Sunday, December 30, 2012

If you haven't read the book, maybe you've seen the movie

Today we begin a sermon series based on a portion of the Book of Exodus. The series is entitled "Change: Journey toward a promised land."

If you haven't read the book, maybe you've seen the movie. (Released in 1956, this is the first movie my parents took my sister and me to see.)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Excellent journalism by UMNS

Please take two minutes to read this story about the human cost of border families separated by our U.S. immigration policies.

It is written by Amanda M. Bachus, director of Spanish Resources and editor of el Intérprete magazine published by United Methodist Communications. In addition to being an important human interest story, it is also an excellent example of submersion journalism.

It also includes striking photos by Mike Dubose, my favorite photographer. Find a photo gallery that accompanies the story here.

This is a photo by Mike Bubose of the Revs. Saul Montiel (left) and John Fanestil (other side of fence)  blessing communion bread on opposite sides of the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.
Congratulation to United Methodist News Service for exploring new journalism styles and its consistently excellent work.

And congratulations for this particular poignant story.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Preaching about scriptures we'd rather ignore

This billboard appeared last March in Harrisburg, Pa.  According to a Religion News Service story, it was paid for by a local chapter of American Atheists in response to the state legislature declaring 2012 as “the year of the Bible.”

This is why we need to preach and teach about these kinds of verses in the Bible. I try to periodically preach about passages of Scripture I'd rather ignore. Not long ago I did a sermon on Ephesians 5:22 "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord."

After that sermon I got an anonymous letter postmarked at a North Carolina post office from someone visiting Foundry who told me they had not heard the gospel preached that Sunday. I take that kind of response seriously, because if I haven't preached the gospel I haven't done my job. But it did occur to me that a sermon that is not gospel or good news to one person may be good news to someone else.

At any rate, I believe we need to help folk with these kinds of verses. They maybe do not make the most giddily inspiring sermons but we need to deal with these texts.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This is a disturbing cartoon

As someone who spends a significant part of my sermon preparation trying to understand the Greek text, I find this cartoon a bit, well, rude.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Quote of the week

Joy is an intermezzo of gratitude that interrupts the routine motion of life. 

Our lives, for the most part are motion and struggle. But now and then joy comers to arrest the motion, it stops the tedious ticking of our life-clocks with the bracing discovery that we have received a gift... stilling, for a moment anyway, the haunting anxiety that maybe life is made only of the stuff that hurts and angers, and makes us feel small and stupid and phony, there comes a sense that life - now, here, today - is a gift worth blessing God for. 

That's joy!
--Lewis B. Smedes Author, 1982
(Hat tip to Rev. Alvin Jackson)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sea gulls over Captiol Hill

This morning when I parked near the Eastern Market Metro entrance to get a cup of tea at Starbucks, I heard angry noises over my head.

Three sea gulls were flying angrily around the metro entrance park loudly squawking at each other.

I tried to rememebr if I'd ever seen sea gulls on Capitol Hill before. Maybe once. I am not quite sure. It has certainly not been a common memory.

Then I remembered the Reliable Source column in the Washington Post written by Roxanne Roberts (of Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! fame) and Amy Argetsinger.

I happen to be an ardent fan of the Reliable Source column, although I do force myself to read the real news before I read the gossip.

The Reliable Source often reports on celebrities who come to Capitol Hill to lobby for various causes, arts funding or global health, for example.

The Reliable Source calls then celebvocate

It occurred to me the sea gulls might have been in town to do some lobbying or celebvocating. Maybe they were advocating for less stringent rules about the disposal of garbage on the beaches or the disposal of fish killed by commercial fishing boats.

I did discover a news story about an owl capturing and eating a sea gull on Capitol Hill, but it turned out to be the Capitol Hill in Seattle, not the neighborhood where I live.

Or maybe the oceans are rising and we are now living closer to sea gull country than we used to.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Where is joy most likely to find you?

Joy of Motion Dance Center in Friendship Heights has classes for adult to learn how to dance. Even if they've never danced before in their lives. Maybe joy could find you learning to dance.

Perhaps joy could find you in the kitchen. Joy Wilson spends her days baking and writing. Her blog has become very popular. Her baking is sometimes quirky and often fun.

Anybody else experience joy when you are lost in a good book?  Joy sometimes finds me when I lose myself in a great story whether a novel, history, or systematic theology?

Or perhaps teaching others to read is where joy could find you.

Is nature where joy might find you? Beth Norcross will be teaching classes about nature and the church at Wesley Seminary:  “CM – 138 Greening Congregations” every other Tuesday 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. beginning January 29 and continuing through May 7 and “Hope and Healing for Creation”  9 am- noon every weekday June 10-21, 2013.

 Sometimes joy may find us in worship.

Think about where you might put yourself this week so that joy might find you.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Go Wisconsin!!

I can recall being in Wisconsin only once in my life. Jane and I were in Chicago for some reason. After we had finished whatever we were there to do, we rented a car, drove into Wisconsin, and rented somebody's condo on a lake for the weekend.

I am thinking maybe I need to figure out how to spend more time in Wisconsin. For a couple of reasons.

One reason is that it is the home of the United Methodist pastor Rev. Amy DeLong who was tried in a church trial for performing a same-gender commitment service. (Read Time magazine's coverage of her trial here.)
Rev. Amy DeLong

It is also home to the clergy of the Wisconsin Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church who served on the jury during her trial. Their sentence was a 20-day suspension and a requirement that she write a paper to outline procedures for United Methodist clergy to resolve issues that "harm the clergy covenant, create an adversarial spirit or lead to future clergy trials."

Amy's paper has been written and presented to the conference. The conference has established a clergy covenant team which is meeting and hosting a webpage.

Time magazine called the jury's sentence at Amy's trial "historic." Time said: "The elders handed down the first sentence in 20 years of United Methodist jurisprudence that did not indefinitely suspend or defrock an elder for officiating a same-sex union."

The sentence of the Wisconsin clergy may be the reason there have so few complaints filed against clergy concerning marriage equality. 

Father Bill Brennan celebrates mass with a woman priest
So, go Wisconsin.

And then I came across this headline this week in a Reuter's news story:

Wisconsin Catholic priest, 92, punished for Mass with woman priest

So, once again, go Wisconsin. You sound like a place with lots of good, courageous people.   

Friday, December 7, 2012

Let's have a baby boom, baby!!!

DCist headline says:

Over the Next Decade, Wards 1 and 2 Will Make the Most Babies

That's our neighborhood here at Foundry. More Foundry folk are concentrated in wards 1 and 2 than anywhere else.

Spread the word that we've got a great nursery and Sunday school!!!

We love doing baptisms!!!! 
 And Foundry is the kind of church you'll want your child to grow up in -- diverse, inclusive, engaged, reconciling, welcoming to all, changing the world to make it better for all babies everywhere. 

So let's have a baby boom at Foundry. 
And let's be sure to remember to thank and pray for all of our nursery volunteers and our nursery staff Chasta Piatakovas and Kristina Scriber. And the person who coordinates our ministries with children Pastor Theresa Thames.
Pastor T

Thursday, December 6, 2012

What does it mean to be chaste?

The Bell Ringer of Notre Dame
Congratulations to the LGBTQ students of Notre Dame who have been trying to establish a university-recognized LGBTQ organization there for years. Yesterday they succeeded, according to an article in the South Bend Tribune.

But wait! Zack Ford, who edits a web publication called Think Progress, has actually read the fine print of the Notre Dame plan for the new LGBTQ group and has written an article entitled "Notre Dame’s First LGBT Student Organization Will Have To Promote Chastity."

Ford quotes the plan that created the new student organization. Can you figure out what this paragraph is actually trying to say?
At the same time, the University also adheres to the Church’s teaching concerning homosexual actions. As a result, “Homosexual persons are called to chastity” and to “friendship,” and should cultivate “the virtues of self‐mastery that teach them inner freedom” (CCC, 2359). Indeed, each and every student at Notre Dame is called to nothing less. All Notre Dame students are urged to understand and live the teachings of the Church relative to their lives and expressions of sexual intimacy.
The question is what does it mean to be chaste?

Merriam-Webster says it can mean either to be celibate or to be pure in thought or act. The usual assumption is that being chaste means refraining from sexual activities. 

The Notre Dame statement says"Homosexual persons are called to chastity." It then adds that "Each and every student at Notre Dame is called to nothing less."

Even the married ones?

Why is it so hard for us church people to affirm loving committed same-gender relationships? 

In order to avoid making this simple act of affirmation, it sounds as if Notre Dame is asking absolutely everybody not to have sex.

What corners we paint ourselves into!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Foundry's own Garrett Peck on the end of Prohibition

Today in 1933 Prohibition ended.

Foundry Church's own Garrett Peck is the author of The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet.

You can celebrate or bemoan the anniversary of the end of  Prohibition by watching Garrret interviewed on below.

Also, in case you missed it, the District of Columbia Council voted yesterday to allow Sunday sales of liquor, according to this article in the DCist

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The secret to joy

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
"Flow ... the secret to happiness"  is a great TED Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chick-sent-me-high-ee"). It should really be subtitled "the secret to joy."

I will be referring to it in my sermon tomorrow on the First Sunday of Advent.

I will also be drawing upon a book by Jonathan Haidt (pronounced "height") who teaches at the University of Virginia. His book is entitled The Happiness Hypothesis.

Oh, we will also be drawing upon the Bible: Luke 1:11-23, the story of John the Baptist's father Zechariah. 

Foundry's Advent series this year is entitled "Suddenly ... joy." We are reading stories about the preparations for the birth of Christ from Matthew and Luke to learn how to have more joy in our lives.

And the Christmas tree is up! A crew of Foundry folk have been decorating the church this week and have done a great job preparing us for Advent and Christmas.

And the choirs are getting ready for their Advent/Christmas music special on Sunday, Dec. 9 Great Joy! A Gospel Jazz Christmas.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Give Jake a break!

Come on, Washington Post TV column. Give Agnus T. Jones a break. Your snarchasm is sort of mean.

This is a young man, 19 years old, trying to find his path. He is trying to figure God out. He hopes someday to raise healthy food for hungry people to eat.

This is what he said in his interview with Christianity Today:
Q. What do you see yourself doing in five years?
Jones: I want to do something with proper health and diet and learn how to grow fruits, plants, and vegetables naturally, completely organically—how to prepare the soil right, how to do basic agriculture. I have farmland out in Texas so if I figure it out, there is a possibility of creating a farm that can supply homeless people with healthy food. They are getting the slob of the slob: high-fructose corn syrup, white bleached flour, everything that is processed. I would love to get healthy food to them.
Besides, he is not wrong about Two-and-a-Half Men. It can get pretty gross. The New York Post entitled a review of a particular episode of the show: "This episode will make you sick."

The New York Post!

So, Agnus, our prayers are with you. May you find your path. You could do worse than Seventh- day Adventism with its emphasis on healthy living and medical missions.

And please, please, Lisa de Moras and all the others who spend your time watching and writing about TV, give the kid a break.

I don't mind you being snarky about Charlie Sheen or Ashton Kutcher. But don't slam a kid for trying to find God and his life path. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Methodism and Tobacco

The United Methodist Church is one of 30 denominations
who comprise Faith United. Jim Winkler, General Secretay
of the UMC Board of Church and Society, has served
as Faith United's chair.
John B. Buescher has written an account entitled "In the Habit: A History of Catholicism and Tobacco" about Catholic attutudes toward the use of tobacco.

Years ago I knew a monk (he was a wonderful person) who used snuff. He said he used it because smoking was not allowed during mass but snuff was. He sometimes attended masses that lasted for hours. Using snuff during long services is what got him in the habit of using it all of the time.

It is interesting to note that, since the discovery of tobacco, a significant number of  popes used snuff, perhapes for the same reason as my old monk friend did.

It is also fascinating --and curious-- that at some points in history (parts of the 1700s) smoking was actually allowed during services at St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome!

Reading Buescher's essay, it occured to me that someone should write an objective history of Methodism and tobacco. If it has been done, I am not aware of it.

My knowledge of Methodism's relationship to tobacco is scattered and random.

One of John Wesley's rules for his class meetings was: "To use no needless self-indulgence, such as taking snuff or tobacco, unless prescribed by a Physician."

I don't know how widely the rule was enforced within British Methodism but it was not always the norm for American expressions of Methodism.


William Otterbein smoked a pipe. Otterbein was one of the founders of the United Brethren in Christ Church (which merged with the Evangelical Church to become the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which merged with the Methodist Church to become the United Methodist Church).

It was apparently common for people, including clergy, within the United Brethren Church to smoke. I don't know whether this was limited to certain eras or regions but I do know it was common at some point in time in parts of Pennsylvania.

During the years I worked on the staff of the United Methodist Church in central Pennsylvania, where the United Brethren Church had been particularly strong, I came across a written history of a United Brethren campmeeting.

One of the issues in the history of the campmeeting had to do with the sale of cigars. The issue was not whether cigars should be sold or smoked on campmeeting grounds. The issue was whether cigars should be sold on Sundays. The concern was not the use of tobacco but doing business on the Sabbath.

Some pastors argued for Sunday sales because, they claimed, they did not make enough money to buy a two-day supply of cigars on Saturday. I have no idea where they got the extra money to buy cigars between Saturday and Sunday.


I have mentioned before the debate reported in Homer Caulkin's history of Foundry Church about chewing tobacco. In 1831 the Baltimore Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, meeting at Foundry, passed a resolution outlawing the spitting of chewing tobacco "on the floors and in the Pulpit of our Church." Pastors in the pulpit were apparently among those using chewing tobacco and spitting it, otherwise why would spitting have been specifically prohibited in the pulpit?


The New York Times published a stinging editorial on June 3, 1880, objecting to a decision by the annual conference requiring candidates for Methodist ministry to pledge not to use tobacco. Since the vote was 125 to 83, I assune this was just the New York Annual Conference, but don't really know. Those already ordained were not required to give up the use of tobacco, just candidates for future ordination. The New York Times found this double standard offensive: "If the Methodist ministers really believe the use of tobacco is wrong, they should set the standard of abandoning it."

One of the claims made in the editorial is: "From time immemorial the Methodist minister has been permitted to use tobacco to his heart's content." Wesley's prohibition against the use of tobacco in class meetings suggests the New York Times may have been wrong about this.


One of the ways the Duke family, who were avid Methodists, made their fortune was the sale of tobacco.  Washington Duke (1820 - 1906) owned a tobacco farm near Durham, N.C., and began a tobacco business. His son James Buchanan Duke (1856 - 1925) got a license to operate the first automated cigarette making machine. He became head of the American Tobacco Company (later determined to be a monoploy by the U.S. Supreme Court) which he build into a very major multinational corporation.

The Duke family established the Duke Endowment which funded (and still funds) United Methodist-related Duke University and many Methodist institution in the Carolinas. Perhaps because of this, smoking seemed to be more acceptable among Methodists in North and South Carolina, at least until recently.

I remember meeting a United Methodist pastor 25 years ago who had transferred from New Jersey to North Carolina because he smoked and he felt North Carolina Methodists were more accepting of this than New Jersey Methodists.

It should be noted that Duke University now includes a department called the Duke Center for Smoking Cessation. Jed Rose, the director of the center, says: "I think it is highly appropriate that Duke, which is connected so strongly to a tobacco family, is a center for helping to eliminate the enormous damage caused by cigarette smoking,"


In 2008, General Conference, passed the statement: “In light of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco are hazardous to the health of persons of all ages, we recommend total abstinence from the use of tobacco” (¶162M).


These are just a few scattered references to Methodism and tobacco I've come across over the years. Perhaps Erik Alsgaard who wrote a study entitled "Tobacco: Do No Harm" for Faithlinks knows more.

I'd be curious to know when and where during Methodism's history in America, the use of tobacco was more acceptable and when it was more likely to be prohibited. The scattered data I am aware of seems a bit unclear but I suspect our policies and practices have not always been as anti-tobacco as we tend now to represent them as having been.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Rethink Church billboard for DC?

During this Advent/Christmas season a very cool billboard is going up in Birmingham, Dayton, Detroit, Nashville, Pittsburgh, and, in Spanish, in Pasco, Wash.

Here is a stricking photo of the Nashville billboard taken by my favorite photographer Mike DuBose.

After admiring the billboard's message and the way Mike framed his photo, my next thoughts was: We ought to have one in Washington, DC.  

This is the nation's capital. Wouldn't it be a great thing for our citizens as well as those who work in the White House and Congress to see a big bold United Methodist Church billboard encouraging generosity in the nation's capital?

Suddenly, it occured to me that I couldn't think of anywhere in Washington where there are billboards.

I discovered this history of billboards in the district. It turns out new billboards were outlawed by Congress in 1931 with existing ones grandfathered in. Most of those grandfathered billboards have been taken down as a result of development. So there are very few billboards left in Washington.

The Capitol Outdoor Advertising Company located in Washington, DC, that owns billboards i n major cities throughout the United States ironically lists only two billboards in DC -- one at New York Ave & Montana St. NE, the other at1601 South Capitol St, SW. Neither location would seem particularly effective.

What Washington, DC, has instead of billboards is "Special Signs."

In 2000 then Mayor Tony Williams got approval to allow "Special Signs." These are
huge billboards imprinted on tough flexible screens, a new technology that can produce signs of enormous size of 10,000 square feet or more.

The DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs reports that 32 permits for "Special Signs" (which are officially not billboards) have been issued. A vote by City Council has determined that there will be no more and the future existence of these is questionable. Here is a DCRA list of where  "Special Signs" are located.

The ones I pass by during my daily walk seem pretty tasteful and restrained. I know there are those who oppose any advertising like this at all, but these signs don't bother me. There is a way they make the cityscape more interesting.  

Here's the "Special Sign" at 730 11th St., NW

Here's the "Special Sign" at 819 7th St., NW

I think it would be cool for one of these signs or one of the other downtown "Special Signs" to be a United Methodist Rethink Church billboard like the one being put up in Detroit, Nashville, and Dayton.

However, I imagine because they are very limited that the DC "Special Signs" are very expensive to rent and, because they are "Special Signs" and not billboards, I suspect they are very expensive to print.

But it would be cool. Maybe next year. How about it, Rethink Church friends?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Freedom of the pulpit

Watch Colbert discuss Pulpit Freedom Sunday here

I tend to favor almost absolute freedom of the pulpit as a political right.

In fact, I am hard pressed to think of when I would limit freedom of the pulpit politically even though I do recognize that harmful and bigoted things are preached all the time.

Freedom of the pulpit is a combination of two other pivotal constitutional freedoms: free speech and the free exercise of religion. This makes it, in my opinion, especially critical.

Religion News Service reports that a new effort to limit the freedom of the pulpit is afoot.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the IRS because they have failed to take tax-exempt status away from 1,500 pastors who participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. They want tax-exempt status taken away from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association because of ads it ran in newspapers asking people to vote along "biblical principles." They are also trying to get tax-exempt status taken away from several Roman Catholic bishops who spoke out against same-gender marriage.

IRS does have provisions that prohibit tax-exempt nonprofits, including churches, from participating in partisan politics or doing too much lobbying. An IRS Tax guide for churches and religious organizations gives examples of what kinds of activities put a church's tax-exempt status at risk. Pastors can endorse a candidate so long as they do so as private individuals and not in settings where they are acting in their official role. Pastors can not endorse candidates from the pulpit without putting their church's tax-exempt status at risk.

Every election season United Methodist pastors get a reminder from the United Methodist General Board of Finance and Administration that endorsing candidates could result in loss of tax-exempt status. (I assume it is not just emailed to me personally.)

I have no desire to endorse candidates from the pulpit. I consider it tacky (which is even worse than being wrong or illegal).

Yet, to punish the free exercise of religious speech by taking away tax-exempt status is dangerous.

Part of what makes this discussion difficult is the fact that there does not seem to be a clearly stated rationale for churches being granted tax-exempt status in the first place.

The most commonly stated justification for tax-exempt status for nonprofit organizations is that they serve the public welfare and therefore should not be subjected to the financial restraint of having to pay taxes. (However, no really clear, consistent, legal policy seems to exist. Read pp. 27ff of this paper by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. Very complex.)

IRS rules are written as though there were no difference between other nonprofits and churches, but churches are different because the free exercise of religion is protected by the constitution whereas doing good works isn't.

I think the idea of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association losing its tax-exempt status for asking people to vote their biblical pronciples is especially serious. What clergyperson doesn't ask his or her parishoners to vote according to biblical principles either implictly or explictly? We just disagree about the core principles the Bible teaches.

I know. I know. Freedom of the pulpit leads to some herendous abuses, like Westboro Baptist Church. I probablty disagree with the people who participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday on many things. But I will defend their right to preach what they preach.

This is different, by the way, from religious denominations or organizations setting limits on the teaching and preaching of its clergy. While I'd hope bishops and such step lightly, denominations should have the power to set limits on the teaching of their clergy.

The government, however, should not have the power to punish religious organizations for their teaching. Taking away tax-exempt status is a punishment. As the Supreme Court once said, the power to tax is the power to destroy.

Besides, voters showed in the last election that they can think for themselves no matter what they are hearing from the pulpit. If preachers keep preaching intolerance toward women and LGBTQ folk from their pulpits, they will just create more nones --people who refuse to affiliate with any religion-- rather than convince people to vote on the basis of intolerant thinking.

I tend to trust the free marketplace of ideas. Limiting the freedom of speech, especially religious speech, is more dangerous than letting people say things we disagree with. The free marketplace of ideas will figure it out.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Separate but equal communion?

The Church of the Holy Apostles in Virginia Beach, Va., is the only blended Roman Catholic and Episcopalian church in the United States. But what a great thing it is to have at least one. Maybe Holy Apostles could be a precedent and role model for other experiments in Catholics and Protestants worshiping and sharing congregational life together.

Now, however, the Virginian-Pilot reports that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond has ruled that the Catholics and Episcopalians of Holy Apostles can no longer receive communion together in the same room. For the past 30 years the entire congregation has shared a combined communion liturgy and then Catholics were served by the Catholic priest and Episcopalians were served by the Episcopalian priest at separate altars in the same sanctuary.

From now on Catholics and Episcopalians will be able to hear the same sermon but they will have to celebrate separate communion liturgies and be served communion in separate rooms.

What a shame.

The Episcopalian pastor Michael Fergusin said: "It could have been much worse."

So the Diocese of Richmond should be congratulated for allowing this experiment to continue. Some were worried the diocese would pull out of the church.

But why not allow Catholics to be in the same room with Episcopalians when they receive communion? I am not even quite sure how to interpret the ruling. What does it mean? What is the logic? The Virginian-Pilot article doesn't give the rationale for the ruling. I fear the diocese may not have given an explanation for the thinking behind its ruling.

If you want to think more about the question of guarded verses open communion tables there is a useful article in Christian Century magazine entitled "Who is Communion for?" Especially interesting are the comments at the end of the article, including the Facebook comments.

I myself believe the holy meal is for all God's children and all of us are God's children whether we want to be or not.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The pope and the virgin birth

Pope Benedict XVI's new book "The Infancy Narratives - Jesus of Nazareth" is out. It is even available in a Kindle edition as of today. I am not sure whether I will read it or not. The stack of books I am trying to read right now is pretty tall. (Except some are electronic; I am not sure what terminology will replace the "stack of books" now that we are reading eBooks.)

The news reports about the new book are interesting. According to Reuters, the pope insists on the truth of the virgin birth.

The pope is quoted as writing: "The accounts of Matthew and Luke are not myths taken a stage further. They are firmly rooted, in terms of their basic conception, in the biblical tradition of God the Creator and Redeemer."

He asks: "Is what we profess in the Creed (a Christian prayer that includes belief in the virgin birth) true?"

He answers: "The answer is an unequivocal yes."

On the other hand, the story of the magi is not necessarily factual. 

The Reuters article says: "Benedict says that while he believes in the story of the adoration of the Magi, no foundation of faith would be shaken if it turned out to be an invention based on a theological idea."

So my question is how the pope decides which parts of the birth narratives are unequivocally true and which are possibly theological  constructs.

I have said in sermons that I personally believe that almost all of the birth narratives, including the virgin birth, are theological stories intended to express post-resurrection faith convictions. I even preached a sermon once based on the argument that the magi being a later addition to the birth narratives is part of what makes it such a powerful story. I said pretty much the same thing in this essay.

I actually suspect that the early church may have disagreed about these stories. The reference to "cleverly devised myths" in Second Peter 1:16 may be about some of the birth narratives. Peter suggests that the heavenly announcement made at the transfiguration: "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," was the actual origin of Jesus' authority rather than the birth narratives.

The birth narratives are no less precious to me. They are the early church's expression of its faith in Christ, their savior, liberator and hope. They are wonderful, poetic expressions by early Christians of their experience of the unique power of Christ in their lives.

My question is how the pope decides which parts of the story are unequivocally true and which are possibly inventions based on theological ideas.

What is the principle that allows us to make this distinction? Based on the news articles, the distinction seems to be how much the pope considers a particular part of the story to be a central tenant of the faith. The virgin birth is in the creed so it must be unequivocally true while the magi story is more peripheral so it might be an invention. 

This seems to me to be a mistake. Basing our evaluation of the truth of the story on our theology rather than on scholarship will, I think, eventually catch up with us. It is like saying this part of the story must be unequivocally true because I really, really want it to be. This other part of the story could be an invention based on a theological idea because I don't care as much if it is true.

I don't think this is a good way to understand the Bible.

But perhaps I shouldn't judge the pope's book based solely on newspaper reports. 

Darn, I've painted myself into a corner. Now I guess I will need to add the pope's new book to my electronic stack and read it after all!