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Terry Mattingly's weekly column on religion and the media.
Updated: 51 min 33 sec ago

New battle in the old media-bias wars? #LoveWins #ReligiousLiberty

13 hours 6 min ago

When the U.S. Supreme Court announced its 5-4 decision backing same-sex marriage, gay and straight journalists at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., were in a celebratory mood, sharing hugs, laughter and tears.

Then online reader comments began arriving -- some calm, but others angry.

Opinion editor John Micek responded with this policy statement: "As a result of Friday's ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will no longer accept, nor will it print, op-eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage." His Twitter take, complete with a typo, added: "We would not print racist, sexist or anti-Semitc letters. To that, we add homophobic ones. Pretty simple."

Welcome to the latest battle over media bias, one linked to decades of debate about whether journalists do a fair and accurate job when covering news about religion, morality and culture.

The Patriot-News policy ignited another online firestorm and Micek soon tweaked it to say the newspaper will "very strictly limit op-Eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage" and "for a limited time, accept letters and op-Eds on the high court's decision and its legal merits."

The problem is that while some livid readers rushed to call Micek and his colleagues "fascists," others argued that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision would soon clash with the First Amendment's right to the "free exercise" of religious convictions.

Once again, Micek responded: "I fully recognize that there are people of good conscience and of goodwill who will disagree with Friday's high court ruling. They include philosophers and men and women of the cloth whose objections come from deeply held religious and moral convictions that are protected by the very same First Amendment that allowed me to stick my foot in my mouth on Friday."

Similar arguments were unfolding online nationwide because of a display of journalistic convictions at many news publications -- such as BuzzFeed, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, Variety and others -- where editors added gay-pride rainbows to their logos and even mastheads.

CNN raised the following question: "Did news outlets abandon their usual objectivity on this equal rights issue and, if so, is that defendable?" Narrator Brian Stelter worried aloud that his question might itself be offensive.

"If anything, the fact that I am gay has made me more critical of covering this story, because I am interested in knowing what the motivations are of people on every side," responded Chris Geidner, legal-affairs reporter for BuzzFeed. After studying the front-page coverage by elite newsrooms, he concluded that, "our editorial position in support of marriage equality and in support of LGBT rights is not much different from The New York Times and The Washington Post."

BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith was more blunt, telling The Politico: "We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides."

Smith's candor echoed that of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who in 2011 stressed that his newsroom was shaped by an "urban" and "socially liberal" mindset that affected coverage of marriage and other religious issues. Asked if America's most influential newspaper slanted its coverage to the left, he said: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does." 

Again, this is not a new issue. However, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute -- an influential journalism think tank -- stressed that journalists today must be especially careful in online forums, while avoiding public celebrations.

"When journalists use trending hashtags that carry an editorial message, it may undercut their intentions to appear to be fair, accurate and open to many sides of the story," he argued, in a Poynter.org essay. "A good measure for how to handle this would be whether you would use a hashtag or change your logo if the Court had decided differently. Would you use #HateWins or #LoveLoses? Would you have used the rainbow flag colors no matter what the decision?"

Caution is especially important when dealing with the "deeply held religious beliefs" of many readers, he added. "Whether you believe those beliefs are outdated or nonsensical should not shape your reporting when it comes to covering matters of faith. It is different than covering the political and social issues around same-sex marriage."

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For Southern Baptists, Mayberry is now officially dead

Monday, June 29, 2015

When the Rev. Russell Moore was a Baptist boy in Mississippi, he knew the culture around him had lots of unwritten rules.

Dogs didn't live in the house. Women didn't chew tobacco in public and men didn't chew at church or in funerals. Tattoos were forbidden and scary.

So he was scandalized one Sunday when a man came to church sporting a tattoo of a naked lady and propped his arm on the pew for all to see. To the young Moore's surprise, his grandmother whispered that this was good news -- because the man's wife had long been trying to get him into church.

Moore recalled his grandmother saying: "He's not trying to be rude, honey. He just doesn't know Jesus yet."

In a way, that's where Southern Baptists are right now, said Moore, in a pastors' conference sermon before the recent national Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Baptists are struggling to relate to real people who live in a changing culture that frightens, or even angers, lots of church people.

"For a long time … in certain parts of this country, baptism was kind of a Bible Belt bar mitzvah," said Moore, who leads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C. "You needed a Christian identity, you needed a church identity, in order to make it as a good American, in order to be part of the culture around you. Those days are over."

Moore's words in recent weeks -- in pulpits and mass media -- have offered fresh evidence that some leaders of America's largest Protestant flock realize the cultural ground is shifting in America, including their once safe base in the South.

For a generation or two, SBC leaders have struggled to come to terms with the implications of that word "Southern" in their brand. Finally, in 2012, the convention voted to stick with its
historic name, even with its Civil War-era baggage. The SBC did offer churches the option of putting "Great Commission Baptists" on church signs instead, a name linked to the New Testament call to reach out and make new disciples.

But there's the rub. The American mission field keeps changing. Meanwhile, the SBC has suffered through nearly a decade of slow decline in membership and church attendance. Baptisms have declined for three consecutive years, a painful trend for Christians who stress evangelism.

Nevertheless, Moore said it's good that the cozy illusions of the old Bible Belt are dead. Using a blunt metaphor from the pop-culture past, he stressed: "Mayberry leads to hell, just like Gomorrah does."

The "messengers" assembled in Columbus also discussed the SBC's attempts to move forward on old issues linked to race. In 1993, the convention passed an historic resolution acknowledging, "Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention," while apologizing and repenting for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

Still, while the rapidly growing number of black and Latino churches is now a bright spot in SBC life, a report to the convention confessed that of the "249 individuals nominated and elected to serve on the Executive Committee since 1996, no more than eight were from non-Anglo racial or ethnic groups."

Later, after the shooting of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., Moore drew yet another line in the Southern sand. The Confederate Battle Flag, he argued in an online essay, has long been a symbol used to "enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night. … The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire."

Here's the bottom line, said Moore, in remarks to the full convention: There was a time when Baptists were "comfortable in our culture, or at least in the little cocoons we could build within it." The convention's leaders, he added, were even tempted to "speak of a 'Southern Baptist Zion,' referring to the states beneath the Mason-Dixon line.

"Those days are over, and not a moment too soon. Baptist Christianity just doesn't do well as a water-carrier for anybody's civil religion."

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Campolo, Neff signal that an open doctrinal left is emerging in evangelicalism

Monday, June 22, 2015

One moment defined old-school evangelicalism more than any other -- the altar-call ritual in which the Rev. Billy Graham urged sinners to come forward and repent, accept God's forgiveness and be born again. 

For decades, crusade choirs sang "Just As I Am," which proclaims: "Just as I am, and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot, to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come." 

So evangelical activist Tony Campolo knew he was grabbing heartstrings as he referenced this gospel hymn when announcing that he had changed his beliefs on marriage and homosexuality. 

"As a social scientist, I have concluded that sexual orientation is almost never a choice," said the 80-year-old Campolo, for decades an influential voice on Christian campuses. "As a Christian, my responsibility is not to condemn or reject gay people, but rather to love and embrace them, and to endeavor to draw them into the fellowship of the Church. 

"When we sing the old invitation hymn, 'Just As I Am,' I want us to mean it." 

With this nod, Campolo underlined crucial questions in heated debates linked to the emerging evangelical left: Since the movement called "evangelicalism" lacks a common structure and hierarchy, who decides what the Bible says about repentance and forgiveness? Who decides when acts cease being sinful and become blessed?            

For example, "Just As I Am" has always called sinners to seek forgiveness, stressed Mark Tooley, president of the Institute of Religion and Democracy. Now, Campolo has interpreted it as an "affirmation of the moral status quo" -- omitting a call for repentance, since he has evolved on key moral doctrines. 

Tooley and other critics have noted Campolo's affirmation that he remains a "staunch evangelical" who salutes the "doctrines of the Apostles Creed," while believing the Bible's authors were "inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit." However, Campolo also said, "people of good will can and do read the scriptures very differently when it comes to controversial issues." 

"Whatever he says about the Bible, what Campolo has done is change his stance on the issue that is the flashpoint between faith and culture in our age," which is whether sex outside of marriage is sin, stressed Tooley, an evangelical in the United Methodist Church. "This has been the crucial issue on the Protestant left for some time now -- at least among many Protestants in America, Europe and churches in the West. … We are now seeing a strong effort to pull this debate inside the world of evangelicalism." 

Campolo's shift was not shocking. He has, for decades, been one of the leaders most likely to appear in lists of self-avowed evangelicals backing Democratic presidents in fights with religious conservatives. The surprise was when his decision drew praise from David Neff, who from 1993 to 2012 was editor of Christianity Today, founded in 1956 by Graham and theologian Carl F.H. Henry. 

In Facebook statements, Neff first said: "God bless Tony Campolo. He is acting in good faith and is, I think, on the right track." Later, he confirmed his doctrinal shift in an exchange with a Christianity Today writer: "I have come to read the relevant passages differently … and have come along a similar path" as Campolo. 

Christianity Today immediately responded with an editorial -- "Breaking News: 2 Billion Christians Believe in Traditional Marriage" -- by current editor Mark Galli. 

The church, he argued, "remains overwhelmingly united" around a core theology "assumed or articulated by the great theologians and Christian philosophers in the Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic traditions -- the most sophisticated recent effort being John Paul II's work on the theology of the body. … It is not driven by an irrational prejudice of people living in the past, as the American zeitgeist assumes." 

 It's significant, noted Tooley, that this flagship evangelical magazine appealed to traditions in ancient, global churches -- Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy -- during this debate inside contemporary evangelicalism about how to read the Bible. 

On the other side are progressives who have "come out of mainstream evangelical culture and are now trying to modernize the doctrines of their old churches and schools and organizations," he said. "It's all pretty confusing, but one thing is clear: The world of liberal Protestantism now has an evangelical wing."

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Europe on ice, Africa on fire: Doing the global Catholic math in 2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

As economists like to say, when America sneezes Europe catches a cold. 

When it comes to culture the equation often works the other way around, with European trends infecting America. If that's the case, then American Catholic leaders must be doing the math after reading a sobering new study -- "Global Catholicism: Trends & Forecasts" (.pdf) -- by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. 

"These are the Vatican numbers and nothing in here will surprise the bishops," said Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and coauthor of the report. "They are aware of their sacramental numbers and their Mass attendance numbers. … They know that they face issues right now, and in the future, that are very serious." 

When it comes to church statistics, experts study life's symbolic events -- births, marriages and deaths. It also helps to note how often believers go to Mass and whether there are enough priests to perform all these rites. 

If so, the European numbers in the CARA report are serious business. While Vatican statistics claim Europe's Catholic population rose 6 percent between 1980 and 2012, infant baptisms fell by 1.5 million and marriages between two Catholics collapsed from roughly 1.4 million to 585,000. The number of priests fell 32 percent and weekly Mass attendance kept declining, from 37 percent in the 1980s to 20 percent since 2010. 

But the past lingers in brick and mortar. Even though European bishops closed 12 percent of their parishes during this study's timeframe, Europe -- with only 23 percent of the global Catholic population -- still has more parishes than the rest of the world combined. 

Is the United States the next Europe? It's hard to compare numbers in the CARA study, since it placed North and South America in one region -- with trends in other nations obscuring those here. 

However, other statistics gathered during this era reveal that infant baptisms in U.S. churches fell from 950,000 in 1980 to about 710,000 in 2014 and Catholic marriages fell from 350,000 to roughly 150,000. The number of priests fell from about 58,000 to 38,000, while the number of parishes stayed roughly the same. Weekly Mass attendance was 24 percent in 2012, down from 41 percent in 1980. American Catholic numbers would be down more, if not for immigration trends. 

"The marriage numbers are absolutely crucial," said Gray, in a telephone interview. "Catholics are getting married -- just not in church and, perhaps, not to each other." Rising cohabitation rates must be a factor here, he added, making the "whole process of seeking a Catholic marriage more complicated for everyone." 

The bottom line, stressed Gray, is that Catholicism is growing, in pews and at altars, in places -- such as Africa and Asia -- where Catholics are having more children. 

Europe's current fertility rate is 1.7 -- well below replacement rate -- with much of the growth among immigrants. Meanwhile, the Catholic population in Africa has risen 238 percent since 1980, in part because of a 5.1 fertility rate, in recent estimates, in Sub-Saharan Africa. Weekly Mass attendance is 70 percent in Africa and the number of priests in Africa rose 131 percent in the years covered in this CARA report. 

While the global distribution of priests and sanctuaries remains a complicated puzzle, it's impossible to ignore one overarching reality. In 1980, there were 3,759 Catholics per parish in the world, while the current statistic is 5,491 per parish. 

The pressure on priests will keep rising in these mega-parishes, noted Gray, creating a greater "social distance" between overworked priests and the rising number of parishioners. This could lead to further declines in the number of Catholics going to Confession, members financially supporting their parishes and parents who -- with fewer children in their homes -- encourage them to become priests and nuns. 

"Africa has priests, but needs more churches. America has lots of churches, but needs more priests," said Gray. "You can bring priests from Africa and Asia to America, but you probably can't keep doing that forever. And you can't pick up empty churches in Europe and move them to Africa. … The pope can't point at the map and move churches and priests around to solve these kinds of problems. The church isn't a corporation."

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(Murder) Mysteries of Amish life in this postmodern world

Monday, June 8, 2015

The new guy in the town of Millersburg, one David Hawkins, wasn't just a U.S. Army veteran, but a skilled sniper and Special Forces operative.

Then his only daughter was murdered by an ex-con, followed by another murder clearly linked to the case. Obviously, the sheriff had to investigate whether the shattered father was planning his revenge before the ex-con's trial.

That's the set up for "Broken English," one of nine murder mysteries -- so far -- by author P.L. Gaus. But there's a twist, because these stories unfold in Holmes County, Ohio, in Amish country. Hawkins has already vowed to live as a pacifist, while preparing to marry an Amish woman and embrace her faith.

In these books -- "Whiskers of the Lion" arrived this spring -- the fine points of Amish doctrine and culture provide more than colorful frames around the plots, but add crucial details that complicate them.

To be blunt: The Amish believe it's spiritually dangerous to mix with "English" locals, even if that means not cooperating with authorities investigating crimes in which their loved ones are the victims, stressed Gaus, reached by telephone. What if the state's idea of justice is little more than sinful human vengeance?

"I knew when I started writing that this would be the hinge of what I do in these stories. I had to take their beliefs very seriously," said Gaus, a retired college chemistry professor who has lived in Wooster, Ohio, for 38 years. "It's not just that they hold themselves apart, but that they simply cannot cooperate with the state -- due to convictions at the heart of their faith, their culture, their daily lives."

Many hymns used in Amish worship still contain vivid references to persecution in Europe, forming a bridge between lessons of the past and modern threats to their families. "That memory of martyrdom is very real. … They still don't trust police, government officials and other legal authorities," said Gaus.

Amish life is further complicated by myriad internal splits over the centuries. One Gaus character notes: "At the simplest level ... we have the most conservative Old Order Amish, what you might call House Amish, then Beachy Amish, Church Amish, Swiss Mennonites, Old Mennonites, Wisler Mennonites, Mennonites, New Amish or Apostolic Christian, Reformed Mennonites, and most liberal, Oak Grove Mennonites up in Wayne County."

New schisms keep happening. There are Amish who use pins to fasten their clothing, while rejecting those who accept buttons. Some hide cellphones, while others have telephone lines to sheds outside their houses. Splits may form over issues as innocent as glass windows in horse-drawn buggies or as serious as whether to seek professional help for genetic disorders or mental illness.

The modern world keeps crossing their borders. In one Gaus mystery, Amish girls are forced -- using death threats against family members -- to carry suitcases of cocaine while traveling on buses from Florida. In another, a prodigal who fled his Amish family repents and begins the return journey, only to be murdered in sight of home by someone linked to the sins of his wild years. In another, an Amish entrepreneur schemes to sell land to greedy mega-mansion developers, with tragic results.

After years of observations, Gaus remains fascinated by another mystery: Why so many Americans view Amish country as tourism territory. There is something seductive about fresh breads, jams, quilts, kitchen gadgets and wooden plaques containing prayers or scriptures that prompt, as he writes in one novel, impulsive purchases based on a "down-home feeling of centeredness and belonging."

Some people go further, grabbing $500,000 dream homes, on five-acre plots, overlooking lovely Amish farms.

The "English" are seeking peace -- for sale. It seems, explained Gaus, that they "think visiting Amish country allows them to have a connection to that simplicity of life they want to believe is somewhere in their past. They think there was a time when they shared some of these traditional values and elements of faith and they are fascinated by what they see. They wish they could go back -- but not really. …

"It's like you can visit the Amish and connect with a more righteous way of life. … It feels good to look at it for a few days and think, 'Isn't it good that people like this still exist somewhere?' "

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Crash course in how to offend visitors to your church

Monday, June 1, 2015

For generations this greeting was included in the announcements during Sunday services in the typical American church.

The pastor or another leader would cheerfully say how glad the homefolks were to have visitors in their midst and ask newcomers to stand and be recognized. Members might even point at guests, to make sure they were spotted. Visitors would then be asked to share their names, where they were from and perhaps even why they were visiting.

A friendly gesture to help guests feel welcome or a sure-fire way to freak out introverted people who may have struggled with the decision to visit a pew?

"This is one of those things that truly divides people into two groups, depending on their personalities," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources at the Southern Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville. Before that, he was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"Some see this as a sincere gesture of fellowship," he said. But for others "anything this overt may make them feel uncomfortable or even pressured."

At some point, some churches tweaked this rite and, rather than asking visitors to stand, asked members to rise -- while guests remained seated.

Rainer laughed, and added: "Now the poor visitor is surrounded and singled out even more. It's like they're in a spotlight. … They don't even get to mingle with others on their own terms, like normal people."

What happens to visitors is serious business for those who care if newcomers feel welcomed and are motivated to return, noted Rainer, discussing his recent online essay, "Ten Things You Should Never Say to a Guest in a Worship Service." It's hard to find a balance between being warm and friendly, but not smothering, and the chilly opposite -- ignoring newcomers or treating them like invaders.

For some guests the struggle starts with finding a safe place to sit. Often, church members make sure they get their favorite spots by marking them with hymnals, jackets or notes. It's not an urban legend: One of the most common visitor complaints is that members literally ask them to move, after whispering, "You are sitting in my pew."

There's more. Ushers have also been known to tell guests, "You will need to step over these people to get to your seat." What is this, asked Rainer, a church sanctuary or a movie theater?

Large families can cause tension. Visitors with more than one or two children report being told that there is not enough space for them to sit together, rather than asking the regulars to shift around to make room. Mothers with several youngsters may be told, "Our nursery is really full."

It's sadly common for late arrivers to be greeted with a terse: "The service has already begun." Obviously, some newcomers hear this as, "You are late, and you will be disrupting the service," noted Rainer. "I saw that happen recently. The family left. I was late too, but I stayed since I was preaching."

The ultimate sin, however, is asking -- either intentionally or by accident -- some kind of "deeply personal question" that makes guests feel awkward or hurt. It may be as simple as asking a single woman, "Is your husband with you?" It isn't uncommon for parents in blended families to be asked, "Are these your children?" 

A stunned Rainer, on one occasion, heard about a father who was asked -- about a child adopted overseas -- if he was allowed to choose how dark his child's skin would be. This gracious man, rather than responding in anger, deflected this offensive question by quipping that, yes, the officials there had color swatches to help with this process. "I wish I was joking about this, but I'm not," said Rainer.

The key is that clergy must realize that not everyone is talented at this kind of interpersonal work, possessing the "kind of transparent personality that lets them walk up and be natural and real, while sensing how the other folks are feeling," he said. For starters, "church leaders should consider letting new members take the lead in reaching out to newcomers. After all, they've just been through all of this and remember what this process feels like."

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Striving to save churches, ancient and modern, in Iraq and Syria

Monday, May 25, 2015

The small chapel in ancient Dura, near the Euphrates River in western Syria, is not a spectacular historical site that tourists from around the world travel to see.

However, the diggings yielded priceless insights into life in an early Christian community, and a synagogue as well, in the days before Dura was abandoned in 257 A.D. The frescoes, for example, include an image of Christ the Good Shepherd -- one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus in Christian art.

Then came the Islamic State. Has the Good Shepherd fresco been destroyed?

"Religious heritage sites throughout ISIS held areas of Iraq and Syria have been suffering enormous damage and face constant risk. The targeted extermination of religious minorities by ISIS results in mass death and also the erasure of the outward manifestations of the minority religious culture, threatening the continuity of their religious practices," said Katharyn Hanson of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, in a recent House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing.

In her litany describing the destruction, she gave this verdict on what has happened in the "Pompeii of the Desert." The Dura-Europos site "has been extensively looted and is currently under ISIS control," she said. Scientists estimate that "some 76 percent of the site's surface area within the ancient city walls has now been looted."

The hearing's goal, of course, was documenting what is happening to flesh-and-blood believers -- especially women and children -- in minority faith communities inside the borders of the Islamic State, not just the ancient ruins and holy sites that symbolize their deep roots in the region. As Jacqueline Isaac of the organization Roads of Success testified: "We cherish ethnic and religious diversity. ISIS hates it."

The most anticipated testimony was by Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominicans of St. Catherine of Siena convent in Mosul, who was the only member of the delegation of Iraqi religious leaders invited to testify who was initially denied a visa by the U.S. State Department. She was the only Christian from Iraq in the group.

So far, she said, 120,000 people have been driven into Iraq's Kurdistan region as refugees, where aid from Iraqi and Kurdish officials has been "modest and slow" at best. By early August last summer, church bells across the Nineveh Plain were silent for the first time since the 7th Century.

Outsiders keep asking one blunt question: "Why don't the Christians just leave Iraq and move to another country and be done with it?"

"The Christians of Iraq are the first people of the land," said Sister Diana. "You read about us in the Old Testament of the Bible. Christianity came to Iraq from the very earliest days through the preaching and witness of St. Thomas and others of the apostles. … While our ancestors experienced all kinds of persecution, they stayed in their land, building a culture that has served humanity for the ages.

"We, as Christians, do not want, or deserve to leave or be forced out of our country any more than you would want to … be forced out of yours."

ISIS continues to seize, in addition to private homes, ancient churches and monasteries -- such as St. George's in Mosul and the 4th Century monastery in Sara. These institutions often contain libraries with irreplaceable manuscripts from the early days of Christian life.

"We have realized that ISIS' plan is to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the earth clean of any evidence that we ever existed," the nun told the committee. "This is cultural and human genocide. The only Christians that remain in the Plain of Nineveh are those who are held as hostages."

Someone will have to defeat ISIS, she said. Then support must come from somewhere to help survivors from religious minorities return home and rebuild, as well as try to salvage what is left of the sites, art and culture that represent centuries of life and faith in the Nineveh Plain. Someone will have to urge the living, on both sides, to relate to each other in ways rooted in tolerance instead of violence.

"I am here," she concluded, "to implore you for the sake of our common humanity, to help us. … We want nothing more than to go back to our lives. We want nothing more than to go home."

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Short, candid sermon about faith and life -- from Denzel Washington

Monday, May 18, 2015

As often happens on a campus with strong religious ties, the commencement speaker began with a personal story about life and faith -- with a hint of the miraculous.

The speaker flashed back to a specific date -- March 27, 1975 -- when he had flunked out of college and was poised to enlist in the U.S. Army. Then, during a visit to his mother's beauty parlor, a woman he didn't know gazed into his eyes and demanded that someone bring her a pen. 

"I have a prophecy," she said, writing out key details. She told him: "Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people."

That's the kind of thing Pentecostal Christians say to future preachers all the time. But in this case she was talking to Denzel Washington, a future Hollywood superstar. The key, he recently told 218 graduates at Dillard University in New Orleans, is that her words rang true.

"I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that's not the most important thing," said the 60-year-old Washington, who received an honorary doctorate in the ceremony. "What she told me that day has stayed with me ever since.

"I've been protected. I've been directed. I've been corrected. I've kept God in my life and He's kept me humble. I didn't always stick with him, but he's always stuck with me. … If you think you want to do what you think I've done, then do what I've done. Stick with God."

Then, in a short speech that sounded more like a sermon, Washington pounded home his main point -- speaking slowly to stress each word.

"Put. God. First," he said, in a video that went viral online. "Put God first in everything you do. Everything that you think you see in me, everything that I've accomplished, everything you think that I have, and I have a few things, everything that I have is by the grace of God. Understand that. It's a gift."

The son of a Pentecostal pastor, Washington has become more open about his faith as an adult, especially since the 1996 movie "The Preacher's Wife," in which he played an angel -- Cary Grant's role in the 1947 classic "The Bishop's Wife -- sent to save a workaholic minister's marriage. Today, Washington and his wife Pauletta attend the giant West Angeles Church of God in Christ, in Los Angeles.

Meeting with journalists in 2010, he described how he seeks moral and biblical themes in his movies to link his work and his faith. After his first reading of "Training Day" -- the film for which he won the best actor Oscar, playing the corrupt detective Alonzo Harris -- Washington wrote, "the wages of sin is death" on the title page.

Whatever they pursue in life, the actor encouraged the Dillard graduates to "fail big" and be willing to "take chances -- professionally" while pursuing goals they are passionate about. However, he warned that in this "text, tweet, twerk world that you've grown up in" it's easy to confuse mere activity with the discipline and consistency required to reach goals.

Also, success will never be enough in life, he warned, because "you will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. I don't care how much money you make, you can't take it with you. The Egyptians tried it. They got robbed. … It's not how much you have, it's what you do with what you have."

True joy and ultimate success, he stressed, is found in helping others. Thus, he included this simple, but symbolic piece of advice.

"I pray that you put your slippers way under your bed tonight, so that when you wake up in the morning you have to get on your knees to reach them," he said. "While you're down there, say thank you -- for grace. Thank you for mercy. Thank you for understanding. Thank you for wisdom. Thank you for parents. Thank you for love. Thank you for kindness. …

"Say thank you in advance for what's already yours. That's how I try to live my life," he added. When success comes, it's important to "reach back, pull someone else up. … Don't just aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference."

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