readers, the well-known psychology professor Charles Tart, calls the material “channeled.” 
   After considering the raw material in Vahle’s book, I theorized that Schucman used the “dictation” of the Course to bind Thetford into a co-dependent relationship with her. Did she keep “channeling” for those seven years by intuiting exactly what spiritual material would fascinate him?
   Vahle politely told me that he “cannot support” my interpretation. 
   Vahle’s book is valuable precisely because, from the facts and accounts he has assembled, the reader can make one’s own judgment about what really happened.
   And to answer the last of the opening questions: The Course emphasis on recognizing and healing fear and manifesting love everywhere has benefited many people. Vahle’s book reminds me I’m simply not smart enough to tell other people what will help them grow spiritually.

UNPUBLISHED NOTES: I asked Vahle what impressed the dozen or so people he interviewed about the Course. He listed these five points:
    1. Jesus is regarded as a wise elder brother rather than the Savior.
   2. They seemed to have little interest in, or attraction to, institutionalized religion, particularly traditional Christianity.
    3. They focused their belief in an inner guide, an inner light.
    4. They regarded the Course teaching about recognizing and dealing with fear as a key. to spiritual growth.
   5. They emphasized the importance in manifesting love in personal relationships. 
regarded the Course teaching about recognizing and dealing with fear as a key. to spiritual growth.
    Vahle's book is available through at Lives-Helen-Schucman-William-Thetford/dp/B0029D317K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249488532&sr=1-1

Faith guides us to justice

No religion is so other-worldly that the idea of justice in this world is neglected. Even Buddhism, where the great virtue is compassion, teaches that an ethical life here and now is a preliminary and necessary step toward enlightenment.
   Jesus is a divine model of forgiveness, but even as Christianity is practiced, forgiveness is often in tension with demands for justice.
   Last week as I reported for jury duty, I contemplated the force of faith in guiding us away from seeing justice as the whim of the powerful toward seeing that law is rooted in something that transcends the instant case. 
   Previously I’ve served as jury foreman. This time I was part of a group of 65 citizens questioned — voir dire — for perhaps four hours from which 12 jurors were selected for a serious criminal case involving armed robbery, rape and other charges.
   As the prosecuting and defense attorneys, with the judge’s clear direction, sought to find unbiased jurors for the case, I thought about former methods of determining guilt in the Western tradition, such as trial by ordeal using water or fire or other horrible methods by which God was expected to provide a miraculous sign of innocence.
   Over the centuries we have evolved a more humane system in which we expect each other to do what had previously been assigned to God. Evidence produced must be carefully monitored. The law must be faithfully and impartially applied. With a presumption of innocence, a unanimous verdict by 12 peers, in most criminal cases, is required to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
   As prospective jurors were interviewed, I was shocked and dismayed by the number of people in this randomly selected group of citizens who, in fulfilling their oaths to tell the truth, disclosed that they, members of their families or close friends had been raped. Our world is full of distress and pain. 
   It would be unfair to expect anyone so traumatized to be unaffected in sitting in judgment on another, despite one’s purest efforts to remain objective. 
   Yet all of us bring experiences and opinions that influence our decisions. Our memories are fallible. Citizen jurors have a dreadful responsibility, yet no system seems better to assess the truth and find justice.
   Although atheists have a point that the law should eschew theological language, still the oath to tell the truth ending in “So help me God,” is rooted in the universal impulse to fulfill the ultimate and sacred claims we have on one another, even those we have never met.
   When the citizen does this, the courthouse can become not merely a chamber of law but a temple of justice.

A union of equal partners

I’ll get to the reason why he left town in a moment, but first some praise for the Rev. Jim Eller, who led his last service as minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church July 19.
   The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, pastor of the nearby Community Christian Church, spoke at a reception afterwards. “It is rare and precious and joyful to have a colleague with whom you can connect so solidly,” he began.
   Using bodily metaphors such as Eller’s sharp mind, a pastoral heart, feet determined to walk with those on the margins and to stand with those without power, compassionate hands and a spine with the courage of his convictions, Hill praised Eller and his work with the city’s clergy to benefit them and the community.
   Eller’s community involvement included the ACLU and KKFI community radio. The first Equity Service Partner award from the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2) read, in part, “Every encounter with Eller . . . exposes one to his sense of faith, his commitment to all people everywhere and his sense of the spiritual attainment possible for all.”
   Among other recognitions, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council honored him as its first “Board of Faith Advisor” and thanked him for providing a home for the Council. 
   Eller’s advice was frequently sought by officials of his own denomination which he served in various capacities including as president of the Prairie Star Ministers Association.
   At Eller’s final service, the congregation awarded him the status of “minister emeritus” for leading the congregation into unprecedented growth and other achievements of his ten-year tenure.
   Now, why would anyone leave such a satisfying situation?
   Eller previously served churches in Oklahoma where his wife was a United Methodist minister.
   When Eller accepted the call to the Kansas City church, he and the Rev Jeannie Himes agreed that they would stay at most ten years unless she also found a position here worthy of her talents. 
   When that did not happen, Jim, though he loved the church and the church loved him, moved with her to where she was wanted as minister, a suburban Oklahoma City church.
   “She’s thrilled to be back in the ministry,” Eller told me. Eller himself is exploring a number of opportunities to work in the social justice field.
   Ministers of different traditions marrying each other is not common, and the story of Eller and Himes illustrates not only a union of equal partnership and respect for each other’s careers, but also proves the transcending miracle of intense and intimate commitment to both one’s own and one’s partner’s different faiths.

The further paradox of enlightenment

Last week I wrote about a particular Buddhist notion of “enlightenment” which claims, in effect, that enlightenment is knowing there is no enlightenment.
   This paradoxical statement arises from the Buddhist teaching that selfish desires lead to suffering, and that even the desire for enlightenment is selfish. Only by abandoning the desire can one achieve the liberation of enlightenment.
   But there is another famous problem in Buddhism. Is enlightenment sudden or gradual?
   On this question, two Japanese Zen Buddhist schools have sometimes been contrasted. Rinzai Zen emphasizes the sudden flash of enlightenment, whereas the Soto school has often been characterized by progressive attainment. 
   Nevertheless Rinzai master Hakuin — who developed the famous koan (puzzle), “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” —  over the course of his life identified several flashes of illumination, each more complete than the earlier one.
    Some suggest that conservative Christian theology celebrates the soul’s sudden conversion, a discontinuity with the previous way of relating to God, from rebellion to submission. 
   Liberal theology, on the other hand, promotes a gradual perfection of character through training and education, as the soul gains a clearer understanding of God’s will, step by step.
   This Christian distinction between conservative and liberal roughly corresponds to Rinzai and Soto Zen. 
   On my first trip to Japan many years ago, I planned to study briefly at Mt. Koya, the original headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. The manager told my interpreter it would be more profitable for me to count the petals on a lotus blossom than to talk to the chief priest about enlightenment, but I put my question to him anyhow.
   “Is enlightenment sudden or gradual?” I asked.
   With no hesitation, he answered, “It is sudden with gradual preparation.”
   After contemplating this question for years, I suddenly saw what seemed obvious.
   We may not have a religious experience every time we worship, for example, but any religious practice can gradually sensitize us, ready us, for sudden insight.
   Can we compare the sudden-gradual polarity in theology to quantum physics? The wave is gradual, the particle discontinuous. In a sense both are real and in a sense both are artifacts of our reference frames.
   In our everyday lives, perhaps it is easier for us to notice the sudden, yet we presume a continuity, even a unity that embraces both insight and ignorance in a comforting and ultimate mystery.

UNPUBLISHED NOTES: Enlightenment can be compared to orgasm in many ways. One is that "gradual preparation" is like forplay and sudden enlightenment is like orgasm itself.
   A famous comparison between the two Zen schools mentioned in the article is this saying: "Rinzai for the general, Soto for the farmer." The samurai were noted for quick strikes while the agriculurist depends on steady growing.
   Dogen, master of the Soto school, said, "To study the way [to enlightenment] is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one's self and others."
   Knowing our finitude paradoxically intimates the infinite.

KartaPurkh Khalsa writes:
   Sat Nam Vern: Enjoyed your most recent columns on enlightenment. Reminds me of a conversation I once had with a friend about death. We were both young, in our twenties and of course "immortal" But we did discuss how we would like to die (if that would ever happen to US). Would we prefer a long drawn out process (sometimes painful)  where we could make amends as best we could and say goodbye to loved ones and so forth, Or, would we prefer it come upon us quickly and with no time to be afraid or sad? Our conclusion was of a Zen nature, and I quote? "Doesn't everyone die instantly?" 

On seeking enlightenment

People pursuing a spiritual path often ask about “enlightenment.”
   Some say that enlightenment is a state of understanding, acceptance and peace, perhaps even bliss with miraculous powers. To achieve this blessing, one must abandon ordinary pursuits and master a religious discipline such as meditation or yoga.
   A story, told various ways in the Zen Buddhist tradition, suggests a different idea of enlightenment.
   A holy man was preaching quietly to a crowd on one side of a lake. A priest from a rival tradition kept interrupting the sermon with interjections of a chant he learned from his own teacher.
   Finally the holy man asked the priest if he would like to say something. 
   “The leader of my faith is so enlightened he can stand on one side of this lake with a brush and through the air perfectly inscribe the scriptures on a scroll on the other side of the lake,” he boasted. “Can you perform such feats?” he challenged.
   The holy man replied, “No, I can only perform wonders such as eating when I am hungry, sharing what I have with others and forgiving when I am insulted.”
   This second understanding of enlightenment eschews magic and draws our attention instead to the everyday miracles of life.
   In the Christian tradition, Paul wrote similarly: “I may have faith strong enough to move mountains, but if I have no love, I am nothing.”
   I once asked Huston Smith, the author of the best-selling book, “The World’s Religions,” about enlightenment. He told me of a conversation he had with the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, I think it was, where the Dalai Lama presides over the Tibetan Government in Exile.
   All day ordinary folks brought their problems to the Dalai Lama and he listened to them and sought to help.
   When Smith had a chance to talk with the Dalai Lama, he asked the Dalai Lama if he was enlightened or aspired to be enlightened.
   In his exhaustion, the Dalai Lama laughed and said enlightenment might be a good thing — perhaps in his next life he might seek it, but now there were so many people to help, how could he turn his attention away from their needs which were truly more important?
   The paradox for religious seekers is this: we can see clearly and attain enlightenment only when we abandon attachment to selfish desires which distort our perceptions. But as long as we selfishly desire even enlightenment, that very desire impedes achieving it. 
   This is why a religious discipline such as meditation may be best when it has no goal, for enlightenment may be the freedom of knowing there is no enlightenment to seek.

Faiths grapple with gay rights

I’m not sure there has been a more divisive issue within mainline Protestant denominations than homosexuality. Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and other groups have been torn, deciding whether to accept and even ordain those who have made a commitment to love a person of the same sex.
   The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” though gay and lesbian Catholics meet in support groups.
   This issue troubles other faiths as well, here and abroad. For example, viewers of “City of Borders,” a film shown during the June 26-July 2 Kansas City Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, saw how Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Christians joined forces to prevent a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem in 2006. 
   The film festival ran during the 40th anniversary of the New York City 1969 “Stonewall Riots” which some people regard as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
   Another important year for homosexuals was 1996, when the Defense of Marriage Act became law. The legislation defines marriage for federal purposes as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman and allows states to ignore same-sex marriages performed in other states.
   Since that time, numerous political figures have been found to have violated marriage vows, including Bill Clinton, Tom DeLay, Eliot Spitzer, Rudolph Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, David Vitter, John Ensign and, now, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. Some in this list favored the DOMA legislation. Clinton, for example, signed it.
   Some may wonder how effective the law has been defending heterosexual marriages.
   John Barbone, pastor of Spirit of Hope MCC, a church serving the gay community, told me that his members feel diminished when those who have the rights of marriage violate their vows while denying those rights to same-sex couples who are faithful in keeping their vows.
   “The hypocrisy of such men acting as if their relationships are better than ours places us as second-class citizens, no matter how devoted we are to our partners,” he said.
   He also decries the current U.S. military policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” as a spiritual violation. “It is stupid for men and women to pretend to be something they are not,” he said.
   Forty years ago sexual acts among same-sex partners were illegal in every state but Illinois. Not until 2003 were they legal everywhere in the United States. 
   In my opinion, faith communities have been crucial these past 40 years in developing fuller understandings of personhood and how society might respect its citizens as spiritual beings. 

NOTES FOR THIS WEBSITE: Robert Livingston,Jim McGreevey, Kwame Kilpatrick, Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa, and John Edwards should have been included in this list. Excluded for reasons cited: Larry Craig (arrested in a men’s restroom), with his wife standing with him, denied he is gay. Pastor Ted Haggard is not in politics. Proponent of laws against pedophilia, Mark Foley is not married but his solicitation of House pages led to his resignation. Sarah Palin announced her daughter, Bristol, a leader in the abstinence movement, was pregnant during the presidential campaign, and would marry the father, but the father has declined to marry the mother of his child.
     Among the countries that recognize same sex marriages are Canada, Spain, Sweden. Israel recognizes such marriages performed elsewhere. States where same-sex marriages are or will be legal include Massachusetts,Connecticut , Iowa, Vermont, Maine New Hampshire. Some other states and localities recognize some same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships.

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A tough question, especially for American Christians celebrating Independence Day this week-end, will be addressed by Jack F. Price, pastor of Crossroads Church of Kansas City.
     A member of the congregation asked about a survey showing  that a higher percentage of Christians than those not affiliated with any church supported the use of torture, “so why should anyone participate in an organization that is worse than the general population in its concern for others?” The questioner feels torture violates his understanding of Christian teaching.
   In April the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that the more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists.
   Price told me he’ll expand the question to include the problem that “the church has supported slavery, segregation, sexism and homophobia.”
   Price, an American Baptist minister who has served the church since 2002, opens himself up to such questions each summer when he offers an “Ask Jack” sermon series, now underway.
   Another question yet to be addressed this year is, “Why do bad things happen to good people who deserve better? The recent Air France tragedy reminds me that the old answers of ‘It’s God’s will,’ or ‘We don’t question God’ just don't work for me any more.”
   And there are eight more such questions in the series.
   My “Ask Jack” question was this: Why do you do it?
   He answered that his congregation, “radically inclusive and radically free,” encourages discussion of difficult questions rather than ignoring them or relying on pat answers. 
   Price, who holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary, said that faith is more important than belief. Faith for him is not so much a set of doctrines as it is “trust, commitment, how you choose to look at the world.”
   Recognizing that different people have different life experiences allows, even requires, different understandings of God. And the same person, at different points in one’s faith journey, may find different beliefs meaningful.
   “I choose to see the world within God, even though my understanding of God’s nature has changed many times. As we grow older, our choices are more conscious,” he said.
   Price is finishing a book growing out of his ministry here and on the East Coast, “Finding Faith: A Pastor Responds to Twenty Critical Questions of Faith.”
   The church website,, contains samples, Enotes, of his approach to such questions.


Folks sometimes ask me, “What are your favorite scriptural passages?” Apr. 29 I answered with Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts. Today we’ll look at three Asian treasures.
   *“When men lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster” begins chapter 72 of the Tao Te Chingin the Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English version of this ancient Taoist classic.
   Some translations use the word “fear” instead of “awe,” but in either case the warning means that unless we are aware of what counts, we are in danger. 
   Our desacralized culture can easily distract us. There is nothing wrong with talking on a cell phone; but if you are in heavy traffic, you better pay attention to the road.
    An economy leveraged by those more focused on their pay than on working for the common good leads to widespread hurt and failure.
   More generally, when our preoccupation with the partial overwhelms feeling the whole miracle of existence, the impulse to share what we have with others weakens and we become crazed.
   But with awe we can see that the universe is, in William Blake’s words, “infinite and holy.”
   *The Heart Sutra may be the most commonly chanted Buddhist text. In English, it is less than 300 words long.
   Half way through is the astonishing claim that there is “no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering nor of the path” — in effect denying the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha himself taught.
   So here is a Buddhist text that seems to undermine the very foundation of Buddhism. I know of no parallel text in any other religion.
   But Buddhism, at least in theory, is based on undermining itself. It is an ancient Post-modernism, calling into question any description of reality, including its own, because humans crave descriptions of reality more than reality itself.
   *The Hindu Bhagavad Gita 2:47 teaches to “act without attachment to the result,” advising us that our minds become polluted when we desire an end more than simply doing what is right.
   Inaction is not an option. But only with a clear head can we discern our responsibility and act on it, as if it were a sacrament.
   We cannot be sure of the ultimate result, only of the integrity of our act. The outcome is in God’s hands. 
   These scriptural passages urge me to pay attention to what counts, to regard any human system of thought or picture of reality with caution, and to do the right thing without worrying about the consequence.

This column was quoted on Barbara's Buddhism Blog 2009 June 25:

Sharing Interfaith Stories

Among the young people coming to Kansas City to learn about interfaith work are three who told me about their spiritual journeys.
   They will be joining others, including adults with decades of experience in the field, June 25-28 at the conference of the North American Interfaith Network at Unity Village.
   Joshua M.Z. Stanton of New York is studying to be a rabbi. He says, “As someone who came of age after Sept. 11, I view active outreach to other religious communities as a necessity rather than an option.”
  Audra Teague of Columbus, Ohio, also identified 9/11 as a turning point. Immediately after the attacks, she organized an interfaith prayer service in Washington, D.C., where she was then working. 
   “I am drawn to interfaith work because I have experienced firsthand the harm to community and family when religious differences lead to isolation and separation,” she said.
   She attended the NAIN conference last year in San Francisco and describes it as “an amazing spiritual, intellectual and relational experience.”
   Stephanie Hughes, who grew up in “a rural coal-mining town in southern Illinois,” emphasized her “sense of how inter-connected we are.” 
   Hughes is interested in human relationships and “the way we as individuals connect to a text or story, and the way we seek to connect with one another, and with God. 
   “It follows that I ought seek out different perspectives, different stories, and others who are seeking in ways different than mine.  I believe inter-religious dialogue ought to be a spiritual discipline, something we pursue as we seek to widen the possibilities of our encounters and understanding with God, and a growing ability to abide and cherish differences.
   “If I do not remain open to the ideas and experiences of others, I not only miss out on chances for a richer life, but I am less a child of God—I believe God intends us to make community with one another, and openness to interfaith encounters and endeavors is essential to that,” she wrote me.
   She graduated last month from Union Theological Seminary, and with Stanton founded the peer-reviewed Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue,
   The Journal, Stanton says, is “set up so that young people like myself have the opportunity to solicit advice from more experienced leaders and scholars.”
   Actually, these three young people sound pretty mature to me. They—and the conference—offer us a future of faiths purifying and supporting each other.
   For their complete interviews and information about NAIN, visit

Little agreement about when life begins

[Alternative headline:
Little agreement about when personhood begins
This version expands the printed and on-line text in The Star.]

Why is abortion thought of as murder in some religious perspectives, but not in others?
   Everyone agrees that a fertilized egg is human at least in the sense that other cells are human. The conception and other cells of the body, say, blood or skin cells, contain the full DNA genetic code. 
   The argument is about whether the single fertilized cell, or its development in the womb, is a person with a soul. 
   When the soul comes into being is a theological, not a scientific, question. Still, it becomes part of a moral and political debate when laws are sought to enforce one view on others.
   If the conception is not a person, destroying it cannot be murder, even if abortion is regrettable or even sinful. 
   Biblical law suggests that a fetus is not a person. Exodus 21:22-23 describes a situation where a pregnant woman is assaulted and the fetus killed. The penalty is merely a fine. But if the woman is killed, the assailants’ punishment is death.
   W. A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, seems to have held this view when he said, “it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.”
   On the other hand, some theologians teach that “ensoulment” occurs at the moment of conception, a view decreed in 1869 by Pope Pius IX. Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalms 139:13 are sometimes used to support this opinion. In 1886 Pope Leo XII prohibited all procedures that directly killed the fetus even if performed to save the life of the mother.
   Others, following physicians who consider that pregnancy begins with the attachment of the developing cells to the wall of the uterus, say personhood begins with this implantation. 
   For others, personhood begins when the possibility for twinning has passed. Otherwise, if a soul were given to an embryo and then the embryo divided, who would get the soul? Or would each baby have half a soul?
   St. Augustine did not call early abortion murder because he considered early stages of pregnancy vegetable or animal in nature. Only when the body became human-like was it animated by a human soul. St Jerome required the development of limbs before considering abortion murder.
   Of course we should remember the anti-sex thinking of many theologians before the modern era and even today. Augustine condemned sexual pleasure even in marriage. Many condemned oral or anal sex. At some points in Christian history, masturbation was regarded as more sinful than rape because rape could lead to new life while masturbation wasted seed. And today the Roman Catholic Church still condemns contraception.
   St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, said ensoulment occurs at quickening, when the mother feels movement within her womb, thought to be about 40 days after conception (for a male and 80 days for a female). Dante thought the soul appeared when the brain developed. Pope Innocent III said abortion was murder only after quickening. Pope Gregory XIV placed quickening at 116 days.
   Similar variations of opinions have occurred in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths and secular thought.
   Through science we know know that far more abortions occur naturally, often without the woman's awareness of fertilization, than by human intervention. Some wag says this makes God the world's greatest abortionist.
   Avoiding theology, the Supreme Court set “viability” as the time when certain legal protections could apply. 
   In practice, most religions allow abortions to save or protect the life of the mother. Some faiths allow it in cases of fetal malformation or rape.
   The Dalai Lama, perhaps like many of us, views abortion negatively, but says it should be “approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.”
   Calling abortion murder may inflame discussion more than inform it.

Other Biblical passages used to oppose abortion include Job 10:9-12 and 31:15, Psalms 51:5, Isaiah 49:1 and 49:5, Luke 1:41-44, and Galatians 1:15. Ecclesiastes 4:2-3 and 7:1 have been used to support abortion. 

My first experience with a problem pregnancy was with a 10-year old fertile girl (hard to call her a woman) who had been raped by her uncle and was in danger of dying if the pregnancy were not terminated. Should the doctor who aborted the pregnancy be considered a murderer? or a savior of the girl's life?

768. 090603 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Weddings celebrate love

I like weddings. Presiding over my first one forty years ago, I was probably as nervous as the bride and groom, but I’ve long since come to relax and savor the proceedings.
   After all these years, I sometimes find myself performing the weddings of the offspring of those I had married years ago, a thrill I could not have imagined when I was a young minister.
   But the fun still starts when I meet with a couple to plan their ceremony. It’s interesting to hear how the couple met.
   What I most like to ask is, “Would you name one or two things that you really like about your future spouse? Speak your answer directly to your beloved.” You can imagine what hilarious as well as tender things I have heard.
   I recently met a young man and woman who had thought, after their failed first marriages, that they would never find someone who would fit both them and their children. I was glad they brought the young ones along to the planning session because the good time the kids were having with each other reinforced what a superb match the parents are for each other, and I said so.
   A couple I married last month wanted humor within a reverent ceremony. They decided their wide circle of friends should be acknowledged with my opening the wedding ceremony by explicitly welcoming those “from KState — and KU — also honoring Mizzou.”
   Both bride and groom played a lot of sports and were particularly known for soccer, so the wedding rings were presented to them on a soccer ball, a touch that rang true with the wedding guests.
   Whether the wedding is traditional or unusual, simple or elaborate, whether there are two witnesses or hundreds, whether it is a religious ceremony blessing a same-sex couple  or also a legal contract between a man and a woman, whether the couple is young or old, whatever the complications of their or their families’ spiritual allegiances or none, whatever the social standing, my job is to keep the focus on the love being celebrated.
   That’s one reason that I like meeting the families and friends as they tell their stories and share their hopes for the couple.
   For a wedding is never just between two people, even if some of the relationships are strained. Weddings and holy unions, like other forms of commitment, are strong fibers from which society is woven. 
   At receptions, I especially like the exuberant three- and six- and ten-year-olds dancing with their grandparents. I see generations created and supported as love is transmitted with a joy I call holy. With all the bad news, it makes me believe there is a future. 

767. 090527 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Art exhibit is an eye-opener

Not since high school when I saw the rings of Saturn through a telescope, and when through a biology microscope I saw paramecia conjugating (blush!), have I had so much fun with a lens as at the “Art in the Age of the Taj Mahal” special exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
   The Museum supplies magnifying glasses because the detail is often so astonishing.
   But in a sense the whole show is a lens through which we can view a vanished culture, noted at times for an interfaith mood still too rare today.
   The 80-some objects prove the exhibit’s slogan, “Beauty is in the details.” 
   This may be a surprise because when we think of the monumental Taj Mahal, we think wide-angle, rather than close-up lens.
   This is understandable. Curator Kimberly Masteller, who will be part of a Gallery Walk Sunday at 1:30, told me that the “Taj was legendary in Europe from the time of its creation . . . .”
   Not immensity — intimacy is what we see, works for the private enjoyment of the Muslim court. 
   With rulers Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, that court cultivated religious tolerance in the land of Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, Jews and Christians.
   Many of us have misconceptions of Islamic history which is actually full of rulers and scholars eagerly exploring and appropriating materials — including religion — from other cultures.
   Evidence in this exhibit includes an image of a Jesuit priest (Akbar asked Jesuits to educate him about the Christian faith). 
   Yogis and Sufis seem to be depicted with equal intent.
   Jahangir wrote “It is a very good book if one hears it with the ear of intelligence” on a translation of a Sanskrit text about the Hindu god Rama. 
   While Jesus is a beloved figure in Islam and the Qur’an mentions Mary more often than Christian scriptures, seeing them in Mughal paintings influenced by the Christian style is an eye-opener.
   One of my favorite paired paintings is of Yusuf, also known as Joseph (Qur’an 12 and  Genesis 37), a figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
   He is depicted being rescued from the well where his jealous brothers dumped him. He emerges not in tatters but in finery that suggests his inner dignity.
   The companion in the exhibit shows him tending sheep in plain clothes, with a halo and extraordinary beams of light. 
   In both portrayals one senses the serenity that comes from loving acceptance of God’s will.
   The lens of this exhibit into a century where many faiths were respectfully studied may help us see a future beyond the misunderstandings, misuses and squabbles of the present.

766. 090520 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Politics, not faith, in the Middle East

The new Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. says that some Americans may have a misconception that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted in religious antagonism between Jews and Muslims  when the issues that cause conflict are actually political.
   Sameh Shoukry, posted to Washington last September, sat down with me last week following a meeting of the International Relations Council during his visit to Kansas City.
   He was here just days before the Egyptian president comes to Washington, and just weeks before President Obama goes to Egypt where he will address the Muslim world.
   Egypt, the largest Arab nation, is 90 percent Muslim, and has been at peace with Israel for thirty years, he pointed out. While most Palestinians are Muslim, some are Christian, and their political aims are not Muslim or Christian but shared Palestinian aims, he said.
   Further, despite the hardships brought on by political strife, there are many friendships between Jews and Muslims, “both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories.” He said many of them are working for peace.
   “Muslims hold Jews and Christians in respect. The prophets of both faiths are held in reverence by Muslims. Within the attachment we all have to our own faiths, we hope to build upon our common values and belief in God to bridge the political differences that divide,” he said. 
   These three religions emanated from the same part of the world, and all are based on peace, he added.
   I asked if the Egyptian government, with its minority Christian, Bahá'í and Jewish populations, was politically secular. Citing the Egyptian constitution, he said that was a fair characterization, while recognizing that most Egyptians have a strong feeling for their faith for day-to-day personal issues.
   Sharia, Islamic law, and secular law are seen as complimentary and have been “successfully merged over the years,” he said. 
   The ambassador highlighted  education several times during the evening, and I asked him about that. He said that the Muslim faith advocates learning. In that spirit, Egypt offers free university education and graduate training to all on a competitive basis. 
   He favors Egyptian students studying in the Kansas City region, which he called “the Heartland,” because he sensed we here share the same values as Egyptians.
   He was not surprised when I told him that some Americans associate Islam with violence. He said he understood about 9/11, and how religion can be misused by political ideologies. All the more reason for interfaith dialogue, he said.

765. 090513 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
KC makes the perfect setting

Today’s column may not affect your spirit in a very personal way, but it may lift up “Kansas City spirit” by noting a few examples of why the North American Interfaith Network chose Kansas City for its conference June 26-28.
   * NAIN was organized in 1988 at a conference at which more Kansas Citians participated than any other city except the hosting city, Wichita. 
   * When our Interfaith Council formed, it was noted for its inclusion of more faiths than many other interfaith groups. Religions from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, participate here.
   * After 9/11, CBS-TV did a half-hour special on how our interfaith leadership responded to the terrorist attacks. 
   * In 2007, we hosted the first international “Interfaith Academies,” at which a the principal researcher for Harvard University's Pluralism Project, one of the cosponsors, said, “We consider Kansas City to be truly at the forefront of interfaith relations.” 
   * And the multi-faith Life Connections Program at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS, which brings spiritual resources to inmate rehabilitation, has been called the model for the five pilot programs funded through the faith-based initiative of the federal government.
   Still, it takes a special person to pull an international group here. Susan Cook, raised by her Creek Indian father to “find truth in every religion,” discovered the same teaching in The Urantia Book. Her involvement with the Urantia Fellowship led to her election as chair of its interfaith committee. 
   She decided local immersion was also important, and began working with, and eventually became a member of, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
   Also involved with NAIN, she worked to bring that international organization’s annual meeting here.
   “The NAIN board and members are going to be delighted to meet all of us (here) and see first hand the interfaith work happening in this city,” she told me. “Kansas City is a wonderful city of many faiths and cultures working beautifully together.” 
   Shannon Clark, executive director of Council, who attended last year’s conference in San Francisco, said, “I hope that members of the many faith communities throughout Kansas City will attend the conference and learn more about the various faiths in our own backyards as well as across the country.”
   The program includes local faith groups presenting devotional and artistic experiences.
   Details about the conference, “Experiencing the Spirit in Education - The Challenge of Religious Pluralism,”  can be found at

Click here for Q & A with Cook and Clark and a news release.

764. 090506 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Inclusion debate continues

Should atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, deists and others, often called Freethinkers, be included in interfaith organizations with Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and all other faiths?
   Professor Richard J Janet of Rockhurst University thinks not, and his elegant essay explaining his reasoning was stimulated by my suggestion in this space that Freethinkers have much to contribute to, and learn from, interfaith dialogue.
   And he invited me to respond to his position. Both his essay and my comment will appear in the May Thomas More Center newsletter which you can obtain by emailing him, The two opinions also appear at [Freethinkers.htm].
   In brief, Janet grants that while Freethinkers may do much to benefit others, he says that “Freethinkers do not share the experience of belief. . . . No matter how noble their intentions or sincere their ideas, Freethinkers do not belong in groups dedicated to dialogue on religious faith.”
   His essay notes, correctly, I think, that some Freethinkers “ridicule and savage religious faith as delusional and pathetic.”
   The attacks of writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris bother me, too. I grant that they sometimes make a fair point in associating religion with ignorance, hypocrisy, oppression and violence. But such writers too often confuse foul expressions of faith with faith itself.
   Still, most Freethinkers I know are not strident. On the contrary, they are modest about their positions. Some even are church members.
   My basic disagreement with Janet is that belief is less important to interfaith dialogue than the capacity to experience awe and wonder, to be moved to gratitude and matured in service to others. 
   If religion involves the search for what is of utmost importance, then every Freethinker I know deserves a seat at the interfaith table, even if the term “religious” is discomforting to some because they have experienced the distortions of faith.
   In my own thinking, I call that awesome sense of ultimate importance or utmost concern “the sacred.” I have never talked with a Freethinker who did not have a sense of the sacred, even if he or she eschewed use of such terminology.
   Regardless of belief or unbelief, I want to hear the stories of how people experience wonder, are inspired to serve others and live with the fundamental questions of faith.
   These questions are not specific queries like “Is there a God?” They are more universal, more basic to the human spirit like “Is life worth living?” and “How can we better understand, honor, and share the wonder of being alive?”

763. 090429 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Scriptural passages to live by

Folks sometimes ask for my favorite scriptural passages, so today, with citations from Hebrew, Greek and Arabic texts, I begin a series of occasional columns.
   *Ecclesiastes 9:11 teaches that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.”
   This verse cautions us from thinking that success is solely a product of one’s own effort, and reminds us that even superior character may not be rewarded or recognized. Ambition, work and merit may produce very little if circumstances do not cooperate. 
   For example, weather may have been the reason for England’s 1588 victory against the Spanish Armada. 
   This year marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, but if Darwin had not been high-born socially and if Alfred Russel Wallace had not suffered the loss of his specimens in a shipboard fire, we might credit Wallace with the theory of evolution.
   If Bill Gates had not had access to a computer in 1968 when he was 13, at the cusp of the computer revolution, his career might have been very different and his wealth minimal.
   *Matthew 25:35-46 tells of a king who commends righteous folk who fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, housed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, visited him when sick and in prison. But the righteous ask when they had done these things. The king responded, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
   This passage’s examples remind us that when we care for others, we are doing the work of the sacred realm.
   *Here are two excerpts from the Qur’an. First, 2:256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” Second, 109:6: “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.”
   I know from personal experiences abroad and many years with the Muslim community here that these passages are honored, whereas, frankly, I have often been beset by fellow Christians urging their particular interpretations upon me. 
   Historically, with few exceptions, Islam has avoided seeking conversions. A person’s faith must be freely embraced if it is to be a sacred path to inspired living rather than a set of chains anchored in a corner of meaninglessness or hypocrisy.
   These passages from Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures are favorites because they help me understand this world and how to live in it with others.

762. 090422 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Does the concept of souls extend to animals?

After Bo, the Obama girls' puppy, lives a good, long doggy life, will it go to heaven? Why do some churches bless animals on St. Francis Day? What place do animals have in a sacred world view?
   Here’s a sampling of animals in religious contexts. 
   *The Bible reports both a serpent and an ass speaking. In today’s America, the fabulous Easter bunny is a spiritual residue of ancient awe at springtime’s fecundity.
   *In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, the monkey god Hanuman assembles an army of monkeys to defeat an evil king. Some Chinese call themselves “Descendants of the Dragon.” The dragon represents beneficent powers in favorable rains and waters.
   *Ancient Egyptians portrayed most of their gods in animal forms. Most American Indians have regarded animals, considered relatives, on a par with human beings, and some have even regarded bears, eagles and other animals as their ancestors.
   *This contrasts sharply with some Christians who believe that humans were separately and especially created to have dominion over animals. Others believe that God’s design enabled humans to evolve from earlier life forms.
   Now comes a Kansas City theologian asking Christians to think about God’s relationships with animals, particularly primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos.
   Citing recent scientific studies, Nancy R. Howell, professor at the Saint Paul School of Theology here, proposes to expand theology’s focus on humans to include others of God’s creatures.
   In a forthcoming publication, she gives examples of primates seeming to experience awe, their remarkable communication abilities, their care for each other in complex social relationships and even their use of deception to arouse sympathy for themselves. 
   I asked her if God is concerned with their spiritual life.
   She said, “I am convinced that God enjoys relationships with creatures other than humans. The lives of all creatures are enriched because of the presence of God (who) is much more complex, compassionate and interesting than our (traditional) theological formulations have imagined . . . .
   “Christian concepts of the soul (have been) based on presumptions about the differences between humans and animals.”
   But she says there is a “genetic and evolutionary continuity between humans and animals,” so she questions such a strict distinction.
   She poses an intriguing question: “will we reconsider with more nuance how we define the human soul or will we include animals in our concept of the soul?”

761. 090415 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Understanding the Jewish Jesus

Christianity claims about 2.1 billion people, and Islam numbers about 1.5 billion. These are the largest two world faiths. 
   But a much smaller religion, with only about 14 million adherents, has had enormous influence on these two faiths. With less than one quarter of one per cent of the world’s population, largely found in roughly equal numbers in two nations, the United States and Israel, Jews, along with Christians and Muslims, are bound together by Abraham as a founding figure in their stories.
   But it is the figure of Jesus who divides Jews and Christians. In my experience, many Christians fail to fully appreciate the Jewish tradition from which Christianity emerged.
   One problem is that many Christians don’t know about the rich developments within Jewish life and thought over the last two thousand years. Judaism today is not the Judaism of the first century depicted in the Christian scriptures.
   A second problem is that many Christians extract Jesus from his essential Jewishness.
   This theme will be elaborated by a Jew, Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, when she speaks Apr. 24-25 at Village Presbyterian Church, (913) 671-2381.
   Her book, “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus,” has been called “a searing challenge from the heart of Judaism to the conscience of Christianity.”
   I asked her why Christians need to understand Jesus as a Jew of his time. She responded, “If we get first-century Judaism wrong, we’ll get Jesus wrong. 
   “Some Christians incorrectly regard Jesus as the only Jew who respected women, showed compassion to the sick, aided the poor and counseled non-violence. 
   “They view his Jewish context as comparable to the Taliban, if not worse. Seeing Jesus within Judaism helps to avoid such inaccurate anti-Jewish teaching and to deepen understanding of his teachings.”
   For example, “first-century Jews knew that parables were not just sweet stories. By doing the history, we learn how ‘the Prodigal Son’ is not necessarily about repentance; how ‘the Good Samaritan’ would have shocked . . . and how the ‘Parable of the Leaven’ may have gotten a rise out of” those who heard Jesus tell it.
   The power of a tradition does not merely lie in its number of adherents. Minority scholars such as Levine can offer our overwhelmingly Christian culture, otherwise speaking and listening only to itself, the very insights it needs to more completely understand Jesus, the human being Christians teach is also God.

[For more information and the complete interview, click here.]

760. 090408 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Storytelling brings understanding

Interfaith understanding often begins with stories, first personal stories and then the canonical stories of the great religious traditions.
   But learning how to tell the stories of our own lives and learning the stories of others can lead to the surprise that stories we claim as our own are actually shared, and even prefigured, by others.
   This is likely to be the case for those who attend the Kansas City performance of “Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth,” by New York City storyteller Diane Wolkstein Apr. 17. She will appear with Broadway’s Geoffrey Gordon who will play several instruments to evoke the atmosphere of the 4,000–year Sumerian old story.
   Except, Wolkstein says, the story is about us today. For example, the connection many men and women in our culture feel to Mary, often also called “Queen of Heaven” by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, is evidence of a trans-cultural heritage that reveals inherently human questions about who we really are when the externals of our lives are stripped away. She says it “is the great human story of death and rebirth.”
   It begins with “lusty, earthy, sensuous” springtime, and ends with profound self-knowledge and awareness of how the world works.
   Wolkstein worked with Samuel Noah Kramer whose ground-breaking 1956 book, History Begins with Sumer, demonstrated the sophistication of that ancient Iraqi civilization and our debt to it. He and Wolkstein together wrote a book about Inanna before his death in 1990.
   I asked Wolkstein why personal storytelling is important, even in our electronic age.
   She replied, “Storytelling unites people with spirit and art. A storyteller cannot tell well without the enthusiasm and contribution of those present (who) create with the storyteller a sacred place for new spirit to appear. 
   “Storytelling is really community art” igniting and awakening people’s imaginations and hearts. “So, upon hearing a good story, they start to dream again.”
    Wolkstein has told the story of Inanna to audiences on five continents in places such as the Smithsonian and the British Museum.
   Here Wolkstein will not only tell the story. She will also lead a workshop Apr. 18 where participants will have opportunities to develop their storytelling skills by listening to others and by telling their own stories.
   In voicing one’s own story to appreciative listeners, one can often come to a fuller understanding of what has come out of one’s own mouth. 
   The Friends of Jung bring her here. For more information, visit their website, My full interview with Wolkstein appears at

759. 090401 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Prayers for our ears, too

Who listens to prayers?
   Without a doubt, most people think of prayer as directed to a listening God or to the gods or to an intercessor or to a spirit.
   This underlies some humor, as in this story. The man, running late, circles the block several times before an important meeting. Frantically he prays, “God, if you’ll give me a place to park, I’ll go to church every Sunday, give a tenth of my income to charity, stop fooling around with all those women and never take another drink the rest of my life. Please, God, I’ll do anything for a parking spot!”
   Immediately, miraculously, a car pulls out and the man sees the empty space. He concludes his prayer, “Never mind, God, I found one.”
   The joke depends on the idea of God listening, and in this case, responding.
   But whether or not a supernatural power hears prayers, prayers heard by mortal ears can even in themselves be worthy.
   The folks last week who created and then heard a group prayer at the Raytown Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast were deepened in their understanding of each other’s concerns.
   Sponsored by the Raytown Community Inter-Faith Alliance, the group prayer has become an annual tradition.
   Here’s how it works. Before the main part of the program,  people at their tables are asked as teams to write their local, national and global prayer requests on different colored index cards.  Folks from government, business, non-profits, young people, retired people — citizens of all kinds join in the discussion of their sacred desires.
   During the program, a committee collects, studies and arranges the cards. Then the cards are used as the basis for a group prayer after the Pledge of Allegiance. 
   This year the prayer was woven together by a committee of Dawn Weaks of Raytown Christian Church, Adam Smith of Raytown Community of Christ and Kim Ross of One Spirit United Methodist Church.
   The prayer included perhaps a hundred subjects, such as schools, disparities of wealth and caring for the earth.
   One item, skillfully phrased, went something like this: “help us to learn from each other’s perspectives on controversial issues like homosexuality.”
   Since the entertainment, presented by St. Louis area singers Susan Drake and Julie Jennings,  who are United Church of Christ ministers and a lesbian couple, was universally and enthusiastically applauded, the Raytown human ears seem to have heard and responded to the prayer.
   Michael Stephens of Southwood United Church of Christ  chaired the event. He said that truly hearing each other is itself a powerful answer to prayer.

758. 090325 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Yearning for the divine

How does one express the deepest longing of the soul for union with the divine while every fiber of one’s being pulls the other way rabidly?
   I thought I knew the sovereign answer, at least in English. John Donne (1573-1631), Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, conveyed the anguish of human frailty seeking the transcendent in his “Holy Sonnet” 14. 
   But although I have loved and studied the poem for decades, the setting John Adams gives it in his opera “Doctor Atomic,” recently produced by the New York Metropolitan Opera and broadcast on KCPT, reveals a wider context with greater emotional punch than I had ever contemplated.
   (For the text and 8-minute video, visit
   The opera focuses on “the father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer. “Trinity,” the name of the bomb test, was likely inspired by the Donne poem. 
   Oppenheimer was a physicist familiar with world literature. In fact, when he saw the initial blast of the first bomb, he quoted lines by heart from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, which he could read in Sanskrit.
   The first act of the opera closes as Oppenheimer, singing the Donne sonnet, agonizes over whether his work will lead to the destruction of the world.
   In the sonnet, Donne compares himself to a city under siege.
   Patricia Cleary Miller, professor of English, chair of the Humanities Division at Rockhurst University and herself a poet and critic, says the “poem presents Petrarchan metaphors of love as war, and the medieval romance plot of the fair damsel rescued from the evil castle by the brave prince.”
   Donne’s “prince” is God, and he begs God to “batter” his heart because he is helpless to yield to God without God’s violent rescue.
   Miller notes that Reason, personified in the poem, is called God’s viceroy, and is “supposed to protect humans from error,” but is himself imprisoned, weak or untrue.
   Then comes a sexual metaphor in this poem of faith: Donne is a partner desiring a different lover. Verging on blasphemy in a paradox so shocking because it seems irresistible, he concludes:
   “Take me to You, imprison me, for I,/ Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.”
   I had always read the poem as a plea so desperate that God’s favorable response was assured.
   But the operatic setting is darker, perhaps despairing. And with Oppenheimer singing it, it becomes not just a personal cry, but the cry of all humanity for rescue from the evil of which we repeatedly prove ourselves capable.
  Still, is not the longing itself a sign of the divine? 

757. 090318 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Welcome weary travelers

Reader Gaile Varnum saw that my wish list in a recent column included an interfaith chapel at Kansas City International Airport.
   Whether travel involves business, a vacation or adventure, a wedding, a funeral, a new child, leaving home for school, military deployment or some other purpose, transit is often a transition that deserves spiritual reflection and support, especially in the often raw setting of an airport.
   Varnum agrees and wrote me about some of the airport chapels she has discovered. And she wrote this:
   “I have been visiting airport chapels since my ‘Road Warrior’ days as a professional speaker. Because chapels have represented healing and comfort to me since childhood, I have looked for chapels to visit in airports as well.
   “As a traveler, I am always pleasantly surprised whenever I find one; most often, the space is tucked away and fairly difficult to locate. But once there, I sit down, breathe in the holy air and thank my God for a respite from the hustle of travel.
   “I realize that my own journeys are not unlike those of early pilgrims.
    “When I sit in an airport chapel, I often do not see the antiseptic seats or the few potted plants that brighten the space. I see instead sojourners from the past of every stripe imaginable; I consider how grateful I am for the safety of having ‘made it this far.’
   “I think back to all the travelers before me who welcomed a moment’s peace in their busy day exactly as I do in that moment. I imagine how connected to my fellow travelers I am.
   “I observe a woman praying her rosary before boarding her next flight. Another time, I see a Muslim, leading his son in tow, and finding a prayer rug to fold himself upon, facing Mecca and the kaaba.
   “Whenever I visit an airport chapel, I first always look for the visible signs of multi-faith worship or prayer.
   “Not all chapels are truly inclusive. Recently, I read a note in the chapel guest book from a fellow traveler at Chicago Midway: ‘Why have you no menorah, at least, for the Jewish faithful traveling?’”
   If KCI is to recognize the spiritual diversity of the Heartland and to be truly international, it should join other major airports by dedicating a space for what Varnum calls “time to get still.”
   I do not want government taxing us to support religious activities, but faith and secular groups could rent and furnish a space welcoming all who travel, making their trip more meaningful as we realize that we are all pilgrims on this planet, as the planet itself whirls through space with our lives unfolding.

756. 090311 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Crisis is an opportunity

Sheldon Stahl, a hero of mine, died last week. He was 76. Today’s column concludes with his words.
   Stahl’s career included serving as business economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and as dean of the Rockhurst University School of Management. 
   Financial statistics never clouded his moral compass. Indeed, for him they clarified the obligations we have to one another and buttressed his intense commitment to fairness.
   Nowadays much is said about the “moral hazard” of the government bailing out businesses that created and took reckless risks. Does the huge public rescue reward, and perhaps encourage, “bad behavior”?
   Stahl and I discussed this in the context that our society, indeed the world, is now so interwoven that fairness is difficult to achieve. It isn’t fair for you to be forced to subsidize your neighbor’s foolish mortgage when you have played by the rules, but if the house gets a foreclosure sign in front of it, the value of your own property sinks.
   Still, Stahl thought a spiritual problem more fundamental than the “moral hazard” issue is largely missing from current discussions. 
   I had mentioned how dismayed I was at the request made of us following 9/11: go shopping. 
   Surely, I said, life is more about faith, hope and love than about buying things. Surely defining ourselves and our worth in terms of purchasing power rather than by the richness of experiences we can offer one another is a perversion of what it means to be human. 
   Surely encouraging curiosity, inventiveness and service would have been a better vision of how to move forward in those days.
   Do our current crises give us another chance to re-examine what is truly important?
   He picked up my question and agreed to write about it for this space.
   In his last email to me, he cited GDP and job loss numbers, but insisted that “behind the mass of statistical data . . .there are countless human faces” afflicted by misplaced values.
   He wrote that many of us “remain caught up in our frenetic lifestyles that assign high priority to ‘getting and spending.’ 
   “In embracing consumerism, we may have struck a Faustian bargain. There is a real danger that we may have traded our humanity for the soulless acquisitiveness of things, becoming faceless and less caring to our neighbors and to our communities. . . . 
   “Now more than ever, our current crises offer us an opportunity to reach out and to regain that virtue of humanity that undergirds a civil society.”
   Stahl was a man of such virtue.

755. 090304 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Finding healing for a world in distress

Faithful readers of this column might perceive a lament underlying much of what appears here: we finite humans are broken, disconnected from one another, from our natural environment and even from appreciating the mystery of our own individuality.
   In our culture a sense of wholeness—holiness is the theological term—is difficult to maintain. Competing partial agendas vie for our attention, like a stream of endless commercials on TV with each claiming to be what we urgently need. We are distracted on every front.
   Too rarely do we sense the sacred, the source of life’s meaning in society, in nature, in personhood.
   How can we discover and honor the power on which our lives depend—which we usually push to the periphery of our awareness?
   Answers came from Jewish, Christian and Muslim panelists last week when the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Kansas City Section, presented a luncheon program entitled “Healing in a Fractured World.”
   Rabbi Jonathan Rudnick, Kansas City’s Jewish community chaplain, said that spirituality involves connecting. 
   He said the Hebrew term shalom, often used as a greeting and understood to mean “peace,” has a deep meaning of “wholeness.” 
   Connecting, reaching toward wholeness, may be a struggle, but we are blessed with meaning as we struggle.
   The Rev. Heather Entrekin, pastor of Prairie Baptist Church, reminded the audience of 335 men and women that “God is present among us” and can be heard even in a child’s voice or a woman’s.
   She said that the overwhelming events of 9/11 and our current economic distress make it clear that church cannot be a “spiritual Tylenol,” but that we can instead learn to see signs of God’s generosity all around us. 
   Shaheen Ahmed, a founder of the Crescent Peace Society, noted that adversity can rouse us to remember God.
   This truth applies incident by incident, and it is also built into Islam ritually. For example, the hunger Muslims feel by choosing to observe Ramadan, the month of fasting, reminds them that others hunger not by choice, and those able must provide for those in need. 
   She said that the Qur’an requires Muslims to honor all faiths and to aid all who suffer, regardless of their religion.
   All three of the speakers, in one way or another, met my lament by saying that our fractured world requires us to struggle within it, not to be distracted or numbed by it. Only by recognizing that we are broken can we reach toward wholeness, paradoxically present when our eyes and hearts and hands are open.

754. 090225 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Leader following, setting example

Jon Willis is one of several young interfaith leaders emerging in Kansas City. He has no long scholarly resume in the field of religion, but he has two children, aged 7 and 4, and wants a better world for them.
   He heeds — and is acting on — the words and example of youth organizer and writer Eboo Patel, a member of the Obama Faith Advisory Council.
   Patel writes that “the 21st century will be shaped by the questions of the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation . . . is a legitimate way of being, believing and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or killed.
   “On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together.”
   I met Jon earlier this year at his church, Second Presbyterian, when he convened a group of adults and young people from several faiths (and none) to think about how young people can be supported in their desire to make friends across faith lines.
   His Facebook page, “Supporters of the Interfaith Youth Alliance of Kansas City,” says, “We come together as religious pluralists (aiming) . . . to bring youth together from different religious and moral traditions for cooperative community service and dialogue.”
     Willis says that parenting for him includes “sharing my own faith and beliefs, including the importance of serving others. I want to prepare young people for the world that they are going to encounter, which will include meeting people from all cultures and faiths in our increasingly global society.
   “I also want to enable them with the skills to express to others the core beliefs that are important to them and to instill in them the ability to have meaningful dialogue and relations with people from different backgrounds who may hold very different beliefs.”
   This Saturday he will host a free workshop at his church for those interested in engaging youth through interfaith projects. The program begins at 12:30 for youth leaders, a dinner for leaders and youth at 5:30 and a training program for 9th-12th grade youth from 7 to 9 pm. 
   Willis is not trying to establish a local branch of Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, but to draw from Patel’s experience and from local ideas to promote “inclusiveness rather than totalitarian ideologies, with the importance of service to others, a value that people of all faiths and non-faiths share together, with dialogue and relationship-building between youth of different religious and moral traditions.”
   For information, write Willis at

753. 090218 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Lincoln address evokes Power

The sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were written in languages most of us do not understand and in cultures and circumstances so different from our own that scholarly guidance is often helpful.
   But is there an American text that encapsulates the wisdom found in all three of these monotheistic faiths?
   I can’t think of a better response to this question than the Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. Although he never became a church member, and in some ways his religious views were unconventional, Lincoln grappled with what may be the central concern about history in these three great religious traditions.
   My job at a one-day workshop arranged by the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council Mar. 25 at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection is to present an overview of the world’s primal, Asian and monotheistic faiths.
   To do this, it will be simple to find American Indian songs to express the love the primal faiths have of nature. And reciting Asian chants easily provides at least an inkling of how the sacred can be discovered by turning inward.
   But because most of us are so immersed in a worldview shaped by the monotheistic faiths, I will use Lincoln’s non-scriptural text to help us see our own tradition afresh.
   In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln asks what Jews, Christians and Muslims have asked about events in the various contexts of their own scriptures: What is history telling us about how humans can best live together? 
   The question is not about the trees and rivers, as in primal faiths. It is not about the content of our consciousness, as in Asian traditions. These questions are also worthy, but different.
   In 1865, the Civil War was ending. Lincoln asks what the woes of the War mean.
   He names the wickedness of slavery as an offense God could no longer tolerate. The War is the punishment due to both North and South for having permitted the offense to continue for 250 years.
   Like the monotheistic prophets before him, Lincoln’s faith was that, even through fallible human actors, a power moves through history toward justice, 
   And Lincoln, eschewing partisanship, concludes, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
   As we struggle with events of our own time, the monotheistic faiths, expressed in scripture and echoed by Lincoln, remind us of a power larger than the day’s news to which we can offer ourselves.

752. 090211 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
A Pope's legacy lives on

Pope John Paul II died in 2005 but he is still bringing folks of different faiths together, even here in Kansas City.
   First, some history.
   The New Testament records tensions between the Jewish community and the Christian movement which began within it. By the end of the First Century, developments at the rabbinical Academy of Jamnia and the adoption of the Christian story by non-Jews led to the painful separation of what became two distinct faiths.
   Christian persecutions and pogroms against Jews have littered the centuries since, though, for the most part, Jews enjoyed protection in Muslim lands.
   Not until 1979, nearly two thousand years later, did the most prominent leader within Christendom, John Paul II, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, bring the power of his office toward redeeming this history by visiting Auschwitz and, in 1986, a synagogue. (He was also the first Pope to pray in a mosque.)
   How this happened is movingly recounted in the exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another,” which continues at Union Station through March 27.
   I spoke with exhibit co-creators Rabbi Abie I. Ingber and James P. Buchanan, both of Xavier University in Cincinnati, and with Ron Slepitza, president of Avila University, who arranged for the show to come here.
   They emphasized the boyhood friendships of Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope. He lived in an apartment owned by a Jewish family in Wadowice, Poland. There Jews and Christians intermingled with comity. 
   Wojtyla lost track of one Jewish soccer-playing friend, Jerzy Kluger, during the Nazi occupation and WWII, but their friendship later was restored. The first person to receive a private audience with John Paul II was his Jewish boyhood friend. 
   That exemplified a pattern of reaching out, which included the 1986 and 2002 gatherings at Assisi with leaders from many faiths, part of the reason we now have an Interfaith Council in Kansas City.
   On the show’s opening night last week, Ahmed El-Sherif, a Muslim, viewed the exhibit where he met Rabbi Ingber. Within seconds they exchanged kisses three times as is the cultural custom. Not only had they both known John Paul II, but Ingber also knew of El-Sherif’s uncle who had worked with the Vatican in promoting interfaith understanding and had served as ambassador to Germany and Japan from Jordan.
   John Paul II’s legacy continues to bring folks of all faiths together. Perhaps you, viewing this exhibit, will reach out to someone of another faith and help rescue the world from the slights and horrors of religious prejudice.

751. 090204 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
What did the founders say?

How do you resolve the argument whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation or whether the nation was intended to be wholly secular?
   One way to assess these extreme positions is to look at the founding documents, and to examine what the founders said and didn’t say.
   This is the approach taken by Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and author of American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation. With wit and charm, Meacham spoke here to about 500 people last week to conclude the second annual Festival of Faiths.
   Meacham said that this approach might appeal to conservatives because it honored our nation’s inception and our founders’ original intent. And it might appeal to liberals because it is “empirical,” based on evidence rather than a projection of particular theological orientations.
   Meacham believes the evidence reveals a middle ground, with the founders scrupulously avoiding aligning the government with any particular religion. Sectarian faith could not be the basis of government.
   Still, Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and others developed a vague, non-sectarian notion of divine providence guiding the nation. 
   Meacham is working ground plowed by scholars such as John Dewey (1934), Sidney Mead (1963), Robert Bellah (1967), Forrest Church (2004) and Randall Balmer (2008).
   In response to those who cite “in the Year of our Lord” at the end of the Constitution to prove the nation is Christian, Meacham called the phrase a “date stamp.” (It is an English translation of Anno Domini. Nowadays it often appears as the abbreviation “A.D,” used even by atheists.)
   In his speech, Meacham noted the European religious wars our founders saw were destructive. He summarized our own religious history from colonial America through the views of many presidents. 
   As an editor, he expressed particular admiration for Ronald Reagan’s skill in “improving on Jesus,” by adding the word “shining” to the beginning of the phrase, “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14), one of the phrases now associated with the Reagan presidency. 
   But Meachem did not quote Reagan referring to the Bible at a 1980 convention of evangelical Christians in Dallas: “All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book.”
   And when Meacham said Biblical “literalism is for the insecure,” I’m not sure he avoided the extremism and personal attacks from which he sought to save us.

750. 090128 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Inauguratintg many ideas

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture . . . .” 
   So spoke President Barack Obama in his inaugural address. 
   While Obama is a Christian, and his call to “set aside childish things” comes from Christian scripture (I Cor. 13:11), others can recognize themes in his speech that resonate within their own traditions. And in today’s America, these themes have become widely familiar. Here are three examples.
   *Economic justice. More clearly than any other people, the ancient Hebrew prophets developed a passion for the poor, victimized by oppressive financial dealings. 
   When Obama said, “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility,” he joined the concern of Amos 2:7: “they trample down the poor like dust, and humble souls they harry.”
   With the insights of the Jewish experience, Obama said, “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”
   *Unity beyond divisions. Muhammad, more decisively than other religious founders before him, united disparate and fractious tribes whose fierce blood loyalties were superseded only by the idea of submission to one God. 
   Centuries later, Nanak, the first guru of the Sikh faith, said, “there is no Muslim; there is no Hindu,” meaning that such labels cloak our true nature.
   Beyond loyalties to ethnic groups or political parties, Americans unite with what Obama called the “noble idea . . . that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
   He expanded this idea, predicting that “the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; (and) as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
   *Duty. No scriptural exposition of duty surpasses the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. It teaches to “perform every action sacramentally.” 
   When Obama spoke of “duties to ourselves, our nation and the world,” he said that “a new era of responsibility” requires us not to “grudgingly accept (our duties) but rather seize (them) gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”
   This recalls the insight from the modern Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore, that in acting, duty becomes joy.
   These examples suggest that from diverse threads of many faiths a strong American fiber is woven.

749. 090121 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
One God, many meanings

God is not mentioned in the United States Constitution, adopted in 1787. It is uncertain when the practice of appending “So help me God” to the presidential oath or affirmation prescribed by the Constitution began, but there is no contemporary evidence of this practice until decades after the nation was founded.
   Though all presidents have referred to the divine, the word “God” does not appear in a presidential inaugural address until 1821. George Washington concluded his first inaugural address by appealing to “the benign Parent of the Human Race.” 
   All of our early presidents preferred circumlocutions such as “Providence,” “that Almighty Being who rules the universe,” “Fountain of Justice,” and “Patron of Order” in their addresses.
   Thomas Jefferson, who wrote of the “Creator” and “Nature’s God” in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, also wrote that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
   While “civil religion” has shaped our nation, sectarian preference has been eschewed. For example, John Adams and the U.S. Senate in 1791 declared that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
   And in 1937, when prayers at presidential inaugurations were begun, clergy from several faiths, not just one, were part of the ceremony. 
   In the embrace of this American pluralism, is there some way that nonbelievers can favorably interpret the intent of those who use the word “God” on public occasions?
   Last Sunday, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson tried to be inclusive by invoking a “God of our many understandings.”
   One way of looking at these understandings is to group them into three traditional categories.
   The first is the God of nature, the evidence for which many find in creation, and who may be felt looking at nature’s grandeur or fury—a flood as an “act of God.”
   A second understanding is of a personal Higher Power guiding the individual’s life toward self-realization and morality.
   A third is the God of history, a power moving through the ages toward freedom and justice. Such a God calls us beyond labels to care about each other, about all nations and about the future of the planet.
   I like the circumlocutions of our founders, the ongoing struggle in our diversity to uplift our “many understandings,” and each person’s opportunity to find beauty in others’ attempts to recognize the sense of wonder which may save us from disaster.

748. 090114 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
A Question of Balance

Martin Luther King Jr was Christian. Jewish support for him underlined a universal march toward human dignity. And a Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi, was, in King’s words, his “guiding light” for non-violent social change.
   Gandhi in turn was influenced by Muslim and other sources transmitted through history. But the origin seems to be Buddhist.
   All that came to mind when I heard Alvin Sykes respond to a hostile question late last year. 
   Sykes is the Kansas City living legend who, last fall, achieved the passage of the Till Bill, signed by President Bush, to enable the Justice Department to pursue unsolved civil rights crimes. Its name comes from Emmett Till, a 14-year old African-American who was brutally murdered in 1955 after he may have whistled at a white woman. A trial ended in acquittal by an all-white jury, and reaction helped fuel the Civil Rights movement.
   The hostile question I heard came from an African-American. It was something like, “Aren’t you just going to stir up a white backlash by reviving old hatreds with new investigations of what happened decades ago?”
   Sykes, also an African-American, responded with perfect balance and precision. He said that no backlash has occurred. In fact white people who know the guilty are coming forward to bring them to justice.
   Balance and precision are possible for a person of any faith, but Sykes’ particular communication style suggested a Buddhist flavor. I later learned that Sykes is a 34-year long lay member of the Soka Gakkai International-USA Buddhist organization. When he was 18, he was introduced to this form of Nichiren Buddhism by jazz musician Herbie Hancock.
   Sykes was 11 when King was assassinated. Since King was a man of peace, the riots that followed made no sense to him. He dropped out of school and studied the law at the library where he discovered possibilities for justice in the system that had been ignored by professionals.
   His work led to the 1983 conviction of Raymond Bledsoe who murdered Steve Harvey, a local jazz musician, with a baseball bat.
   Sykes, who has been the subject of recent stories in national publications and NPR, says that Buddhism teaches “open-minded communication,” also a part of King’s and Gandhi’s method.
   An example. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn kept the Senate from acting on the Till Bill for 15 months. Sykes met with him. Open-minded communication eventually won Coburn’s support. Coburn told the Senate, “I can’t say enough about (Sykes’)  stamina, his integrity, his forthrightness, his determination.”
   King’s march, shaped by many faiths, continues.
   Sykes will be feted for his work Feb. 20 from 6 to 9 pm at the Bruce Watkins Cultural Center. 

747. 090107 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
A Papal exhibit of blessings

What happens when people of different faiths get to know each other? 
   A stunning story of a youthful interfaith friendship leading to a world-changing career, affecting even Kansas City, opens Feb. 3 at Union Station. It is the exhibit, “A Blessing to One Another.”
   It chronicles one strand in Pope John Paul II’s interfaith outreach, beginning with his growing up in Poland in an apartment owned by a Jewish family. His boyhood friendship with Jerzy Kluger, a Jew, lengthened into a life-long commitment.
   While the exhibit focuses on Roman Catholic-Jewish relations, the late Pope advanced interfaith relations with all religions. 
   In 1986 the Pope’s interfaith gathering in Assisi, the town of St. Francis, included leading figures of 12 world religions. This meeting was a critical link in the chain of events that led to the creation of what is now the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
   The Pope’s example inspired a conference called “A North American Assisi” in 1988 at which the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) was launched, near here, in Wichita.
   The conference was described in The New York Times as the “first of such nature and scope on the continent” since the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
   Kansas City was represented by more folks than any other city except the hosting city.  The conference became the spark that ignited the growing fever among friends of different faiths meeting here since 1985 to form the Interfaith Council. The Council counts 15 members of faiths from A to Z — American Indian to Zoroastrian.
   (Incidentally, NAIN’s annual conference is scheduled to come to Kansas City this June.)
   Other Kansas City interfaith connections with the late pope include a 1999 meeting of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue with delegates from 20 faiths. Among the 230 delegates was Kansas City’s Bilal Muhammed, at that time imam of the Al-Inshirah Islamic Center on Troost. 
   John Paul II was the first pope in history to visit a synagogue. He also was the first to visit a mosque. He expressly apologized to Jews and Muslims for Christian treatment of those faiths throughout the centuries, and modeled including all faiths in the human family.
   He said, “as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God.”
   For skeptics who ask if friendships with those of other faiths can strengthen one’s own faith, a keen response might be another question, “Is the Pope Catholic?”