091230 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Time can be on your side
I’m about to turn over the calendar, and
an old Missouri farm expression comes to mind: “What’s time to a hog?”
We are people, but do we
know much more about time than a hog?
Did the Mayans know? The
disaster film, “2012,” is based on a reading of the Mayan calendar that
the world will end then. The Mayans were indeed preoccupied with prodigious
stretches of time, but the movie is fantasy, not scholarship.
St. Augustine famously wrote, “What
is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it
to him who asks, I do not know.”
Different languages have
different grammatical “tenses” beyond simply past, present and future,
indicating different kinds of concerns about time.
The ancient Greeks even had
two distinct terms for time. Chronos is the kind of time you see on a clock,
ordinary time, one minute after another. Our image of Father Time and the
outgoing year ultimately derive from the way the Hellenistic world envisioned
the god by that name.
The name also gives us terms
in English like chronic, chronicle and chronology.
The second word for time
was kairos, meaning the right time for something special to happen. The
dictionary in the back of my Greek New Testament defines kairos as time
“viewed as an occasion rather than an extent.”
To adapt the line from a
Cialis commercial, it is when ”the moment is right.”
Chronos is a quantity to
be measured but kairos is a quality to be felt.
Chronological time is often
viewed as an enemy. Carpe diem, seize the day, wrote Horace. Poets ever
since have been warning that time waits for no one.
This idea was anticipated
in scripture passages like Ecclesiastes 8: 15 and Isaiah 22: 13, confounded
as “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Temporal contingency is often
contrasted with eternity, understood as the endless, unhurried extension
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.
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.
is in love with the productions of time,” wrote poet William Blake, a motto
for Process Theology, surely.
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.
797. 091223 THE STAR’S
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
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
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."
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
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
And, for Christians, finding
the child anew within each of us may be indeed an incarnation, a gift of
God, if we see the star in the darkness, the divine in the stable trough.
796. 091216 THE STAR’S
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
The play portrays a Muslim
college student from our town in New York on 9/11, a Holocaust survivor
who ran a bakery here, a former Tibetan monk who escaped to freedom over
the Himalayas, the encounter of a Hindu couple with a Shawnee cowboy and
other true stories.
The Festival of Faiths, now
in its third year, brought Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth
Core and perhaps America’s most influential interfaith leader, to Kansas
City last month. His own story of discovering the interfaith imperative
in his own faith inspired several audiences here, youth and adult.
Another chapter in our story
was celebrated last month with those filling Yardley Hall at Johnson County
Community College when the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging
presented the music of Kansas City’s Barclay Martin, who worked with young
people in Zamboanga, the Philippines, leading to a concert there with an
interfaith audience of 10,000. His discoveries there enrich us here.
Next month, former Kansas
Citian Audrey Galex returns with her Winter’s Light program, which has
been part of Atlanta for six years now. The evening, adapted for Kansas
City, begins with a children’s story time and includes music, dance and
an art display. The Jan. 23 program at Goppert Theater, Avila University,
starts at 7:30 pm.
Lots is happening here. To
be part of Kansas City’s interfaith story, visit www.kcinterfaith.org.
2009 Dec 12
wrestle with who should receive Communion
by HELEN T. GRAY
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.
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
795. 091209 THE STAR’S
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.
794. 091202 THE STAR’S
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
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
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
As with our domestic debates,
foreign affairs and international relations are often intimately entwined
One of my favorite examples
of Berkley’s ground-breaking approach is the conference he convened here
in 1986, two years before the founding of the North American Interfaith
Network and three years before our own Interfaith Council was created.
The conference, “Islam and
the Muslim World,” was cosponsored by the American University. Not only
did Berkley feature a practicing Muslim of national stature, a former ambassador
and State Department official, and a scholar from Georgetown University,
he also involved local experts, including a curator from the Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art and Christian and Jewish leaders.
Berkley retired in 1994 but
his work continues Friday at noon with the annual lecture in his honor.
The speaker is Allison Stanger,
whose new book, One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American
Power and the Future of Foreign Policy, has attracted much attention,
including by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Newsweek
For information, visit www.irckc.org
or call 816.221.4204.
793. 091125 THE STAR’S
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
And sometimes recognizing
that we are doing our best is sufficient to bring to us the overwhelming
feeling that we are indeed blessed.
792. 091118 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Enjoying a feast of diversity
Twenty-five years ago on the Sunday before
Thanksgiving, folks from many faiths met to share a meal and give thanks
for the religious liberty we enjoy in this nation.
I had the privilege of presiding
over that meal and those each year since. This Nov. 22 will be the last
time I perform this happy duty.
The act of giving thanks
led to deepened relationships among the participants and, in 1989, the
formation of what is now the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
This annual ritual has been
unusual in several ways.
*Each year a different institution
has hosted it — Village Presbyterian Church, Rockhurst University, Grace
and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Saint Monica Catholic Church, Temple
B’nai Jehudah, Central Baptist Seminary, Rime Buddhist Center, among others.
This year the dinner will
be held at the Islamic School of Kansas City, 10515 Grandview Road.
* Brief words of gratitude
are offered from 15 faith groups, from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian.
*A full Thanksgiving meal
is eaten as participants read from American historical and aspirational
texts. Traditional Thanksgiving hymns add to the festive feeling.
*Children are welcome participants.
They ask questions about the food, such as “Why do we have turkey?” and
“Why do we have pumpkin pie?” and “Why is there a vegetarian option?” and
adults answer from the printed program.
I try to give the last question
to the youngest child: “Is it time to eat?” The adults joyously respond,
*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
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 www.cres.org, or calling OpenCircle, (816) 931.0738.
Although I’ll no longer lead
this Kansas City Thanksgiving Sunday tradition, I’ll always give thanks
for the joy of companions of all faiths expressing gratitude for our heritage
of an enlarging spiritual adventure.
791. 091111 THE STAR’S
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 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?
790. 091104 THE STAR’S
Spiritual gifts are found in many
The leaves of October were resplendent,
color everywhere. Now November is awash with many hues of the spirit.
Here are three examples — just as the month begins.
¶ Joan Chittister, one
of America’s most celebrated nuns, will speak Saturday at 9 a.m. on “The
God They Never Told Me About: A Convergence of Opposites,” at Country Club
Christian Church, 6101 Ward Parkway, www.cccckc.org. The event is free.
She told me that she will
discuss how she and others have come to question the “definitions and images
of God that we have been given in the past. . . .
“Religion is meant to shape
our spirituality, but it is possible to be ‘religious,’ meaning institutionally
regular, correct and creedal, without having any personal encounter with
God whatsoever. Spirituality is the encounter of the soul with the divine.”
She supports interfaith efforts
because the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel teaches that learning
from one another, “can make our own traditions deeper, fresher and clearer
¶ This Sunday at 5 p.m.,
the Barclay Martin Ensemble, the Sampaguita Choir and Sinag-Tala Dance
Group of the Filipino Association of Greater Kansas City will celebrate
the release of a CD with music and a film clip from the forthcoming documentary,
“Zamboanga: Poverty, War, Music,” produced by the Kansas City-based Christian
Foundation for Children and Aging, www.cfcausa.org.
Martin wrote the music as
part of his work in the Philippines with young people which resulted in
a concert there with an interfaith audience of 10,000.
You can make reservations
for the free concert at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall
by calling (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
Jon Willis, who has worked
this past year to develop interfaith activities for young people here,
says he hopes that “adults will come hear his message on how we need to
change the conversation about faith and religion by empowering youth of
all backgrounds and faiths to come together to create understanding and
respect by serving their communities.
“I also hope that youth will
come and be inspired by his vision of how they can make a difference right
now . . . with (other) youth from all over the metro area.”
You can purchase $15 tickets
($10 youth) to hear Patel speak Tuesday at 7:30 at Beth Shalom, 9400 Wornall
Road, by visiting www.festivaloffaithskc.org.
789. 091028 THE STAR’S
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
788. 091021 THE STAR’S
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
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
be performed Nov. 7 by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Folly Theater
as part of a Friends of Chamber Music program (www.chambermusic.org).
787. 091014 THE STAR’S
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 (www.jellybeanconspiracy.org).
This organization enables
young folks with disabilities to offer theatrical performances.
One evening last month
I saw an example of this joyous entertainment, which the organization has
presented in more than a dozen states as it continues to expand.
That evening Jellybean offered
what seems to me to be a theology of disability, wrapped up in a song by
New Zealand country music singer, Eddie Low, who grew up with visual impairments.
Low gave the song to Jellybean.
Here is the song’s chorus:
“I am a person./ I am a child of God like you./ I’ll live my life/ And
I’ll survive/ With just a little help from you.”
None of us is completely
independent. Our needs are routinely supplied by others. As the bus drivers,
Keller’s teacher and the Jellybean volunteers prove, to help those with
special needs is an opportunity to celebrate their dignity and exercise
our own in the sacred trust we have with each other.
786. 091007 THE STAR’S
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
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
“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
“Forrest understood that
faith doesn’t mean having all the answers. Rather, it means being able
to live confidently even though you still have questions.”
The Rev. Robert Lee Hill,
minister of Community Christian Church, met Forrest in the aftermath of
9/11 in New York. Shortly after Church’s death last month at 61, Hill wrote
his congregation about Church. Hill, who welcomed Church to Kansas City
several times, mentioned some of Church’s two dozen books and other achievements.
“But an even greater grace
was the sheer joy one could share with Forrest, talking baseball, politics,
theology, family dynamics, books, history, Idaho lore, the wonders of New
York City, the glories of Kansas City barbecue, and the blessedness of
the pastoral life,” Hill said.
Even Church’s scholarly writings
were full of soul, and his pastoral books went straight to the heart.
His honesty about his own
flaws and failings inspired others to understand themselves as he connected
with his own congregation and wider circles. Pride and pettiness disappeared
and humility became his humanity.
Hill noted “how his love
and care were persistently, passionately present.”
Indeed, last year Church
told The New York Times, “I have never been more in the present.”
I met first Forrest in the
late 70s. While already accomplished and gracious, like other children
of prominent figures, at times he seemed to need to prove himself.
When last I spent time alone
with him, that was long gone. He was clear and clean. In an intensely personal
way that was also universal, he was fully present and full of love. What
else, really, is a saint?
785. 090930 THE STAR’S
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
Indeed, fire remains fascinating
and fearful, joyous and terrible. We celebrate with lit candles and fireworks.
We fear fire’s power to destroy homes, lives and forests.
Two years ago, following
the “WaterFire” installation on Brush Creek, a work of art in which thousands
of us one perfect night found delight, if not rapture, I wrote about the
universality of fire and fire symbolism in religions of the world.
But this summer, I was grilling
salmon on cedar planks in my back yard when I suddenly sensed myself in
a line with those who, perhaps 750,000 years ago, domesticated fire. The
powers of fire led not only to cooking, warmth, light in darkness, protection
from wild animals and such, but also to working metals found in the earth,
And I also thought, in my
wild back yard, about the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The
English title of his book, “The Raw and the Cooked,” suggests the tension
between nature and culture that religious myths seek to resolve.
The Hindu god of fire is
Agni, related etymologically to the English word ignite. I recalled when
I was a parish minister, writing two verses honoring Agni and setting the
words to the hymn tune Brandenburg, dating from 1653. (Hindus use ghee,
clarified butter, as a fuel.)
“Agni, thy face shines with
ghee/ As we behold thy mystery./ Thou Fire, filling sky and night:/ Protect
us with thy guiding light./ As we burn, thy combusting flame/ Changes,
consumes, yet stays the same.
“From fire to fire each world
goes;/ Passion begets, renews and flows;/ With light and warmth you preserve,/
Creating power, life and nerve./ Yet you destroy as life you feed:/ Fierce
and beautiful is thy deed.”
784. 090923 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Event offers insight on other 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
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.
783. 090916 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
SEEKING JUSTICE ON COUNCIL
Last month I served the Kansas City City
Council as chaplain, to open the council’s legislative sessions with an
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
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
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
“I have sought language that
might be accessible to people of all faiths — and those of none.
“As a citizen, I have strong
opinions about the matters considered in this chamber; but as your chaplain,
rather than advancing my personal agenda, I have tried the severe discipline
of revivifying the words on the wall behind me (which conclude, ‘Let honor,
truth and justice rule within these walls’).
“May I respectfully recommend
this discipline to you, so that in the future, each of you, in turn, before
the time of debate, take this place and try this way of praying on behalf
of your colleagues. Thank you.”
The text of the prayers can be found at
782. 090909 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
HOLOCAUST STORIES APPLY TO US TODAY
If you lived under Nazi-like
rule, would you risk your own life, and that of your family, to hide those
whose faith made them hunted by the state? Or if yours were a suspect faith,
how would you survive when you were slated for elimination?
Former Star columnist Bill
Tammeus and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of the New Reform Temple — both friends
of mine — have spent years gathering stories of how folks in such situations
The result is their new book,
“They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.”
Kansas Citians will recognize many familiar local names in the list of
acknowledgements of the dozens of those who helped make the book possible.
Two-thirds of Europe’s nine
million Jews, most of them in Poland, perished under the Nazis.
Tammeus, a Christian, was
particularly intrigued by the Jewish survivors. Cukierkorn was especially
interested in the non-Jewish rescuers. Both concluded that the remarkable
stories they collected were not about saints but about ordinary people.
This is why this book applies to us today.
Tammeus told me, “I hope
readers understand that they need not be perfect people to make moral choices.
Even small acts of kindness can have tremendous — and often unexpected
— consequences 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, www.theywerejustpeople.com, mentions some specific stories.
Facebook users can search by book title for more information.
All of the proceeds from
the book sales go to Holocaust education and related charities.
The authors and four survivors
will speak at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City
Public Library, and the authors will speak Sunday at 1 p.m. at Community
Christian Church, 4601 Main St. Both events are free.
for the complete interviews.
781. 090902 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
WORK AS A FORM OF WORSHIP
If you are too young to remember the Tonight
Show’s Johnny Carson and his routine of Carnac the Magnificent, the swami
who could respond to the content of sealed envelopes before they were opened,
you can find examples on YouTube.
I enjoyed the hilarious and
long-running gag, but I still worry that too many people think of the jokes
when they hear the word “swami” rather than the honor the designation indicates
when given to a spiritual master in the Hindu tradition.
Let me tell you about a swami
coming here to speak Sept. 11 at KU’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park.
Swami Sridharananda, born
in 1925 in Calcutta, was initiated into the Ramakrishna Order by a disciple
of perhaps the swami most famous in the West, Swami Vivekananda, who astonished
Americans and others with his eloquence and insights at the 1893 World
Parliament of Religions in Chicago. People are still studying his speeches.
I mention this because lineage
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
I learned that Swami’s subsequent
career — including supervising the construction of a hospital in India
and opening Vedanta centers in Australia and New Zealand, and I was intrigued
by what most of us would consider his lowly beginnings. So I emailed Swami
about work as worship.
His response first contrasted
the two. He described work as ego-driven, an activity “motivated by desire
Worship, on the other hand,
is the “pursuit of peace, tranquility, joy and ecstasy.”
The two can become one when
one offers every activity to God. When whatever one does is a service beyond
one’s egoistic desires, then work is transformed into worship.
Many of us judge ourselves
and others by the kind of employment we see and the wealth produced as
an indication of status. In the eyes of God, is the CEO better one who
cleans the toilet?
Swami Sridharananda may not
be Carnac, seeing inside a sealed envelope, but perhaps he can see deeply
into the human heart.
For more information
about Swami, visit www.vedantakc.org and click on “Special Events.”
780. 090826 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Glimses into the soul
Even if you were invited, would you dare
to peer into another person’s soul? To have someone you had never met open
one’s deepest longings, secrets and scars to you could be a gift of immeasurable
value, but wouldn’t you be hesitant to intrude into such sacred space?
Most of us may not be equipped
to receive such a gift directly from a stranger, but the American artist
Fazal Sheikh, a winner of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, becomes
our intermediary with intimate photographs from India now on exhibition
the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
I almost tremble as I write
“exhibition” because the word could inaccurately suggest an objective display
rather than this powerful encounter with real people through their images.
Curator April M. Watson says,
“Many of us experience the numbing effects of a typical newscast, which
often relies heavily on shock and awe to report the world’s problems. But
Sheikh is a listener rather than a voyeur, working within communities for
extended periods to gain a better understanding of their situations. His
photographs reflect this considered, thoughtful approach, helping to bring
viewers within his subjects’ moral reach.”
We see character, not cartoon.
Because of the consent of
the person photographed — one looks straight at us, piercing through all
our defenses, another permits only the back of her covered head to be shown
— we are given access to others’ vulnerabilities in a way that enlarges
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
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,
The mystics of many faiths
have declared that seeing another person truly requires us to open our
own hearts. These photographs may remind us to look more deeply into others
and fulfill ensuing responsibilities if we wish to grow our own souls.
Sheikh will be in Kansas
City Sept. 10 to talk at the Nelson about such projects.
779. 090819 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Always offer compassion
From earliest human life, religion and
medicine have been entwined. The Hippocratic Oath was originally taken
in the name of Greek gods, for example.
But from about the time of
American Civil War, medicine has often looked more to scientific and technical
advances than to faith.
However, medical missionaries
have been impelled to provide healing services to those in need here and
all over the world.
Micah Flint, CEO of INMED,
an organization based in Kansas City working to equip health care professionals
to serve in medical missions, identified David Livingstone in the 19th
Century, and Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa in the 20th among those
who desired “to live a life for others in a world that lives for self.”
At my second INMED conference,
held this spring at UMKC, I heard a 21st Century hero, in my opinion of
such rank, Gary Morsch, founder of the global relief organization based
in Olathe, Heart to Heart International.
Morsch, also a colonel in
the reserves, told of being on duty in Kosovo where he was asked to see
an elderly Muslim woman dying from breast cancer. There was nothing he
could do except give her a little relief from pain.
She was struggling for breath.
He knew she would die that night. He explained that no one could do anything
for her. But he wanted to do more, so he, a Christian, asked if he could
pray for her.
The missionaries with him
thought that if she didn’t accept Christ, she’d be damned for eternity.
Morsch prayed instead that God would give her comfort. She said she wanted
to go outside to die. He obliged.
As he told the story, his
voice broke. “Are you ready?” he asked the woman.
“Yes,” she said as she looked
up at the stars. “I can see my father. They are calling.”
Morch asked, “Do you believe
you will be with God forever?”
“I do,” she replied.
“I will see you on the other
side,” Morsch said. Then she died.
Morsch was not interested
in theological argument. The point is that, even without medicines to cure,
it is always possible to show compassion.
Flint told me that at these
international annual conferences, “over 1,300 health care professionals
have learned the skills for medical missions, heard from today’s medical
missionary heroes and caught a vision to care for the least served of this
world, including those in our own community.”
Beyond health care professionals,
Flint said INMED also serves others “who see the need and want to do something
INMED offers a cross-cultural
healthcare competency symposium Oct 2. Visit inmed.us.
778. 090812 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Is this miracle' real? and does
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.
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.
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.
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
Vahle's book is available through Amazon.com at Lives-Helen-Schucman-William-Thetford/dp/B0029D317K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249488532&sr=1-1
777. 090805 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Faith guides us to justice
No religion is so other-worldly that the
idea of justice in this world is neglected. Even Buddhism, where the great
virtue is compassion, teaches that an ethical life here and now is a preliminary
and necessary step toward enlightenment.
Jesus is a divine model of
forgiveness, but even as Christianity is practiced, forgiveness is often
in tension with demands for justice.
Last week as I reported for
jury duty, I contemplated the force of faith in guiding us away from seeing
justice as the whim of the powerful toward seeing that law is rooted in
something that transcends the instant case.
Previously I’ve served as
jury foreman. This time I was part of a group of 65 citizens questioned
— voir dire — for perhaps four hours from which 12 jurors were selected
for a serious criminal case involving armed robbery, rape and other charges.
As the prosecuting and defense
attorneys, with the judge’s clear direction, sought to find unbiased jurors
for the case, I thought about former methods of determining guilt in the
Western tradition, such as trial by ordeal using water or fire or other
horrible methods by which God was expected to provide a miraculous sign
Over the centuries we have
evolved a more humane system in which we expect each other to do what had
previously been assigned to God. Evidence produced must be carefully monitored.
The law must be faithfully and impartially applied. With a presumption
of innocence, a unanimous verdict by 12 peers, in most criminal cases,
is required to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
As prospective jurors were
interviewed, I was shocked and dismayed by the number of people in this
randomly selected group of citizens who, in fulfilling their oaths to tell
the truth, disclosed that they, members of their families or close friends
had been raped. Our world is full of distress and pain.
It would be unfair to expect
anyone so traumatized to be unaffected in sitting in judgment on another,
despite one’s purest efforts to remain objective.
Yet all of us bring experiences
and opinions that influence our decisions. Our memories are fallible. Citizen
jurors have a dreadful responsibility, yet no system seems better to assess
the truth and find justice.
Although atheists have a
point that the law should eschew theological language, still the oath to
tell the truth ending in “So help me God,” is rooted in the universal impulse
to fulfill the ultimate and sacred claims we have on one another, even
those we have never met.
When the citizen does this,
the courthouse can become not merely a chamber of law but a temple of justice.
776. 090729 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
A union of equal partners
I’ll get to the reason why he left town
in a moment, but first some praise for the Rev. Jim Eller, who led his
last service as minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church July
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
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.
775. 090722 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
The further paradox of enlightenment
Last week I wrote about a particular Buddhist
notion of “enlightenment” which claims, in effect, that enlightenment is
knowing there is no enlightenment.
This paradoxical statement
arises from the Buddhist teaching that selfish desires lead to suffering,
and that even the desire for enlightenment is selfish. Only by abandoning
the desire can one achieve the liberation of enlightenment.
But there is another famous
problem in Buddhism. Is enlightenment sudden or gradual?
On this question, two Japanese
Zen Buddhist schools have sometimes been contrasted. Rinzai Zen emphasizes
the sudden flash of enlightenment, whereas the Soto school has often been
characterized by progressive attainment.
Nevertheless Rinzai master
Hakuin — who developed the famous koan (puzzle), “What is the sound of
one hand clapping?” — over the course of his life identified several
flashes of illumination, each more complete than the earlier one.
Some suggest that conservative
Christian theology celebrates the soul’s sudden conversion, a discontinuity
with the previous way of relating to God, from rebellion to submission.
Liberal theology, on the
other hand, promotes a gradual perfection of character through training
and education, as the soul gains a clearer understanding of God’s will,
step by step.
This Christian distinction
between conservative and liberal roughly corresponds to Rinzai and Soto
On my first trip to Japan
many years ago, I planned to study briefly at Mt. Koya, the original headquarters
of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. The manager told my interpreter it would
be more profitable for me to count the petals on a lotus blossom than to
talk to the chief priest about enlightenment, but I put my question to
“Is enlightenment sudden
or gradual?” 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
Enlightenment can be compared to orgasm in many ways. One is that "gradual
preparation" is like forplay and sudden enlightenment is like orgasm itself.
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.
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."
our finitude paradoxically intimates the infinite.
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
774. 090715 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
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
All day ordinary folks brought
their problems to the Dalai Lama and he listened to them and sought to
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
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.
773. 090708 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Faiths grapple with gay rights
I’m not sure there has been a more divisive
issue within mainline Protestant denominations than homosexuality. Episcopalian,
Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and other groups have been torn, deciding
whether to accept and even ordain those who have made a commitment to love
a person of the same sex.
The Roman Catholic Church
teaches that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” though gay and lesbian
Catholics meet in support groups.
This issue troubles other
faiths as well, here and abroad. For example, viewers of “City of Borders,”
a film shown during the June 26-July 2 Kansas City Gay & Lesbian Film
Festival, saw how Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Christians joined forces
to prevent a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem in 2006.
The film festival ran during
the 40th anniversary of the New York City 1969 “Stonewall Riots” which
some people regard as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
Another important year for
homosexuals was 1996, when the Defense of Marriage Act became law. The
legislation defines marriage for federal purposes as a legal union exclusively
between one man and one woman and allows states to ignore same-sex marriages
performed in other states.
Since that time, numerous
political figures have been found to have violated marriage vows, including
Clinton, Tom DeLay, Eliot Spitzer, Rudolph Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, David
Vitter, John Ensign and, now, South Carolina governor Mark
Sanford. Some in this list favored the DOMA legislation. Clinton,
for example, signed it.
Some may wonder how effective
the law has been defending heterosexual marriages.
John Barbone, pastor of Spirit
of Hope MCC, a church serving the gay community, told me that his members
feel diminished when those who have the rights of marriage violate their
vows while denying those rights to same-sex couples who are faithful in
keeping their vows.
“The hypocrisy of such men
acting as if their relationships are better than ours places us as second-class
citizens, no matter how devoted we are to our partners,” he said.
He also decries the current
U.S. military policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” as a spiritual violation.
“It is stupid for men and women to pretend to be something they are not,”
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
been crucial these past 40 years in developing fuller understandings of
personhood and how society might respect its citizens as spiritual beings.
NOTES FOR THIS
WEBSITE: Robert Livingston,Jim McGreevey,
Kwame Kilpatrick, Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa,
and John Edwards
should have been included in this list. Excluded for reasons cited: Larry
Craig (arrested in a men’s restroom), with
his wife standing with him, denied he is gay. Pastor
Ted Haggard is not in politics. Proponent
of laws against pedophilia, Mark Foley
is not married but his solicitation of House pages led to his resignation.
Sarah Palin announced her daughter, Bristol,
a leader in the abstinence movement, was pregnant during the presidential
campaign, and would marry the father, but the father has declined to marry
the mother of his child.
Among the countries that recognize same sex marriages are Canada, Spain,
Sweden. Israel recognizes such marriages performed elsewhere. States where
same-sex marriages are or will be legal include Massachusetts,Connecticut
, Iowa, Vermont, Maine New Hampshire. Some other states and localities
recognize some same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships.
773comment left column]
772. 090701 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
CROSSROADS PASTOR TAKES ON TOUGH
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
And there are eight more
such questions in the series.
My “Ask Jack” question was
this: Why do you do it?
He answered that his congregation,
“radically inclusive and radically free,” encourages discussion of difficult
questions rather than ignoring them or relying on pat answers.
Price, who holds a doctorate
from Princeton Theological Seminary, said that faith is more important
than belief. Faith for him is not so much a set of doctrines as it is “trust,
commitment, how you choose to look at the world.”
Recognizing that different
people have different life experiences allows, even requires, different
understandings of God. And the same person, at different points in one’s
faith journey, may find different beliefs meaningful.
“I choose to see the world
within God, even though my understanding of God’s nature has changed many
times. As we grow older, our choices are more conscious,” he said.
Price is finishing a book
growing out of his ministry here and on the East Coast, “Finding Faith:
A Pastor Responds to Twenty Critical Questions of Faith.”
The church website, www.crossroadschurchkc.org,
contains samples, Enotes, of his approach to such questions.
771. 090624 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
SCRIPTURES TO LIVE BY
Folks sometimes ask me, “What are your
favorite scriptural passages?” Apr. 29 I answered with Jewish, Christian
and Muslim texts. Today we’ll look at three Asian treasures.
*“When men lack a sense of
awe, there will be disaster” begins chapter 72 of the Tao Te Chingin
the Gia-Fu Feng/Jane English version of this ancient Taoist classic.
Some translations use the
word “fear” instead of “awe,” but in either case the warning means that
unless we are aware of what counts, we are in danger.
Our desacralized culture
can easily distract us. There is nothing wrong with talking on a cell phone;
but if you are in heavy traffic, you better pay attention to the road.
An economy leveraged
by those more focused on their pay than on working for the common good
leads to widespread hurt and failure.
More generally, when our
preoccupation with the partial overwhelms feeling the whole miracle of
existence, the impulse to share what we have with others weakens and we
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
These scriptural passages
urge me to pay attention to what counts, to regard any human system of
thought or picture of reality with caution, and to do the right thing without
worrying about the consequence.
This column was quoted on Barbara's Buddhism
Blog 2009 June 25:
770. 090617 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Sharing Interfaith Stories
Among the young people coming to Kansas
City to learn about interfaith work are three who told me about their spiritual
They will be joining others,
including adults with decades of experience in the field, June 25-28 at
the conference of the North American Interfaith Network at Unity Village.
Joshua M.Z. Stanton of New
York is studying to be a rabbi. He says, “As someone who came of age after
Sept. 11, I view active outreach to other religious communities as a necessity
rather than an option.”
Audra Teague of Columbus, Ohio,
also identified 9/11 as a turning point. Immediately after the attacks,
she organized an interfaith prayer service in Washington, D.C., where she
was then working.
“I am drawn to interfaith
work because I have experienced firsthand the harm to community and family
when religious differences lead to isolation and separation,” she said.
She attended the NAIN conference
last year in San Francisco and describes it as “an amazing spiritual, intellectual
and relational experience.”
Stephanie Hughes, who grew
up in “a rural coal-mining town in southern Illinois,” emphasized her “sense
of how inter-connected we are.”
Hughes is interested in human
relationships and “the way we as individuals connect to a text or story,
and the way we seek to connect with one another, and with God.
“It follows that I ought
seek out different perspectives, different stories, and others who are
seeking in ways different than mine. I believe inter-religious dialogue
ought to be a spiritual discipline, something we pursue as we seek to widen
the possibilities of our encounters and understanding with God, and a growing
ability to abide and cherish differences.
“If I do not remain open
to the ideas and experiences of others, I not only miss out on chances
for a richer life, but I am less a child of God—I believe God intends us
to make community with one another, and openness to interfaith encounters
and endeavors is essential to that,” she wrote me.
She graduated last month
from Union Theological Seminary, and with Stanton founded the peer-reviewed
Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, www.irdialogue.org.
The Journal, Stanton says,
is “set up so that young people like myself have the opportunity to solicit
advice from more experienced leaders and scholars.”
Actually, these three young
people sound pretty mature to me. They—and the conference—offer us a future
of faiths purifying and supporting each other.
For their complete interviews
and information about NAIN, visit www.cres.org/nain.
769. 090610 THE STAR’S PRINT HEADLINE:
Little agreement about when life
about when personhood begins
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
766. 090520 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Politics, not faith, in the Middle
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
He favors Egyptian students
studying in the Kansas City region, which he called “the Heartland,” because
he sensed we here share the same values as Egyptians.
He was not surprised when
I told him that some Americans associate Islam with violence. He said he
understood about 9/11, and how religion can be misused by political ideologies.
All the more reason for interfaith dialogue, he said.
765. 090513 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
KC makes the perfect setting
Today’s column may not affect your spirit
in a very personal way, but it may lift up “Kansas City spirit” by noting
a few examples of why the North American Interfaith Network chose Kansas
City for its conference June 26-28.
* NAIN was organized in 1988
at a conference at which more Kansas Citians participated than any other
city except the hosting city, Wichita.
* When our Interfaith Council
formed, it was noted for its inclusion of more faiths than many other interfaith
groups. Religions from A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian, participate
* After 9/11, CBS-TV did
a half-hour special on how our interfaith leadership responded to the terrorist
* In 2007, we hosted the
first international “Interfaith Academies,” at which a the principal researcher
for Harvard University's Pluralism Project, one of the cosponsors, said,
“We consider Kansas City to be truly at the forefront of interfaith relations.”
* And the multi-faith Life
Connections Program at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS,
which brings spiritual resources to inmate rehabilitation, has been called
the model for the five pilot programs funded through the faith-based initiative
of the federal government.
Still, it takes a special
person to pull an international group here. Susan Cook, raised by her Creek
Indian father to “find truth in every religion,” discovered the same teaching
in The Urantia Book. Her involvement with the Urantia Fellowship
led to her election as chair of its interfaith committee.
She decided local immersion
was also important, and began working with, and eventually became a member
of, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
Also involved with NAIN,
she worked to bring that international organization’s annual meeting here.
“The NAIN board and members
are going to be delighted to meet all of us (here) and see first hand the
interfaith work happening in this city,” she told me. “Kansas City is a
wonderful city of many faiths and cultures working beautifully together.”
Shannon Clark, executive
director of Council, who attended last year’s conference in San Francisco,
said, “I hope that members of the many faith communities throughout Kansas
City will attend the conference and learn more about the various faiths
in our own backyards as well as across the country.”
The program includes local
faith groups presenting devotional and artistic experiences.
Details about the conference,
“Experiencing the Spirit in Education - The Challenge of Religious Pluralism,”
can be found at nain.org.
Click here for Q &
A with Cook and Clark and a news release.
764. 090506 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Inclusion debate continues
Should atheists, agnostics, secular humanists,
deists and others, often called Freethinkers, be included in interfaith
organizations with Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and all other faiths?
Professor Richard J Janet
of Rockhurst University thinks not, and his elegant essay explaining his
reasoning was stimulated by my suggestion in this space that Freethinkers
have much to contribute to, and learn from, interfaith dialogue.
And he invited me to respond
to his position. Both his essay and my comment will appear in the May Thomas
More Center newsletter which you can obtain by emailing him, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The two opinions also appear at [Freethinkers.htm].
In brief, Janet grants that
while Freethinkers may do much to benefit others, he says that “Freethinkers
do not share the experience of belief. . . . No matter how noble their
intentions or sincere their ideas, Freethinkers do not belong in groups
dedicated to dialogue on religious faith.”
His essay notes, correctly,
I think, that some Freethinkers “ridicule and savage religious faith as
delusional 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
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
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
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
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
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
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, kcjung.org.
My full interview with Wolkstein appears at cres.org/story.
759. 090401 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Prayers for our ears, too
Who listens to prayers?
Without a doubt, most people
think of prayer as directed to a listening God or to the gods or to an
intercessor or to a spirit.
This underlies some humor,
as in this story. The man, running late, circles the block several times
before an important meeting. Frantically he prays, “God, if you’ll give
me a place to park, I’ll go to church every Sunday, give a tenth of my
income to charity, stop fooling around with all those women and never take
another drink the rest of my life. Please, God, I’ll do anything for a
a car pulls out and the man sees the empty space. He concludes his prayer,
“Never mind, God, I found one.”
The joke depends on the idea
of God listening, and in this case, responding.
But whether or not a supernatural
power hears prayers, prayers heard by mortal ears can even in themselves
The folks last week who created
and then heard a group prayer at the Raytown Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast were
deepened in their understanding of each other’s concerns.
Sponsored by the Raytown
Community Inter-Faith Alliance, the group prayer has become an annual tradition.
Here’s how it works. Before
the main part of the program, people at their tables are asked as
teams to write their local, national and global prayer requests on different
colored index cards. Folks from government, business, non-profits,
young people, retired people — citizens of all kinds join in the discussion
of their sacred desires.
During the program, a committee
collects, studies and arranges the cards. Then the cards are used as the
basis for a group prayer after the Pledge of Allegiance.
This year the prayer was
woven together by a committee of Dawn Weaks of Raytown Christian Church,
Adam Smith of Raytown Community of Christ and Kim Ross of One Spirit United
The prayer included perhaps
a hundred subjects, such as schools, disparities of wealth and caring for
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 cres.org/14.)
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
“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
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 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
“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
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
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
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,
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
This recalls the insight
from the modern Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore, that in acting, duty becomes
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?”