Friday, February 22, 2008

48 Hours revisited

Over the past few months, I've written about my involvement in the case of Herb Whitlock and Randy Steidl, two men wrongly convicted of murder in Paris, Ill.

They're both free and CBS will air an updated version of "48 Hours Mystery" with our story at 9 p.m. Saturday. If anything, this was our contribution to their freedom -- raising awareness of the situation. So check it out - you'll see me as a college senior running around small-town Illinois.

Atheism and the Methodist academy

When the Rev. Betsy Eaves sat in front of me at last night's Centenary Forum, I figured she would be the perfect person to respond to the evening's speaker for the story I was writing.

Instead, she was nervous and chose her words carefully. All day she had been assaulted by e-mail from people wanting to know why a Methodist college was bringing an atheist to campus. The liberal college was obviously trying to brainwash students, the e-mails said.

The speaker at the center of the controversy is philosophy professor Erik Wielenberg, of De Pauw University. He visited the Methodist college to talk about values and God as part of the annual Centenary Forum. Specifically, he addressed the question: is God necessary for morality? Wielenberg, also an atheist, made an intelligent argument, (I'll respond more later) and he presented it well judging by the good questions that were asked and the fact that the students were paying attention.

After listening to him, I was confused by the vehement reactions Eaves was receiving.
Isn't the college the perfect place for these sort of discussions? Aren't students supposed to be challenged and confront the other?

It is through those challenges that we are forced to understand and articulate what we believe. Fear of these ideas is just a sign that we do not trust our own faith or that of the students. And I know Eaves, as chaplain, does all she can to promote faith and encourage students to take ownership of their beliefs.

The Forum seems to be a brilliant concept because it has reaction built in. Unlike many lectures, this one will not stand on its own. For the next week, everyone will have a change to mull over his argument and at 7 p.m. Monday, two students and two community members will give their response.

Through that discussion I expect many people will surprise themselves to find they have an even deeper understanding of what they believe and why.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lutherans coming together - eventually

It's hard for anyone to acknowledge their current operations aren't working. For churches, it can be especially painful.

But two Missouri Synod Lutheran churches in Shreveport decided they might be stronger together than continuing to operate alone. Our Savior on Bert Kouns and Redeemer on Shreveport-Barksdale have already been sharing a pastor for about a year, so combining programs, congregations and eventually buildings wasn't much of a leap, said the Rev. Perry Culver, pastor.

"What it came down to was with me preaching at both churches, and the talk of not having enough resources, we realized it doesn’t have to be this way," he said.

They'll be able to eliminate some duplication in committees and councils and some of those folks can put their energies to outreach and growth. Together, the churches would have a congregation of about 250.

The next step is to choose a name and develop a mission statement. Then they'll start thinking about property. The plan is to sell the current buildings and build new -- probably in Southeast Shreveport.

For now, the congregations will continue to worship separately, although Culver expects some church mixers and combining some programs. When one of the buildings is sold, they will combine worship.

It takes a lot of guts to make these moves, and I know it’s hard for founding members to abandon a building they poured so much life into. But Culver said he's got great reactions from members.

"Everyday I get calls about names," he said. "People want to get involved where maybe haven’t been involved in the past."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Enlarging territory

Remember the "Prayer of Jabez" that was super-popular a few years ago?

That's how I've felt for the last week as I've tried to get used to my new temporary position. I've been expanding my territory and learning new skills and trying to think about issues in a different way. I'm really enjoying the opportunity, but I need to get back on track with my blogs. Keep passing me stories, and I'll do my best to make them reality.

So here's a few notes that I missed last week:

*Two Missouri Synod Lutheran churches have voted to merge. I've talked to the pastor and I'll have more on this in a later post.

* Update on Speed Sunday at Ellerbe Road Baptist Church: the church bulletin reported that 24 vehicles from as far away as Dallas participated in the car show. And they had an increase of 94 people in attendance compared to a normal Sunday service.

* Bishop Larry Brandon, pastor of Praise Temple Full Gospel Cathedral attended the 56th annual Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC on Feb. 7. It sounds like an amazing event with religious, governmental, business and military leaders present. President Bush addressed the group about the importance of prayer:

"The people in this room come from many different walks of faith. Yet we share one clear conviction: We believe that the Almighty hears our prayers -- and answers those who seek Him. That's what we believe; otherwise, why come? Through the miracle of prayer, we believe he listens -- if we listen to his voice and seek our presence -- his presence in our lives, our hearts will change. And in so doing, in seeking God, we grow in ways that we could never imagine."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Temporary change in duties

Today starts a bit of a shift for me here at The Times. I'm not going anywhere, but for the next two months my byline and work will be appearing more in the Conversations section of the paper.

A colleague will be on medical leave, so I'll be filling in over there. I'm really excited for the chance to learn some new skills and explore some issues -- religion and otherwise -- in a little more depth.

Religion briefs and bulletins will remain part of my job. But the daily religion news will probably shift to whichever reporter is available. I'm going to do my best to maintain the blog, so that we do keep some religion presence in the paper -- plus I just like doing it.

So please, continue to send me your story ideas ( and we'll do our best to get your news out there. Some of it might even fit in the Conversations section. And like I said, this is just temporary, so I'm sure I'll be haunting your sanctuaries again soon.

Evangelists' next target: NASCAR fans

I'm not sure if there's a convention-wide effort here, but at least two local Baptist churches have latched onto a NASCAR theme for their latests evangelism efforts.

Since Jan. 12, Brookwood Baptist's pastor the Rev. Mark Sutton has been leading a sermon series titled, "Speed." With sermon titles such as "The Race," "Pit Crew," and "The Crash," he uses the analogy to talk about living a Christian life with good friends and how to change your life when its gone off track. Apparently, the sanctuary is also decorated with NASCAR memorobilia. The series continues through Feb. 17.

And this weekend, Ellerbe Road Baptist Church is hosting "Speed Sunday," a "Sunday with a strategy" to reach out to unbelieving NASCAR fans. A car show will begin the morning during the normal Sunday School hour, and NASCAR Champion Lake Speed will speak. They aren't having a formal srvice but a "gathering" so Speed can share his story, people can ask questions and the gospel can be presented.

I'm intrgued by how the strategy works for them. I guess I assumed -- wrongly? -- that most NASCAR fans were already Christian, since the sport originated just up the road from the Rev. Billy Graham's hometown. But You certainly can't deny the popularity of NASCAR, so maybe it will attract some attention.

What do you think about using something like NASCAR to spread the gospel?

A shift for values voters?

I have a feeling this news from the Romney campaign is going to make the faith questions in this year's election even more interesting...

What do you think? Have you even thought about religion/faith/values as you ponder your choices in Saturday's primary?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Bishops weigh in on Louisiana ethics reform

The Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops is encouraging the governor and legislature to make some substantial changes during the upcoming special session on ethics reform.

In a statement released today Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans spoke for the seven dioceses of Louisiana. He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states: "Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it."

He then reminded officials of the goals of the code and said: "Unfortunately, Louisiana has a sad history of corruption at all levels of government. This is harming the common good in various ways. First, it discourages our citizens from participating in the political process itself. Secondly, it convinces out-of-state business interests that it would be a mistake for them to invest in our state."

"We urge the new state Legislature to work with Governor Jindal to pass legislation that provides improved clarity in the way state government operates. The public needs to see this occur in three areas: (1) personal finance disclosure by public officials, (2) campaign finance disclosure, and (3) spending by lobbyists."

Lenten blessings to all

The party is over, and today Christians start our reflection and soul-scrubbing to get ready for Easter.

While Lent is probably most associated with the Catholic church, since it has all sorts of rules for eating and what not, it is not an exclusively Catholic celebration. And this year, it seems to me, more churches are getting in the spirit of the season. Maybe they just did a better job of telling me what they're doing, but I noticed more Bible studies and other special Lenten devotions.

To me, Lent is more about spending more time with God than giving something up (although I'll do some of that too), so all of these extra prayers provide structured ways to increase prayer. Here's some that have crossed my desk for y'all to consider:

BARKSDALE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, 1465 Patricia Drive, Bossier City: 7 a.m. Wednesdays through March 12. Lenten breakfast.

BROADMOOR UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, 3715 Youree Drive, Shreveport: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays through March 19. Lenten worship and Bible studies for all ages.

CHURCH OF THE HOLY CROSS, 875 Cotton St., Shreveport: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays through March 12. Soup Days with soup, desserts and coffee. Cost: $3.

FELLOWSHIP UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, 4750 Barksdale Blvd., Bossier City: 7 a.m. weekdays, Holy Communion. 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays, supper and small group studies with activities for children.

FIRST LUTHERAN CHURCH, 2115 Line Ave., Shreveport: 6 p.m. Wednesdays through March 12. Soup supper followed by Bible study on The Fruit of the Spirit.

LAKEVIEW UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, 5550 Lakeshore Drive, Shreveport: 5 p.m. Sundays through May 4. Lenten Bible study, "The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ."

ST. MARY OF THE PINES CATHOLIC CHURCH, 1050 Bert Kouns Industrial Loop, Shreveport: 5 to 6:30 p.m. Fridays through March 21. Lenten Fish Fry. Plates are $6 or a 1 pound fish only plate for $9. 6 p.m. Feb. 17-19, Lenten Mission with the Rev. Tim Hurd.

ST. PAUL LUTHERAN CHURCH, 4175 Lakeshore Drive, Shreveport: 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through March 12. Soup supper followed by Vespers prayer service.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Super Tuesday - Louisiana Style

Folks in the rest of the country are worried about picking up votes, while we're worried about catching beads and that last piece of King Cake.

Jim McGill, a long time instructor at the Diocese of Shreveport's Greco Center, gave an incredible presentation last year about Mardi Gras, Lent and Easter and how they all fit together in a spiritual sense. I'll do my best to give you my own recap/interpretation of why Mardi Gras is a spiritual season.

It starts with Christmas, when Christians believe God took on human form and came to Earth as the Baby Jesus. That act seems to support the idea that being human is a good thing, and we should relish in the incredible gift of life and the tangible, beautiful, messy parts of being eternal souls with bodies.

Enter Mardi Gras. We sometimes go overboard with our celebrations, but in the best sense this season is about enjoying life -- eating, drinking, being merry.

After a few weeks of that though, we start to wonder is there soemthing else out there? Ash Wednesday forces that discussion. We fast, pray, give alms and perform other sacrifices depriving that same body we just celebrated. In other words, we seek. We look for our souls and examine it. What should we do better? How can we find a balance of spirit and worldliness?

The intensity of Lent leads to Easter. Jesus rises from the dead. We too have a fresh start. We can now live in the world revivied, with a new understanding that there's more to it than the eating, drinking and being merry.

When Jim gave his theological analysis of the seasons, I thought about the many conversion stories I have heard in my five years of covering the religious community. They all sound like that same pattern. Someone enjoys life a little too much, hits bottom, searches for some meaning and often finds that in a religious community. And to some extent it sounds like a cycle we all have to live of constant examination and conversion.

So enjoy your King Cake today. Tomorrow we will have questions to ponder.
Photo: A family cheers on the Highland Parade Sunday. Jim Hudelson/The Times

The If Gathering

Cool title for a prayer meeting, isn't it? At least, it intrigued me. The Rev. John Butler, an ordained Baptist minister and member of First United Methodist Church in Plain Dealing is calling together people of various churches for a new monthly prayer meeting.

It's based on the oft-quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14 "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

Butler said local and national news had so disturbed him over the last few months that he wanted to do something. As he studied his Bible, this verse came to him.

"This is the answer," he said. "This is our only hope."

The first meeting will be at 7:30 Tuesday at First United Methodist Church, 300 E. Mary Lee St., Plain Dealing. Black and white ministers and lay people of various denominations are involved.

Since it is the inaugural gathering, it will have a more formal program with singing, a couple of different ministers and a testimony before the congregation is asked for its prayer requests. Later meetings will include a devotion and then prayers.

"From East to West, we've had one calamity after another," Butler said. "Something has got to be done."