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

correspondence with critics


Archive of 
Faiths and Beliefs

2007 #643-694
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2006   #592-642

2005   #540-591

2004   #488-539

2003   #435-487

2002   #383-434

2001   #331-382

2000   #280-330

1999   #228-279

1998   #176-227

1997   #123-175

1996   #071-122

1995   #019-070

1994   #001-018

694. 071226 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Kwanzaa strives for unity

I ask, “Habari gani?” You respond, “Umoja.” This is first day of  Kwanzaa.
   Translated, the greeting is “What news?” and the response today is “Unity,” the first of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, one for each day of the festival. Tomorrow you say “Kujichagulia,” self-determination. Try pronouncing the Swahili term—it’s fun! 
   Kwanzaa may be an unprecedented eruption in religious history. Unlike any other widespread holiday I can think of, its creator is known and its creation is dated and heavily documented.
   Before he had become White House press secretary, Tony Snow wrote, “There is no part of
Kwanzaa that is not fraudulent,” and columnist Ann Coulter has identified the Kwanzaa seven principles with those of the violent Symbionese Liberation Army of the 1960s.
   Yes, to use Coulter’s phrase, Kwanzaa is a “made-up holiday,” and Snow is right insofar is it does not import a previous authentic cultural tradition from Africa but rather draws on many sources. 
   For example, one of the symbols of the holiday is corn, but corn is not native to Africa.
   Karenga might also be accused of stealing the idea of the 7-candle kinara from the Hanukkah menorah symbolizing the eight days of the Jewish festival.
   And the correct Swahili term is Kwanza—with six letters, one final “a,” not two. 
   But seven children at the first Kwanzaa program all wanted a part representing and explaining a letter. So an extra  “a” was added to accommodate all of them. 
   The charm of bending to the seventh child’s desire for inclusion perhaps matches the spiritual intent of Kwanzaa. The respect given to that child embodies its transcendent principles.
   So I’m not upset that a new holiday has been patched together because it has become intensely meaningful to many people. It has moved far beyond the originator’s circle in the Los Angeles of 1966. 
   Many calendars nowadays, including the Boy Scouts 2007 calendar, identify Kwanzaa as an “interfaith” holiday.
   Karenga first wanted to include Christians, Muslims, Jews and others in a unifying observance for African Americans, so he claimed it was not “religious,” just “cultural.” 
   So is it religious? No, not in the sense of being identified with just one faith, but even Karenga has written about Kwanzaa ideals and values as “spiritual.”
   The shattering events of our time have called forth a creative response, developing and celebrating a new holiday ritual for deep contemplation and community.

693. 071219 THE STAR’S HEADLINE:
Keep it real at Christmas

I’ve heard it said that I write a “spiritual advice” column. I don’t think of myself so much advising as informing. 
   Nonetheless, in these last few days before Christmas, I offer three exhortations to Christians. Others are welcome to eavesdrop.
   *First, be honest with your kids about Santa Claus. You can encourage them to leave cookies by the fireplace for his Christmas Eve visit, but be sure you tell them that “Mommy and Daddy play Santa in this house.”
   When my wife and I took our young son to a department store Santa, we said, “A wonderful person has dressed up as Santa over there. Let’s go say Hello.”
   Make it clear by the language you use that Santa is a role, not a person, and that many people can play that role. While a very young child may not get the distinction, repeated and consistent use of the language not only avoids lying, it also embraces the world of play-acting which is natural for children.
   *Second, consider giving home-made gifts. If you can’t carve a sportscar from wood or knit a scarf or write a song or make a candle, then pick out a meaningful passage from a book and present it as a live reading. Maybe the store-bought gifts will wait for another occasion—Boxing Day will do. 
   I know this is a hard exhortation, but think how much more personal the holy day becomes if you avoid its commercialization. 
   If you can’t think of anything else, make a contribution to a charity or cause in honor of the person to whom you wish to give a present. A note informing the honoree of your contribution is worthy under the tree. 
   If you must give something you bought, please exalt the Prince of Peace and avoid violent video games, movies and guns. If you are tempted to buy a rifle for sport as a gift, consider Saint Francis talking with the birds and his love of animals. 
   But in receiving any gift, think of the good intent of the giver.
   *Third, accept holiday salutations from non-Christian friends with good cheer. Some may exchange work shifts so Christians can be with their families Christmas eve.
   You may feel embarrassed about much of what Christmas has become in our day, but this is probably not the time to engage in cultural analysis. Your friends simply mean to recognize you and what is sacred to you.
   You might worry about how to return their greetings and wonder if you are neglecting holidays important to them.
   One possible response is, “Thank you for your warm greeting. Please know my wish is to grow in appreciation for your own tradition, which you so generously represent.”

692. 071212 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Scriptures a landscape all scholars can explore

From a thoughtful reader, this inquiry: “I am all for interfaith communication, sharing ideas, etc. However, in (your recent column mentioning upcoming holidays, you state that) December brings . . . the Muslim’s Eid al-Adha commemorating Abraham’s offering of Ishmael to God.
   “I have read our Old Testament several times thoroughly and have never found that Abraham offered Ishmael. Abraham was asked by God to offer his son Isaac. Where is this offering of Ishmael coming from?”
   It comes from the Qur’an, Sura 37, and the Muslim tradition identifies the son as Ishmael.
   Different religions sometimes have different versions of the same stories. For example, both Christian and Buddhist scripture tell the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
   A seasonal example is the verse in Hebrew scripture (Isaiah 7:14), “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The literary form and context suggest that the son is to be a sign to Ahaz.
   However, a Christian reading of Matthew 1:23 radically reinterprets the Isaiah passage as a prophesy of Jesus, who could have been no sign to Ahaz seven centuries earlier.
   Scholars also point out that Matthew, written in Greek, uses the Septuagint Greek rendering  of the Hebrew scriptures. The Septuagint mistranslates a Hebrew word into parthenos, virgin, which does not appear in the original text.
   So Jews and Christians have different interpretations of a verse that appears in both of their scriptures. 
   And Mary’s virginity is accepted by Muslims who cite the Qur’an, Sura 3.
   Furthermore, usage provides an additional overlay to stories, as for example, the tradition that three kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus, as in the Christmas carol, “We Three Kings.”
   Since the Muslim story of Abraham’s sacrifice involves Ishmael, it makes sense to use their version of the story in describing their holiday. To apply the Christian version of the story to a Muslim holiday would be misleading.
   Just as Christians are fortunate to have several gospels with differences as well as similarities, so the faiths of the world now in our own community offer several roads to travel through the mystery of existence.
  The tradition, the time and the culture into which we were born, usually determines our path.
   But isn’t it wonderful when our path, even for a moment, joins another, and we can learn how other travelers navigate the mystery? In the scriptures we can find stories of such journeys in a holy landscape all explore.

691. 071205 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
We scale the arts for stories

Preachers fresh out of school quickly learn that congregations do not want term papers for sermons; effective sermons grow out of stories.
   That’s because stories, even non-religious stories, can show us what is important. They can point us toward the sacred, the source of life’s deepest meaning.
   With classroom instruction and “field trips,” I’m currently teaching ten ministerial students about art and spirituality. It’s easy to find spirituality in figural painting, in ballet, in opera and drama because they tell or imply stories.
   But what about music with no story, what about abstract painting or sculpture or architecture? Without a person, how can there be a story?
   Independent scholar Ellen Dissanayake speculates that art originates in the visual, gestural, and vocal cues between parent and infant, with repetitions, variations and responses. 
   These patterns of connection and reassurance are awesome — think this sacred season of the love of parents for their children, and of the Christian image of the mother Mary and the child Jesus.
   A parent’s cooing may not be a complete narrative, but it implies a story about a sacred relationship between an utterly committed parent and the completely dependent infant. 
   The parent-child exchange of vocalizations precedes real words. Our need for such wordless patterns is rooted in our biology. Without such patterns, we perish. 
   A transparent example in art is the Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 13, to be performed Friday in a Friends of Chamber music program, our next “field trip.”
   The work begins with three child-like notes, two B-flats and a G, and a soothing response. Then that pattern is elaborated. 
   Musically, we journey as a child ventures from the parent; and after an exploration, the pattern is fulfilled by returning home to that familiar sound, but we are enlarged by having seen more of the cosmos.
   The delight we have in discovering and penetrating sophisticated patterns, whether in the movement of the stars or in twists and turns and fenestration of a strange building, may resonate in the soul’s need to affirm that the universe has a structure on which we can depend, even when we are surprised.
   The Friends program also presents two pieces of extraordinary difficulty, one written to outdo the other in technical challenge. 
   This leads to a different kind of esthetic thrill, the marvel of execution. The pianist, Yefim Bronfman, may not be a mythic hero, but our gratitude for skillful guidance in the musical journey, as the pattern is articulated and revealed, becomes awe.

690. 071128 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Interfaith spirit brightens holidays

Kansas City’s first “Festival of Faiths,” a 12-day series of events celebrating religious diversity, concluded Nov. 18. 
   The festival opened with a multi-faith luncheon and concluded with a dinner with many faiths speaking about gratitude. 
   In between were a live play based on the lives of folks of many faiths here, two provocative films, a choral concert with excepts from the Lyric Opera’s forthcoming production of “John Brown.”
   Teens spent two days and an overnight discussing issues in understanding their own and each other’s faiths. Two scholars, one Jewish, one Muslim, modeled interfaith dialogue in an adult evening program. Folks used a Festival brochure for a self-guided tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
   Janet Burton, Festival co-chair, said, “We wanted to widen the circle of dialogue and to reassure those who feared that learning about other faiths would weaken their own or lead to some composite faith.”
   Some of the programs would have occurred without the Festival, but by weaving them together, “the Festival showed that through dialogue, people do not feel threatened but rather enlightened, engaged and grateful.”
   Burton noted that new partnerships among area faith organizations were created and new friendships formed.
   But Burton is critical of the lack of media attention, particularly to guest Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani ambassador to the UK, called “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” by the BBC, who spoke here the day after martial law was declared in Pakistan. “The  media lost a great opportunity to help the community to understand why events there affect our own lives” she said.
   “Our goal was dialogue.  We didn’t expect such timeliness in relation to world events. I’m sobered by the size and potential impact of conflicts occurring between people of different faiths, but encouraged that our mission is valid: to listen, learn, understand and practice the exercise of acceptance.”
   The Festival is over, but awaiting us are holidays through which the Festival spirit can continue. 
   December brings the minor Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the beginning of Advent for Christians with Christmas especially important in Western churches, the Muslim’s Eid al-Adha commemorating Abraham’s offering of Ishmael to God, the pagan Yule at the solstice, the Zoroastrian’s commemoration of the death of their founder and Kwanzaa, a new holiday of spiritual values with African roots.
   Answering the season’s cold is the warmth of interfaith friendship.

689. 071121 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Lowering the ‘temperature’ of conflict

Last Wednesday a thousand people listened intently at Village Presbyterian Church to a Jew and a Muslim talk with each other,  part of this year’s metro 12-day Festival of Faiths. 
   One member of the audience,  Dallas Ziegenhorn, said afterwards, “The evening gave me a new way of talking with friends about ‘radical’ Islam and the increasing animosity of many countries toward the West. 
   “It is imperative that we have a deeper understanding of Islam in order to lower the ‘temperature’ of conflict. Since there are 1.4 billion Muslims today and two billion Christians, we must find a way to prevent a global confrontation.” 
   (World Jewish population is about 25 million.)
   Hussain Haideri, president of the Crescent Peace Society here, called the evening “nothing less than scintillating.”
   The speakers were two grandfathers who spoke with the wisdom and compassion of experience. Judea Pearl is the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and a professor of computer science at UCLA. Akbar Ahmed is professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Washington, D.C.
   In Haideri’s personal opinion,  the evening “was an honest attempt to do some soul searching and scratching beneath the surface of complicated, aggravating and sensitive issues that transcend religious, political and social borders.”
   Haideri said the dialogue “explored the root causes of hatred that fans extremist actions on both sides and perpetuates the mistrust between Judaism and Islam, two of the Ibrahimic (Abrahamic) faiths with more in common than often realized. 
   “Repercussions directly affect the world’s largest religion,  Christianity. 
   “Therefore, what could be more appropriate than sitting face to face in God’s house, as Professor Ahmed pointed out, and sifting through the causes of  this dilemma?”
   While other areas of the world were discussed, “Professor Pearl laid out a utopian view of Jewish and Palestinian states, adjacent, in harmony. Ahmed agreed, but pointed out that mistrust on both sides is high, and work needs to be done to bring down ‘temperatures.’
   “They each reflected on the positives within each other’s faiths. Pearl called Islam ‘a universal religion’ and Ahmed appreciated the ‘value of learning’ in Judaism.
   Haideri concluded, “I am eager for the (evening’s) excitement to spill over to the masses locally, and then snowball into an effort that spreads across the nation and hopefully, someday, across the globe, restoring the true image of America as a leader of nations.”

Pakistan is attracting attention

Pakistan is in the news. And a TV sitcom this fall, “Aliens in America,” features a high school exchange student, a Muslim from Pakistan.
   A few weeks ago the Crescent Peace Society’s annual Eid dinner featured Pakistan Daily Times columnist, Prof. Saleem H. Ali, an environmental expert and dean of graduate education at the University of Vermont. He has an astounding list of international credits.
   In his remarks here he said that the US would do better to allocate money to improve inferior  Pakistani public schools rather than for so much military aid because parents who want their children well trained sometimes resort to radicalized madrassahs despite their poisonous interpretations of Islam.
   But since he knows both American and Pakistani education systems well, I complained to him that American schools also often fail to develop an informed and participatory citizenry. 
   Concerning Islam specifically, I expressed dismay at how few Americans have any inkling of the debt the West owes Islam in art, science, medicine, navigation, and countless other fields. Say artichoke, banana, coffee . . .all the way to zero. Imagine doing income tax with Roman, rather than Arabic numerals.
   Without understanding this heritage, we are not equipped to deal with our own colonial sins, I said.
   He responded:
   “The main problem we face in schools in Muslim and non-Muslim countries is a lack of ‘peace education’ or conflict resolution skills at the earliest level.  This could include resolving disagreements within peers as well as understanding how to deal with cross-cultural and religious differences. 
   “We also need to have greater global studies education to familiarize students about other traditions and historical narratives. 
   “However, Western schools have the advantage in many cases of at least encouraging critical reasoning among their students, which is frequently lacking in Islamic schools. 
   “Hence even if the content is not up-to-date in the Western schools and lacks nuance, the students can still question assumptions in class and challenge the teacher if needed about these assumptions. 
   “Unfortunately, in most madrassahs, the lack of critical reasoning prevents such introspection. 
   “Therefore, I would say that it would be far easier to reform some of the content-related issues here than it would be for madrassahs. 
   “Nevertheless, there are now some scholars who are willing to undertake critical reasoning reforms in Islamic education as well such as the new Zaytuna Academy in California.”
   Last Sunday, I spent time with high school students drawn from all over the metro in Harmony’s “Interfaith Our Town” program. Admittedly they selected themselves to learn about faiths other than their own. Still, I was impressed with their “critical introspection” skills applied to themselves and their new friends. No threats here. Lots of hope. 

3 Views of Stem Cell Research

Missouri voters may have amended the state constitution regarding stem cell research, but religious communities in the area are still trying to understand the science, the ethical questions and the religious dimensions of the debate.
   So Steve Jeffers, Director of the Institute for Spirituality in Health at the Shawnee Mission Medical Center, worked with a committee of physicians, clergy and community representatives to arrange a three-hour program on the controversy last week.
   The room was packed, some folks standing, to hear the presentations. 
   From Jeffers, readers of this column can obtain a free copy of the 45-page book each member of the audience received. It compiles background material from the scientific, ethics and religious presentations and includes statements about stem cell research from 19 world faiths.
   Moderated by KCPT’s Nick Haines, the religion panel offered three distinct positions. 
   Fr. Steven Beseau, director of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center in Lawrence, said that the Roman Catholic position opposes the destruction of embryos from which stem cells can be derived but supports research on stem cells from other sources. A fertilized egg deserves the same respect as other individuals.
   Rabbi Alan Cohen, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, said there is near unanimity in Judaism to support stem cell research. Until the “crowning of the head” appears at birth, Jewish authorities consider a fetus as the potential, not actual, life of a person.
   The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, focused on how embryonic stem cells are obtained. He distinguished between an egg fertilized by sperm, each with half the complete set of genetic instructions, and an egg whose nucleus is replaced by a donor nucleus containing a complete genetic set from, say, a skin cell. The latter case is known as SCNT, somatic cell nuclear transfer.
   Fr Beseau said the question is when life is created. “It is a scientific fact that life begins at conception.” Destroying innocent life is immoral. 
   Still he said the destruction of a living skin cell, with the potential to form an embryo through SCNT, was of no concern. 
   After their presentations, neurologist Gordon Kelley, M.D., said, “All life is a continuum; human life is not ‘created’ by the union of a sperm and an egg. The sperm is already alive; the egg is already alive. Life (as we know it) does not have a beginning; it is transmitted. But it has an ending when the individual dies.”

La Raza's Leaving Raises questions

Can religion shed any light on what it means for the National Council of La Raza, an Hispanic advocacy group, to decide not to hold its 2009 convention here because Kansas City’s mayor had appointed to the parks board a
supporter of armed civilian patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border?
   Various faiths have explored human and divine rewards and punishments to groups and individuals, as just or as capricious.
   Religious traditions also counsel human efforts to mitigate disasters and share one another’s burdens.
 Let’s explore the Biblical concept of collective punishment.
   One could see La Raza’s withdrawal as an attempt to make the metro area pay for one individual’s views.
   This is complicated because  La Raza is holding its convention next year in San Diego where a state lawmaker supporting the objectionable Minutemen organization was elected by the people, while La Raza has withdrawn its 2009 convention here because of a mayoral appointment, not an  election.
   Some might wonder why a population that directly voted for someone La Raza finds distasteful should be rewarded with its convention while a population with no direct control over an appointment should be punished.
   But collective punishment has its precedents, as the “Ten Commandments” passage of Exodus 20 illustrates. God threatens to punish the children of the wicked “unto the third and fourth generation.”
   But in Ezekiel 18, God details his renunciation of the proverb, “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
   For many Christians, the first Biblical example of collective punishment is the sin of Adam whose guilt is transmitted to the human race. As the New England Primer put it, “In Adam’s fall/ We sinned all.”
   But the chief example of injustice is murder of the innocent Jesus for the sins of others, by which they might be saved.
   Yet some have held that God elects only some, and even the worthy deeds of others cannot  change God’s sovereign decision.
   The Bible also observes that justice is not assured for “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.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
   Such observations led to doctrines of virtue rewarded and evil punished in a future life. And commercial insurance and social programs developed with the theology of sharing one another’s burdens in this life.
   Is Kansas City guilty? Should we understand La Raza’s decision as just or as caprice unanswered in this world? And are we sharing one another’s burdens? 

685.  071024 THE STAR'S HEADLINE
Spiritual Art Sizes Us Up

The Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council “Table of Faiths” luncheon this year, Nov 7, has chosen “Sacredness in the Arts” as its theme, and I was asked to comment for its video presentation. The luncheon is part of a “Festival of Faiths” embracing many multi-faith programs through Nov. 18, including a brochure for a self-tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which I was asked to write. 
   And co-incidentally, I’m currently teaching a course to ministerial candidates called “Religion and the Arts.”
   My approach is rather different from Johann Bernoulli, who once described paintings by the Old Masters simply by noting their physical dimensions.
   I want to know the spiritual size of works of art.
   Great art, whether tragic or comic, seems to originate in a movement of the spirit. Religion begins with ineffable experiences of awe and wonder; and art imitates, creates, recalls, participates in, or directs us to such experiences employing words, sounds, actions, light, rhythm, shapes, colors, and textures, structuring space and time within a frame which points beyond itself.
   The label at the beginning of the current “Rising Dragon: Ancient Treasures from China” exhibition at the Nelson indicates that specific religious concerns may underlie entire artistic traditions:
   The show’s “objects echo, each in their own way, common concerns fundamental to humankind past and present: 1. the mystery of existence, 2. fear of oblivion at death, and 3. the nature of a society beneficial to its members. 
   “We have evolved mythologies, religions, philosophies, governments, customs and practices and all manner of technologies to address these fundamental issues. They have motivated the creation of much of what we today call art.”
   Whether it is an image of the mother and child developed by ancient Egyptians and borrowed by Christians in paintings of the Madonna and the baby Jesus, or the frenzied dance of flamenco with shouts of  Olé — an inflection of the Arabic word for God, Allah, or the transcendent third movement of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata, or the dialogue with nature of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” home, or the elegance of Euclid’s proofs, or the perfect form and humanity of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, or . . .
   As nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote, “Today, in a secular world, it is almost wholly through the arts that we have a living reminder of the terror and nobility of what we are.” 
     By its spiritual size, art exercises our abilities to feel awe and wonder and find our place in the cosmos. 

684. 071017 THE STAR"S HEADLINE:
True Change is Born of Fire

“WaterFire,” the installation on Brush Creek Sept. 9, was described by its creator, Barnaby Evans, as “a meditative celebration of community.”
   That was at least part of my experience. I greeted and visited with friends who also showed up at the Brush Creek event.
   I also remembered when I was about 5, a house a block away from mine went up in a blaze. The neighbors gathered together to watch as the firemen sought to salvage something.
   I felt guilty for enjoying the spectacle — fire is fascinating — because I understood something of the destruction. And I appreciated anew my parents’ warnings about my playing with fire.
   Of course civilization depends on controlled fires, whether it is cooking our food, warming our houses, or the explosions inside the engines that provide transport.
   Civilization, one might say, began with the “domestication” of fire, perhaps about a million years ago. Fire warded off wild creatures. It made raw meats more edible and safe. With it one could see at night and in caves. It provided warmth. Later it was the magic by which ores in earth could be worked into metallic tools and objects of beauty.
   Fire was a god, a sign of the gods or a gift of the gods. In some traditions, including the American Indian, fire was stolen from the gods. In a Greek myth, the thief Prometheus gave fire to the human race and was punished endlessly for it because fire gave humans unprecedented power.
   Because fire changes things, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus spoke of fire as a way of saying the world is flux. The title of a famous poem by Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins begins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire.” And the Buddha spoke of unending change in his “Fire Sermon.”
   The Hindu god of fire is Agni, a word with the same Indo-European root as the English word “ignite.” In Vedic times, Agni was the chaplain to the sky gods, communicating food offerings to them by ascending smoke.
   For Zoroastrians, fire represents the energy of the Creator. 
   Last week I presided at a wedding and spoke these words:
   “From earliest times, the lighting of torches, lamps, and candles has been auspicious, a signal of the divine, a sign of sacred festivity. Now in celebration of their distinct and wondrous traditions, (bride and groom) join together two flames, lit by their two families, to ignite a third flame, blessing us all with their united light.”
   The mystery and power of fire is part of the religious story of humankind as it continues to unfold.

683. 071010 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Interfaith Dialogue Growing Stronger

About 40 groups in metro Kansas City are involved in interfaith relations. One is the Kansas City Chapter of the Houston-based Institute of Interfaith Dialogue, which last week held its fourth annual iftar, dinner after sunset during Ramadan, with about 200 guests at the hotel. 
   The group is inspired by the work of Turkish writer Fethullah Gulen, and has arranged for about 60 folks from the Kansas City area to spend two weeks in Turkey learning about Islam.
   At the dinner, Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn noted that she had already attended an iftar this Ramadan, sponsored by the Crescent Peace Society, founded here over a decade ago by Muslims to promote interfaith understanding. She also mentioned other Kansas City interfaith activities, including the Salaam Shalom Dinners and the Interfaith Council luncheons.
   Another speaker, the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin, pastor of mission and young adult ministry at Village Presbyterian Church, recalled his disappointment in college when “a Jew, a Muslim, an evangelical Protestant and a Catholic . . . each gave a brief explanation of their understandings of God as unique to each one of them,” with follow-up questions revealing that they were less interested in understanding each other than in justifying their own faiths. 
   “The Protestant on the panel adamantly declared there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. Somebody in the crowd asked the Muslim to speculate why Islam was so violent.” And so forth.
   “When such well-intentioned forums (degenerate) into ripping holes in the faith traditions of one another, we have wandered far from . . . dialogue.
   “None of these questions are bad questions, and there’s nothing wrong with asking tough questions. Christianity does need to be challenged on its often exclusive claims to salvation, and Islam and Christianity both ought to address the ways that their teachings are . . . bent towards violence.”
   But in Turkey, McLaughlin found genuine dialogue. “We talked about the tough questions . . . . You come face to face with the vast differences between your faith and another faith, but you do so with an eye towards finding strength in the faith of another.
   “Tough questions are great. We wrestle with them and we grow from that struggle. 
   “And after the struggle is over, you clasp one another around the neck with the word kardesche, brothers!”
   Finding kinship abroad is essential to world peace, and the genuine interfaith dialogue in our own town, growing for more than two decades, is building a stronger community.

682. 071003 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:

Words may be inadequate to capture spiritual experiences. Reduced to fit within the confines of language, such experiences may sound absurd.
   T. S. Eliot, the 20th Century poet, born in St. Louis, whose Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was adapted for the musical “Cats,” struggled in writing about religious themes. In his “Four Quartets,” he reports that “Words strain,/ Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/ Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/ Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still. . . .”
   But we should not be surprised. Words often point to fragments of reality; finding words to talk about what its ultimately spiritual is no easy task.
   Sometimes what comes out is paradox. For example, Jesus said, “He who finds his life shall lose it: and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it.” This Christian insight is genuine, but the words are pointing to something beyond their literal meaning. 
   A parallel exists in Buddhist thought. Since the cause of suffering is craving, one’s desire for enlightenment, itself a craving, only perpetuates one’s suffering. But when one abandons one’s selfish attachments, even attachment to one’s own spiritual advancement, then one’s self-centeredness ends and one can offer compassion to others, which paradoxically enables enlightenment.
   And in the Islamic tradition, consider al-Bistami’s claim about the mystical experience: 
“This thing that we tell of can never be found by seeking, yet only seekers find it.” 
   Of the ultimate, the Taoist sage Laotzu says, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”
   Kitaro Nishida, a 20th Century Buddhist philosopher influenced by both Eastern and Western traditions, avoided facile synthesis by writing, “the world is one, namely many.” This statement has a logical form similar to the quip, “You are unique, like everyone else.”
   Several early 20th Century scientists were intensely interested in religious questions. Physicist Niels Bohr, for example, wrote, “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.” 
   And an American insurance company executive and poet Wallace Stevens writes of faith this way: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction, and that you believe it willingly.”
   Perhaps paradox can invite us past tidy spiritual thoughts to the ineffable spiritual experience itself. 

681. 070926 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Kansas City museum

You’ve seen images of the Pope blessing a crowd in St Peter’s Square. Perhaps you’ve brought your pet to one of Kansas City’s annual St Francis of Assisi animal blessing ceremonies. Maybe even you yourself have received a blessing.
   But have you ever seen a museum blessed? On Sept 30 at 2 pm, you’ll have that chance at the Kansas City Museum’s Corinthian Hall, 3218 Gladstone Blvd, originally the home of lumber baron Robert A. Long.
   The Rev Bruce Rahtjen, pastor of Melrose Methodist Church and a member of the KC Landmarks Commission, is the honorary chair for the interfaith ceremony with, he hopes, “priests, rabbis, imams” and other religious leaders and the public, offering affirmations, walking around the property and enjoying a free reception in the Grand Hall.
   The Longs, a Southern Baptist husband and Quaker wife, built the Beaux-Art mansion in 1910 employing a Scandinavian Lutheran household staff. 
   But why bless the place, especially as the neighborhood has undergone many changes in the 67 years since it was bequeathed to the city?
   Rahtjen says it is auspicious for the community “to honor our legacy and to forgive missteps of the past, to join together in compassionate solidarity and to stimulate courage to meet the challenges of the future.”
   Rahtjen calls the location “the most historic quarter of the city” and cites evidence for the Hopewellian culture from a thousand years ago. And “the later Osage and Kansaa Indians lived and practiced ceremonies here even after the appearance of Europeans.
   “The area diversified quickly with the influx of more immigrants. Kansas City’s first synagogue, Temple B’nai Jehudah, was consecrated on St. John Ave. just after the Civil War, and KC’s oldest Jewish burial ground was later incorporated into Historic Elmwood Cemetery at Truman and Van Brunt. 
   “The Roman Catholic presence has anchored many cultural groups. Italian workers in the early-20th century settled in enclaves around churches and schools of their faith here.
   “Over the course of the century the Church then resettled refugees from many countries in areas traditionally Italian, so that there are now Polish and Eastern European, Cambodian, Lao, Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Honduran and Mexican Catholics who call the Northeast home. 
   “The past ten years have seen introductions of vibrant communities of East African (Somali, Sudanese, Ethiopian) Muslims and Christians, Southeast Asian Buddhists and Central American Protestants and Catholics into the Northeast, and they are thriving,” Rahtjen says. 
   While the blessing ceremony may focus on the museum, it is really the metro area that is blessed by the added spiritual diversity centered around the museum.

680. 070919 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Questions of church and state

Meeting with area clergy for lunch today is one of the nation’s leading liberal preachers, Forrest Church, and tonight at 7 he gives a free public lecture about his latest book, So Help Me God, at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main.
   The son of the late Idaho Senator Frank Church, Forrest received his doctorate in early church history from Harvard in 1978. Almost immediately he became senior minister at All Souls Church in New York. He now is minister of public theology there.
   Appointed by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to chair New York’s Council on the Environment, Church has thought deeply about public issues. His 2004 book Freedom from Fear may be the best book produced by a cleric in response to the events of 9/11 which still shape our public and private concerns.
   That book remains remarkable for its counsel about how to live with the five species of fear he analyses: fright (a bodily fear), worry (a mental fear), guilt (the fearing conscience), insecurity (emotional fear) and dread (the fear that afflicts the soul). 
   Our fears are often out of proportion to any reality that might justify them, and his sane words on 9/11, for example, provide a perspective that has yet to be absorbed by the body politic.
   In his 2002 book, The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer, he considers the term “creed,” not as a sectarian statement but as the pluralistic spirit of the nation with a vision of freedom and justice: 
   “Though the American Creed as fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by the Continental Congress rests upon a clear separation between church and state, the body politic does have a soul,” he writes.
   Of his 23 books, the one I most frequently pull from my shelves is The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders.
   In it, Church has gathered and introduced documents that provide historical context for understanding the intent of our nation’s founders as they thought about how the threads of religion and government can be woven with liberty. 
   The writers include Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison. The book also includes a treaty which states “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” ratified by the Senate in 1797.
   But is God the source of liberty or is the Constitution’s invocation of “We the people” sufficient? 
   I expect Church’s new book and his talk will illumine such questions. 

679. 070912 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Zen and the art of peace

Jesuit Father Robert Kennedy was sent to Japan some 40 years ago. “I was told to learn all I could. And I was told not to come back singing the same song: they expected me to learn something new.”
   Indeed, Father Kennedy’s keen study of Zen Buddhism there led to his becoming, without his intention, a Zen teacher, or roshi. So he can be addressed not only as Father Kennedy but also as Kennedy Roshi.
   He says it was an act of “tremendous generosity of the Zen community” to entrust a non-Buddhist, a Roman Catholic, with the transmission of Zen. He compares it to Catholics making a rabbi a bishop of the Church. Unheard of.
   So what did Father Kennedy Roshi learn?
   “We Jesuits try to bring gifts of what we learn to the Church, and I thought bringing Zen was a great gift.”
   Zen meditation, “which stays away from theories and philosophies and theologies, grounds a person in present reality. This can help a person in everything.”
   While Kennedy recognizes that some people are not disposed to meditation, from the overwhelming response he sees when meditation is introduced, he thinks that many can benefit.
   “I’m not trying to sell it or convince anyone, just make it available.
   “I believe that Zen Buddhists and Catholic communities can come together. The two faiths are quite different, but the other is not an enemy. We can appreciate each other. The other is a God-given gift to us in all its particularities.”
   Kennedy now practices psychotherapy in New York. He was ordained a priest in 1965,  installed as a Zen teacher in 1991 and designated roshi in 1997.
   He is also a professor of theology at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey. His two books are Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit and Zen Gifts to Christians.
   He speaks here Sept. 29 from 9:30 to noon at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Admission is free.
   His talk is part of a series at the church on peace and non-violence. 
   An additional role for Kennedy is as a representative of the Institute for Spiritual Consciousness in Politics at the United Nations, where he “stresses the need for dialogue among religious people. This is a necessity today. We must understand one another and become friends. It sounds so simple, but we have a terrible past.”
   Kennedy says that meditation can improve both personal affairs and social action. His talk here will address how Christians practicing Zen can promote peace in everyday living.

678. 070905 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Sufis' dancing leads to oneness

Thursday night a group of Sufis gathered for sacred dance, as they have for over 25 years here in Kansas City.
   After exchanging greetings, they recited an invocation which expressed their intention: “Toward the One, the perfection of love, harmony and beauty, the only being, united with all the illuminated souls who form the embodiment of the Master, the spirit of guidance.”
   Sufi dancing as practiced here is indebted in spirit to the “whirling dervishes” of Turkey, but is more like an America circle dance, through far more meditative, with bowing and other gestures of respect. And if, like me, you have two left feet, the instructions and your forgiving partners erase all embarrassment and welcome you into a soulful energy. 
   Throughout the evening, Fattah Kriner led the group in dances based on sacred phrases chanted in English, Arabic, Tibetan, Sanskrit and Hebrew. 
    The chant for the last dance of the evening, for example, in Arabic, can be translated as “The love of God brought us here to the earth to be lovers, and now we wish to return to the Beloved.”
   Sometimes called Universal Sufism, this approach to spiritual practice can be traced to Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) who brought wisdom from India to the West. It is indebted to Islamic mysticism but is not a part of mainstream Islam. Some scholars consider it syncretistic because it embraces materials from many faiths.
   But the practice is aimed to lead one to the realization that there is only one Source, one Reality, according to Connie “Rahimah” Sweeney, a past president of the group.
   In Portland 30 years ago, Sweeney discovered Sufi dancing to be “heart-expanding,” something she had missed in her earlier religious background. 
   Sweeney says that as American Sufism matures, traditional Sufi teachings gain more attention. A psychologist, she cited the teaching of fana, “effacement,” the emptying of the personality, with the practice of remembering there is only One. Not needing to defend oneself or to react to every little thing leads to a sense of divine “union, pure joy. The loss of self, which is so scary for Westerners, is what we’re after.”
   Emptying oneself to see God in one’s dance partner becomes a key practice.
   Kevin Wehner, a newer member, says that never before has he had such spiritual experiences, “hard to describe in words  — the music and the movement — it’s a sacred feeling.”
   The group’s web site, which lists its activities and locations, is

677. 070829 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Lay people give strength to interfaith effort in KC

Saying that the discussions at Central United Methodist Church’s God Talk group often involves this column, a member asked me to visit some Thursday. I was interested in what questions they might ask, so last week I went.
   They were keenly interested in interfaith activities in our area.
   One of the members has been reading The Faith Club, an account of how three women,  Christian, Jewish and Muslim, came to understand each other’s faiths deeply. I was able to tell the God Talk group that the women will be at Park University Sept. 25.
   I also mentioned the upcoming Festival of Faiths, a series of events created by different groups to enhance our own friendship across faith lines. 
   The Festival begins Nov. 7 with the Interfaith Council’s luncheon. The Festival includes a presentation by Judea Pearl, father of slain Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl, with Muslim Akbar Ahmed, author of Islam Under Siege, at Village Presbyterian Church Nov. 13. It concludes with my own organization’s 23d annual Thanksgiving Sunday Ritual Meal Nov. 18.
   But the group was not just interested in programs. How did  interfaith work develop here? 
   The Pluralism Project at Harvard University studies the increasing religious diversity in our country and the ways through which people of different faiths organize local interfaith efforts. 
   Ellie Pierce, chief researcher there, speaking here at the nation’s first Interfaith Academies, said, “At the Pluralism Project, we consider Kansas City to be truly at the forefront of interfaith relations.”
   But Kansas City does not have an area-wide association of clergy or congregations. Without such a structure, how did Kansas City gain its national reputation? 
   Lay people is how, I told the God Talk group.
   Interfaith efforts in other cities are often structured to represent constituent religious organizations. They run into “political” problems.
   Clergy are busy, and their first responsibility is to their congregations. No matter how devoted they may be to interfaith work, their participation is often shaped by institutional issues. 
   Here in Kansas City, the Interfaith Council is composed mainly of lay people of various traditions. They are not bound by ecclesiastic duties to represent their institutions. They come, like The Faith Club women, simply as people of  faith.
   Institutions are essential. But Kansas City’s growing success, I told the God Talk group, arises from folks with loyalty to their faiths beyond institutional constraints.

676. 070822 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Opera raises questions of violence

Is violence ever justified? Does beneficial social and political progress ever originate from murder? Do religious and moral conviction transform a terrorist into a martyr?
   The ancient Indian faith, Jainism, with about 4 million adherents world-wide and over 40 Kansas City area families, may be the most consistent in saying no. Its teaching of ahimsa, non-violence, influenced modern teachers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
   But for most faiths, including Judaism and Christianity referenced below, the answer is more difficult. Consider the subject of the work which will conclude the Lyric Opera’s 50th Anniversary season, abolitionist John Brown. Some consider him a terrorist, some a martyr after his execution for 1858 raid on Harper’s Ferry on the Potomac River.
   He was a troublesome figure in these parts, too, and his ferocity is depicted in a mural in the Kansas State Capitol. 
   In 1856 Brown and his gang killed five pro-slavery settlers in what is called the “Pottawatomie Massacre.” Brown had come to Kansas after the sacking of Lawrence by those wanting Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a slave state.
   In one of the most electrifying arias of the opera, Brown, who as a child, “too small to help,” had witnessed another boy, his friend, a slave, beaten ferociously by his master, tells of reading in the Bible about “Moses who had seen a brutal beating of a slave — and Moses killed a man! Moses! Moses himself took a human life to defend a helpless slave.”
   Were Moses — and Brown —  right to answer violence with violence? Was the Civil War fought among Christians the correct way to achieve the liberation of the slaves?
   Was our War of Independence justified to escape “taxation without representation”?
   Are those today who claim inhuman subjugation or political or economic enslavement or exploitation justified in reacting with violence?
   Frederick Douglass and Ralph Waldo Emerson give their views in “John Brown.” 
   The opera, a world premiere, was composed by Kirke Mechem who was raised in Topeka and may be best known for a previous opera, “Tartuffe.”
   The other operas this season also contain religious elements. In Verdi’s “Aida” and Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” priests and priestesses play roles. Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is a parable of virtue, and the Queen of the Night’s selfish aria threatening to disown her daughter unless she kills the priest Sarastro contrasts sharply with John Brown’s belief that violent means is justified by worthy ends.

675. 070815 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Build sense of sacred with the right

A certain religious “liberal” who writes “a popular column for a mainstream daily newspaper” was “no . . .match” on a local public TV station against a “right-wing minister of a suburban mega-church (who) had grabbed the (local and national) spotlight by pushing a successful amendment to his state’s constitution to ban marriage equality for gay citizens,” writes Robert N. Minor, professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, in his new book, When Religion is an Addiction.
   Minor says the columnist had his facts straight, his arguments were cogent and his preparation included Biblical material. 
   The columnist “was polite, reasoned and inoffensive to everyone. And, as a progressive friend of mine commented, the right-winger ate him alive,” Minor reports.
   I’m not sure I have the objectivity to judge whether what Minor calls the “arrogant and condescending,” authoritarian, tone of the “right-winger” was more appealing to the viewers than the “nice” tone of the columnist. 
   What I do know is that Minor  raises questions that trouble many people of many faiths. How can a tolerant person accept intolerance? How does one respond to those who want to use government to enforce their own religious views on everyone else?
   In beginning his answer, Minor quotes Robert Frost: “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
   Minor says that liberals eschew the sound-bite type of  communication he associates with “right-wingers,” and doubts that liberal attempts at nuance often succeed in such contests.
   Minor intensifies his criticism of liberals by calling them “enablers” of those addicted to the high that comes from thinking one is absolutely right in matters of faith.
   He draws a parallel with family and friends of alcoholics who cover-up or excuse the problem, enabling the alcoholic to deny the addiction.
   A liberal who declines to point out religious addition because of respect for all religious perspectives is an “enabler.”
   Minor’s work continues an important examination of addictive believers in such earlier books as Leo Booth and John Bradshaw’s When God Becomes a Drug: Breaking the Chain of Religious Abuse and Addiction, Matthew, Sheila and Dennis Linn’s Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction and Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton’s Toxic Faith.
   As for that columnist, well, would it be too liberal for him to write that while he respects Minor’s viewpoint, the columnist thinks it is possible to build upon a sense of the sacred even with “right-wingers”?
   Part of me says Yes, part of me says No.

674. 070808 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
It is  not for us  to choose sides

Can you speak the ultimate spiritual truth? Will it fit inside the words and syntax of language? Is there a point to the verbal disputes about God or the Absolute within and among various faiths? Is one religious organization the receptacle of full and final revelation?
   Or should different perspectives be welcomed even if we favor the viewpoint most helpful to us, within our own particular background and experience?
   Swami Tyagananda, head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston, and a chaplain to students at Harvard and M.I.T., was in town recently to address the Kansas City Vedanta Society.  He is active in interfaith work, so I raised such questions with him.
    He told the story of two Indians, one who said that Vishnu was the supreme god and other who argued that Shiva was greater. They went to a sage for help. 
   The sage said “Not I, nor my father, nor my grandfather — none of us has met them, so I am not in a position to decide. Each of you continue your own practice. Each practice can bring you toward experience of the truth.”
    Tyagananda said religion can begin with faith, and that can lead you to experience of God, but once you have experience, you don’t need faith anymore because you experience directly.
   “Most people who quarrel have not had such an experience. But those with experience don’t fight about who is right. They just smile.”
   I had asked him about two views among the very different philosophies in Indian thought. Advaita, Non-Duality, taught by Shankara (788-820), holds that there is no self separate from ultimate reality. A contrary view, Dvaita, Dualism, was expounded by Madhva (1199-1278) who taught that there is an everlasting distinction between the self and the absolute. 
   Like other Hindu teachers to whom I’ve put this question, Tyagananda smiled and said that it is unnecessary to decide between them. “Who is to decide whose view is lower or higher?” Each had his own experience, and what is important to us is the experience we have. 
   Tyagananda questioned the idea that one view is right and therefore all other views must be wrong.
   “All can be right. All of the philosophies and all of the religions — including Vedanta — are only partial readings of the Infinite. If the truth is infinite, which philosophy, which tradition can say,  ‘I have got it fully!’?
   “The moment you say that, then you are limiting what is unlimitable. How can anyone have the audacity to say ‘We have the truth entirely”? All are just snap-shots from different directions.”

Thursday, August 2, 2007 10:09 AM CDT

Kansas bishops says pope's comments about Christian salvation misinterpreted
BY: Sheri Baker-Rickman, Staff Writer

Comments that Pope Benedict XVI made regarding the Catholic Church being the sole spiritual path to salvation July 10 have been misinterpreted, Joseph F. Naumann, archbishop with the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, said.

Pope Benedict XVI said the “Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church.”

Naumann said the statement means that Jesus founded only one church, not many. He said Jesus' church and the Catholic Church have the same elements.

Protestant churches cannot be described as churches under Catholic doctrine because they lack sacramental priesthood and the Eucharist, Naumann said.

“For a Catholic, who understands the unique presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to abandon the church is wrong,” he said. “For those who have come to understand and experience Jesus through other ecclesial communities, we respect their faith and would say nothing to diminish its authenticity.”

Kansas City Interfaith Council founder the Rev. Vern Barnet described the pope's comments as “unnecessarily provocative.'

“The statement damages interfaith relations because it attempts to place the (Catholic) Church in a position of superiority rather than as an equal among world faiths, all of which are groping in human ways with the finite powers and limited backgrounds and experiences that we all have, to understand an infinite mystery,” Barnet said.

Respecting each others' traditions is essential to interfaith dialogue, Barnet said.

“It is clear from this and previous statements that the pope has never really understood other faiths, as his notoriously unfortunate lecture at Regensberg last Sept. 12 demonstrated in a number of ways, despite his reputed great intellect,” Barnet said.

“Presuming that non-Catholic faiths are defective or incomplete suggests the pope is a captive of one tradition, rather than a wise exponent of it,” he said.

Lama Chuck Stanford of the Rime Buddhist Center echoed Barnet's concerns.

“These very inflammatory comments sadly are consistent with the more recent statement issued with the pope's approval about the superiority of the Catholic Church,” Stanford said. “His comments damage interfaith relations and interfaith dialogue at a time when these are critically needed.”

Stanford said that in 1999, Benedict, then a cardinal, criticized Buddhism as an “autoerotic spirituality” that seeks “transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations.”

Stanford said global tensions exist within and between religions and fundamentalism is on the rise in many faiths, which threatens religious freedoms.

He said different faiths should work for common solutions to social ills.

“It is my sincere hope that religious leaders worldwide will work to foster respect of all faiths and work to encourage interfaith dialogue,” Stanford said. “His holiness the Dalai Lama has personified these ideals of respect for all religions and encourages and has personally engaged in many interfaith dialogues.”

Barnet said the pope's comments are detrimental to encouraging dialogue among faiths.

Carroll Macke, representing the Archdiocese of Kansas City, agreed with Naumann and said news reports have been misinterpreted.

“Media reports, especially the AP wire story, were misleading and basically false about Pope Benedict releasing a document declaring the only way to salvation was through the Catholic Church,” Macke said “Nowhere in the document is the statement or any similar wording that the only way to salvation is through the Catholic Church.

“The document does not in any way attempt to denigrate other Christian denominations. The document is clarifying what the Catholic Church teaches that the Catholic Church believes to be the Church of Christ. In terms of the incorrect statement that 'salvation is only through the Catholic Church,' the document basically says that because of the elements of truth that are present in these churches they are indeed used by Christ as instruments of salvation for their members.”

673. 070801 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Be careful when cherry-picking Bible passages

Last week’s column noted that “The Hebrew scriptures present God as a healer.” I could have cited passages such as Gen. 20:17, Ex. 15:26, 2 Kings 20:5 and Ps. 30:2 to support my point.
   But reader Neil Harris responded, “I read your column today with some interest: ‘The Hebrew Scriptures present God as a healer.’ 
   “I had just emerged from one of my periodic attempts to get through the dismal parts of the Old Testament and New Testament, and 2 Samuel 24 was on my mind: ‘The Lord sent a pestilence throughout Israel from morning till the hour of dinner, and from Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand of the people died.’ (NEB) 
   “The pestilence was one of three nasty choices God gave David for the latter’s conducting a census—though it seems God made him do it. Some healer! (The version of the story in 1 Chron. 21 has Satan inciting David to do the census. Were they interchangeable?)
   “And the people of Jericho, as well as the beasts, might have died saying, ‘Healer?’ Yeah, right.
   “Now you, Vern, are the expert in scriptures. Am I cherry-picking? Are you? Perhaps God would have been a greater healer if we could have gotten him into an anger management class.”
   Well, Prof. Harris, you are right. I did cherry-pick. That’s what people do when they use the Bible. It’s what people do in quoting Shakespeare or Emerson or Dante as well. We select what is helpful to make our point.
   But the problem of cherry-picking is acute if a text is authoritative in the sense of being divinely inspired, internally consistent and literally true.
   The idea that God is unchanging may come from Aristotle, but I’m not sure it is in the Bible, except for Christians in Heb. 13:8. The scriptures present God in many moods. In Deut. 32:39 we read, “I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal.”
   In the Bible God changes his mind and repents (Gen. 6:6, Ex. 32:14, 1 Sam 15:35, Jer. 26:3), creates evil (Isa.45:7), rewards the wicked (Prov. 26:10), commands killing the “old and young, both maids, and little children, and women” (Ezek. 9:6), is jealous (Ex. 20:5), gets angry (Ex. 22:24), protects a murderer (Gen. 4:15) and so forth.
   We are not likely to select such passages for inspiration. And I never recommend that people simply open the Bible and read whatever their eyes find.
   We can cherry-pick what we like from literature composed thousands of years ago in different cultures in antique languages, and ignore the rest—unless our faith requires us to struggle with the whole of it.

672. 070725 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Duty says prepare for pandemic

Do people of faith need to think about a possible avian flu pandemic?
   To approach this question, let’s review some religious history. 
   Many of our hospitals were formed by religious groups.
   The Hebrew scriptures present God as a healer. Jesus often treated the diseased, and he commanded his followers to “heal the sick.” (Matt. 10:8.)
   In Islam, the Qur’an itself becomes a “cure,” and great medical advances were made in Islam that later benefited the West. 
   The medicine Buddha is a frequent imagine prescribing therapies for the world. The Hindu Ayurveda medical tradition is said to have been revealed by the god Brahma.
   The seventh Sikh guru, Har Rai, established a hospital* and cured the son of the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. Today many Sikhs are involved in health care. 
   Chinese acupuncture involves  the spiritual forces of yin and yang.
   In primal traditions like American Indian and tribal African ways, the “medicine man” plays an essentially spiritual role. The Navajo healer, for example, may create a sand painting, an image through which spirits restore the patient to primordial health. 
   Our English word “salvation” is related to the Latin for “health.” 
   In most religions, healing the sick is an obligation.
   But what if so many people are sick or contagious that schools are closed, the hospitals are overwhelmed and places of worship must be used, not for regular services, but rather to quarantine and house the sick? When so many bodies are piled up that the few well undertakers are able to bury them? 
   Such questions were on the agenda last Friday at “a preparedness summit for faith leaders” held at the Nazarene Theological Seminary. 
   Arranged by the Kansas City Health Department, the conference, “Mission Possible: spiritual response and survival during a public health crises,” gathered clergy, religious volunteers, health care professionals and disaster relief experts to considered the poor response by Philadelphia in the 1918 flu pandemic, contrasted with the much better St. Louis response, and provided worksheets for participants to plan for their groups as part of metro preparedness. 
   Faith leaders can find a checklist for their preparation at or call the Kansas City line at (816) 513-6152. The primary focus of the checklist is to help religious professionals take care of themselves and their staff so they will be able to help the ill.
   Kansas City health director Dr. Rex Archer, who recently served as president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, cited the watchman in Ezek. 3 and had the gathering recite together what could be a spiritual mantra: “The only thing harder than preparing for a disaster is explaining why you didn’t.”

*still functioning, my friend Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa writes, and the eigthth Sikh Guru, Guru Har Krishan, a young boy of 7 years, healed many of a small pox plague in the Punjab. 

671. 070718 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Are '60s values splittting hairs?

Last week I wrote about the “summer of love” forty years ago and the theological study of the hippies of that time that became part of my doctoral dissertation. 
   I asked whether what happened then has meaning for us now. Were the values uplifted by the hippies absorbed, ignored or corrupted by the larger culture? Did the hippies do much more than liberate our hairstyles? 
   The play that seemed to capture  that era’s “alternate culture” challenge to the “dominant culture” was the first rock musical,  “Hair.” 
   I saw one of the 45 performances of “Hair” in 1967 at The Cheetah in New York before the show moved to Broadway. I was shaken to the depths by its honesty. It portrayed a spiritual power in epic  struggle against oppression. In it I saw a model for what the church could be.
   H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 book, Christ and Culture, presented five ways Christ can be related to the culture of the time. 
   The first two are polar opposites. The Christ-against-culture position maintains that Christ and culture are irreconcilable and that Christians must give complete allegiance to Christ.
   The Christ-of-culture perspective says Jesus fulfills and illumines what is best in one’s culture and one must align oneself with it.
   The remaining three are medial positions, Christ-above-culture, Christ-and-culture-in-paradox, and Christ-the-transformer-of-culture.
   Since the hippie movement, in word, in song, in deed, rejected a culture bent on economic gain to the neglect of spiritual concerns, chastised a nation more enchanted with technology than personhood, eschewed a society too scheduled to enjoy the moment, and pursued war instead of peace, the hippie perspective generally paralleled the Christ-against-culture position Niebuhr identified.
   Hippies did not talk a lot about the church, but they did talk about “the tribe.” And the tribe was to live in this world without adopting the secular values the world cherishes, just as some have envisioned the church as the body of Christ, bringing witness and redemption to the sinful.
   When I saw the Broadway production of “Hair,” I was shocked and angry. The pure tribal message of spiritual duty was commercialized into selfish indulgence. 
   A simple example. The original had no nude scene, but the Broadway version used the tribe  to titillate. 
   So I repeat and rephrase last week’s question. Can anything sacred be popularized in our secularistic culture without its corruption? Can the church, the tribe, resist the world’s seduction?

670. 070711 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
The summer of love has lessons

Forty years ago this summer I heard a song advising, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” It was “the Summer of Love” and the flowering of hippies.
   That spring was also when Martin Luther King Jr and many others protested the Vietnam War.
   I was in divinity school and decided I needed to understand what theological perspectives were undergirding the hippies in order to complete the chapter on spiritual communities in my doctoral dissertation. I went to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. I read everything I could find.
   A 45-page excerpt of my dissertation was published in a professional journal in 1969 as “God Is Doing His Thing: The Hippie Heresy and Liberalism.”
   In it I argued that the hippie phenomenon was far more complicated than popularly portrayed, and that liberals should consider hippie remonstration against their assumptions.
   Liberal assumptions, for example, were packed into Harvey Cox’s 1965 widely noted book, Secular City. Hippies challenged  the value religious liberals then placed on the secular and liberal  neglect of the sacred. Liberals  focused on problems rather than on ultimate mystery. Liberals were consumed with politics rather than practicing worship.
   But the pre-commercial hippies joined politics and worship and saw problems as doors that opened transcendent mystery.
   This tweaks what theologians  call “realized eschatology.” The ultimate end we seek is already present if we are awake to it. The righteousness we are seeking is available now by doing our duty, and in such duty is ultimate bliss.
   For me, in the midst of a war, it meant placing my draft card on the altar at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel during Sunday worship and the consequent FBI investigation and reclassification by my draft board.
   In “Hair,” the musical that came to characterize hippies, burning a draft card became a sacred act of liturgy.
   It is 40 years later. This is not a summer of love answering  war. The hippie faith that living right will make things right is shaken. 
   Did the hippies change much more than hair styles? Let me answer with a question. 
   I saw one of the 45 performances of “Hair” in 1967 at The Cheetah in New York before the show moved to Broadway, where, in my opinion, its pure and profoundly moving message of spiritual duty was commercialized into selfish indulgence. 
   And so the question. Can anything sacred be popularized in our secularistic culture without its corruption? 

669. 070704 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Water, rock powerful symbols

In many world religions, water is a transforming agent. And when people from many faiths gather, water can symbolize both the distinctive rivers of faith and the ocean of mystery into which those rivers ultimately flow.
   So when, from Canada, Connecticut, California and places  between, 45 religious professionals and students assembled here at the Saint Paul School of Theology to learn about doing interfaith work, they brought water. And each also brought a rock.
   Ceremonially, one by one, they poured their water into a 3-gallon clear glass jar, dropped their rocks into it and voiced their hopes as the Interfaith Academies began last month.
   Faithful readers of this column over the years may recall that waters have been collected and dispersed on several interfaith occasions.
   To a collection of waters from the Ganges, Nile, Tiber, Thames, Yangtze, Jordan, Euphrates, Missouri, Kaw and elsewhere, in 2001 water was added from 14 area fountains by members of 14 faith groups at the interfaith “Gifts of Pluralism” conference to celebrate the fact that faiths from all over the planet now flow into our own community.
   The meaning of this collection of waters was deepened at the 2002 anniversary observance of 9/11 when these waters were poured into the pool at Ilus Davis Park, and then retrieved to signify our tears washing away our self-righteousness.
   After Academy participants added their waters to the collection, the two-week schedule began, including:
   * visits to six exceptionally hospitable religious sites
   * classroom study of various faiths with an international faculty
   * related films in the evening 
   * case studies of perplexing interfaith situations such as community opposing the sale of a church building to Muslims wishing to use it as a mosque 
   * exercises such as interpreting problematic sacred texts
   * a panel of media experts
   * library study time
   * time out for a Royals game and a visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
   * exploring the resources of such as Harvard’s Pluralism Project
   * devotional experiences from many faiths
   * discussions of participants’ interfaith efforts in their own locales
   * a performance of scenes from the Kansas City play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy”
   At the end of the two weeks,  the participants retrieved a rock someone else had brought, washed but undiluted by the mingled waters, and celebrated the gifts of learning from one another and from the spiritual richness of Kansas City and this nation, to take home.

668. 070627 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
We all need one another

Yehezkel Landau is one of the international scholars leading the two-week Interfaith Academies  ending here today. 
   A dual American-Israeli citizen, he spent 13 years working in Kansas City’s sister city, Ramle, Israel, where he met then Kansas City Mayor, now Congressman, Emanuel Cleaver. He also met Kathleen Sebelius, now Kansas Governor, who was part of an interfaith group he addressed at a hotel in Jerusalem one sabbath evening.
   About this, his first visit to Kansas City, he says, “I’m very impressed with the cooperation among the different faith groups. It is a model to see diversity as a blessing and not a threat.” 
   I asked why he went to Israel. “My Judaism brought me to Israel as a religious Zionist who believes that the spiritual integrity of Judaism requires in our time a sovereign state that is faithful to the teachings of Judaism which include justice and peace as central imperatives,” he said. 
   “That means putting life and justice, human rights, peace above control over the whole of the Holy Land. We have to share  and create two states so that both Jews and Palestinian Arabs can express themselves, not just politically but also spiritually, in the fullest possible way.”
   There Landau was co-director of Open House Center for Jewish-Arab Coexistence. Now he  teaches at Hartford seminary where one-third of the students are Muslim.
   Since his main interest is in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, I asked why he agreed to be involved in a program with many other faiths.
   “I think we need each other,” he said. Each faith has “something special, if not unique to teach the others. 
   “We in the Academies just came back from a Buddhist center, and the notion of detachment is a healthy corrective to excessive attachment to material things including territory. Holy lands should be seen as means and not ends. 
   “God says that ‘All the land is Mine, and you should be unto Me a kingdom of priests and holy people,’ so we have to do sacrificial service, which at the present time means sacrificing some territory in order to create a just peace in Israel and Palestine. 
   “A Buddhist perspective can help Jews and Arabs find a higher meeting ground and share material resources like land and water in the Holy Land, which I understand belongs to God, and we both belong to it. 
    “Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have visited Israel and Palestine to share their commitment to universal, unconditional compassion, which we definitely need.”

667. 070620 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Do not open mouth and insert foot

   As I walked past Nichols Fountain near the Plaza last week, I heard two men verbally bullying two darker-skinned boys about religion. 
   The older men, Christians, were condemning the younger ones, Muslims in high school I learned later, to hell. I decided to intervene and backtracked.
   At the point in the assault at which I entered, one of the Christians was insisting that the bible has always been the same. 
   I asked, how could that be? There is no original text extant. The sacred writings have been gathered over millennia. For the first four centuries of the Christian area, which texts were inspired were in dispute, and as late as the Council of Trent (1545-1563), decisions about what should be included in the canon were being made. 
   I was more sympathetic to the other Christian’s approach. Instead of simply condemning the boys, he related that his becoming a Christian saved him from a life on drugs. 
   One can appreciate the faith that provides such important, even life-saving, benefits.
   But drugs were not problems for these boys, and stories about being saved from perils by one’s faith can be found in every religion. I don’t see how that gives one bragging rights about one’s own faith being superior to other faiths for all other people.
   So he tried another tack. Allah, he said, came after Jesus.
   This statement astonished the boys, as it did me.
   Allah is the Arabic word for God. Translations of the New Testament into Arabic use the word wherever it appears as God in English, just as the French use Dieu, the Spanish Dios and so forth.
   The Christian did not know enough about the faith he was condemning to know that Muhammad, who did live some 600 years after Jesus, is not Allah. Muslims believe that Muhammad was a great man, but not divine.
   “We are young,” said the boys thanking me, naturally respectful of older folk, even those who were attacking them. 
   Sharing one’s faith can be a beautiful thing. But have I  learned about the faith of the persons with whom I am speaking? Have I allowed them to share their faith journeys before I heap on my condemnations and insist my faith is superior?
   What if I fully understood the conditions that make another person’s faith precious to him or her? Might I also see how my own faith has developed from my own life circumstances? Recognizing where I was born, when in history, who my parents were, the experiences I’ve had, the friends I’ve known, might lead to a modesty about claiming my way must be the way for all others.

666. 070613 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Bloch building enhances spiritual experience

My daily 3-mile walks usually take me by the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and I’ve watched as the Bloch Building was dug and planted and now blooms.
   Last week, I was finally inside.
   Religion has generated art since prehistoric times, and even today spiritual issues are raised in, for example, David Salle’s “Diabolic Life Restoring Machines,” Kerry James Marshall’s “Memento #5,” or my favorite, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Tracer,” all on display in the new building’s contemporary gallery. 
   I like to give my students tours. In the 1933 building, I often start with the Assyrian relief of the genie fertilizing the date plant, to show the spiritual intimacy between humans and nature, as also revealed in Egyptian theriomorphic deities, interesting to contrast with Greek anthropomorphic gods. 
   Or contrast Christian Renaissance painting with Chinese Song Dynasty scrolls. In Girolamo da Santacroce’s “Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” we see God atop the painting, but in Xia Gui’s “Twelve Views of Landscape” the Tao, the Way, appears everywhere, presenting two very different visions of sacred power, one external to the world acting upon it, with humans the focus, the other power infused everywhere within the world, with human activity a footnote. 
   The Christian painting, like the creeds, seeks to be explicit in what it depicts, while the landscape’s effect is heightened by what is implicit, framed not in the geometry of the Christian painting but rather in a field that can only be suggested.
   Moving right along, we see the glorious “Shiva Nataraja,” a Hindu dance of cosmic destruction and creation, suggesting the personal capacity for transformation. 
   The “Stele with Scenes from the Lotus Sutra” marks the eruption of a new form of Buddhism, not just for monks but for all humankind.
   The “Luohan” is an image of individual enlightenment, but the bodhisattva “Seated Guanyin” says there is something about the universe that draws us all toward enlightenment.
   And the Block building? What is its spiritual message? It is more than a superb container. 
   The new building is respectful of the 1933 structure in such a way that its own dignity is enhanced, just as we humans are ennobled  by joining respect for others with self-respect. 
   And the  building’s doors and windows welcome the outside—from the contiguous lawn to the sun 93,000,000 miles away, whose energy rebounds at night through the building’s “lenses.”
   Thus the building says, “Behold!”

665. 070606 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
When faith becomes partisan

Two items from the mail bag.
   The first is from a Christian minister who did not like last week’s column about valuing the worship practices of many faiths when only one way is correct. Of my joining with Muslims for prayer he wrote, “Your Muslim kin will probably reach out and kill you one day.”
   If I knew no Christians, I would not find his faith very attractive.
   The second letter was generous, supportive and thoughtful throughout its two single-spaced pages. The writer deeply believes in the importance of “bringing the religions of the area together for fellowship and dialogue.” 
   But the letter was motivated by “loving concern” about statements I’ve made which were interpreted as partisan.
   Citing scripture, the writer believes that we must support “our duly elected leaders” even when “we may strongly disagree with their policies” and “support our government.” The time to express ourselves is through voting, not afterwards. 
   Conceiving of me as a religious leader, the writer says my words should be about cooperation and love, not words of criticism.
   I understand the writer’s perplexity about the mixing of faith and politics. But I have three quick responses.
   *Supporting the policies of elected leaders is just as partisan as disagreeing with them. Our Constitution explicitly provides for dissent between elections. I don’t see how support is inherently more spiritual than disagreement. 
   *Inspiring leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Archbishop Desmond Tutu protested the evils of their governments as part of their spiritual leadership. 
   In the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet Nathan scolded King David. On meeting King Ahab, instead of showing respect, the prophet Elijah called him the “ruin of Israel” to his face. Jeremiah’s oracles of condemnation were presented to King Jehoiakim in writing. 
   Many other examples from many traditions could be given to suggest that justice is a higher spiritual value than submission to worldly authority. Had I been in Hitler’s Germany, how could I have submitted to his authority? 
   *Interfaith work is not just singing Kumbaya. With insights from the primal faiths, it must address our environmental crisis. With the methods of Asian traditions, it must develop deeper understanding of personhood. With the wisdom of the monotheistic religions, society must be made just and peaceful.
   Religion is not a lazy trance. It is giving ourselves utterly to the Holy, not to political powers that would rather control us.

664. 070530 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
We can see the holy in many faces

The men form several lines, shoulder to shoulder. Now they bow, now prostrate themselves, now sit on their legs and raise one finger, signifying there is but one God.
   I am with my Muslim kin at Friday prayer. This may not be my own faith tradition, but I have faith in my Muslim sisters and brothers here.
   I think of other places of worship I have visited, some of which I have unintentionally violated because of my ignorance, but where the grace of the other worshippers made me nonetheless welcome.
   Such varied customs! 
  * The Christian Eucharist, with the wafer and wine called the body and blood of the Savior. 
   * Arti in the Hindu temple, a flame offered to a deity, then as it is passed around, the worshippers cupping their hands over the flame and raising palms to forehead as a purification.
   * Folks sitting in meditation in silence announced and ended with the striking of a bell in the shape of a huge bowl producing the most gorgeous, lush sound at the Buddhist temple.
   * The joy of the Jewish congregation as the Torah scroll is taken from the ark, read from, paraded through the synagogue and kissed as it is returned to the ark.
   * The warm conversation as folks eating together in the langar, the Guru’s kitchen in the Sikh gurdwara, preserving the intention of universal service with the elimination of class distinctions.
   * The sweating of nearly naked bodies in a hut of branches covered with animal hide in darkness punctuated with the opening of a flap so hot stones can be added to the pit in the center, in the Lakota inipi ceremony, or sweat lodge.
   * Shouting a Japanese chant standing under a powerful waterfall after consuming a little sake and salt in a loincloth and headband in a Shinto misogi ritual.
   A visitor from another planet might find nothing in common to these religious ceremonies emerging from different times and cultures, and be puzzled why I find them all so stirring.
   Should such a visitor suddenly join me as the Muslims around me offer salaams, greetings of peace, to one another, I would say:
   We human beings have encountered the holy, the infinite, and wish to govern ourselves thereby.
   But we are finite. The wars, oppressions, and other cruelty you find on planet earth sometimes arise when people confuse a finite idea of the holy with the holy itself. 
   Still, I am moved whenever I see people recognizing our limitations as we reach to honor what is beyond our knowing.

663. 070523 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Hindu temple fosters values

You are a Hindu priest in Kansas City. What brought you here? What do you do? And can you help me sort out various terms for religious leaders?
   I put such questions to the two priests at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Kansas City in Shawnee.
   The Temple began in 1991 and its growth now requires plans to expand the building.
   Shastri Rajendra Pandya and Seshasai Rompicharla both come from priestly families in India. 
   Pandya, born near Gandhi’s home town of Porbandar, saw the spreading of his faith and culture to the West and recognized the need Hindus here have for priestly services. Before coming to the US, he served in Canada.
   Rompicharla has several family members also serving in the West. He comes to Kansas City from Dallas.
   A Hindu priest offers puja, rituals of divine homage, on behalf of individuals and families as they come to the temple throughout the week, for which his exacting knowledge of Sanskrit is required. 
   He may also perform such services for the sick, to dedicate a new house, and to preside at weddings and funerals.
   Rompicharla says “God is one but takes many different forms,” just as we may dress differently for different occasions. 
   Thus a priest may offer puja for one family who favor the god Vishnu or another family who favor Shiva.
   A priest does not give sermons. And Hindus do not seek to convert others to their faith.
   Still, Pandya values his the wisdom of his ancient culture, that we are to help one other.
    Rompicharla associates five values with the English name for his faith: H-honesty, I-integrity, N-nobility, D-devotion, and U-unity.
   Now for some terms, alphabetically.
   An acarya is a professor, especially one learned in the tradition of the Vedas (the most authoritative sacred scripture). 
   In olden days, Brahmins were members of the priestly caste. Highly educated and ritually pure, their scope was great, from practicing law to cooking for others. Nowadays, anyone may do such things except be a temple priest.
   A guru is a teacher and often specifically means a personal spiritual guide. 
   A pandit is a master or a scholar who conserves classical Sanskrit traditions of ritual, philosophy and literature. The term may also be applied to any learned person. The meaning has been corrupted in its popular American use as “pundit.”
   The rishis are the ancient seers.
   Swami literally means owner or master and is a title offered out of respect for a teacher or holy person. 

662. 070516 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Share your faith like a bowl of soup

The story this column relates is not particularly dramatic or even unusual. It is not especially theological.
   But it is a story of faith.
   I like it because it is typical of the kindness I myself have encountered from Muslim friends, here and around the world.
   I offer it in response to readers who almost every week tell me that Muslims want to take over this country and that I have an obligation to condemn Islam. 
   It is told by one of my students at the Saint Paul School of Theology, Kitty Shield. Here are her words:
   There is a small Italian restaurant close to where Chuck, my husband, and I live in Wichita. It is one of three restaurants owned by three brothers from Lebanon.
   Over the years Chuck and I have become friends with Ali Issa. We have spent evenings just sitting and talking with him after the restaurant has closed. 
   Ali is a Shi’i Muslin and it has been wonderful to talk to him and to learn about his faith. 
   We have also shared our faith with him, but since Ali was educated in Roman Catholic schools in Lebanon, I think we have learned much more than he has. 
   Four years ago, when our parish, St James, was looking at starting to feed people prior to our new Wednesday evening classes, I approached Ali about the possibility of our getting soup from him. 
   We had gotten several estimates from other restaurants and it was looking bleak as to whether we would be able to stay within our proposed budget. 
   Ali said that if we would pick up the soup, he could give us 10 gallons for $25.00 per week.  We would get whatever soup was the soup of the day unless they were having fish soup. (We had staff members who were worried about mercury in the fish when we had pregnant mothers eating the soup.) 
   After about six months our youth minister, Teresa Rogers, asked for Ali’s phone number because we had not received a bill for the soup. Teresa had left several messages and Ali told her he was having problems with his computer system taking St  James’ name into it and he would get back to her. 
   I was in the restaurant with Teresa having lunch and we asked Ali if the problem had been fixed.
   He got a huge grin on his face and he told us: “I prayed about this matter and my computer will never be able to take St  James’ name into it. My cost to St James is that all the members pray for peace.” 
   He wanted us to do what was really needed to be done: pray with him for peace. The members of St James do pray for peace and Ali, too.

661. 070509 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
What is your faith quotient?

A couple Saturdays ago The Star ran a general religious literacy test. Today you have a chance to see how much you know about religion in the Kansas City area. 
   Circle true statements and cross out false ones.
   1. Three denominations have their world headquarters here.
   2. Kansas City, Mo, has never had a Jewish mayor.
   3. Except for the New Reform Temple, most Jewish groups now are located in Johnson County.
   4. Pilgrim Chapel on Gillham is opposed to interfaith efforts.
   5. Both Kansas and Missouri have Sikh sites.
   6. None of Kansas City’s black churches has a white minister.
   7. Holy Trinity Orthodox Church on Pflumm used to be located on Russian Hill in Kansas City, Kan. 
   8. An annual Dec. 31 “world peace” meditation began in 2000.
   9. A liberal Roman Catholic national weekly paper  is published here.
   10. All Roman Catholic parishes in the metro area are part of a single diocese.
   11. The Country Club Plaza includes an architectural feature modeled from a minaret, the Muslim tower from which the call to prayer is made.
   12. Almost every American city our size has had an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
   13. Both American and Southern Baptists have seminaries here.
   14. The area has only one mosque.
   15. Don and Adele Hall recently receive an interfaith award.
   16. The Hindu Temple in Shawnee includes images only of Hindu gods.
   17. A park here contains a statue of St Martin of Tours with a wristwatch.
   18. No Jains live here.
   19. The Jewish Community Relations Bureau was one of the first organizations to foster interfaith work here. 
   20. The Kansas City Interfaith Council is two years older than its Wichita counterpart.
   21. Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist group, has operated in the area since the 1960s.
   22. The North American Interfaith Network will have its convention here in 2008.
   23. The Star publishes a verse from a non-Christian faith on its editorial page each Saturday. 
    24. As part of the covenant between the Roman Catholic and Episcopal cathedrals down town, once again this year a joint Easter vigil was observed.
   25. Folks at the Village Presbyterian Church have joined with others to plan a Festival of Faiths for Nov 10-18 this year.
   ANSWERS: All odd numbered statements are true, all others are false. Half correct is a good score. You know the town.

660. 070502 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Heartland good choice for meeting of faiths

Book learning is one thing. Real life may be another. A faith you read about may seem very different from encountering it in those who faithfully practice it. In even the best text, some things remain opaque, but an interfaith friendship may reveal them.
   For most of my career I’ve  combined parish or community work with adjunct teaching. I think this mix has helped keep my teaching real and my ministry challenged by the ferment of ideas in the academy. 
    So when Kansas City was selected as the first site in the nation for religious practitioners and students in a fully-funded program to train them for working in our religiously plural nation, the learning strategy of combining guest scholars with local faith leaders at their sites  made perfect sense to me.
   Cooperating in two concurrent “interfaith academies” June 13-27 and June 13-20, free to students, are Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, Religions for Peace at the United Nations Plaza, our own Saint Paul School of Theology and our local Interfaith Council.
   Last week I took the Rev Bud Heckman, project director, and his assistant, Zack Shaeffer, from New York, around town to meet folks from some of the sites that will be part of the Academy program. I had only a little more than a day, and part of that time was spent at Saint Paul arranging facility space, but we visited friends at the Rime Buddhist Center, the Sikh Gurdwara and the Hindu Temple. We worshipped Friday evening at B’nai Jehudah. 
   The program also includes Orthodox Christian and Muslim sites.
   And just before they left on Saturday, we went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where Academy participants will visit its collections of religious art from many traditions.
   We also firmed up arrangements with the Tivoli Cinemas for a special showing of a religious film June 18 to which the community will be invited, with a panel discussion following the film.
   Before he left, Heckman said, “People on the coasts don’t realize the religious diversity in the middle of America. Kansas City offers a positive example” of faiths encountering each other respectfully. 
   Pamala Couture, Saint Paul’s academic dean, said that Kansas City is “a safe place for dialogue.”
   Al Brooks, formerly Kansas City Mayor Pro Tem, met with Academy planners and said that “As 911 has showed us, we need to learn about Islam and other religions” in order to build genuine community.
    Visit for information and an application form.

659. 070425 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Let's think about US empire

Cornell University’s Barry Strauss, author of the much-praised book The Trojan War: A New History,  will explore whether America is an empire and if that could be a good thing, in a lecture at 7 pm at the downtown library tomorrow. He’ll use 911 as a reference point.
   Ancient themes can lead to deeper understanding of today’s issues, so I asked him to compare the role of religion in antiquity with today. 
   He said that while ancient Greeks and Romans might not at first appear religious to us, they in fact were.
   “No important public or private decisions were taken without first obtaining divine approval. 
   “But priests had relatively little power in those societies because politicians and other secular figures could interpret the will of the gods. There was no separation of church and state. 
   “In modern America, where church and state are separated, it has always been assumed that people will get many of their most important values from religion—but that they do so privately. 
   “In recent years, however, with the decline of organized religion, Americans have tended to rely on secular institutions for their values. This hasn’t worked very well, in my opinion, and many of us are at sea and have lost our moorings. That may help explain why, in America, religion is   making a comeback of late.”
   Since some people in other nations interpret the US role in Iraq as a Christian imperial enterprise, I asked Strauss if there are spiritual aspects to the idea of empire beyond military and political dimensions.
   “Yes,” he said, “including both good and bad,” destructive spirituality. 
   “Imperial power always corrupts some, and perhaps most, people who wield it. And yet, to govern an empire can also inspire a sense of duty and even of mission.
   “In my judgment, to govern an empire is, on balance, a burden. It is better not to be an imperial power as long as a state can maintain its freedom. But that isn’t always possible, because freedom needs to be defended, and that sometimes means projecting power abroad.”
   Some in Arab lands object to permanent US military bases as a violation of their sacred territory. 
  Some readers who write me insist that Islam is at war with Christian America. Two days after 911 controversial columnist Ann Coulter wrote, “ We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”
   Strauss says that thinking about empire may reveal the complexities of our situation, without easy answers.

658. 070418 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A question of pay to pray

Should I accept tax money for the five invocations I provided as guest chaplain for Kansas City City Council sessions last month?
   I was still thinking this through when, as my tenure began, I designated the non-profit organization I lead to receive the city’s stipend, and before and after that, I’ve sought advice from a lot of people. Perhaps writing about my perplexity will be useful to others.
   Here are some arguments in favor of taking the money:
   Any professional providing services to the city deserves compensation. If the city engages an architect, a janitor or a lawyer, the time and expertise is recognized with remuneration. As Luke 10:7 says, “the laborer deserves his wages (Luke 10:7).”
   In my case, I adjusted my schedule to add about 15 hours including travel time to honor the Council’s request. A one-minute prayer takes a lot longer to write than a five-minute prayer.
   The interfaith prayers embraced all citizens regardless of their belief or unbelief, so disqualification of my work as sectarian would be unlikely.
   Tax monies are regularly pay  chaplains in the armed forces and in prisons, though the justification for them recognizes that military  personnel and prisoners may not otherwise have the access to religious services. And a full-time chaplaincy job is requires a greater commitment than saying a few prayers. 
   Since the early days of the Republic, chaplains for the Congress have been paid.*
   No government official tried to guide me in how I prayed, so there is no question of political influence or corruption.
   If I didn’t want the money, I could donate it to charity.
   Still, without questioning the judgment of my colleagues or the practice of prayer at official  governmental meetings, my personal decision in this case is to decline the stipend.
   I just can’t shake the feeling that it is embarrassing, even a little sleazy, for me to take government money for praying.
   Even donating the money to a worthy cause gives me control of tax money. I do not want that power in exchange for praying.
   I accept pay from non-government groups for my services, but I would not want a single citizen to feel that he or she was paying taxes for a prayer that did not  suit him or her. 
   Lawyers do pro bono work, physicians offer their skills to those who cannot pay, and business executives bring their acumen to non-profit boards without collecting salary.
   Citizens volunteer in the life of the city in many ways. I’d prefer to provide my services as a gift rather than a gig.
   *Justice Burger, Marsh v Chambers, 463 US (1983).

657. 070411 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Learn why religion thrives in US

Many scholars of religion in America believe that one key reason religion flourishes here in comparison with Europe is our tradition, enshrined in the Constitution, of keeping government out of religious affairs.
   But Derek Davis, an expert in church-state matters who visits the KU Apr 16, sees recent changes to this tradition in the way the Supreme Court is interpreting the First Amendment.
   Davis was the director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University until last year. He began his career as a lawyer. He currently is dean of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s graduate school and college of humanities.
   He says that “an increasingly conservative Court in the last twenty years or so has been concerned that past decisions were too harsh in separating church and state, the consequence being a discrimination against religion.” 
   As an example, he cites the Court’s approval of  “voucher strategies for funding religious schools as well as legislation that provides monetary supplements to religious schools.”
   While Davis tends toward objective presentations, I asked him for his personal view. He responded:
   “I believe that government aid to religion compromises religion, cheapens it, and makes
religion merely the newest in a long list of government programs” with attendant supervision and monitoring. 
   “A total separation is impossible, but keeping the institutions of religion and government separate has been, in my view, the primary reason for the success of religion in our history.
   “Merging religion and government tends to water down religious truth and make it a mere tool of government policy. If you survey the world, the countries that make religion the engine of government policy are riddled with dissension and discrimination and tend to be far less economically developed. 
   “Diversity is a problem for them whereas it is a strength in our country.
   “Separation of church and state has been good for religion, not bad, contrary to what many today seem to believe.”
   His talk at 7:30 pm Monday in the Kansas Union in Lawrence is entitled, “Religion and Politics in the U.S.: Conflicts and Anomalies.”
   He says he will address the many conflicts and inconsistencies we have, such as our official national motto “In God We Trust” while also adhering to the  separation of church and state.
   He will also discuss the advantages and merits of mixing religion and politics as well as the disadvantages and dangers to both church and state.

656. 070404 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Electing the right prayer

Praying on another’s behalf is a sacred trust. Last month my duty as chaplain to the Kansas City City Council was to offer the invocation as each Thursday’s legislative session began. 
   I made many mistakes, and not just mispronouncing the name of a Council honoree. 
   While I noticed Councilman Eddy not at his place at one session, I did not know he was in the hospital until later and so failed to name him in the pastoral section of my prayer.
   My first prayer was addressed to “Spirit of Generations,” and a Council member asked afterwards where God was in the prayer. I think I remedied that by the second week, but I should have anticipated the concern.
   I am not certain that my plan was entirely successful for five distinctive prayers, each  identifying a different theme, focusing one week on recent local achievements, another week on Kansas City’s world-wide relationships through our sister cities, and so forth.
   But the chief challenge came from the fact that the first session occurred right after the primary election, and the last session right after the general election. 
   How could I pray in a pastoral way that recognized individual joy and pain of winning and losing? How could I articulate the dynamic of the citizens as the results of the election were being assessed at that moment? How could I view the situation impartially while I have personal relationships with some involved in the contests? And do this briefly?
   I tried balanced and ambiguous phrasing. I tried reporting  a common evaluation without my own judgment; I tried using a unifying tone of voice into the mic.
   Here is how that final prayer began:
   “O Spirit of Justice, you who work throughout history and community through fallible people, we gather acknowledging your sway in the aftermath of the city’s election.
   “It was often said there were two good mayoral candidates, 
to vote for one, not against the other. Yet it is also said the voting pattern, and the closeness of the vote, might suggest a division — which can be healed with the grace of the one who did not win, who has given the community so much for so long so well, with wisdom to be found and outreach to be manifested by the winner.”
   The complete prayer can be found at
   Praying on behalf of the Council, with the members’ own attention to infinite detail embraced in a larger vision, humbled me with their gracious permission for me to try to find words blessing their work.

655. 070328 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Season of lent a time for long reflection 

Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, is the most important festival of the Christian year, always in the spring. Christians ready themselves for Easter in the preceding weeks, called  “Lent,” from “lengthening” days.
   I asked the Rev. R. Glen Miles, senior minister of the Country Club Christian Church, to explain what Lent means to Christians. Just before he left for a mission trip to South Africa, he sent this response: 
    Many Christians across the world are observing the season of Lent, a 40-day period of prayerful reflection as we prepare to celebrate Easter. 
   During this time of year we examine our lives, our actions and behaviors to see if we are following the will of God.
   The phrase, “will of God” is often misunderstood. Some folks think that it is an exact blueprint for every decision that lies before them. I suppose the will of God is something like that but I think that it is much more open-ended.
   When we study of the will of God, we revisit ancient questions from old prophets like Micah who asked, “What does the Lord require of you?” His answer gives us a huge clue about how we are to live, to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” 
   I am convinced that I have been called by God into the ministry, but I have said many times that I could be selling sodas at Royals games (a worthy profession!) and still be in the will of God as long as I were  seeking justice, doing kindness and humbly acknowledging my place in the universe.
   Another question to consider during Lent was asked of Jesus: “What is the greatest commandment?”  Jesus fudged on his answer by noting two commandments, “Love God and love your neighbor.” He was probably not the first to say something like this, but for Christian folks his answer gets our attention. We Christians can easily be distracted by arguments over theological concepts like salvation, but in the long run what we are truly called to do, during every season of the year, is love God and neighbor.
   When Christians carefully review their lives and wrestle with old prophets like Micah and thoughtfully deliberate with our Lord, we become better citizens of the world. 
   There are some folks in our faith who are hoping for an escape from all of this. They think we are going to be taken up while almost everyone else is going to be left behind. 
   That may be well and good for some but in the meantime a life lived for justice, a day given to kindness and a moment spent loving God and neighbor will go a long way toward bringing peace on earth.

654. 070321 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
A mayor should be open to all

Both Kansas City Mayoral candidates support interfaith understanding.
   Mark Funkhouser says although he has not been involved in interfaith efforts here or before he came to Kansas City, he respects the “huge variety” of beliefs and would probably respond to invitations for him to participate.
   In an interview, Funkhouser said he recognizes a deep spirituality that moves people, whether that spirituality “is in the context of formal religion or not.” 
   When I mentioned Kansas City’s selection as the pilot site for two national interfaith academies for training religious professionals and emerging religious leaders at the Saint Paul School of Theology this summer, Funkhouser said he was glad such programs were happening here.
   Alvin Brooks says, “I have spent my life trying to improve conditions for minorities and to build bridges between different racial, ethnic and religious groups. Since Sept. 11, 2001, I regularly read from the Qur’an, the Torah and the Bible.”
   Brooks has often attended an interfaith event even when he had no role to play, as when the Kansas City Interfaith Council arranged an observance on the afternoon of the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and at the annual Thanksgiving Sunday Interfaith Ritual Meal held most recently at Temple B’nai Jehudah.
   He also has accepted invitations for major roles at interfaith events, such as at the 2001 “Gifts of Pluralism” interfaith conference. When the national CBS broadcast about interfaith work in Kansas City was screened at Union Station the following year, Brooks introduced the event. He delivered the message at the interfaith World Peace Meditation in 2003. He spoke at the presentation of the interfaith play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy and Other Kansas City Stories” at the 2004 Harmony luncheon. He was a featured speaker at the first Salaam Shalom Celebration in Leawood in 2005.
   He has co-chaired the annual dinner for the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and the annual luncheons of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council.
   Although Brooks is a Christian, he has received awards from Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and interfaith groups including the organization formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Kansas City Region.
   Two of his honorary doctorates come from religious institutions, one Catholic, one Protestant, Rockhurst University and Western Baptist Seminary.
   In 2004, Brooks initiated a monthly interfaith dinner group so folks from all over the metro area could discuss their spiritual journeys in a social setting.
   At the funeral of an adult son, Brooks asked leaders of several faiths to present readings and prayers.
   Kansas City, like the entire metro area, exhibits growing religious diversity, and both candidates seem to appreciate that fact. I know of no city where interfaith leadership is part of the mayor’s job description, but the interest in knowing folks of all faiths might be an asset in serving a community. 

653. 070314 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Some dance to remember

Dance, like other arts, originated with religion, many scholars say. Psalm 150 commands praising God with dance. Still today in India, the gods Krishna and Shiva are often portrayed dancing. 
   Whether you are dancing in your basement or watching a professional performance, whether the Eagle Dance of the American Indians or classical ballet, the movement of the body is itself a blessing.
   Even if the subject of a dance appears to be secular, merely an exhibition of technique, just sheer fun or a way for partners to enjoy each other, it is the soul animating the motion.
    Sometimes dance may produce profound insights into the nature of humanity, as in the Kansas City Ballet’s recent production of Jose Limon’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” based on Shakespeare’s “Othello.” 
   A couple years ago the Ballet’s Matthew Powell created a dance that seared the souls of many of us who saw it.
   The dance began with the voice of an Iraqi woman who described how happy she and her husband and their two daughters and the men they chose for their husbands were. Her gratitude  was immense. The dance showed us their joy.
   Then an explosion. Only left was the weeping woman.
   Powell says his dance is not political. It doesn’t matter who caused the explosion; human tragedy results. 
   Powell had read Martin Luther King Jr’s 1967 speech, “Casualties of War in Vietnam,” and was especially struck by this passage:
   “The past is prophetic in that it asserts that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows. One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.  How much longer must we play at deadly war games before we heed the plaintive pleas of  the unnumbered dead and maimed of past wars?”
   The dance, “La Folia,” was first performed at the Ballet’s “In the Wings” series, which this year begins tomorrow.
   This Sunday the Joffrey Ballet presents Kurt Jooss’ 1933 anti-war masterpiece, “The Green Table,” first performed by the Joffrey in 1967, the same year as King’s speech.
   The dance shows pretentious diplomats negotiating at a green table, failing, shots fired, Death, the Profiteer, the ravages and futility of war, the wounded survivors and finally, in gruesome irony, the self-important political powers reappear at the green negotiating table, personally untouched by the horrors they unleashed. 
   Such dances enlarge the spirit by chastening.

652. 070307 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Open prayers need open hearts

Here are three prayer scenarios. 
   * Beginning with a Jewish prayer and ending with a Muslim prayer, the National Council of Jewish Women’s luncheon last Wednesday featured Christian, American Indian and Buddhist panelists on the theme, “How do you talk to God?”
   The Rev. Yolanda Villa noted that within the Christian tradition, practices vary. She herself may pray kneeling, in a chair, on her back, or with a Bible in front of her.
   Prof. Daniel Wildcat said there is no time when prayer is not appropriate—including when one encounters a traffic jam. The American Indian traditions include speaking thanks directly to animals as members of the Creator’s world.
   Dr. Bethany Klug said that Buddhists do not so much pray to anyone as cultivate an energy of awareness that all things are interdependent.
   See quoted a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh illustrating the practice of awareness even in an everyday ritual: “Bushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth, I vow to speak purely and lovingly. When my mouth is fragrant with right speech, a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.”
   * Several months ago a breakfast including Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian and other religious leaders featured a distinguished local rabbi. After his lecture, a Christian minister was invited to conclude the event with a prayer. Even though the diversity of the group was obvious, he offered an excluding prayer “in Jesus name.” 
   Several spoke to me afterwards about the minister’s failure to recognize the integrity of the Jewish faith, which had been brilliantly displayed in the rabbi’s lecture, and the imperialism, perhaps unconscious, of a prayer offered on behalf of all of us in the language of a tradition known for its past oppression of   Jews and others. 
   The rabbi wrote about the breakfast with exasperation, but it is really the  responsibility of the Christian community to end such disrespectful public practices.
   * I am this month’s chaplain for the Kansas City City Council. How does one pray for the Council members and on behalf  of all the citizens the Council members represent? How does one recognize the primary and the general elections, both of which occasions are part of the context for their sessions this month? How  does one recognize the service the Council members perform without judging the particular policies they have enacted?
   Questions raised by these three scenarios suggest that no pat formula or style of prayer works for all people and all occasions, but generous intent and open hearts are essential.

651. 070228 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Speaker's words echoed

“Spirituality is sensing that all things are connected,” said Charlie Kreiner the first time I heard him, in 1989, at a workshop in Oregon. I have never met anyone more charismatic. He died last week.
   During the first break in the workshop, a rabbi told me that Kreiner was expressing the essence of Judaism. A Christian minister said he was conveying the teachings of Jesus for our time. A Buddhist said, “If the Buddha were alive today, he would be saying what Charlie is saying.”
   “When we sponsored him as a speaker through Harmony in a World of Difference in 1990, someone skeptically asked me who would show up for a class entitled ‘Homophobia, Racism and Oppression.’ That night there was standing room only. Charlie’s clear perceptions and skilled responses to violence in our society have inspired many of us to examine our own lives and leadership, and carry on community work with more courage, compassion and skill,” says Maggie Finefrock, then head of Harmony, now of The Learning Project.
   In KU religion professor Robert Minor’s book, Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human, are these words: ‘I owe my initial inspiration to an international men’s workshop leader, Charlie Kreiner. His fingerprints are all over this book.’”
   The Rev. David E. Nelson, past convener of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, says, “In my identification of who I am, I often say, ‘I am part of the human liberation movement.’ I first heard that line from Charlie Kreiner. It belongs to him, but it also belongs to any of us whose spiritual practice involves working for the liberation of all human brings.”
   Kelly Gerling, a leadership development consultant, recalled Kreiner’s insight that the differences among people are not the reason for prejudice but rather the excuse, and that “to remove the motive to find an excuse to think of others” with hostility and to abuse them “requires a process of healing that he so skillfully demonstrated and lived.”
   Thomas F. Edgerton, who attended a Kreiner workshop in Kansas City, says, “I have never met any one man who so wanted each of us to prosper, to heal, to hope and to share the healthy vibrancy of the human condition with others.”
   Leadership, Kreiner said, is not a role or holding a position, but an activity that frees other people. To lead others, one must be able to lead oneself. To lead oneself, one must heal from the ways one has been hurt. To heal, he asked and modeled this question: “What is keeping me from loving every person on the planet?”

650. 070221 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Music opens a dialogue

Who can tell us what lies beyond  the grave?
   In a Babylonian epic, the spirit of Enkidu laments the conditions of the afterworld to Gilgamesh, his beloved friend in this world. The Greeks told of Orpheus who was allowed to enter the underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, but failed to return with her because he violated the condition not to look at her following behind him.
   In The Divine Comedy, Dante explores the three realms of hell, purgatory and heaven. Dante’s poem was inspired by the Muslim story of the Night Journey of Muhammad from Jerusalem to the seven levels of heaven.
   With modern medical advances, folks who once might have been considered dead have recovered, with accounts of the beyond.
   One striking but little-known story will be presented here Saturday by Dialogos, brought to Kansas City by the Friends of Chamber Music. It is “The Vision of Tondal,” written in the 12th Century by Marcus, an Irish monk. The story was widely dispersed in medieval Europe.
   The text tells of an unconscious man whose soul leaves his body. After an invocation, the questions start: “Why do your legs not dance? Why does your tongue not sing?”
   The darkness is impossible to conceive “even if one put all the nights of the world together.” Still, the soul is guided by an angel.
   The suffering, even the thought of eternal damnation,  leads the soul to an empty throne, a beam of light and a return to the body with the exquisite knowledge of evil and good.
   Dialogos director Katarina Livljanic says that the story is “almost like the phenomenon of a ‘near-death experience’ told in a strikingly direct and timeless” way. The “emotional force of this music” from her native Croatia has proved “to reach people from different languages and cultures” as the group has performed in many different countries and “always had a very direct connection with people’s  hearts.”
    Judy Vogelsang, Honorary Consul for the Republic of Croatia, prepared for the concert by working with a related KC Public Library exhibit, the music and language departments of  area schools, the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center and the Kansas City Croatian American community whose churches preserve in their liturgy the style of early music that Dialogos will present.
    She says the old music is like a drink of water to the parched throats of modern busy life.
    Whether the music is about the grave or a metaphor for how to live, Vogelsang says the music offers a “fine balance” to our own time of turmoil.

649. 070214 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Love and be known

In his book, Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell discusses three kinds of love, eros, agape and amor.
   Elsewhere he describes eros as “the zeal of the organs for each other,” the biological urge for physical intimacy. In India, the god Kama, like Cupid in the West, is armed with arrows to afflict one with yearning for satisfaction of such attraction.
   Agape is not merely love for one’s friends and one’s neighbor as oneself, but a kind of affection which overcomes ordinary human divisions such as by nation, race and religion to embrace not only humanity at large but also one’s fiercest enemies. Here he cites Jesus who said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
   These first two types of love are impersonal, but amor discriminates. Of the three, amor is perhaps closest to the love we associate with Valentine’s Day because it grows out of an intensely personal and unique relationship. It is love not just for any person but for a particular person, a “significant other.”
   Campbell notes that amor is Roma spelled backwards in order to contrast the earlier church-sanctioned marriages of the Middle Ages, impersonal unions arranged for political, property or family reasons, with the later ideal from Islam introduced by the troubadours, that love is a divine passion between two people who, smitten with an attraction between their souls, deliberately choose each other.
   Because such love reverses, violates, the social order, Campbell characterizes it as the triumph of libido over credo, the “impulse to life” over the beliefs which supported the social order.
   While Campbell’s historical characterizations may be offensive, many scholars agree that the introduction of romantic love was a turning point in Western civilization. One could even argue that the emphasis on personal relationship ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation with its teaching of the “priesthood of all believers.”
   And in fact, the Puritans came to call marriage “the little church within the Church.”
   Thus amor is just as spiritual as agape. And others have taught that eros is also inherently a spiritual energy.
   Whatever species of love may be named, it offers the opportunity to know and be known, from the kind of knowledge Adam had with Eve which enabled her to conceive, to the ineffable knowledge given to the mystics in their ecstasies with God, to the “knitting” of David and Jonathan’s souls, to the enduring companionship of wedded love.

648. 070207 THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Holy books have contrary passages

Almost every week someone contacts me, as a caller with an open heart did last Wednesday on KCPT’s “Talk Back Live,” to ask about troubling passages in Islamic literature, or to cite them to prove that Islam is an evil religion.
   Today I’ll try to put such inquiries in perspective. A future column will look at specific citations within the Islamic traditions. Here are three examples from other faiths.
   *Suppose I tried to attract you to a faith with a beloved scripture based on God’s upbraiding a warrior who does not want to fight because he would be killing his own kinsmen. You might not be very interested.
   But that is exactly the scene of the great Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.
   However, most Hindus understand the text as a metaphor. The battle is within each of us to see clearly and to do our duty without attachment to the outcome.
   *Let’s try another religion’s scripture. In this one, the greatest leader of the faith is angry with his army because the soldiers spared women and boys, though he allowed saving the virgins for the pleasure of the soldiers.
   Such stories appear in the history of the Hebrew people, in passages such as Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 6, 7 and 20, Joshua 6 and Judges 21.
   *Would you call a religion a cult if its divine person asks his followers to hate their parents, siblings and children, said he came not to bring peace but a sword, and whose body and blood some of his follows believe they consume each week?
   Christians revere scriptures which include Luke 14:26, Matthew 10:34 and John 6:54 which are the basis for these characterizations.
   Are such characterizations fair? Are these citations taken out of their literary and historical contexts? Are the English translations reliable?
   If you are Hindu or Jewish or Christian, would you be disturbed if someone presented your faith as I have described it to others who knew little about it? Would you think I might be poorly informed, guided by a political or religious agenda or passing on material someone else gave me from the internet?
   And how would you explain passages in your faith’s scriptures that a sincere person of another faith might question? Would a metaphorical interpretation such as most Hindus suggest for the Gita work for you? Would you cite contrary passages in your scriptures to balance the troublesome verses?
   Does such an examination of your own faith open up possibilities for understanding problematic passages in the traditions of other faiths?

647. 070131  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Three sides to one question

Tonight I answer questions from viewers on KCPT’s “Talk Back Live,” hosted by Steve Rose. But to get a running start, here are three answers to an important question.
   Why should I be interested in learning about someone else’s religion? I’m happy with my own, which I know is correct.
   * First. I don’t know a better way of really understanding your own religion than by learning about others. It's like cities. You really can’t appreciate Kansas City without knowing something about Topeka, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Paris, Madrid, New Delhi, Tokyo, Lima, Cairo. And visiting or living there for a time is even better.
   For example, a Christian may more fully appreciate the claim that Jesus is the only Son of God when the Christian  understands why Jews and Muslims disagree, and why Hindus tell of many incarnations of God, and why Buddhists do not even teach belief in a Creator God at all.
   * Second. The question implies that religion is primarily concerned with correct belief. But belief is of secondary importance in most religions.
   Consider  Judaism. Traditionally, simply being born of a Jewish mother makes one a Jew. No creedal test is required. Jewish theological positions range from atheism to belief in a coming Messiah.
   And the Buddha warned against relying even what he taught because tightly held beliefs impair the ability to see the world afresh and accurately.
   So, as Ed Chasteen is fond of saying, “Who’s right is the wrong question” when getting acquainted with another faith because being correct may not be a parallel concern of that faith at all.
   Thus it is said that 90% of the Japanese get married in a Shinto ceremony, 90% get buried in a Buddhist ceremony, and 100% send Christmas cards.
   Scholars sometimes identify four components of religion: belief, organization, worship and moral codes. The importance of these components varies with the faith.
   * Third. It is our duty as citizens to know our neighbors, our country and the world. Comprehending others’ faiths can be an important guide to understanding what others value and how their behavior is shaped.
   This is true on countless issues, whether the tremendously varied religious approaches to stem cell research or the puzzles of foreign policy.
   But though appropriate, “duty” is a heavy word. Once people taste interfaith exchange, and get to know folks of other faiths, pleasure and friendship often abound; and working through the tough spots becomes a blessing that lifts the heart day after day.

646. 070124  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Council's mission welcomes all

   At a retreat last week-end, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council took another step toward its goal of making Kansas City the most welcoming place on the planet for people of all faiths. “We’re serious about this,” said retiring Council convener, David E. Nelson, a Lutheran. “This is not just some wild-eyed vision. We are serious,” he repeated.
   I asked Bruce Jeffrey, a consultant with PriorityAdvantage who led the retreat, to comment on this goal. He said than any group’s vision should make it stretch. The Council is far more diverse than the non-profits he typically works with, he said, but that the goal was “very unifying” for them all, that it “inspires and excites” them.
   The leadership of the Council has now passed to Caroline Baughman, a Pagan selected by her peers, including American Indian, Buddhist, Baha'i, Christian Protestant, Christian Catholic, Christian Orthodox, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian members.
   I asked her if she thought it was significant that a person of her faith, so often misunderstood, had become the Council’s convener. “I haven’t thought much about that,” she said, “but, yes, I am proud.” She went on to explain that she understands her position more as a steward than a manager since the Council requires consensus in making its decisions. Others spoke highly of her skills. She is member of the UMKC School of Medicine Faculty.
   Kathy Riegelman, now co-convener, said that the interfaith relationships she had developed have made her more effective as a hospital chaplain with folks of diverse faiths, even as it has deepened her own faith. And the respectful manner by which the Council members seek to work with each other, “grounded in spiritual values that we share, gives us marvelous hope for the future.”
   Baughman noted that while the Council was formed in 1989, in a sense it is also new because it was reorganized two years ago. “When we consider this infancy, it is amazing what we have accomplished.” The Council has held two successful awards luncheons, the more recent of which attracted 750 people. It has established interfaith book clubs, runs a speakers bureau and offers classes and other programs.
   For Baughman Kansas City’s distinctive interfaith approach not only includes knowing your neighbor and respecting your neighbor’s faith and the ways of those who claim none, but also finding “spiritual nourishment” even in the way the Council’s business meetings are conducted, modeling unity in diversity.
   The Council’s web site is

645. 070117  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
There is no victory in violence

   I’ve been thinking about Martin Luther King Jr and his place in planetary religious history.
   In America, he fulfills a tradition reaching back more than 2,500 years ago to India, where the idea of ahimsa, non-violence, transformed Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. The vegetarianism of some Jains who will not cut even cultivated plants to eat may be an extreme.
   Until King, the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have not been much affected by ahimsa. The Bible, for example, contains many violent stories and images of soldiering.
   King, who kept a photo of Gandhi, above his desk, at one point called Gandhi “the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change.”
   What Gandhi achieved in India and King offered to America, is, in planentary history, an unprecedented union of East and West, as remarkable as that spiritual realization 2,500 years ago. Here’s what I mean.
   In general, Asian faiths have approached spirituality by turning inward. By comparison, the Abrahamic faiths are external. They involve rules, such as the Ten Commandments, that govern community behavior. Sacred concerns, such as justice, are often expressed in social or even political arenas.
   (It is true that Christians, for example, may have a “personal” relationship with God, but God is normatively seen as the Ruler of history, a Power beyond the self.)
   Gandhi, who was stimulated to recover his own tradition by reading Jesus’ advocacy of non-violence in the Sermon on the Mount, united the Asian focus on the self and the Abrahamic focus on social justice in the term swaraj, self-rule, with two meanings, personal and political.  India must free itself from colonial rule and govern itself, and each person must free oneself from hatred.
   Thus both Gandhi and King required their followers pursuing social change to gain control of themselves through purification so their spirits were strong and loving enough to confront evil without responding violently. In this King more than fulfills the Asian tradition; he fulfills a Christian truth seldom practiced.
   Liberation requires both personal and political effort. The prayer “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” transcends narcissism only when it is coupled with action in the public realm. King spoke of an “inescapable network of mutuality.”
   King brought this spirit to social and economic injustice and his protest against the Vietnam War. For both Gandhi and King, victory is achieved only when your enemy becomes your friend. You can’t achieve such victory through violence.

644. 070110  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Gomes balances religion with politics

To evoke America’s religious spirit as a “beacon” to others, Ronald Reagan borrowed the phrase, “a city set upon a hill” from Puritan governor John Winthrop. The phrase is also a favorite of one of America’s greatest preachers, Harvard’s Peter J. Gomes, who comes here Jan. 20. Gomes offered prayers at the Reagan and Bush 41 inaugurals. I interviewed him by phone last week.
    “How does that image of America fare today?” I asked. He said image remains important “because America wants to be a good, and not just a big and powerful, nation. But, alas, the Iraq War has compromised that ideal. We are not practicing what we preach. We are surrounded by deceit at home, and we’ve lost confidence in our leaders and our mission abroad. The war has done incalculable damage to us as an exemplary people.”
   Until recently, Gomes, now in his 60s, has been a life-long Republican, a prominent African American clergyman of that party.
   I asked, “How do you answer your critics that such a statement is political, not religious?”
   He said all religious analysis is political. “It’s just a question of whose politics. If you agree with me, I’m spiritual; if you don’t, I’m political. I’m prepared to take the hit on that. Any religion that speaks to a contemporary issue is bound to be charged with the crime of being political. The real question is not whether (the analysis) is political, but whether it is right or wrong.”
   Gomes, who has over 30 honorary degrees and has been featured on “60 Minutes,” says he tries “to speak difficult truths in a very difficult time in as clear and as loving a way as I can about the issues of the day for those interested in candor and thoughtful analysis.”
   About his lecture here, “Charged to Change,” he says, “We have been content for so long doing the same old same old. Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. If Christians took their faith seriously, significant change would result upon our culture.”
   Gomes applauds the increasing visibility of non-Christian faiths. “But I cannot speak for them because I am a Christian. I hold all religions in respect, but that doesn’t mean I feel diminished in my own religious experience, not at all. One can’t have religion in general; one has religion in particular,” as one cannot speak without speaking in a particular language. “I suspect God has a larger view of the whole thing than any of us can imagine.”
   For information about the lecture at Country Club Christian Church, visit or call (816) 333-4917.

643. 070103  THE STAR'S HEADLINE:
Go forth with an open mind

I clipped the Dec. 26 “Sally Forth” cartoon and have it on my desk. The Forths’ daughter, maybe 10 years old, speaks to her parents at breakfast. “You know what today is in England and Canada? Boxing Day!” Mom responds, “Boxing Day?” and the daughter amplifies, “Yeah! It’s sort of like ‘Christmas, Part 2’!”
   Mom understands what the daughter is getting at and says, “You’re not getting any more gifts.”
   “I’m just trying to open our minds to other cultures, that’s all,” the daughter disingenuously explains.
   The cartoon might make a good beginning for a column listing reasons for knowing about other cultures. It’s essential in today’s global marketplace. To understand the news — whether it is the Iraq War, the continuing Missouri controversy over stem cell research or the passion in Kansas over Phill Kline — you need to grasp different religious perspectives.
   Then the column could discuss the value of interfaith friendships. It might conclude with a warning that unless we access the wisdom of the world’s primal, Asian and monotheistic faiths, our environmental, personal and social problems will destroy us.
   But instead, I keep thinking about a holiday visit from Minneapolis friends. The father wanted to take Julius, his four-year old son, to the Nelson-Atkins Museum to see the Buddhas there.
   Starting in the Chinese gallery with the 6th Century stone steles, I asked Julius to imitate the various mudras (sacred hand gestures) of the Buddhist figures we inspected from throughout Asia. He was quick and accurate with his fingers; and later, when we took refreshments, he repeated them for my camera. Although he is very verbal and full of questions, he did not need a reason for the mudras.
   I saved my favorite Buddhist sculpture until the last. When we approached the Guanyin statue, instinctively Julius sat on the floor and gazed silently. So I joined him.
   I know this statue well. Once I spent most of an hour lecturing on it. I expected to say a few things about it to Julius. His dad and I discussed a few points, such as whether it is male or female or transcends gender. Julius simply sat.
   The most important thing that happened was wordless. Beyond business reasons, understanding the news or other uses we may make of opening our minds to other cultures, maybe what really counts, in any faith, is the wordless sense of the holy.