Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

What it means to be a crunchy conservative

First published Oct. 3, 2016

There are many mansions in the American conservative house, and some of them are old and funky and smell like a pot of organic mustard greens cooking down on the stove.

— Rod Dreher, from “Crunchy Cons”

It wasn’t until I was 45 that I started to think of myself as a conservative.

At heart, I had always been one, even in my 20s, when I called myself a democratic socialist, traveled to Nicaragua, read Hunter Thompson and listened to Neil Young.

I still listen to Neil Young.

Like many of my contemporaries, I had the idea that to be a conservative meant to be a belligerent neocon on foreign policy, a self-centered libertarian on economics and a closed-minded culture warrior on social matters.

I was wrong.

Although I’ve never met him — and he’s several years younger than I am — Rod Dreher had a big influence on my thinking after I had left the Democratic Party over its ideological rigidity, joined an Anglican church and become the managing editor of a daily newspaper.

Dreher’s book that introduced me to a different way of understanding this venerable philosophy had a title that could have been a chapter: “Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party).”

Crunchy conservatism, Dreher explained, is not a political program, but rather a “practical sensibility” based on what the wisdom of tradition teaches is best for families and communities.

It is about conserving those things that are good and true.

This summer, I read the book again, and was struck by how much things have changed in the 10 years since it was written.

What a different time 2005 was. George W. Bush was president, Pope John Paul II was succeeded by the even more orthodox Benedict XVI, the Defense of Marriage Act was still the law of the land, legal recreational marijuana was a pipe dream, we were engaged in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how inept big government could be, the housing market was soaring, fueled by bad loan practices, and almost no one could foresee the financial meltdown that was coming.

I’m convinced that if the Republican Party had gone in the direction that Dreher and others suggested, rather than toward the hard-line libertarianism and isolationism of the tea party movement, it would have been able to compete with the Democratic Party for the hearts and minds of younger Americans and could have made a positive difference in our society.

Dreher’s crunchy (read: earthy) conservatism is traditional Burkean conservatism for a new generation. Edmund Burke, an 18th century Dubliner and British statesman, rejected abstract Enlightenment reason and “natural law” as guiding lights. All of us, he wrote, are influenced by our cultural traditions, and while individual liberty is important, community is no less so. We belong to one another, and that affects who were are.

Burke wrote that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. We must learn from those who have gone before us and not rely solely on ourselves. And we must rely on the greater wisdom of the Supreme Being as handed down through the ages.

Mainstream liberalism and conservatism are both essentially materialistic, Dreher argues, and we should not be surprised that neither has led to the improvement of our national character. He describes his book as a rebuke to both the economic individualism of the right and the moral individualism of the left. Its purpose is to explore ways to live out conservative values in a culture that seeks to separate us from our values, families and communities.

In less than 250 pages, “Crunchy Cons” uses Dreher’s own experiences as well as those of people across the country who are living countercultural lives that are socially, spiritually and physically healthier than the ways of the dominant culture. He looks at organic farming and the slow food movement, new urban planning, walkable neighborhoods and aesthetically pleasing architectural design such as bungalows, the attraction of liturgical Christianity to a generation bored with “relevant” contemporary worship, and the understanding that conservation is the essence of conservatism.

“Crunchy Cons” was not a bestseller and is now out of print. It won’t make a list of the most influential conservative tomes, like William Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” or Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind.” But it influenced me more than any other book in my evolution into a conservative, and to see that I had been one all along. I recommend it to others.

You probably won’t be able to find it, though, unless you come across it at a secondhand bookstore or on Amazon, so in the weeks to come, I want to share a little more of it and hope it will stir your imagination, as it did mine.

Marriage is inseparable from religion

First published July 25, 2015.

It was Jesus, not Jefferson, who first advocated separation of church and state when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In other words, don’t give the state what belongs to the One who has authority over everything.

Paul, a persecutor of Christians until he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, wrote that all authority is ordained of God, and Luke warned that whenever political leaders overstep their bounds and misuse their God-given authority, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

I quote Scripture only so that readers understand the bedrock beliefs that inform the political thinking of traditional Christians. We are not theocrats, but we do believe, as the Founders did, that the rights we have come from our Creator, and that there’s a higher law than the Constitution.

Now that’s clear, let me turn to marriage — a subject I feel inadequate to write about because I’ve never been a husband, but I have seen unions stand the test of time because of faith.

One of the oddest remarks I’ve read since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell vs. Hodges decision was from Sarah Sturgill of Bardstown, who was denied a license to marry the woman she loves. She was quoted in this newspaper as saying she believes religion has no part in marriage and should be entirely separate from government.

Religion separate from marriage? Marriage is older than either church or state and was instituted by God as a union between man and woman.

One could no more separate marriage from religion that separate baptism from religion. That’s why so many Christians have a problem with the ruling on same-sex marriage. If the decision had entitled all couples to civil unions, most Christians wouldn’t have a problem with it. Render unto Caesar. But marriage isn’t a contract, it’s a sacred covenant.

The Kentucky Standard’s editorial board chastened Nelson County Judge-Executive Dean Watts for saying he would avoid discriminating against LGBT couples by not marrying any couples. It is not required of judges, he explained, and performing same-sex weddings violates his Catholic convictions. The editorial said that a wedding before a judge or magistrate is “a purely civil procedure.” It is not. The words and the structure of the ceremony are similar to a wedding performed in a church before “God and these witnesses.” One civil ceremony used by LaRue County, invokes God no fewer then eight times, and the judge marries the couple “according to the ordinance of God,” not a county ordinance. The one used by Hardin County acknowledges, in Matthew 19:4-6, that marriage was instituted by God in the beginning.

Our editorial also said Watts’ “personal belief that couples of the same sex should not be able to marry” is a form of discrimination. That’s true, but it is not discrimination in a legal sense.

Is the secular agenda now to require everyone to think alike on this issue? If so, that’s an illiberal way of looking at liberty in a pluralistic society.

While marriage is inseparable from religion, maybe it is time to separate marriage from government. How the state got involved in an institution that is essentially religious is too complicated to explain here. But I believe the right compromise is one advocated a decade ago by liberal evangelicals and recently adopted by libertarian conservatives. It is to distinguish between marriage and civil unions.

Let those religious groups that support LGBT weddings, such as the Episcopal Church and Reformed Judaism, perform them, and let the vast majority of religions that oppose them, such as the Catholic and United Methodist churches, Islam and Orthodox Judaism, opt out.

Whether or not there is a religious ceremony, let all couples, straight or gay, go to the courthouse and sign contracts guaranteeing them the financial and legal benefits of married couples.

Just don’t call that marriage because it is not.

Easter and the hope of resurrection

First published March 26, 2016

When my grandmother was old and widowed, I would visit her almost every weekend. She had a sharp mind and a wry sense of humor. I enjoyed her company.

I don’t think she knew the word “goodbye.” When I’d get up to leave, she would tell me that she would see me again.

The last time I talked with her was when she was dying. She had been on a respirator when I visited her at the hospital, but she was brought out of her drug-induced slumber so she could say her goodbyes.

Only she didn’t say goodbyes.

She was in good spirits and ready to move on. There wasn’t a hint of fear in her voice, only peace. And when the conversation ended, she said she would see me again.

For Christians, death isn’t the end, it’s only a transition, and it is not the last one.

I believe heaven is a way station for the righteous until the resurrection.

Many Christians, including most members of my family, disagree. They point to Scripture that says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Yet in that same passage, 2nd Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that we will not remain disembodied spirits; rather, we will have new bodies that do not grow old or tired or waste away.

This is what St. Paul writes: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and … then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”

Easter is when we celebrate the Savior’s victory over evil, sin (ours) and death. If we see Jesus’ crucifixion only as an example of sacrificial love, we’re missing the point. The Messiah’s resurrection after his atoning death on the cross is the fulcrum of history, the moment in time when everything is changed, the decisive battle in the spiritual warfare that rages still, but will end in triumph when the King returns and sets everything to rights. Until then, we are living in the new age that has already begun.

Some scoff at the notion that Jesus rose from the dead, but as a historical event, it is better documented than others of antiquity that we take for granted.

It is believed St. Paul’s Epistles were written just 10 to 15 years after Jesus’ death, when many who witnessed the risen Christ walking and talking were still alive and could tell about it.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that after Jesus was raised, as the Scriptures had foretold, he appeared to Peter, then to the other disciples, and after that, to more than 500 Christians, “most of whom are still living, though some have died.”

As Jesus was raised so will his followers be raised, and the earth will be cleansed, restored, renewed.

In Revelation 21, Jesus — as he is revealed in St. John’s vision —  says, “Behold, I am making all things new!”

The idea of a disembodied existence comes from the ancient Greeks, not the Jews, whose saga is the foundation of the Christian story, the “true myth,” as C.S. Lewis called it. When we recite in the creeds, “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” we are not only referring to the soul.

My understanding of the traditional belief in bodily transformation and restoration of the world is something I owe in part to N.T. Wright, a Church of England bishop and probably the world’s leading New Testament scholar. In his book, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church,” he explains, based on the Bible and church tradition, that there is a heaven, but it is not our final home.

When the Bible says that in the Father’s house are many dwellings, the Greek world used for dwellings is monai, which means a resting place on the way to someplace else. And in the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus tells the brigand on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise.” Yet in those same verses, the condemned man asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This implies that the kingdom to come is in the future, in the renewed heaven and earth.

That thought should give comfort to all who have surrendered themselves to the Father through his Son, who gave his life to save us and redeem Creation.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic whose fiction parallels the true story of the universal struggle between good and evil and the restoration of the world. In his epic novel, “The Lord of the Rings,” Sam Gamgee, the hobbit, sees Gandalf returned from the dead, strong, radiant and transformed.

Sam can’t believe his eyes, and asks Gandalf: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Christianity’s answer to that question is yes, it will, in the fullness of time.

That is the hope of the resurrection and the reason we celebrate Easter.

First freedom isn’t a secondary human right

First published July 11, 2015

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, there has been a growing chorus calling for the resignation or removal of county officials in Kentucky who cannot, for reasons of faith, support same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Gov. Steve Beshear joined those voices, telling Casey County Clerk Casey Davis that he should issue marriage licenses to all who may now marry or step aside — in which case the governor would appoint someone to fill his position until there is another election.

While Davis’ grandstanding approach has gotten the most attention, 57 county clerks last week signed a letter asking the governor to call a special session to address the problem of how to protect their religious liberty while also complying with the court’s ruling, which made gay marriage legal in every state. This was after Beshear had already turned down such a request by Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, a leader of the governor’s own party.

Beshear said the issue can wait until 2016. Meanwhile, nearly half the county clerks in the state, who have until now faithfully executed their responsibilities as public officials, are faced with the choice of either participating in something that violates their consciences or giving up their careers and turning their backs on those who elected them, in most cases knowing they were people of faith.

It is a conundrum the justices created when they decided by a 5-4 margin to create a new civil right by changing the definition of marriage that has existed since the beginning of civilization. It comes as no surprise, yet it comes with questions that must be addressed regarding the place of faith in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian ethics and religious freedom as well as on Enlightenment ideas about the nature of humanity and liberty.

Although our nation’s founders were men of diverse views — from Thomas Paine, a Deist who despised Christianity, to Patrick Henry, who was a devout Christian — they were able to agree that all of us are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights …”

In other words, all rights come from God, and so does all political authority, according to the Bible in Romans 13:1. Those who oppose same-sex marriage make the case that God cannot grant a right that is contrary to his perfect order. And in Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus — who was the Word of God incarnated (John 1:1) — teaches that God was the author of marriage from the beginning. Quoting the ancient Jewish scriptures (Genesis 2:24), Christ said that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

The Bible is also unambiguous in describing homoerotic relationships as sinful, although I believe we are guilty of the ultimate sin of pride if we believe those relationships are worse than other sins or that any of us is without sin.

Conservatives conveniently forget that the sin of Sodom, according to the prophet Ezekiel, was that the city’s people had become “overfed and unconcerned” and “did not help the poor and needy.”

That’s something we might want to keep in mind when we’re stuffing ourselves full of fried chicken and potato salad at a church social and grousing about our taxes paying for food for the children of the working poor.

As the United States becomes an increasingly secular society, more Americans conflate Thomas Jefferson’s limited idea of the idea of separation of church and state with the broader postmodern notion that religious beliefs have no place in the public sphere. Not only is that not possible, but if it were, it would be discriminatory.

“Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital,” said Stephen L. Carter of Yale, a prominent constitutional scholar.

And John Adams, who played an eminent role when this nation was conceived in liberty, wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

At the heart of Christianity is the commandment that we must “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and there is no caveat that excepts our LGBT neighbors. And at the core of American democracy is the principle that all of us “are created equal” and endowed by the Creator with human rights.

In balancing LGBT rights with religious liberty, though, we should not forget that the First Amendment right of religious freedom is first for a reason.

Hyperbole and hysteria in Indiana

First published Saturday, April 4, 2015

ABC 57 in South Bend, Ind., reported April 1 that a high school coach was suspended after she tweeted that she was going to burn down Memories Pizza in nearby Walkerton for refusing to cater gay weddings.

Walkerton’s police chief said his department had investigated the threat and informed prosecutors, and he asked that folks follow the law — no fooling.

Tuesday, the TV station aired an interview with Memories manager Crystal O’ Connor and her father, Kevin, about Gov. Mike Pence’s signing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Crystal said that if the family were asked to provide pizza for a gay wedding, they would have to refuse based on their Christian beliefs.

Kevin O’ Connor said sexuality is a choice and that he chooses to be heterosexual.

To its credit, ABC 57 tacked on a footnote at the end of the story saying the family would not refuse a gay couple that came inside the restaurant to eat.

That’s a distinction most who are outraged about the law don’t make — between refusing to serve persons because of who they are and refusing to service events.

Some Christians believe that catering a same-sex wedding amounts to approval of, and participation in, something they consider sinful based on what the Bible says about homosexual acts.

Discrimination against persons is unconscionable and should be illegal. However, if the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion means anything, refusal to participate in events that violate one’s conscience should be lawful.

According to Pence, Indiana’s new law doesn’t give anyone a license to discriminate, and he wants the legislature to amend the law to make that clear.

Indiana’s law, which takes effect July1, is almost identical to those in 20 other states, including Kentucky, and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It differs from the U.S. law by defining persons to include churches and corporations, and providing a defense in civil actions involving private parties.

Basically, Indiana’s states that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except in furthering “a compelling governmental interest,” and if it must impose a burden, it must use “the least restrictive means.”

Secularists are outraged over the refusal of a religious minority to accept their redefinition of the sacrament of marriage and are willing to discriminate against anyone who does not adopt their view.

One state legislator in Oklahoma offered a bill to brand Christian businesses that want to opt out of promoting same-sex relationships so that others might shun them and destroy their livelihood.

It seems the only acceptable bigotry today is against traditional Christians.

One reason is that most don’t know what traditional Christianity is. Many think the free exercise of religion means only that people are free to worship inside their churches or synagogues on their own time, but should keep their religious beliefs to themselves. They want to force Christians into the closet.

Rod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative, wrote that orthodox Christians should retreat to a redoubt they can defend.

“If by ‘Christianity’ we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it,” he wrote. “We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order.”

I strongly disagree. Being a Christian is personal, but not private. It is a 24/7 thing, not something reserved for an hour on Sunday mornings. And if you believe in Christ’s Great Commission, as I do, then it isn’t something one keeps to oneself.

I also believe in the Great Commandment, which is that we should love God foremost and love our neighbors no less than ourselves. There is no caveat exempting gay or agnostic neighbors.

I wouldn’t discriminate against anyone, but I wouldn’t tell others they must participate in things they don’t feel right about.

In a pluralistic society, religious liberty must not only be tolerated but respected.

Modern martyr Jonathan Myrick Daniels

In the film “Selma,” released early this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights marches in Alabama, one of the most disturbing scenes is the brutal murder of young Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Baptist deacon.

The scene is shown as an event that precipitated those marches.

Jackson, however, wasn’t the only clergyman who was killed in the events surrounding those marches in support of passage of the Voting Rights Act. Another young Christian martyr, who is honored with a memorial here in Nelson County, was Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a Harvard-educated white Episcopalian who was gunned down 50 years ago this week.

In 2012, I mentioned Daniels’ memorial in an illustrated column I wrote for The Kentucky Standard’s People & Places page about an autumn day hike at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

In a forest glade on the grounds of the Trappist monastery near New Haven is the beautiful, life-sized reproduction of “The Garden of Gethsemani” by renowned American sculptor Walker Hancock. It shows a kneeling Jesus agonizing over his impending crucifixion while nearby his disciples Peter, John and James, lie asleep, unaware of his fear and suffering.

The story of the artwork is included on a plaque near the sleeping disciples. It attributes the sculptures to Hancock, mentions that they were donated by William Coolidge of Boston, Mass., and says only that they were dedicated to the memory of Daniels. According to the plaque, he was killed in Alabama on Aug. 20, 1965. (Several online sources give the date of his death as Aug. 14, but the date on his gravestone is the same as that on the plaque.)

The plaque also contains these words as a reminder that the one holy Catholic and Apostolic church includes all followers of Jesus, not only those of any particular denomination: “May we always remember that the church exists to lead men to Christ in various ways, but it is always the same Christ.”

The story of Daniels’ killing is told in more detail in a book I read this summer by Gene Robinson, a retired Episcopal bishop from Kentucky.

According to Robinson’s account, Daniels was born in 1939 in Keene, N.H., and while studying at Harvard, experienced a conviction to become a priest. He was to have been ordained in 1966. But in 1965, he heeded a call by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for students and others to come to the South and join in the march to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital.

After the Selma marches, Daniels chose to spend the summer in Alabama and advocate on behalf of disenfranchised African-Americans.

On Aug. 13, according to Robinson, he and other protesters in Fort Deposit, Ala., were arrested and jailed in nearby Hayneville.

After their release, Daniels, a priest and two black youths went to a grocery store to buy Cokes. Tom Coleman, a highway worker and special deputy, was angry with the demonstrators and came toward them with a shotgun leveled at 17-year-old Ruby Sales.

Daniels pushed the girl to the ground and took the full blast of the gun himself. He died instantly.

The priest was shot in the back but escaped with the two youths.

In 1991, the Episcopal Church honored Daniels with a special day of remembrance in its Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, on Aug. 14.

Following is the collect for the day:

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The real St. Patrick — a slave for Christ

Published March 14, 2014

Near the entrance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin a simple plaque marks the location of the well, where, legend has it, Patrick baptized converts to the Christian faith in A.D. 450.

I visited that Church of Ireland cathedral while in Dublin in 2010, and it brought back memories of worshipping, 10 years earlier, at another Anglican cathedral, in Belfast, where there was a big, beautiful mosaic of Patrick — or Padraig in Irish. The saint is said to have first landed on Erin’s green shores at Downpatrick (thus the name), in Northern Ireland, and in that town, both the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals are named for him.

We have all heard the myths of Patrick — how he drove the snakes from Ireland (there were never any there), and used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity. There are fantastical tales of his use of magic, such as the time when he changed his shape, and that of his companions, into deer to elude capture by fierce pagan warriors.

When I was in Ireland five years ago, I walked the Hill of Tara, where ancient Druids offered human sacrifices to their false gods. It was on the nearby Hill of Slane that Patrick, in defiance of the high king of Tara, lit the paschal fire of Easter that signaled to the king and his druids that the light of Christ had come to Ireland and would never be extinguished.

This tale, whether or not it is factual, comes closer to illustrating the truth about who Patrick was — not a wizard, but a bishop and evangelist.

As the 15-year-old son of an aristocratic Celtic Briton who was both a Roman official and a Catholic deacon, Patrick had been captured, probably near the River Severn, by pagan Irish raiders and taken across the sea to be a slave. He believed this was his punishment for a sin he committed, but in his writings he doesn’t say what the sin was. While he was a slave, his faith in God grew, and while tending his sheep herds, he prayed sometimes as many as 100 times a day, from morning until night, according to the written record he left behind.

Patrick escaped from Ireland, but had a dream, which led him to believe he was being called back to the Babylon of his captivity to spread the gospel. After being educated to become a priest and bishop, he did eventually go back and served the church as a missionary for the rest of his days. His writings consist of his “Confession,” similar to St. Augustine’s, and a letter to a British chieftain Coroticus, excommunicating him and his soldiers for slaughtering Christian converts in Hibernia (Ireland) on the day of their baptism.

I was preparing for a short mission trip of my own to Northern Ireland with Habitat for Humanity in 2000 when I read “The Spirituality of St. Patrick” by Lesley Whiteside, a thin paperback published in Dublin by Morehouse Publishing in 1996. It is an explication of Patrick’s writings. Here is an excerpt from his best-known work. It gives us a better understanding of the real Patrick and why he matters.

St. Patrick’s confession

The Spirit elsewhere is a witness that even uncultivated ways have been created by the Most High — I am, then, first and foremost unlearned, an unlettered exile who cannot plan for the future. But this much I know for sure. Before I had to suffer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall. I must, therefore, speak publicly in order to thank the Lord for such wonderful gifts.

Who was it who called me, fool that I am, from among those who are considered wise, expert in law, powerful in speech and general affairs? He passed over these for me, a mere outcast. He inspired me with fear, reverence and patience, to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me. The love of Christ indeed gave me to them to serve them humbly and sincerely for my entire lifetime if I am found worthy.

Christianity, Islam and understanding

Published Feb. 28, 2015

Following the horrific murders of innocent Americans by jihadists, the president went on television and said “Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country” and should be respected and not feared or blamed for what happened.

Millions of Muslims in America and around the world were just as “appalled and outraged” as the rest of us were by those evil acts, he said.

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that,” the president said. “Islam is peace.”

Some of you might be surprised to learn that the president who made those remarks was George W. Bush, and that he made them less than a week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

President Barack Obama has continued the war on terror. He gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden, took out many of Al Qaeda’s top leaders with drone strikes and carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is neither Islamic in the normal sense nor a state.

Like Bush, Obama has been careful to make a distinction between ordinary Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s people, and the religious extremists whose understanding of Islam is as different from that of most Muslims as the Ku Klux Klan’s understanding of Christianity is from that of most Christians.

Speaking at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Obama took what I thought was a Christian stance against pride (the original sin) when he said that we shouldn’t “get on our high horse” and think that violence committed in the name of religion is unique to others. He mentioned Christian attempts to justify atrocities committed during the Inquisition, the Crusades, American slavery and the Jim Crow era in the South by saying that throughout history, some people have “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

It didn’t matter that he made this statement in the context of his strong condemnation of the Islamic State as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism” against religious minorities, although he might have strengthened his argument if he had specifically mentioned that Christians have been the minorities most victimized by this cult.

All some listeners heard was that he was bringing up the Crusades again (as liberal secularists almost always do), and that he was comparing some Christians to Islamic jihadists.

Within moments, what was trending on social media were the same tired untruths about the president having been brought up as a Muslim and being anti-Christian. It doesn’t matter to these people that he never knew his father, a Muslim convert to atheism before Barack was born, nor that it was a Catholic school, not an Islamic one, that the future president attended in Indonesia for two years. And there was the same tired arguments about the true nature of Islam.

Many conservative evangelical Christians don’t want to hear that jihadism is an aberration. Misled by celebrities such as Bill O’ Reilly and the Rev. Franklin Graham — who has called Islam an “evil religion” — they think Muslims are the enemies of Christians.

I’m a conservative evangelical Christian myself, and I think Graham and those who think like he does are wrong.

It’s true that Muslims don’t believe that Jesus, whom they call Isa, is God incarnate, or the “Son of God.” Nor do they believe he was executed on a Roman cross.

Based on what I’ve read from those like Ihsan Bagby, a scholar of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, and Shirin Taber, an Iranian-American evangelical Christian and author of “Muslims Next Door,” I was surprised by the similarities between the two faiths.

Here are a few.

Muslims believe Jesus is the Messiah — the herald of the last days — who will usher in a kingdom of peace and intercede for his people at the time of judgment.

They revere his mother, Mary, and believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

They believe he was the only man who never sinned, and that he performed miracles, including raising people from the dead.

They believe the first five books of the Bible, the Psalms and the New Testament are God’s “inspired word,” and they refer to Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” indicating a common religious heritage among all the Abrahamic faiths.

“Allah” is the Arab word for God, and it is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims.

I’m astounded when I hear some people say Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians and Jews, or that they worship Mohammed, the Prophet, or that Allah is a “moon god,” or some other nonsense.

Maybe, before we are critical of someone else’s religion, we should first try to understand it a little better — not that we should ignore differences.

I believe, as C.S. Lewis did, that there is some truth in all religions, and that, where other religions differ from orthodox Christianity, they are in error. But every one of us is in error to some extent. As the Apostle Paul said, we see through a glass darkly.

I also believe that in discussing matters of faith, we should be open-minded and, perhaps even more importantly, openhearted.

Thomas Merton, who was certainly no syncretist, said: “If I insist on giving you my truth, and never stop to receive your truth in return, then there can be no truth between us.”

That seems to me the Christian way to have a dialogue with people of other faiths.

Lessons in faith from servants of the homeless

Published Feb. 20, 2015

Two out of three Sundays, my niece and I attend a Eucharist service in Lexington’s tony Chevy Chase neighborhood. The liturgy always ends with these words — “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”

Then we drive back, past stately old houses and leafy yards, bicyclists, bakeries and boutiques, and onto Winchester Road, past greasy diners and gas stations, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and street people, and a brick building with a large Latin cross.

I never knew what the building was until I went there recently with students from St. Catharine College. It’s an overnight shelter, the Community Inn, run by the Catholic Action Center, which also feeds, clothes and provides laundry service to the destitute at other facilities nearby.

In these places, saints and sinners love and serve the Lord by loving and serving those he called “the least of these.”

The St. Catharine students’ class on faith and homelessness is taught by Matthew Branstetter, professor of philosophy and religion, who volunteered for the Catholic Action Center while he was in seminary in Lexington and was changed by his encounters with the poor. Now he wants his students to consider how they are changed once they’ve looked into the faces of those in need, and consider questions such as whether charity is enough and what their religious traditions say about poverty and social justice.

Helping the hard-core homeless can be frustrating and humbling. I know. For many years, I led a group of volunteers from my church who served meals at Lexington’s Hope Center to drug addicts, mentally ill men and some who seemed normal. It was as discouraging to see new faces and wonder how they ended up there as it was to see the same old faces month after month for nearly a decade.

Some of the Hope Center’s guests were ingrates. Others were gracious, like the ragged man who held my eyes with his when I asked how he was and answered with sincerity, “I’m blessed. I really am.”

In that moment my own hurts and disappointments didn’t seem so important anymore.

Sojourners founder Jim Wallis said, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.”

Ginny Ramsey, Gary McKinley and Barry McGuffin are believers. They spoke to the class on Fridays in February. Ginny runs Catholic Action and often does battle with city officials on behalf of Lexington’s outcasts. Gary is a Purple Heart veteran and cook at Catholic Action’s kitchen and ministers to homeless veterans. Barry is a pastor who operates Bethany Haven, a transitional homeless shelter in Bardstown.

Something I’ve learned from these people — and I hope the students have learned too — is that that to effectively serve those who are broken, you have to look past “their hang-ups,” as Matt said, and see them as our neighbors.

Barry told us Bethany Haven’s success rate — which is defined as someone getting an income and a permanent place to live — is a little better than 50 percent. But he added, “I can’t dwell on the 48 percent who don’t succeed because that would be devastating.”

While Bethany Haven serves women and families as a transitional residence, there is no emergency shelter or homeless shelter for single men in Nelson County. Barry and others hope to change that.

The need is great. We have people living in caves and woods, and, as I described in a recent story, in their vehicles in the brutal cold.

Some local leaders I’ve talked with about the need for an emergency shelter, who have a heart for the poor, are concerned that the shelter would attract vagrants and undesirables from other counties. It would. But there are ways to coordinate efforts among social service groups and faith-based charities to make sure those people aren’t gaming the system, and there are leaders among us who know how to make that work.

As I write this on Ash Wednesday, I’m reminded that each of us has failed. The fact that others have made mistakes shouldn’t keep us from doing what we can to help them.

We’ve heard it said God only helps those who help themselves. Nothing could be further from the Gospel. God helps those who deserve nothing, and so should we. And sometimes our helping can be the spark that reignites hope in them that they can help themselves.

Christmas is a season to count our blessings

Published Dec. 19, 2014

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas …

Here in Kentucky, Christmas is more likely to be wet than white, but the meteorologists are predicting a big storm the morning of Dec.25, so one can only hope.

There’s something magical about snow — the crispness of the air, the way it carries scents like cedar and bourbon, the beauty of sunlight on a field of white.

Today is the first day of winter, and I don’t mind. I like all the seasons.

The Season of Advent, which is supposed to be a time to unwind and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, is an impossibly busy time for newspaper people, as it is for retailers and many others.

As I take a few minutes to write this, I’m exhausted from back-to-back interviews and working well into the night, and I think I may be coming down with the flu.

I’m looking forward to the Christmas season, which goes from Christmas Eve until Epiphany (Jan. 6), so that I can finally get a little relief from the stress.

My family and I have rented a cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and I can’t wait to visit Gatlinburg’s craft shops, drive through the scenic Smoky Mountains or just sit by the fire with a good book and a cup of coffee and enjoy the company of those to whom I’m closest, but separated from by distance.

Those are the things that matter most, and that we shouldn’t take for granted.

On the day I wrote this, I interviewed a young couple — Breanna Miller and Kevin Murray — who are staying in a homeless shelter in Bardstown. The woman was about to give birth any day to her fourth child. They had come to Bardstown because they wanted to be near Brianna’s other children, who live here with her mother, but there was no more room in the house, so almost as soon as they arrived, the couple were without a home until Bethany Haven took them in.

The same day they came to the shelter, they both got part-time jobs. Things are looking up for them, Kevin told me.

Brianna said she would enjoy having her children at Bethany Haven for Christmas.

Barry McGuffin, the shelter director, mentioned another family that had been sleeping in the woods until they came to the shelter, and a middle-aged man who has been sleeping in his truck.

For security reasons, Bethany Haven can’t take in single men, but the plight of this man, who has been living on the streets in Bardstown for months, has resulted in a flurry of activity on Facebook, and a local effort to find food and shelter for him.

Barry told me people here have raised hundreds of dollars to pay for a motel room for him for several nights, and others have provided gas cards and gift cards for food.

The same day I talked with the homeless couple, I was on the scene of a house fire. Kecia Copeland, a new city councilwoman, and her son, Joshua, who had recently rented the house in Wellington, were lucky to escape unharmed before the structure filled with smoke. They, too, may be without a place to call home for a while.

Someone wise, possibly the Scotsman Ian McLaren, said, “Let us be kind, one to another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

Those are words we should heed year-round, but especially at Christmas, when there is much to occupy our thoughts, and yet many who have it harder than we do.

My wish is that you have a Merry Christmas and a prosperous and Happy New Year, and that you spread tidings of comfort and joy to all you encounter during this time of peace and good will.

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