One of the great challenges of being a minister is finding something fresh and inspiring to say every year during holiday seasons.
The challenge must be especially daunting for liberal clerics who walk a tightrope between ancient doctrines and their own postmodern beliefs. They must say something innovative and daring -- Christmas after Christmas, Easter after Easter, Earth Day after Earth Day.
Which brings us to a recent epistle by Bishop Charles E. Bennison, Jr., of Philadelphia, an ultra-candid voice in the Episcopal Church establishment. In "The Challenge of Easter" he claims that the ministry of Jesus was rooted in irony and transcended imperialistic laws, codes and creeds. He worked by trial and error. He bent the rules.
"This is what causes fear -- Jesus forgives sins," wrote Bennison. "He claims the authority of God in doing so. ... He acknowledges his own sin. He knows himself to be forgiven."
Wait a minute, said many careful readers. Jesus was a sinner? Says who?
Bennison quickly issued a statement saying he didn't mean to contradict scripture and centuries of doctrine. But he stopped short of a clear retraction.
And so it goes on the religion beat. Year after year readers send me bizarre items from all kinds of sources, from church bulletins to the World Wide Web. Some of this stuff is too good to throw away. Thus, I always mark this column's anniversary -- this is No. 15 -- by sharing out-takes.
It helps to read between the doctrinal lines.
* According to a survey by the Barna Research Group, non-Christian Americans rank "evangelicals" 10th out of 11 categories of people. Evangelicals, for example, were viewed less kindly than real-estate agents, movie stars and lawyers. They placed just ahead of prostitutes.
* Media stereotypes are hard to defeat. Carl Rosen of New York Magazine notes: "When VeggieTales first came out, my office received promo copies of the first three videos. I saw the word 'Christian' and threw them away. Then my wife bought one without reading the fine print and we watched it with our son and we all thought it was great."
* For a decade or two, social activist Tony Campolo has been firing up audiences by asking if it's a sin for Christians to drive BMWs. Now, saints and sinners alike are pondering the significance of last year's "Chevrolet Presents: Come Together and Worship" concert tour. Inquiring minds want to know: What would Jesus drive?
* Catholic prelates in Germany have expressed dismay that the Langnese company is marketing ice creams named after the seven deadly sins of envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath. "Gluttony" ice cream I can grasp. What would "sloth" taste like?
* Does anyone know why the anti-war anarchists -- www.actagainstwar.org -- who are trying to paralyze the streets of San Francisco keep meeting at the St. Boniface Catholic Church? Just asking.
* The most popular satire site in cyberspace is www.theonion.com. Now, some Eastern Orthodox Christians with too much time on their hands have created its Byzantine counterpart -- www.theoniondome.com. Anyone seeking evangelical satire should visit www.larknews.com. Meanwhile, I can't decide if www.yourgoingtohell.com is satire or not.
* Someone needs to check the urban legends files. Wire services report that a 30-year-old Dutch student named Jennifer Hoes has set her wedding date. On May 28 she plans a civil ceremony in which she plans to marry herself.
* This was a wild year for Patricia Heaton, the outspoken star of the hit sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond." In addition to walking out of the raunchy American Music Awards, she continued to speak out against abortion. Is she feeling the heat in Hollywood? "When my final judgment comes," Heaton replied, "I don't think I'll be answering to Barbra Streisand."
* Need an unofficial "Harry Potter" school tie? It turns out that the maroon-and-gold ties sold in the Calvin College bookstore are dead ringers for the tie in the young wizard's school uniform. Was this predestined?
* And finally, Canadian newspapers reported that Anglican bishops are complaining about Father Dorian Baxter's popular "Elvis Priestly" ministry, in which he performs weddings and funerals in a velvet Elvis suit.
The bishops believe this is in poor taste. Perhaps the priest is merely being ironic.