Playing catch up

Catching up with some stuff from when I was away:

1. Locally, Ramapo’s first “ultra-Orthodox” police officer has filed a bias claim against the town and some officers, claiming that she was discriminated against because of her religion.

Baile J. Glauber, 31, who was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community, says in her complaint that she has been repeatedly questioned about her religion by police brass.

Glauber is often referred to as “Hasidic” or “ultra-Orthodox,” but we really know little about her since she has not talked publically since becoming a cop last year.

Anything having to do with Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox Jews in Rockland County draws a tremendous amount of interest. Judging by the comments at the end of my colleague Steve Lieberman’s article, this holds true when it comes to Officer Glauber.

2. After years of study and deliberation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided to allow gays and lesbians who live in committed, same-sex relationships to serve as clergy.

The move is no great surprise, but another step toward the gradual acceptance of gays and lesbians in the mainline Protestant world.

“We’re going to be living in tension and ambiguity for a longer time, partly because the culture has shifted,” David Steinmetz, a Duke Divinity School professor of Christian history, told the AP.

So what happens now? Will the ELCA, which has seen its membership drop from 5.3 million to 4.7 million, get smaller, thrive, break up or what?

Columnist Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News outlines three possible scenarios, but favors this one:

*****

The ELCA will continue to decline, while more conservative churches will probably prosper in the short run. But the demographic wave on homosexuality is real, and it’s going to impact conservative churches in a big way over the coming decades. But secularism — that is, being unchurched and happy with it — is also a rising trend among younger Americans. Liberalization on the gay issue ought to in theory help more tolerant congregations attract people, but in practice, it’s going to be a wash because significantly fewer of these people are going to care about belonging to any church at all in the future.

*****

3. Much more quietly, the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA voted to enter into a “full communion” agreement with the United Methodist Church (which already did so).

What does this mean? It means that each mainline denomination recognizes the other’s baptism, Eucharist, and ministry.

It’s not a merger by any stretch, but does say that there is not much that divides the two Christians camps.

At the local level, mainline churches already work closely in many communities. Most have much in common in terms of theology and their basic world views, so the denominations are really catching up with their local communities.

That’s ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson on the left, hugging it out with United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer.

What I read on my summer vacation

I’m back from vacation.

Lots of beach time. Good weather. Lots of reading. Thankful all around.

I’ve gotten quite a few emails about reports of big cuts coming here at LoHud/The Journal News. I don’t know much, but more information is to come within days.

Last summer, I wrote a bit about the books I read on vacation — and their religious content — and got a nice response.

So I’ll do it again.

This year, I started with Ian McEwan’s last novel, On Chesil Beach. Not much religious content. McEwan is a pretty outspoken non-believer. But he’s one heck of a writer. The story, about the Worst Wedding Night Ever, includes a few passing references to religion as a family heirloom that one is happy to lose.

Then I moved on to Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye from back in 1953. I’m not a mystery fan, but I’ve read so many references to Chandler over the years that I wanted to give him a shot. The man also had a way with words, even if I could barely keep up with the plot. I loved his description of gritty California from back at a time when no one understood why the Dodgers would move there. No religious highlights to speak of.

Third, I read a biography of the late, great bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. I love the blues and have long been mesmerized by the Wolf’s impossibly gravely voice and his almost manic singing style. The book — Moanin’ at Midnight, by Mark Hoffman and James Segrest — tells the story of how young Chester Burnett grew up illiterate and abandoned before finding his way as a musician. He was rejected by his mother, who refused to reconcile with her son because he sang “the devil’s music.”

Unlike many blues singers, the Wolf did not have much of a Gospel background. He didn’t have much use for church, in fact. By most accounts, though, he was a better man than many of his contemporaries who did start off singing in church. He was haunted, though, by his estrangement from his mother.

One interesting passage: When the Wolf died in 1976, his son claimed to have heard his father calling him: “He just called me from the grave to bring him some water. And from the Bible speaking, that’s hell-bound.”

Then I went back to fiction — and church — with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer for fiction. The story is written in the form of a letter from a dying minister to his young son. In his letter, the Rev. John Ames covers it all: family and faith, sin and forgiveness, life and death. You come away feeling that you know Ames better than some real folks you’ve known all your life. He is honest in a way that you can be when you’re writing a letter that will not be read until long after you’re outta here.

Ames writes about so many components of a pastor’s life and includes so many meditations on the meaning of day-to-day living that it’s hard to pick a section or two to highlight. How about this:

*****

“The moon looks wonderful in the warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point.

It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this. I believe I see a place for it in my thoughts on Hagar and Ishmael. Their time in the wilderness seems like a specific moment of divine Providence within the whole providential regime of Creation.”

*****

Then I needed a break. So I read a sports book, A Few Seconds of Panic, about a 43-year-old sportswriter “trying out” to be a kicker for the Denver Broncos. A fun read from Stephan Fatsis. Not much religion, but some. It turns out that Denver’s real kicker, Jason Elam (now an Atlanta Falcon), is a devout Christian who spends his off-seasons studying theology. His goal was to be prepared to bring the Good News to followers of all the major, non-Christian religions.

On my last day at the beach, I read the first 80 pages or so of Mark Twain’s travelogue Following the Equator. Quirky and interesting, like so much of Twain’s stuff. But the book belonged to someone else, so I’m not likely to finish it any time soon. Maybe on another vacation….

Eat. Pray. Eat some more.

Father Robert Morris, the pastor at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church in White Plains for three years or so, is trying to strengthen a multicultural parish that’s going through a period of transition.

So he scheduled a fundraising carnival for Wednesday through Saturday (Aug. 19-22), from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. each night.

People love church carnivals, you know.

But in addition, he walked into a bunch of White Plains restaurants himself and asked the owners to donate some delicacies for a “food court” at the carnival.

People love to each good food at carnivals, you know.

“My biggest challenge was not finding restaurants to participate, it was finishing all the food that the restaurant owners fed me during my visit,” he said.

The carnival will run from 6 to 11 each night, with 5 different restaurants showing off their stuff each evening. You’ll also have the usual rides, casino, entertainment and other summertime fare.

On Thursday, Aug. 20, which happens to be the Feast of St. Bernard, a 5 p.m. liturgy — led by Bishop Gerald Walsh, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary — will proceed the carnival.

Eat. Pray. Eat some more.

That strange Israel/televangelist connection

Benny Hinn, the controversial Pentecostal televangelist who claims to have healed thousands during his crusades, has a new book about the Middle East.

Hinn was born in Jaffa, Israel, raised as an Orthodox Christian. He became an evangelical in his teens.

Like many evangelical “leaders,” Hinn is very pro-Israel. A description of the book from its publisher includes:

*****

In Blood in the Sand, Hinn gives readers a deep understanding of the threats Israel faces and reflects on his lifetime of diligent research and analysis. This book, which demonstrates Hinn’s love for the Holy Land, offers previously unpublished personal photos and eyewitness accounts of the harsh reality Israelis face every day.  Often politically charged, this book offers Hinn’s educated insight and sobering projections to the future of the increasingly heated conflict.

*****

Some evangelical supporters of Israel, of course, have theological and not just political reasons for supporting Israel — believing that Israel will play a big part in the unfolding of the End Times.

Hinn says: “The world has its eyes focused on the political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but according to Scripture, the next step on God’s agenda is a mighty spiritual revival that will descend on Israel.”

Interestingly, the foreword for the book was written by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Many Israeli leaders are happy to have unqualified support for Israel from American evangelicals.

But you have to beleive that Olmert and others have absolutely no interest in what the Book of Revelation says about the End.

A tale of how Mormon leaders came to a papal prayer service in NYC

On April 18, 2008, I attended Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer service in New York City with more than 250 Christian leaders from just about every Christian tradition around.

I didn’t know, and I don’t remember reading anywhere, that two leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were there. In the second row.

There is a extremely interesting tale of the “behind the scenes” decision-making process that led to the seating of two Mormon leaders in the summer edition of Ecumenical Trends, published by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Garrison. It was written by Father James Massa, head of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Here’s the thing: Mormons consider themselves to be Christians. But the Catholic Church — and most mainstream Christian denominations — disagree.

For one thing, Mormons do not accept the Trinity. They believe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be three Gods who are “one in purpose,” but NOT one God in three persons.

So when the LDS church asked to be included in a papal event, the question facing Massa was: Which one?

Should he include them in the prayer service for Christians or a second meeting with representatives of non-Christian religions?

What a religious quandary!

Massa writes that the LDS leadership has been much more visible in recent years, working with other faiths on social and cultural issues. And Catholics and Mormons have a lot in common when it comes to issues of public morality, he notes.

The Bishops Conference asked the Vatican for advice, but was told that they were in a “better position than the Holy See to make the decision,” Massa writes.

He also writes:

*****

One member of my staff wisely counseled that I speak with the offices of key Orthodox and Evangelical leaders who might register the most discomfort knowing that they would be participating in the April 18 prayer service with Mormons. Such are the ironies of today’s ecumenical engagements: Officers for Catholic Bishops calling Orthodox hierarchs and Evangelical megapastors to make sure they have no strong objections to Mormons being invited to a prayer service with the Pope! The answer came back: “Yes, they can come. But don’t make them too prominent!”

*****

And so two members of the Quorum of the Twelve — the second-highest leadership body in the LDS church — were invited to the ecumenical prayer service for Christians.

Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder M. Russell Ballard sat in the second row at St. Joseph’s Church.

Massa concludes his engaging piece (Ecumenical Trends is not on-line, so you can’t read it) with this:

*****

Heaven may yet hold surprises even greater than was evident back in April 2008, when the Bishop of Rome called an assembly of Christians to prayer with the words: “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all”; and two Mormon elders, representing the first world religion to have arisen since Islam, responded: “And also with you.”

A ‘peace Mass’ this Sunday to remember Hiroshima & Nagasaki

Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains — an activist church on all sorts of “progressive” causes — will have a special “peace Mass” Sunday morning at 10 a.m. to remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A flyer explains:

*****

Sunday, August 9, is a very special Sunday at Memorial United Methodist Church. Our worship service will be like a “peace mass,” led by the Walkabout Clearwater Chorus and we will unveil the 2009 Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibitions in the USA, an exhibit of over 60 pictures, historic and more recent, from the Hisoshima Peace Memorial Museum. Worship is at 10 a.m. and our Peace Exhibit opens right after worship at 11:30 a.m.

*****

What might such a service look like? Here’s the program:

*****

Entrance:    Sword & Shield
Confession:   I Ain’t Afraid
Penitential:    Music of Healing
Gloria:    This Little Light/Glory Glory
Old Testament:    Turn, Turn, Turn
Gospel Acclamation:  Alleluia
Creed:    Simple Faith
Offeratory:    Siahamba
Holy Holy:    Bugle Call of Peace
Sign of Peace:    Peace, Salaam, Shalom
Sermon:    Christmas in the Trenches
Lamb of God:    Healing River
Communion:    Trilogy
Recessional:    Peace Must Come
Postlude:    Strangest Dream

*****

The program also explains:

*****

For the sermon Bruce Taylor, who makes guitars for Pete Seeger, will sing John McCutcheon’s Christmas in the Trenches. It is a moving story of a truce which began on Christmas Eve 24 December 1914, when German troops began decorating the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium, for Christmas. They began by placing candles on trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas Carols, most notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops in the trenches across from them responded by singing English carols.

*****

The Rev. Joe Agne, pastor of the church, told me: “I was a member of the (Fellowship of Reconciliation) delegation that went in 1995, the 50 anniversary of the bombings, to apologize to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Peace Memorial in Hiroshima in an incredible experience. These pictures, all part of that experience will be up at our church all of August. They are exhibited in a part of the church where parents can decide whether their children should have access.”

Dylan does Christmas

Who says Bob Dylan’s “Christian years” are in the past?

The pop bard is recording a Christmas album.

Can you imagine Dylan croaking “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” It’s on the album!

According to Bullypulpit.com, which broke the story, Dylan has also put down “Must Be Santa,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

It…must…be…Sannnnn….tttaaaaa….

Scott Marshall, author of a forthcoming book, “God and Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life,” says: “A Christmas album by Bob Dylan in the pipeline doesn’t really shock me. At first glance it may sound bizarre, but I don’t think Dylan cares much about what his detractors might make of it. Dylan still sings songs from ‘Slow Train Coming’ to this day and he’s both never renounced being Jewish or renounced his experience with Jesus some three decades ago. He remains enigmatic and this will probably be talked about for years to come.”

Billboard notes: “Dylan, who was born Robert Zimmerman, will join a music business tradition of Jewish artists who release Christmas-themed albums, including Neil Diamond and Phil Spector. Irving Berlin, who wrote the yuletide classic “White Christmas,” was also Jewish.”

But is Dylan still Jewish? Still Christian? I’ve heard some interesting hints, but…no one knows for sure but the man.

Forgetting the flames

Do you believe in hell?

Fifty nine percent of Americans do, according to a poll by the Pew Forum. But 74 percent believe in heaven.

In 2001, 71 percent believed in hell, according to a Gallup poll back then.

What explains the drop in hell belief? I have no idea.

A recent article on the phenomenon by my friend Charles Honey for Religion News Service included this:

*****

It was easier to believe in hell 20 years ago when missionaries tried to convert people in far-flung places, (Mike) Wittmer (professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) says. In today’s global village, many live next to good, non-Christian neighbors and wonder why an all-powerful, loving God wouldn’t eventually empty out hell, Wittmer says.

“I’ve noticed in the last five years how that view is making inroads even in conservative churches, whereas five years ago it wasn’t even uttered or discussed,” he adds.

Americans’ optimism and tolerance for diversity complements a growing view of God as benevolent, not judgmental, other experts say.

“They believe everyone has an equal chance, at this life and the next,” said Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College and the author of “Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.”

“So hell is disappearing, absolutely.”

*****

Another RNS article asked pastors how they teach about hell these days.

Here’s a snippet:

*****
“I think it’s such a difficult and important biblical topic,” said Kurt Selles, director of the Global Center at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School. “There’s a big change that’s taken place as far as evangelicals not wanting to be as exclusive.”

At the recent annual Beeson Pastors School, Selles led two workshops to discuss “Whatever happened to hell?” He asked how many of the pastors had ever preached a sermon on hell. Nobody had, he said.

“I think it’s something people want to avoid,” he said. “I understand why. It’s a difficult topic.”

Woodstock II

So yesterday I blogged about the provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary having performed at Woodstock as a founding member of Sha Na Na.

Today I have yet another Woodstock item.

My colleague Rich Liebson, who is overseeing our package on the 40th anniversary of the festival, met a guy who has numerous copies of the Woodstock program — a program that never made it to Woodstock.

Turns out, a truck carrying stacks of programs to the festival never made it. Years later, Rich’s source bought them up.

I have one in front of me.

It is an artful, beautifully done program — very much of the time — that includes psychedelic graphics and photos of the main acts on the bill.

The cover is a picture of dandelions in the grass, with the words: “3 days of peace & music”

But I bring it to your attention because of the back cover, which includes a quotation from the I Ching, a very, very old (as in 5,000 years plus) Chinese spiritual text.

What did you expect, a Psalm? The Sermon on the Mount? It was Woodstock, after all.

Anyway, here is the quotation:

*****

“Joy and relief make themselves felt. So, too, music has power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of obscure emotions. The enthusiasm of the heart express itself involuntarily in a burst of song, in dance, and rhythmic movement of the body. From immemorial times the inspiring effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts and draws them together has mystified mankind.”