Is there a dark side to all of those fun funerals?

For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes." 

The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer. 

But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals. 

"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview. 

An update on Pope Francis, Rush Limbaugh and the poor

From day one in the Pope Francis era, the so-called insiders who do so much to shape public opinion have said "conservatives" -- inside the Vatican and outside -- were grumbling about this shepherd's unorthodox style.

That is certainly true in some corners of the church, noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a prominent voice on matters of doctrine and public life. However there is a bright side to all the jarring news reports about Pope Francis.

The famous Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once noted that "every age gets the saint it needs. Not the saint people want, but the saint they need -- the saint who's the medicine for their illness. The same may be true of popes," said Chaput, in a July 26 speech at the Napa Institute in California.

Don't ask, don't tell on cohabitation?

It's a hypothetical case, but one priests frequently face in an American culture transformed by the Sexual Revolution. 

On the other side of the desk is a couple seeking marriage-preparation sessions before a church wedding. At least one of these young people is from a parish family and, thus, has been receiving Holy Communion. Neither has been to Confession in years. 

 The pastor has every reason to suspect that, like millions of Americans, this couple is already "shacking up."

A Catholic priest knows that the catechism teaches that sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is "gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses." He knows that it teaches that anyone "conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion."

So a painful question looms over these encounters: Don't ask, don't tell?

Growing tensions on the Faith and Family Left

It was one of those symbolic questions that pollsters toss into the mix when probing fault lines inside political coalitions.

The Pew Research Center recently asked, as part of its "Beyond Red vs. Blue" political typology project, whether voters agreed or disagreed that it is "necessary to believe in God to be moral."

Among the voters called "Solid Liberals," one of three major Democratic Party camps, only 11 percent of those polled said "yes." People in the emerging "Next Generation Left" felt the same way, with only 7 percent affirming that statement.

However, things were radically different among the voters that Pew researchers labeled the "Faith and Family Left." In this crowd -- the survey's most racially and ethnically diverse camp -- an stunning 91 percent of those polled saw a connection between morality and belief in God.

"That number, the size of that gap, jumped out at me" in the results, said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.

Faith and Family Left voters are "pretty loyal Democrats, the kind that supported Bill Clinton and Al Gore. They voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and most of them voted for him again in 2012," he added. "But when it comes to moral and cultural and religious issues, they take a very different approach" from the Solid Liberals and those in the Next Generation Left.

Religious leaders struggle to reach 'emerging adults'

When leaders of traditional faith groups think about reaching out to Millennials, religious seekers, unaffiliated "Nones" and other postmodern young Americans, this is the voice that many keep hearing in their heads.

"Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it," said one person interviewed in the National Study of Youth and Religion. "You could feel what's right and wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what's right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I'm going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I'm going to do it."

Seconds later, young people caught up in what experts now call "emerging adulthood" may stress that they are open to attending multigenerational congregations that offer roots, tradition and mentors. But how will they know when they have found the right spiritual home?

Right. When they feel it.

That's a hard target to hit, said Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back." Many religious leaders are struggling to find a "sweet spot between deep religious messages that sound cool" and faith that "seems like it comes from a sappy self-help book," she noted.

In light of current trends, it's also hard for clergy to take comfort in the trend seen in previous generations, which is that young people who abandon the pews usually return when they are married and have children. Trouble is, increasing numbers of Americans between 20 and 40 are delaying marriage, family and any community ties that bind. Some are opting out of marriage altogether.

This creates strong moral tensions.

Pain, hope and schisms in the long Anglican wars

Anglicans seem to be hopeful about their flocks in the United States, even if the warring factions in their Communion keep moving further and further apart.

That was a common theme in two upbeat recent sermons preached by leaders in the progressive and orthodox Anglican bodies now competing in the marketplace of American religion.

In the first sermon, Father Cameron Partridge became the first openly transgender priest to preach at Washington National Cathedral. The June 22 liturgy was part of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride month.

"To dream that one day this Episcopal Church family, in which I grew up, might join other traditions, and inspire still others, by embracing our gifts and leadership at all levels of its life. I am so grateful and proud to be in a church that is now living into this charge," said Partridge, who was born a woman, but now identifies as a "trans" man.

"As we behold one another in these days of celebration, may ... we give thanks for the unfolding mystery of our humanity and may we revel in our participation in God's ongoing project of revelation."

"Revelation" was the word for the day, said Partridge, a Harvard Divinity School faculty member and the Episcopal chaplain at Boston University. Modern churches must embrace the "project of revelation" that shapes an evolving faith, he said.

Partridge recalled a "circle of oppression" rite during an Episcopal retreat he attended 13 years ago, when the leader asked oppressed women to step forward.

Clergy, temptation, sex abuse and the law

Surely one of our world's most endangered species -- right up there with the Mountain Gorilla or the Sumatran Tiger -- is the church "ministerius youthii."

That was the conviction of the late Louis McBurney, a Mayo Clinic-trained psychiatrist who spent decades at his Colorado retreat center helping ministers crushed by the demands and temptations of their jobs. Youth ministers, for example, face stunning parental expectations, low pay, the loss of privacy and a nagging sense of powerlessness.

Plus, it's hard to work with adolescents in a sex-soaked culture. Many older teens think they are more mature than they really are, noted McBurney, in his 1986 volume "Counseling Christian Workers." Consider the case of "Joe," a newly married seminary graduate who was energetic, talented and driven. Then, there was this one girl.

"She was a beautiful 17-year-old who was more mature than her peers," wrote the psychiatrist. "They began to play tennis together, and she was frequently the last to leave group activities. Joe couldn't remember who made the first move to sexual intimacy, but once that happened it snowballed."

Many were hurt in the train wreck that followed, an all-to-common scenario that in the past often played out behind closed doors with parents and church leaders hiding the damage. Times have changed, to some degree, after years of public debate about the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, teachers, coaches and other trusted adults.

The respected evangelical publication Leadership Journal recently unleashed a firestorm of criticism by publishing an anonymous piece -- since taken offline -- entitled "My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon." One passage was particularly galling to Twitter critics who used #TakeDownThatPost and #HowOldWereYou as hashtags.

Sobering words define a young priest's life

As sermons go, it was not the kind of pulpit performance that -- when it was given -- created a buzz in the pews. The young Catholic priest's voice was flat and subdued, his face calm but not expressive.

After all, he was only a year or so into his priesthood and preaching was still rather new to him. On this day he was working with a sobering text from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus looks over the city of Jerusalem and weeps, knowing that death and destruction looms in the future.

So that was what Father Kenneth Walker preached about, in a sermon captured on video that has gone viral on the Internet in the days after he was gunned down, at 28 years of age, by a burglar at Mother of Mercy Mission parish near downtown Phoenix. He talked about forgiveness and the need for people living in a sinful, broken and violent world to realize that they may not have much time remaining to get right with God.

"God is all merciful, but he is also perfectly just," he said. "He will not prevent something from happening, if we bring it about by our own choosing. Nevertheless, God gives time and opportunity to repent before he lets the consequences fall upon us."

The Bible and church history are full of cases in which God warns people to flee wickedness, he said. In some cases, saints and martyrs suffered and died while God gave a wayward land more time to repent.

"We are in a similar situation today, since we are now living in a world that is increasingly rejecting Christ and casting him out of the public forum," said Walker. "We have grown far too attached to our own knowledge, our technology and our worldly pleasures -- such that we have forgotten God and what he has done for us."

Look around, he said. These are troubling times for Catholics who strive to practice the ancient traditions of their faith.

A wry case for using beer in evangelism

While he knows that millions of teetotalling Christians disagree, Father William Miller believes he can make a theological case for the moderate consumption of beer through a simple use of evangelistic math. "Beer is the universal beverage.

If you want to sit down and have a friendly, personal conversation with about 90 percent of the people in this world then that is probably going to take place over a beer, that is if you want them to open up and level with you," said Miller, who is -- logically enough -- the author of a chatty book called "The Beer Drinker's Guide to God."

"Think about it. If you're serious about talking to ordinary people about God, are you telling me that you don't want a chance to sit down and connect with about 90 percent of the world?"

Miller is aware that it's easier for an Episcopal priest to make this case than it would be for clergy in many, but not all, doctrinally conservative Protestant flocks. In an admirable demonstration of restraint, he resisted the temptation to open his book with the old proverb that wherever two or three Episcopalians are gathered together, "you will always find a fifth." Instead, he went with Catholic wisdom from St. Bridget of Kildare: "I should like a great lake of the finest ale for the King of Kings."

Then again, the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin took part of his salary in barrels of wine and the feisty German theologian Martin Luther was, truth be told, a German Lutheran who wrote classic hymn texts -- such as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" -- to fit the melodies of popular drinking songs.

Since Miller grew up steeped in the traditions of the Church of Christ in Texas, he is very familiar with conservative arguments against the use of alcohol and he is quick to quote biblical injunctions against drunkenness. This is handy since, in addition to leading St. Michael and All Angel's Episcopal Church in Kauai, Hawaii, he is part owner of a bar -- called Padre's -- in Marfa, a West Texas community so edgy and artsy that, despite it's tiny size, it has been granted its own National Public Radio station.

The bottom line for Miller is that alcohol is part God's creation and can be used in ways that are sacramental and glorious, as well as sinful and depraved. He is convinced that Jesus would, as his first miracle, have turned water into beer if that particular wedding party had been held in Texas.