The first story takes place in Texas with the spotlight on Matt Chandler, the 35-year-old Texas pastor recovering from cancer. Call me melodramatic, but Eric Gorski's story for the Associated Press reminded me just how much the religion beat will miss him. Somehow Gorski convinces his editors to give him the time and space to tell compelling, informative stories like this one. Here's a section of his 2,500-word piece.
Matt Chandler doesn't feel anything when the radiation penetrates his brain. It could start to burn later in treatment. But it hasn't been bad, this time lying on the slab. Not yet, anyway.
Chandler's lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame rests on a table at Baylor University Medical Center. He wears the same kind of jeans he wears preaching to 6,000 people at The Village Church in suburban Flower Mound, where the 35-year-old pastor is a rising star of evangelical Christianity.
Another cancer patient Chandler has gotten to know spends his time in radiation imagining that he's playing a round of golf at his favorite course. Chandler on this first Monday in January is reflecting on Colossians 1:15-23, about the pre-eminence of Christ and making peace through the blood of his cross.
The Bible reference took me by surprise because I don't see them very often in mainstream media reports. I can imagine most reporters might feel uncomfortable including references in their stories unless it's hard to ignore. Perhaps some think they are giving the individual a platform to spout their religious views. While that might be a legitimate concern in some cases, this detail in the story gives us a nice, clear picture of Chandler's thought process in dealing with cancer.
Chandler never thought such a trial would shake his faith. But until now, that was just hope in the abstract.
"This has not surprised God," Chandler says on the drive home. "He is not in a panic right now trying to figure out what to do with me or this disease. Those things have been warm blankets, man."
Chandler has, however, wrestled with the tension between belief in an all-powerful God and what he, as a mere mortal, can do about his situation. He believes he has responsibilities: to use his brain, to take advantage of technology, to walk in faith and hope, to pray for healing and then "see what God wants to do."
"Knowing that if God is outside time and I am inside time, that puts some severe limitations on my ability to crack all the codes," he says. "The more I've studied, the more I go, 'Yes, God is sovereign, and he does ask us to pray ... and he does change his mind.' How all that will work is in some aspects a mystery."
Even though Christians generally hold similar beliefs about God, Jesus, and the afterlife, Chandler might deal with his cancer differently than someone who believes that Christians have "free will." Gorski's piece does a nice job of exploring that a little bit through quotes from Chandler.
Yes, we've lamented the loss of Gorski. Fear not, though. Excellent religion reporters still toil away. Case in point: Bob Smietana, who wrote a piece for Sunday on how Churches of Christ are dropping an isolationist view.
Since the late 1800s, Churches of Christ, one of Tennessee's largest faith groups, have believed their approach to church--singing without instruments in worship, interpreting the Bible literally, taking Communion weekly and banning women from church leadership--was God's way.
That meant they kept mostly to themselves, shunned other Christians and did not participate in interfaith projects for the community.
In recent years, congregations like Otter Creek have adopted a more progressive view of their faith. They've added instruments to church services on Sunday nights and during the week. And they've begun cooperating with other faith groups, especially on charitable projects.
These might be subtle differences to the casual observer, but a sharp reporter like Smietana sees the significant shift for the group. He explains that the movement was founded in the 1800s because the founders believed churches of their day had split into too many denominations.
Those early Churches of Christ followed what they believed was the New Testament model for churches. That meant observing Communion every week, baptizing adults by immersion and having no ordained clergy.
The new churches also were autonomous, with no denominational structure. Because the New Testament doesn't mention musical instruments, these new churches banned musical instruments from all worship services.
That remains true for most of the 258 Churches of Christ in the Nashville area. Statewide there are 1,443 congregations, with 166,302 members. Nationwide, there are 12,629 Churches of Christ with a total of 1,224,404 members.
Finally, in The New York Times Sean Hamill writes about Father Moses Berry, a black priest of the Orthodox Church in America, who leads a 50-member parish and runs a museum for the black history of a nearly all-white town in Missouri.
Father Moses, 59, said he had spent much of his life on a spiritual quest that began in San Francisco in the late 1960s, included nearly a year in jail in Missouri on a drug charge that was later thrown out, and took a positive turn with his conversion to Orthodox Christianity. He was ordained, first in 1988 by an Orthodox church that he now considers "unauthentic" and in 2000 by the Orthodox Church in America.
When he returned here in 1998, after the death of an uncle who had willed him a 40-acre family farm, he had no intention of starting an Orthodox church in a town already served by 10 Christian churches of various denominations, let alone opening a black history museum.
...For Father Moses, his church and his historical work are inextricably linked.
"It's all bound up in my faith," he said. "That is, that we are all children of God and that we do have a shared heritage and not just a national heritage."
I would have liked to read more about why Father Moses is in the Orthodox Church and the challenges he faces leading an all-white congregation. The author links his faith with his historical work quite nicely, though.
Those were my weekend picks. Were there other stories you found worth noting?