A Christian comes to America

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Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill  in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When I was listening to Pope Francis speak to a joint session of Congress, my thoughts turned back to another Francis, the man, long a saint, from Assisi.

“Make me an instrument of thy peace,” St. Francis prayed in words set to a beautiful choral arrangement.

Here was this 78-year-old pontiff who seems to embody the grace and humility of the man whose name he has taken. And the mantle he has placed on himself fits this Francis as if it were tailor-made just for him.

What we heard was no lecture on birth control and only an oblique reference to abortion and that almost as an aside.

Here was the real gospel. How could you not just love this meek but wise old man?

He invited members of Congress, and then, further into his visit to America, delegates to the United Nations to care about the poor.

Did I read that he visited a shelter and blessed the meals of 300 homeless? Did he gently nudge Republicans and Democrats to stop partisan bickering and work together for everyone?

Build bridges, he advised. What a radical, this pope!

He could have been reading one of my old editorials of 20 years ago. Smart guy!

Pope Francis wins my vote further for appealing to U.S. and world leaders to act on the impending threat to the planet of climate change.

“Urgent action” is called for, he said. Urgent that means now, not tomorrow and not when the titans of industry say it’s OK.

I’m sure a lot of members of Congress bristled when he invited Americans to welcome immigrants. Of course, this nation of immigrants surely has no business building walls. What gives? This very wise pontiff sees that.

I promise I didn’t write the speech. It was Pope Francis’ idea to insert into the speech my four favorite heroes, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker and that radical Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

Did he even mention anyone else by name? I don’t recall. Now there’s a kindred of spirit for this old Unitarian for sure.

The crowds the man drew! I bet this pope attracted larger crowds of well-wishers than any returning generals, MacArthur, Ike, Patton. Sometimes, people prefer the man of peace.

The preacher in him couldn’t resist a call for the end of the death penalty and an end to the profit-driven proliferation of guns. I could easily have hired him as an editorial writer.

Who else in the whole wide world could have brokered a deal that opened diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba? Go suck a lemon you die-hard Cold Warriors!

I’m glad he stopped by. Pope Francis’ visit to America reminds us all of what’s really important and how we can all make a difference for what’s truly good. Come again soon, Francis. You’re always welcome.

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Don’t eat your heart out

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scaleMy cousin Ken’s daughter Beth told me she had lost a bunch of weight by following my advice.

Beth lives in North Carolina but she was home in Indiana for a grandmother’s funeral. That grandmother was on her mother’s side of the family.

What Beth was referring to was a brief column I had written for the paper about how to lose weight. Her dad had sent him a copy. My method surely was too simple and easy to remember to end up in a book or launch me on a high-paying lecture tour.

I don’t recall what prompted me to write what amounted to a personal advice column. My topics usually were about political and social issues. I’m reasonably sure that I had recently lost some unwanted weight. Here I was playing diet doctor. I don’t even have a college degree in one of the sciences.

As I said, my weight-loss strategy is simple: Just don’t clean your plate. That’s it. Don’t clean your plate at any meal. Ever. Now there must be hundreds of diet and weight-loss books. Many are written by licensed physicians and diet experts. They’ll prescribe foods, exercise and everything else except how to hold your fork.

At Barnes & Noble’s two stores in our city, entire sections are devoted to the subject. Of course, you can’t sell a book if it only contains one or two sentences like my diet plan. There’s more here. I mentioned the cottage industry of diet books. Besides these, there must be hundreds of people who offer seminars and lecture on weight loss. Your family doctor will give you a brochure.

No doubt a few people follow the advice in the diet books. They slim down. They can buy pants a couple of waist sizes smaller. Or they leave the lectures and manage to lose. Weight Watchers seems to be fairly successful. Likewise, a related industry promotes diet pills and other products, such as the popular Slim-Fast.

All these products and the experts, some with impressive credentials, constitute a huge business in this country. One of the main reasons for this is obvious. Most adult Americans are overweight. It’s like three-fourths, I just read in a medical report. Many of these folk are conspicuously obese.

Maybe most would like to lose weight. They really would, which helps account for the growth of the diet and weight-loss industry.

I should mention the small minority of overweight people who shell out thousands of dollars for bariatric surgery. How’s that for motivation! I understand this surgery reduces the size of a person’s stomach. So the patient loses weight because he or she isn’t able to eat as much food without feeling terribly uncomfortable.

Mark Twain said he found it easy to quit smoking. He had done it a thousand times. Lots of dieters would say the same. Moreover, many understand that trimming down isn’t just a matter of getting into one’s clothes comfortably. It’s a matter of protecting one’s health. Excess weight exposes a person to heart disease and cancer. It likely shortens a person’s life.

An important part of weight loss remains physical activity. I’m sure one of the main reasons I’m reasonably thin is that I walk or jog about five miles a day. I also do pushups and crunches and other moves to keep me fairly limber at age 76. Yet I can’t prescribe my regimen and diet for every adult. All I can say is that it seems to work for me. I don’t judge those persons who appear to be overweight.

As Pope Francis said in another context, “Who am I to judge?” Or, as Philo of Alexandria said centuries ago, “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.” Indeed, in this country staying at a healthy weight is a great battle.

So much conspires to make Americans overweight, from fast food restaurants to the high-calorie, high-fat products in the supermarkets. The advertisers don’t exactly fight fair. They can make people in TV commercials eating Big Macs or pancakes look not only trim and handsome but happy. I mostly avoid such ads by rarely watching commercial television.

I haven’t been in touch with my cousin Beth for some years. So I can’t report that she has kept off the weight my little column inspired her to lose. Even my own weight-loss strategy has its limits. My wife Toni is a terrific cook. Like most people, I love to eat. I particularly love sweets.

One thing I don’t eat is red meat. Researchers associate that with clogged arteries and various diseases. Beyond that, I weigh myself daily when I step out of the shower. If I see my weight creeping up, I try to remember to adjust how much I eat the following few days. Sure enough, my weight will inch downward. It’s a good feeling being in control.

I can’t prevent the terrorist attacks in Iraq, even gang-related shootings in my own city. I can’t stop the spread of a highly infectious disease such as Ebola that’s already claimed thousands of lives in east Africa. I can’t keep voters from electing stupid, self-serving people to state and national office. But I do get to choose what I eat. And what I can say “no” to. It’s a powerful tonic. Powerful.

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First freedom on review

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Tom Henry, 35th Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana
Tom Henry, 35th Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana

Sunday afternoon’s interfaith “Prayers for the City” service, the second annual, wouldn’t have happened in Burma, China, North Korea, Cuba or Iran.

To be sure, some of these countries even have freedom of religion written into their constitutions.

In this country, we mean it.

Mayor Tom Henry convened the event at the University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center in downtown Fort Wayne.

The program featured leaders from a number of religious traditions. That included a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic nun, a Baptist preacher, the UCC minister, a Muslim imam, a Sikh, a member of the Miami Nation and my Unitarian minister, Rev. Shelly.

An interfaith chorus set just the right tone with “Unity,” taken from the Psalms. The verse set to music declares “How good and pleasant it is for kindred to dwell together in unity.”

Sister Kriss led the congregation in a prayer of Pope Francis that petitions God, “Grant us peace, teach us peace…”

We heard a Buddhist chant. A beautiful young Hindu girl danced, often on one leg, to Eastern music. Her peaceful pose helped reinforce the theme. She had everyone charmed.

The interfaith chorus sang one of the favorites my college choir often did, “The Prayer of Saint Francis.”

Local clergy took turns leading the congregation in a responsive reading. At the close, as we filed out to the Performing Center’s lobby for the refreshments, I was struck by how friendly, even energized everyone seemed.

I studied in colleges and a seminary where you often heard there was one church and you were in it. There was none of that at Sunday’s interfaith service. There was no narrow, bigoted spirit to be found in that center, that day. Yet there are lots of places in the world where your beliefs, practiced openly, can land you in prison or get you killed.

In this country, an interfaith service such as Sunday’s in Fort Wayne is as common as an interstate highway or the 11 o’clock news. We practice religious freedom here every day and don’t give it a second thought.

Thank you, Founding Fathers.

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