Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

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.

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.

No peace on earth for Iraq’s Christians

Published Dec.13, 2014

The true story of Christmas isn’t about a newborn in a menagerie manger being heralded by cherubs in the sky. It is about a family of refugees fleeing the wrath of a tyrant who puts every infant boy in Bethlehem to the sword to prevent another king from usurping his throne.

Herod was appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. to subjugate his people to Caesar’s rule. The Gospel of Matthew tells of the Slaughter of the Innocents in this way: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’”

Twenty-one centuries later, there is another slaughter of the innocents in the Middle East.

Canon Andrew White, the Anglican “vicar of Baghdad” I introduced you to on Easter, tells an interviewer about the gruesome murder of children by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. In the video, published Nov. 28, White said that days before, ISIS fighters ordered four children, all under the age of 15, to say the words to become followers of Muhammad. The little ones refused.

“No, we love Yeshua,” they said. “We have always followed Yeshua.”

So the brutes chopped their heads off.

White wept for them.

“They are my children,” he said.

The Sunday Times of London reported that Andrew, 5, the son of a founding member of White’s St. George’s Church in Baghdad, was named for the English vicar who has devoted his life to the pastoral care of Christians in war-torn Iraq. When attacking the city of Qaraqosh this past summer, ISIS killers cut the boy in half.

Throughout Syria and northern Iraq, ISIS, which thinks of itself as the successor of the medieval Islamic caliphate, is beheading children in front of their parents. They are crucifying Christians on wooden crosses, as the Romans did. Neighbors of the “Nazarenes” are painting the Arabic letter “N” on the homes of Christians who are targeted for extermination.

White, who spoke at my parish, Apostles Anglican Church in Lexington, during Lent, says 25 years ago, there were a million and a half Christians in Iraq. Now there are fewer than 300,000.

The ancient city of Nineveh, where Jonah preached and Doubting Thomas shared the Gospel, is Mosul, until recently the center of Christianity in Iraq. But the believers have nearly all fled or been butchered.

White has lost more than 1,000 members of his flock to violence. His staff members have been murdered. White has been kidnapped, beaten, imprisoned and threatened with death. He is now in Israel because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby ordered him there to save his life and the lives of those around him.

White is a peacemaker, but he is no pacifist. He has negotiated the release of hostages, worked with the U.S. and U.K. militaries and heads the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. But there is no possibility of reconciliation with ISIS, he says. They only want terror, torture and death.

As in the time of Herod, Christians are being persecuted to the point of being eliminated from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and other countries where Christianity was born and has thrived for two millennia.

The question Christians in the West should ask ourselves is what will we do about it?

Light Up, lights out and the coming of the Light

Published Dec. 6, 2014

The morning after Light Up Bardstown, our downtown went dark.

I was about to get in the shower when the lights went out and I found myself fumbling for a flashlight. Then I found the bill I hadn’t opened because I don’t believe in doing today what can be put off until tomorrow.

The disconnection date was the day before.

I texted Jeff Mills, Bardstown’s electrical engineer, asking for leniency.

“Could you get it back on today? I’m on my way to City Hall to pay,” I pleaded.

He replied that the city was experiencing a widespread outage.

Jeff was in Owensboro, but he helped me track down Jeff Miller, the superintendent, who was at the substation on Bloomfield Road trying to get the power back on.

He said a squirrel had gotten into an overhead switch connecting two substations.

It’s always a squirrel.

The grays have been waging war against our power grid for as long as I’ve been a reporter. Our infrastructure is somewhat resistant to wind, ice coatings, trucks that take out utility poles, hackers and other enemies, but there’s no good defense against suicide attacks by rodents.

By the way, Jeff, if you’re reading this, the check is in the mail.

———

I like Light Up Bardstown because almost everybody, it seems, gathers on Court Square to see the Yule tree lit and commence the countdown to Christmas.

The best part for me is Stephen Foster Singers’ performance of a medley of carols, from the haunting “What Child is This?” to the jubilant “Joy to the World.”

My assignment that weekend was to cover Small Business Saturday, which I enjoyed. I got to meet some of the nicest visitors, most of them relatives of Bardstonians.

I also talked with merchants who said the weekend after Thanksgiving was their best ever for sales. That’s great because it means the economy is improving, and it shows shoppers aren’t neglecting neighborhood stores for big box stores.

Small businesses are the economic engine of America’s heartland, and we should strongly support them.

­———

I think the “war on Christmas” is malarkey, but the war on Thanksgiving is real. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it’s the least commercial. It’s about family, feasts and football, but most importantly, it’s about taking time to thank God for what we have instead of wanting more. That’s been changing, though, as stores not only open on Thanksgiving, but open earlier every year.

When I read that Target and Kmart managers told employees they would have to work on Thanksgiving or be fired, I vowed I wouldn’t spend a dime at those stores that weekend, and I didn’t.

I was pleased to see that, although Thanksgiving sales were up 24 percent this year, Black Friday sales were down, and sales for the weekend were down by about 11 percent. That tells me retailers can wait until Friday and Saturday to have those big sales without it hurting them.

I hope next year more of them will opt to close their doors on the one day that should be about gratitude and not greed.

———

Now that Thanksgiving is over, some have said, the Christmas season is “officially” here. Not so.

For centuries, the church has said (officially) the Christmas season is from Dec. 25 to Jan. 5 — the 12 days of Christmas. The month or so leading up to the holiday is the Advent season, a time of waiting for God’s presence by celebrating the birth of the Christ child, and also by awaiting his coming again in glory to conquer darkness and make “all things new.”

Advent is the beginning of the church year.

I’m a traditionalist, but I’m also a realist. I know it’s pointless to expect most people to wait until closer to the holiday to begin their celebrations. But maybe it would enrich our Christmas to find at least a little quiet time during Advent to reflect on the coming of the Light of the World and make room in our hearts for him. It is a time to pray, as Mary did, for his purposes for us to be fulfilled in us.

The first Thanksgiving

Nov. 25, 2014

(This is a shorter, edited version of an earlier post.)

Myles Standish wasn’t so upstanding, and the Puritans weren’t so pure. And inviting the Indians to dinner was just politics.

Schoolchildren know the sterile version of the story: In 1620, the Pilgrims sailed to America to escape a tyrannical king and gain religious freedom. They landed on Plymouth Rock and established the first settlement. The Indians, led by Squanto, befriended them, taught them how to fertilize corn with fish and saved them from starving. The grateful Pilgrims invited the Indians to join them for a big turkey dinner and offered prayers of thanks. But what if what we know about the first Thanksgiving is mostly wrong?

In his book, “A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving,” Godfrey Hodgson makes a convincing argument that the feast recorded in 1621 by Edward Winslow wasn’t a Puritan thanksgiving at all, but a harvest celebration that was interrupted by a force of Indians.

The Separatists (they weren’t called Pilgrims with a capital “P”) showed their gratitude to God by fasting, not feasting. Being strict Calvinists, they didn’t celebrate holy days (holidays) because they considered them superstitious relics of Catholicism. Being English, they did celebrate the medieval harvest festival with food, beer, wine and games.

These wanderers or “pilgrims” were called Separatists because they wanted to separate from the established Anglican Church, but were willing to deceive King James by swearing fealty to the established church in exchange for being granted a colony. They had been run out of England, and in liberal Amsterdam some of their women dressed provocatively, and there were charges of sexual misconduct. The Separatists then left Holland, sailed for Virginia and wound up in Massachusetts by mistake.

They did not land on a rock, which would have splintered their ship. It remained a mile offshore, and they landed in longboats.

As early as 1621, the English settlers of Plymouth had hostile encounters with the Indians, whom they stole from, kidnapped and sold into slavery. White men had been coming to New England since John Cabot established Newfoundland in 1497, and by the time the colonists arrived, “thousands of European sailors were accustomed to spending the summers fishing” on northern coast, according to Hodgson.

Squanto, who had been captured and enslaved, escaped from Europe and made his way back to America, where he became an English translator for the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.

Standish, no Puritan, was a soldier for hire who “thought nothing of cutting off an Indian’s head if he thought it was the right thing to do,” Hodgson wrote.

The Wampanoags were at war with the Narragansetts and Massachusetts, and 100 Wampanoag warriors showed up at the Separatists’ feast with freshly killed deer (not turkey) as a gesture of goodwill to enlist the English in their fight.

“It was a kind of backwoods diplomatic encounter,” Hodgson wrote.

The alliance didn’t last. Within a generation, Massaoit’s son, King Philip, united the tribes against the English, who were depleting their natural resources and spreading diseases such as syphilis. The English won King Philip’s War and had the chief beheaded and quartered to underscore their point.

American artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris portrayed the Pilgrims as gracious hosts to the Indians at the first Thanksgiving. Godfrey Hodgson says it was frontier diplomacy involving a power struggle with other tribes.

The Pilgrims were not rugged individualists at first, but were communists who, like the early Christians, held their property in common and provided for each other’s needs. But communism has never worked in practice, and when the families started providing for their own needs, the colony prospered.

The story of the first Thanksgiving is, according to Hodgson, an example of what historians call “the invention of tradition.” While it is fiction, however, it is not fraud. It is, as Hodgson described it, a story that has been shaped into a “powerful and virtuous symbol.” It has become a “domestic celebration of gratitude, humility and inclusiveness.” Those are qualities for which we need not apologize.

Regardless of how it began, Thanksgiving has become a celebration of all that is good about America. It is a tribute to faith, family and country, and generosity of spirit.

And that is why it is, in my opinion, it is the best of all American holidays.

Talking with the dead – a skeptic’s story

Oct. 28, 2014

When my niece was a toddler, my sister was startled to hear her laughing and talking to someone when only the two of them were home.

“Who are you talking to?”” Kim asked when she burst into her daughter’s bedroom.

“That lady there in the window,” Kamille answered. “She’s waving to me.”

There was no one at the window.

Kim and her husband, Stan, who were newlyweds, had moved into Stan’s grandmother’s house soon after the old woman died. Kamille never knew the woman that her older cousin, Kelsey, called Great Ma.

Sometime after the incident, Stan’s mom was showing the family some old photographs and asked Kamille if she recognized anyone in a group picture.

Yes, the little girl said, pointing to her great-grandmother and telling Grammy it was the lady who had visited her that day at the window and made her laugh.

“That’s Great Ma,” she said.

Let me say this for the record — I don’t believe in ghosts. But there are things I can’t explain.

Once when I was living in Nicholasville, for example, there was an elderly woman who lived next door who would pester me to take dictation for her whenever she wanted to write a letter to the editor or an announcement because he hands shook.

So one day after work, as the sun was going down, I was sitting with her in the living room of her 19th century house, surrounded by her memories, as she showed me pictures and talked about the people in her past.

I was bored and hoping she would get on with the task at hand when I happened to notice a woman in a dress walk past the doorway in the darkened room behind us.

I started, and my elderly neighbor noticed my astonishment. Her ancient eyes shone as she asked me, “What? Did you see someone in there?”

“I thought I saw a woman,” I said.

She just smiled and didn’t mention it again, and I never saw nor heard the mystery woman the rest of the time we were there.

Like many children, I had grown up with ghost stories. My mother’s family, who were tenant farmers, lived in a huge antebellum farmhouse with outbuildings that had once been slave quarters. Sitting around the old coal stove or the kitchen table, they would tell “true” stories. Once, for example, my cousin Eddie had come in from working in the field to get a cold drink and for several minutes heard footsteps above the kitchen. But no one used that because the only access to it was by an outside staircase that had been torn down many years ago.

That old house terrified me. I’d have dreams that I was floating from my bed toward empty rooms where I didn’t want to go.

My parents, however, assured me there was no such thing as ghosts, and I believed them. Later, I was taught in the holiness church I grew up in that the spirits of loved ones are no longer with us, but demonic spirits sometimes disguise themselves as spirits of the dead, and can’t be believed because they serve the Father of Lies.

However, I was also taught that the Bible warns us not to consult spiritists who conjure the dead, and that King Saul had a medium conjure the spirit of the prophet Samuel. Yet another biblical verse says that “the dead know nothing … for the memory of them is forgotten.” That seems a little ambiguous to me.

Last Friday night, I participated in the Spirits of Wickland tour at the old Bardstown mansion that was the home of a family that produced two Kentucky governors and a governor of Louisiana. The group gathered in the basement as the medium passed around copper dowsing rods so that the guests could ask questions of the spirit of a slave boy, Antoine.

I didn’t do it because I was there as an impartial observer, and besides, I don’t believe in ghosts.

Later, though, when I was transcribing the audio recording of the guests laughing and asking the spirit questions about whether someone was going to have a baby or get a job promotion, I heard a ghostly whisper that sounded like it was only inches from the microphone. I played it again and again to make sure I had heard it.

The words sounded like “an quoi,” which, according to Google, means nothing in French or any other language. Or maybe the words were, “Ask why.”

It was the kind of spectral voice you only hear in a horror film, and it made chills run up my spine when I heard it on the recording, because I didn’t hear it when I was actually there in the cellar.

I still don’t believe in ghosts — but I wouldn’t stay overnight alone in Wickland’s basement.

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