150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death: How do we hold his memory today?

Lincoln on his death bed in Peterson House from Harpers weekly May 6 1865

LINCOLN on his deathbed, an illustration in Harper’s Weekly, 1865.

“The tragic splendor of his death, purging, illuminating all, throws round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while history lives and love of country lasts. By many has this Union been helped. But if one name, one man, must be picked out—he, most of all, is the conservator of it, to the future.”
Walt Whitman, April 16, 1865 (the day after President Lincoln died)

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER

Lincoln lay still those last nine hours.

His final night was in a narrow room in a boarding house across from the Ford Theater. The bed too small, his knees bent. As his personal silence began—a great gasp, a roar of dumb grief crossed the land.

A score and more of somber men crowded the small room—the fallen president a figure of spiritual comfort, even though many who kept the vigil were titans of war. They noted, oddly, how strong his long bare arms were. If he had one quip left if could have been, ”The better to hold our country with!”

Hold.

Almost everyone held his words, words from our history, our documents, our declarations, the words from Gettysburg that changed a killing field into a birth place. Such a transformation may we hope for in our time and in our lives to this day.

At Hancock, Massachusetts, the Shakers, those people of the Second Coming, inscribed in their large ledger, in double-sized script, “President Lincoln has been killed.” They who gave him one of their handmade rocking chairs, and received a note of thanks, knew his godly views. They were a community of sacred visions. They would hold him.

Hold.

Lilacs blooming in a dooryardWalt Whitman, one of Lincoln’s greatest champions, loved that word and used it eight times in his famous hymn of loss: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. In one instance, he wrote:
A moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.

The fragrance of lilacs would remain an annual memory of the loss, Whitman wrote:
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.

Walt Whitman challenged all of us to hold Abraham Lincoln’s memory and to wrestle with it—knowing that it would be a struggle. Whitman’s first use of “hold” in Lilacs issues that warning: “O cruel hands that hold me powerless!”

Whitman had spent years observing and thinking about Lincoln during the presidential years, which is why he was poised to commemorate his assassination with one of America’s greatest poems. Whitman said in a talk he often gave about Lincoln’s death, “For my part, I intend until my dying day, whenever the fourteenth or fifteenth of April comes, to annually gather a few friends and hold its tragic reminiscence.”

Now 150 years later, what might we “hold” in such a gathering of a few friends? How might we remember Lincoln and remember his tragic death?

I propose we hold such meetings this year. Whitman thought he was too close to the event to know what might eventually “filter” through to the American people from Lincoln and his murder. To hold such a time for talking with a few friends might raise some important ideas and feelings for us now as Americans and as people of spiritual life.

LET’S TALK …

Where shall we start? Here are three possibilities.

One. Historians tell us that John Wilkes Booth became the Confederate Killer because he had heard Lincoln’s recent speech on reconstruction and believed it meant what we now would call racial integration. Booth’s fury at the mere idea of equal association and legal status with blacks pushed him from kidnapping to murder, and from plan to impetuosity.

Is Lincoln’s death meaningfully associated with his increasingly open views on racial equality? What dangerous racial lines still divide us in America?

Two. Whitman tells us that huge numbers of singing, shouting Union soldiers marched up through North Carolina with General Sherman after Sherman’s defeat of Atlanta and march through the South. There “continued, inspiriting shouts…at intervals all day long…wild music…triumphant choruses…huge, strange cries…expressing youth, wildness, irrepressible strength…” until they heard word of President Lincoln’s assassination.

“Then no more shouts or yells for a week.” Hardly a word or laugh “…a hush and silence pervaded.”

Is there a truth in Lincoln’s death that muffles national triumphalism? Is there something about the spirit of military might that Lincoln’s death changes?

Three. There are two words often associated with Lincoln: humor and melancholy. He was being entertained at a funny play on the night of Good Friday when he was killed. He was laughing that night as he would often do. Yet of all the sorrowful times of his life nothing is quite as sorrowful as his death. Is there a balance in life between joy and sorrow, between success and failure, between a new birth of freedom and its tragic implications? Is there a balance we as a maturing nation are ready to hold?

These and other reminiscences of Lincoln could be part of an annual gathering held on the night of April fourteenth or in the day of April fifteenth—as Whitman called us to do. It would be an event as different as Christmas is from Easter, as Lincoln’s birthday is from the date of his death.

Care to read more?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Dr. David Gushee’s talk at Union Theological Seminary

Dr. David Gushee, author of Changing Our Mind, spoke at Fordham University on February 26, 2015, and Union Theological Seminary on February 27, 2015. Union Theological Seminary shares this video of Gushee’s talk. NOTE: Union posted the video without editing, so the clip begins well before the actual event. If you care to hear Gushee’s address, let the video load on your screen and move to cursor in to the 13 minute mark.

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The Benjamin Pratt interview on ‘Short Stuff from a Tall Guy’

COVER Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff from a Tall Guy full cover proof

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“You hold in your hands a human heart,” writes Day1 radio host Peter Wallace in the preface to Benjamin Pratt’s new book, Short Stuff from a Tall Guy: Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey. “It is the heart of a minister. A caregiver. A storyteller. It is the heart of a fellow sojourner on the path to a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.”

“As I read it,” Peter continues, “I couldn’t help but feel that I was having a heart-to-heart conversation with this beloved brother, Ben Pratt. Ben reveals himself within and between these lines in a multitude of wise ways—and in so doing, helps each of us see ourselves more clearly as fallible human beings yearning for meaning and love and grace and purpose in life. Sometimes finding it, oftentimes losing it, but always grateful for it when we experience it.”

In her foreword to the new book, popular Buddhist writer Geri Larkin points to the courageous compassion that Ben Pratt tries to foster among his readers.

“At a time when crime stories are topping best-seller lists, here is a book that offers an entirely different experience,” Geri writes. “Each story, anecdote and poem offers an antidote to the negative messages we get pummeled by on a daily basis by popular media.”

Instead, Geri writes, Ben “invites us instead to pause, to notice, and then appreciate the more heroic aspects of each other—our ability to sympathize, to provide comfort, to openly mourn loss, to genuinely and openly love everyone.”

At ReadTheSpirit, we highly recommend this book for anyone who already is a fan of works by Peter and Geri—or books by writers such as Barbara Mahany, Judith Valente, Robert Wick, Richard Rohr, Shirley Showalter and the Knuths. If any of those writers already is among your favorites, we guarantee you’ll recognize Ben’s latest book as a brother in that family of writers. Beyond the book’s value for individual readers, Ben Pratt is a popular speaker and retreat leader and many of the stories in this new collection will spark lively discussion in your class or small group.

(To learn more about Ben, visit his author page within our online magazine—or his author page within Amazon. To order his book, click on the cover image with this interview.)

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Ben Pratt. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BENJAMIN PRATT ON
‘SHORT STUFF FROM A TALL GUY’

DAVID: In recent years, Ben, you’ve written weekly columns that have been widely shared across our own website, the website of the Day1 radio network—and other online newsletters, too. You’ve heard from countless men and women about the ways your true stories touch their lives. What’s at work here? How are you able to take small stories from your own life and connect with so many readers?

BEN: That amazes me and it always pleases me to hear from readers. Apparently, by sharing these stories from my own daily journeys, I encourage people to think about meaningful experiences in their own lives and their relationships with other people.

Earlier in my life, I served as a pastor and wrote primarily for preaching. Usually, I got responses like: “Good job, pastor.” Short comments like that. But, I still remember a day when someone told me, “Listening to you preach today, I thought you must have been in our house this week.” That kind of response shows a much richer, deeper connection with people. I want to be speaking and writing in ways that connect with people where they’re living.

My effort now is to put my own musings and experiences into words so that I can help trigger such thoughts in other people. And the comments I get now, after a new column is published, often describe that kind of connection. Through what I write, I’m with them where they live.

DAVID: You refer to the stories in this book as “Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey.” You don’t describe these stories in terms that are typical in inspirational books. You don’t call these “meditations,” for example. They’re true stories from your daily life. Why do you describe it that way?

BEN: I don’t think of myself as a person who meditates in the formal way. A couple of times I have been part of groups that were training people in meditation, but somehow that never fit into my life. I find thoughts and images and insights coming to me when I’m playing in my garden, or mowing my lawn or even vacuuming the house.

DAVID: In your writing, the images often come before the words, right?

BEN: That’s usually how my writing begins. Eventually, those images form into words and the writing evolves.

My prayer life, too, is much more about images, putting myself where other people are and experiencing images. We have to pay attention to what is happening around us in life. We have to keep our eyes and ears open.

DAVID: That’s a frequent teaching by Geri Larkin, who wrote the foreword to your book. Geri likes to remind people to “Pay attention!”

‘EACH DAY CAN BE A PILGRIMAGE’

BEN: One prayer that I pray each day is known as the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace …” With that prayer to start your day, you’re never out of a job. There are always moments in which we can be of service, love, caring, forgiveness, hope.

That way, each day can be a pilgrimage.

DAVID: That’s a key theme in your writing—that our most important spiritual experiences usually don’t take place inside the walls of a church.

BEN: Within the church, we usually are preaching to the choir. We’re evangelizing the already evangelized. I’m much more interested in speaking to people in their daily lives—even though many of the people I encounter may be outside what we might think of as a formal faith community.

I don’t want to speak in traditional religious jargon. I want to talk about the real stuff we experience in our daily lives.

DAVID: So, let me pose the question another way: What’s a really good day for you?

BEN: (Laughs!) “A really good day?” Oh my! Well, a good day is when I laugh a lot, when I have meaningful interchanges with people: people I know and love—as well as strangers.

‘I’M INTERESTED IN THE STORY’

Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff color flyer thumbnail

WANT TO GET YOUR FRIENDS EXCITED ABOUT READING THIS BOOK? Click on this thumbnail of a full-color flyer for Ben Pratt’s new book. You’re free to save, share or print out that flyer and show it to friends. This book is ideal for a series of small-group discussions. Ben is a veteran teacher, speaker and retreat leader.

DAVID: Talk more about meeting strangers. You actually dare to talk to strangers—something most of us don’t risk doing on a daily basis.

BEN: Well, you have to be intentional about this, I think. Sometimes I get intentional about the quick encounter with a clerk at a register. I’m very quick to read the name on their name-tag—and I thank them by name. The encounter might be as simple as that.

There are many ways to start a conversation. I find tattoos fascinating. People tend to either love tattoos or hate them, but these often are amazing pieces of artwork that tell important stories from people’s lives. If someone has an obviously visible tattoo, I’ll often ask about it—I’m interested in the story.

These moments make the day delicious.

DAVID: Delicious!? Strangers are scary, aren’t they? It’s tough to convince people to speak to someone they don’t know.

BEN: I don’t think that way.

First, I don’t think of the people I encounter each day as strangers. I always trust that there is some bridge we can walk across to connect. Sometimes, we need to build the bridge as we’re walking across it toward each other. That means we need to listen carefully to the people we encounter.

If we allow the world to move us toward fear of the people all around us each day, then we’re in bigger trouble than anything we may fear. I always anticipate a connection—and that lets me meet each new person with a simple smile. And, we go from there. Sometimes, it’s just the smile.

DAVID: I like the fact that you ask about small details you notice in the people you meet. I’ve often found that’s a great first step in connecting. Someone who snaps on a lapel pin before leaving the house is hoping that people will see it. If a person has a book under his arm as he’s waiting somewhere—he usually will welcome a question about what he’s reading.

BEN: I believe that all of us, on one level, want to be noticed. Now, we do have to be careful about over-reaching. (Laughs!) My children sometimes have told me I can overdo this! But, we’re talking here about appropriate conversation: Simply saying hello to people. Smiling. Asking a simple question—because you’re really interested in their stories.

‘AT THE BACK OF THE ORCHESTRA’

DAVID: Readers of this book will quickly discover that you don’t make yourself the hero of these stories. For years, you worked as a pastoral counselor. You’ve been a teacher and retreat leader. But, in these stories, you’re not instructing readers. Instead, these stories invite readers to take a moment and think about their own lives—with you as a friend in the process.

BEN: Here’s a way to describe it. I know that I never will conduct a symphony. If I’m fortunate, I might be able to serve by playing the triangle at the very back of the orchestra.

I live my life like that. Near where we live, there’s a rotating shelter hosted by a number of churches—providing places to come find a warmth, safety and a good meal. I volunteer in that program. I show up and help serve the meals. I’m just one of the people in the background of that program. And, when I volunteer, I always find that I learn from the people who come into the shelter—as much as they will ever learn from me.

Small things do make a difference. This is the third book I’ve written and I’ve contributed to a couple of other books. And I’m amazed at all the people out there who have written to me to say that I’ve touched them with my writing.

‘WE ARE PEOPLE OF A STORY’

DAVID: Why tell stories? Every week, ReadTheSpirit online magazine publishes a couple dozen new stories by a wide range of writers—often including a new story by you, Ben, if we’re lucky that week. We keep doing this, because we think it matters to send these stories into the world. Why are we so drawn to telling stories?

BEN: If we hope to truly know ourselves, and then let others know us, that basically happens through our story. It’s important to know our story and to be honest about it. For people of faith, we are people of a story. All of the major religious traditions are rooted in story.

The other night, my wife and I visited some long-time friends for dinner. Before dinner, it was one friend’s turn to say a prayer. But, he surprised us. He said: “Instead of a prayer tonight, I’m going to tell you a story about my grandchildren. And, after I tell a story, I want each of you to tell a story from your families.”

I’m still thinking about what he did and said. “Instead of a prayer … I’ll tell you a story …” I think: That’s a beautiful way to pray together.

I do know this: Ask people to tell you their story—and you’ll never meet a stranger.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsCaregivingChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Greg Garrett Interview on our love of angels and demons

Entertaining Judgment by Greg Garrett

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

We love our angels and demons!

Pew’s massive study of American religious life shows nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe that angels and demons are active in our world. We’re also certain about cosmic realms from which these creatures emerge. More than 7 in 10 Americans believe in Heaven with our collective belief in Hell lagging a bit behind that.

Now, an intrepid explorer of the connections between popular culture and the spiritual realms invites us to travel with him as Dante did with his guide Virgil 700 years ago into Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso—a classic tale that we know as The Divine Comedy. Our new guide already is familiar to thousands of readers nationwide: Greg Garrett, a noted scholar at Baylor University and author of 20 previous books. He calls his book, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination.

Greg is well equipped to serve as our guide after decades of exploring religious themes in comic books, movies, music and American literature. As we set off with him on this great cosmic journey, he says: “This book really is the culmination of years of research. I hope readers will have fun with it.”

Note that this book is published by Oxford University Press so the standard of research is high and Greg lays out an extensive series of notes at the end of his book if readers dare to dive deeper into some of the strange corners they will discover in this adventure.

We can highly recommend the book both for individual reading, for any teachers or preachers who like to touch upon these issues and especially for small-group discussion in religious or secular settings. You’ll have lots of fun in your small group, bringing in video and audio clips to touch off discussion on the chapters in Greg’s book.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH GREG GARRETT ON
‘ENTERTAINING JUDGMENT’

DAVID: Wow! Talk about a whirlwind tour! The entire cosmos from Heaven to Hell—including visits with angels and demons, comic book super heroes, TV stars, great authors and even strange characters in video games—all in 200 pages!

Greg Garrett author of Entertaining Judgment

Greg Garrett, the 2013 Centennial Professor at Baylor University.

GREG: Well, for many years as a journalist, you’ve been covering the same kinds of connections I’ve been covering—and this book really does bring a lot of things together in one place.

DAVID: How did you cast the net for this book? Every page drops another intriguing character into the mix. How did you amass this cast of characters?

GREG: I had all of my own research over the years, then I asked people to recommend stories about the afterlife—stories of the undead, angels and demons—and I got a ton of recommendations! A lot of my clergy friends had powerful stories they had used in their preaching. My literary and cultural friends told me about a lot of things they were researching. And I also crowdsourced this. I asked people questions like: What’s your favorite angel story? Then, I’ve consumed so much popular culture throughout my lifetime that I had tons of things to draw on—perhaps with the exception of video games but I even played my way through Diablo for this book.

DAVID: Many of our readers love to make these kinds of connections. Our online magazine hosts Ken Chitwood’s FaithGoesPop series and, every week, we’re exploring similar links between faith and popular culture.

In fact, I’m going to do a shout-out to our readers: What’s your favorite angel story? Go into Facebook or Twitter and tell us. Add the hashtag #FaithGoesPop so that we spot it easily.

GREG: If they want to add another hashtag that I’m starting to use for the book, they can mark their ideas #EntertainingJudgment and I’ll take a look, too.

IS ‘LOST’ REALLY PURGATORY?

LOST tv seriesDAVID: Let’s use this interview to showcase some of the very intriguing connections you make in this book. There are far too many to list them all in our conversation, but we can hit some highlights. So, let’s start with that mysterious middle-realm: Purgatory. You point out in the book that the word “Purgatory” never appears in the Bible and the vast majority of American Protestants think of Purgatory as a Catholic belief.

However, Greg, you argue that—in effect—millions of Americans are attracted to the idea of Purgatory through books, songs, movies and TV shows like Lost.

GREG: That’s a good place to start because Purgatory really was the starting point for this book. For a number of years, I had been talking about doing a book with my editor at Oxford, Cynthia Read, and then one day she asked me: “Why is it that most American Protestants think that Purgatory is ridiculous theologically but they believe that people do undergo hardship and transform their lives?”

And I told her: “You’re right. We have an operational belief in Purgatory even if Protestants think it doesn’t make sense theologically.”

That question opened up the whole book for me. One of the most primal stories we share is that people can go through Hell and emerge with a transformed life at the end of it.

DAVID: When I was reading that section of your book, I immediately thought of Dr. Wayne Baker’s research in United America. When you talk about this “operational belief in Purgatory” that rings the bells of several core American values that Dr. Baker has documented.

GREG: A perfect example of this is 12 Years a Slave—it’s a story of Purgatory, which in this case essentially means going through Hell with an expiration date when our hero emerges with a transformed life. In fact, it’s hard to watch some of the things you see in the film, unless you can keep reminding yourself: Hey, it’s only 12 years. He will emerge from this.

Or for a Purgatory comedy, think about Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Over and over again, he is tried and tested with the hope of emerging as a new and improved being.

Purgatory was built into the DNA of Lost. From the very first season, there was this whole debate among fans about whether the island itself was Purgatory. And the creators of Lost said no it wasn’t. But this led to the idea of creating, later in the series, a “sideways” world—a world in which the Lostees never crash landed on the island and are presented with challenges they failed in their first time around. Even Dr. Linus, the show’s biggest villain, gets an opportunity to redo an awful choice he made and get it right.

BATMAN, BURNE-JONES AND STAINED GLASS

DAVID: There are dozens of other movie and TV references in this book from It’s a Wonderful Life to the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. But let’s jump to very different forms of media: comic books, paintings and stained glass. You connect all those dots, too!

Batman the dark nightAnd that starts with Batman, who makes appearances throughout your book. The story of the “dark knight” is back on prime-time TV in the hit series Gotham. This new series takes us back to Batman’s boyhood as Bruce Wayne, which starts with this little boy’s absolutely terrifying experience of witnessing the cold-blooded murders of his parents. From that kind of trauma, other characters in Gotham become blood-thirsty criminals, but Bruce Wayne emerges as a heroic figure who wants to use his powers to do good.

While Superman may be America’s oldest super hero, Batman has far more fans keeping his legend alive and his fans continually morph Batman into new forms of this angel-demon figure. I think he’ll be a connection point in your book for lots of readers and, of course, there are a lot lessons that can be drawn from comics. ReadTheSpirit has even established our own comic section called Bullying Is No Laughing Matter. So, I was very pleased to find Batman, in particular, showing up as a recurring character in your new book.

GREG: Batman is one of our most pervasive cultural stories. When I wrote about Batman and Superman back in my book Holy Superheroes, I did not realize that those two archetypal stories would continue to follow me around.

In the story of Batman, we think of Gotham as this Hell on Earth and we can think of Batman as a demon—a fierce creature of the night who, instead of using his powers for evil, chooses to use them for good. So, we’re tracing a character who was born in Hell and chose to rise above it. He casts aside everything he ought to be after those early experiences—and instead chooses to devote his life to doing good or others.

That’s the central element of the Batman story: A person can rise above a tragic setting and prove to be a hero for the ages. The question about Batman is: Demon or angel? And we could say he’s both—a devil who chooses to be an angel.

DAVID: Well, I was also pleasantly surprised to find in your book a lot about Edward Burne-Jones, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and designer whose images are still splashed across Christmas cards, church windows and lots of other decorative arts. You point out that Burne-Jones was influential in rescuing the idea of an “angel” from the Italian artists who wanted to turn them into cute little babies with wings. Burne-Jones gave us angels with real super-hero size and shape.

Dark knight in Edward Burne-Jones The Briar WoodIn fact, I was just comparing some of the popular images of Batman—the dark knight overlooking a sleeping city—to Burne Jones’s famous painting The Briar Wood, part of a cycle of paintings that he did in collaboration with his friend William Morris. Basically, a dark enchantment has made nearly everyone fall down in a deep sleep. And in The Briar Wood, which was painted in 1890, we see a very Batman-like dark knight overlooking this sleeping town.

GREG: Burne-Jones is really interesting because he did help to restore some gravity to these narratives about angels. As angel imagery had evolved, it looked as though the basic story was going to run off the rails into sentimentality. Throughout scriptures—whether we’re talking about the Hebrew or Christian testaments or the Muslim holy scriptures—angels are described as imposing, frightening, powerful. But, by the time of Burne-Jones, artists had turned angels into these cutesy little babies with wings. In paintings and stained glass and in other images, Burne-Jones restored the powerful nature of angels.

DAVID: And this is not just a matter of aesthetics or interior design. This transformation of angels into super heroes speaks to the terrible nature of the global challenges we faced in the 20th century and face again today. If our spiritual imagination is going to keep up with the world’s terrors, then we need super heroes, right?

GREG: Flying babies don’t do the job for us when we need a really serious pipeline to the Divine. I think that whenever our culture threatens to turn angels into cute little domesticated figures, then we’ve lost the main story about angels.

DAVID: We could go on and on—but I want to urge readers to actually order your book to continue the adventure. Let me close by asking you to sum up how you hope readers will respond to your book.

GREG: There were two things at the heart of my desire to write this book.

First, I wanted to spotlight how important stories of the afterlife continue to be in our lives. A vast majority of Americans continue to believe in Heaven and Hell and in manifestations of angels and demons. And that’s more than just a casual belief. My colleagues in research at Baylor report that a majority of Americans believe they’ve been helped by a guardian angel. So, the first thing I wanted to say is: These are very important beliefs in our lives today.

Then, second, I wanted readers to think about this: We’re consuming so many of these stories very uncritically. I want to invite people into a thoughtful consideration about this. What do we believe about the afterlife? What do we believe about the way the afterlife shapes our everyday life in pursuing faith and justice?

CARE TO READ MORE GREG GARRETT?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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The Barbara Mahany interview on ‘Slowing Time’

Cover Slowing Time by Barbara Mahany

Click this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

IN THE DEAD of winter across the Northern Hemisphere, where can we hope to find a pathway to spiritual renewal? Those of us in the northern states, overwhelmed by ice and snow, wish we could hibernate! Who would dare to venture outdoors for inspiration?

Barbara Mahany, that’s who.

After decades of writing for the Chicago Tribune, she now is sharing her wonderfully engaging insights with the rest of us in Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door. As we have often found at ReadTheSpirit magazine, veteran journalists understand their relationship with readers and have polish their craft until their writing feels like a conversation with a good friend. Just think of Judith Valente, Cathleen Falsani, David Briggs, Ken Chitwood, Suzy Farbman, Bobbie Lewis, Lynne Meredith Golodner—and that’s just to name a few.

If you are already a fan of any of the writers we’ve just listed, then don’t wait—click on one of the links to Slowing Time and order a copy right now. You’re going to love it!

Baby Boomers who fondly recall groundbreaking books like The Whole Earth Catalog—or anyone who likes to leaf through the pages of an Old Farmer’s Almanac will find a kindred spirit in Barbara’s paperback, which is packed with short pieces in a range of genres and formats. At a couple of points, she even tosses in favorite recipes! As you’re reading other passages, you’ll enjoy Barbara’s “field notes,” which run along the edges of many pages. Readers who can recall Whole Earth or are familiar with the Talmud may recognize this pre-Internet form of packing commentary on top of commentary as the pages turn.

The overall effect is a book you want to tuck in your purse or pocket, briefcase or shoulder bag. Keep a copy on the table where you enjoy your breakfast or morning coffee. Or, better yet, place your copy on a window-sill or near a doorway where you can read a bit before stepping outside.

Outside!?!

Yes, indeed. The book opens with these lines from poet Mary Oliver …

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Barbara Mahany. Here are ….

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BARBARA MAHANY
ON ‘SLOWING TIME’

DAVID: As a good journalist who understands the diversity of your readers, you include lots of surprising details in these pages. Your book encourages readers to rethink the way they approach the four seasons, beginning with winter, and you start with a reference to Tu Bi’Shvat (or Tu B’Shevat, spellings vary). Most Americans are Christian, but our online magazine covers this ancient Jewish holiday each year in our Holidays & Festivals department. And, this year FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis also has a fascinating piece on the “New Year of the Trees.”

In an opening page of your book, you introduce your section of “Winter” reflections like this: “In the Hebrew calendar, it won’t be long till Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish new year of the trees, when, in mid-winter in Israel, the almond tree awakes from its winter’s slumber, and 16th-century Jewish mystics taught that we elevate ourselves by partaking of seven new-year fruits. If eaten with holy intention, we’re told, sparks of light hidden inside the fruits’ soft flesh will be broken open and freed to float to heaven, completing the circle of life’s renewal.”

Barbara Mahany

Barbara Mahany

BARBARA: I’m so glad you noticed that and asked about it! Let me explain. I’m a deeply spiritual liberal Catholic and my husband is Jewish. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot from each other. One thing I’ve learned from Judaism is to appreciate the wonderful encouragement to eat new foods with each new season. As you’re preparing these foods and eating them—you are marking the sacred time and you’re thinking about spiritual wisdom. Think about pomegranates. As you’re chopping up your pomegranate to get at the seeds, you’re taught to think about the number of mitzvot, commandments we’re supposed to remember and carry out. The number of seeds in the pomegranate is supposed to remind us of the number of mitzvot.

DAVID: On one page of your book, you tell us about this kind of ancient tradition—then, on the next page, you’re explaining ways that readers could appreciate “the amplitude” of a winter storm. Then, flip a page and you’re reminding us that, as we look out the window or take a wintry walk outside, we could look for the flashing red of a cardinal. And I can testify to the fact that we’ve had several cardinals, this winter, at our backyard bird feeders. You just have to pay attention.

So, I have to ask you: For many years, you tackled tough assignments for the Chicago Tibune. Given your position and your body of work at the Tribune, you rank among the country’s top journalists. In 2013, you were part of the prestigious Harvard-Nieman journalism fellowship with your husband, architecture writer Blair Kamin. He was the fellow and, under the Nieman rules, you fully participated as well. Here’s the question: Given those decades of work in one of the world’s toughest newsrooms, wasn’t it a challenge to write about ways to discover spirituality in one’s back yard?

‘Who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape …’

BARBARA: Yes. The Nieman Storyboard editor asked me to write about the challenges and rewards of a journalist trying to write about spirituality. It was a really tough assignment!

DAVID: We’ll add a link to that Nieman column you wrote. Here’s the part I like best from your essay: “The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?”

I’d describe this challenge another way: In your new book you’ve got an eye for what journalists often call “telling details.” I’ve heard lots of top journalists talk about this principle. I once interviewed Gay Talese about his influence in the 1960s over the movement we called The New Journalism—in magazine pieces he wrote like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire. Talese told me it was all about understanding “telling details”—writing about that precise thing, perhaps even a color or aroma or small object, that tells us a great deal about an experience.

The highest praise I can give your book is that it’s packed with telling details. I can still recall your description of watching a cardinal with your son, weeks after I finished reading that little story in this book.

BARBARA: You’re right. If you’re going to write about spirituality, you have to find the telling details.

It was scary for someone who has been pounding away in the newsroom for a long time to approach a subject like this. I was always known as a writer who had my heart on my sleeve—so it was scary for me to have both heart and soul on my sleeve—to stand up in front of people and say: This is what I believe. To say: I do believe in the ineffable and some really hard-to-describe things.

And, as you say, one of the challenges for a writer, when writing about spirituality, is to fall into soft, gauzy language. As a journalist, I feel that when you step into the landscape of the spiritual, you actually have to raise the bar of your craft. You have to sharpen your language in such a way that it can hold the reader’s attention—and yet can startle the reader as well.

The final challenge was not to flinch. You have to have the courage to go down this pathway and step beyond what you have written before. And you must do this with a discipline that is completely, absolutely the truth. If you’re going to dare to step out there and say, “This is what I believe,” then you have to take this to its very essence.

In this kind of writing, we’re giving voice to our deepest whispers.

‘Meditations spring from absolute ordinariness’

DAVID: And yet, your starting point on nearly every page is the everyday, commonplace stuff of home. You see, and invite us to see with you, the amazing connections that can arise from things on a kitchen counter or a bedroom window.

BARBARA: It’s a very fine needle to thread and I learned to do this through years of writing columns for The Tribune.

I am rooted in everyday experiences. In the story you referred to from this book, I was getting one of my sons out of bed, when the little guy reached for binoculars and we began looking out the window at a cardinal. That’s a very common story—a mother getting her child out of bed—but that story opens up to so much more as the dots connect.

My stories begin in bedrooms, on kitchen counters, in dining rooms. It’s plain talk. It’s everyday talk. I write from the homefront. These are meditations that spring from the absolute ordinariness of our lives.

DAVID: The material in this book feels perfect for a retreat. I hope that some of our readers might be inspired by this interview to go to your website, Barbara, and contact you about leading a retreat.

BARBARA: I would love to do that, if people inquire about it. There are so many different kinds of things in this book from recipes and reflections to field notes and lots of different elements that invite readers to participate and share their own thoughts. I’m trying to help people open up all of their channels—full mind, body and spiritual immersion in the sacred. And I’m saying that you don’t have to do this by trekking off to the Himalayas. It’s all right where you find yourself.

‘Little epiphanies all day long’

DAVID: Another comparison I would make is: The Old Farmers Almanac. Of course, your book isn’t exactly an almanac with all the stuff you’d find in Old Farmers. But there is a day-by-day invitation to discovery as we interact with the natural world around us.

BARBARA: I’m rejoicing. Yes, I love things like the Farmers Almanac. That really touches the epicenter of my world of joy. I was raised by a Mom who quite a nature lover. We can still see it if we pull out the movies she shot on our old Kodak movie camera when we were kids. She’d take some pictures of us outdoors, then you can see it as she suddenly moves the camera up into a tree and captures images of an indigo bunting she’s suddenly spotted. I want people to be open to those kinds of daily discoveries. I love knowing which fish are active in the streams right now, which mushrooms are sprouting. That’s why I added the seasonal field notes running along the pages.

Many Jewish books are designed like that—strips that add text to text. These remind us that life itself is made up of layer upon layer of experience.

DAVID: As I’m talking with you about this, I’m reminded of a story we published the first week of January. I wrote about a surprising note that was sent to me by the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin. In the end, Geri’s point was: “Pay attention!”

BARBARA: Yes, we can have these little epiphanies all day long. It’s like God taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it. If you’ve got your eyes open and your soul open, you’ll know it when you see it!

I agree: Pay attention!

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsNatural World

Laurie Haller launches ‘Recess: Rediscovering Work and Play’

Launch of Recess by Laurie Haller in Birmingham Michigan

IN THE PHOTO: Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin reads from Laurie Haller’s ‘Recess’ at the launch event.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

One of the joys as Editor of ReadTheSpirit is helping our readers discover inspiring authors who are just launching their first books. As Editor, I’ve published nearly 400 in-depth interviews with authors since this online magazine was founded in 2007.

On Saturday, however, my role reversed and I appeared off-line as one of the “celebrity readers” at a spirited launch event for Laurie Haller’s Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose, the newest book from Cass Community Publishing in the heart of Detroit. Our national headquarters are here in the metro-Detroit area, so I was able to join with other media professionals—in person for a change—as we all helped Laurie literally take the stage and figuratively step onto the national stage, as well.

Cass Publishing, which is headed by the entrepreneurial pastor Faith Fowler, has a mission to transform lives among Detroit’s most challenged families. Faith works with folks who have lost their jobs and, in many cases, their homes; folks who never learned to read properly and finally are retraining themselves as adults; folks who have a wide range of disabilities and find themselves marginalized.

The launch of Laurie’s Recess represents the second major Cass Publishing campaign—and any authors or media professionals reading this column today should beat a path to Faith Fowler’s door (or at least the Cass Community website) for a chance to learn from a master.

Faith turns book launches into big, splashy celebrations of diverse regional communities. She requires attendees to put money behind their interest—she sells tickets to her launch events. And, the crowds always seem to enjoy the show—as well as the feeling that they are becoming a part of a far larger and very hope-filled story. (Here is our report on Cass’s first major launch, headlined “We’ve never seen a book launch like this!”)

The event on Saturday actually was the second event in the current campaign to celebrate the release of Recess. With each new book, Faith organizes regional appearances for her authors and a January 17 event already had taken place in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In advance of each event, Faith and her team reach out to media professionals in each city, inviting them to become a part of the program. TV, radio and print journalists are honored to be asked. They realize that a Cass launch event is, in effect, doing good for the world by raising awareness and funds to aid needy families.

Most importantly, these events are fun!

Attendees leave a Cass event wishing someone would provide a soundtrack recording they could play over and over again. Yes, the celebrity readers are terrific, but Faith always makes sure there’s a diverse showcase of local musical talent, as well. On Saturday, the musicians ranged from an a capella women’s quartet with a haunting version of a Dolly Parton song to a dozen women providing a meditative interlude on Tibetan “singing bowls,” and from rafter-rattling Gospel music to a stirring classical performance on pipe organ.

Why we need Recess …

Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal ProgramIf you are already are intrigued by this story, then you understand why we need a book like Laurie Haller’s Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose. On many levels, this is a perfect book to match Cass’s blend of creativity and hard work in helping men and women improve their lives. This memoir by Laurie Haller tells the story of a crisis in her own personal and professional life some years ago, when she decided to take three months away from her work as a pastor to travel in the hopes of reclaiming her original vocational passion.

This was made possible by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program (which currently is welcoming a new round of applications, by the way).

Laurie Haller signs her book Recess at launch event

Laurie Haller signs books and greets her readers in a quiet alcove after the launch event.

On Saturday, the audience was reminded, again and again, of the widespread need for the insights in this book. Flipping opening the pages of Recess, readers found a personal note from former Michigan United Methodist Bishop Donald Ott, who writes: “Call it a book if you must, but for me Recess reads like a deeply revealing diary. Laurie Haller has a remarkable gift of linking everyday occurrences to her deep, yet always seemingly elusive desire to always, everywhere, and with everyone, live with and like Jesus.”

The emcee of the launch event—Alicia Smith, the 7 Action News This Morning anchor on one of Michigan’s major TV stations—talked about the widespread need for this kind of honest guide to renewal.

One of the readers finished an excerpt from the book in which Laurie describes her goal in her pilgrimage this way: “to listen to God, to discover who I am underneath all the crud and then become the person God wants me to be.”

As Smith returned to the stage as emcee, she talked to the crowd about the universal need to “discover who I am underneath all the crud.” Smith said, “Isn’t that something we all need to do sometimes?”

At another point, Smith asked men and women in the audience to raise hands if they have felt the kind of stress and burnout Laurie struggles with in this memoir. A forest of hands shot up.

“In this book,” Smith said, “you’ll find yourself taking this journey with Laurie.”

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsChurch Growth

Remembering Bible scholar Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

Marcus Borg speaks to a groupBy DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Our worldwide circle of readers shrank by 1 last week with the January 21 death of Bible scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg.

In addition to his tireless work and travels, Marcus found time to look at his weekly edition of ReadTheSpirit. Occasionally, he would send an encouraging email to the editor’s desk, usually expressing thanks for discovering a new author through our coverage. Every now and then, he also would share his latest discoveries among mystery writers with my wife Amy, who shared with Marcus a passion for murder mysteries featuring well-crafted, character-rich sleuths.

The two of them discovered this connection a decade ago when we were enjoying dinner with Marcus before a public talk he was to deliver at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor on the campus of the University of Michigan. When this online magazine later was founded in 2007, one of the first stories was an interview with Marcus about his love of well-crafted mysteries.

In that interview, he explained in greater detail what he saw as a connection between mystery novels and the vocation of a religion scholar: “We are all living within a mystery, in a sense. Now, the difference between detective stories and religion is that in detective stories you typically find out in the end what happened, so the mystery is neatly solved. But that sense of living within a mystery touches something deep inside of us and, in religion, things do not get resolved so easily.”

‘Things do not get resolved so easily …’

Marcus understood that final phrase on a spiritual level, on the level of intellectual inquiry—and, most importantly, in the lives of countless Americans who remain inside a church, today, because of Marcus Borg’s books and public teaching. For decades, Marcus tirelessly barnstormed the country with his message that Christianity is not the enemy of rigorous intellectual inquiry. Both spiritual and academic disciplines are searches for truth and, he would tell crowds: People of faith know that we have nothing to fear from the truth.

That’s not to say it was easy. One of the most memorable experiences I shared with Marcus was literally being burned by enraged evangelical Christians in Indiana in 1993. The incendiary protest was covered by long-time New York Times religion writer Ari Goldman under the headline: “Burning Rage in Indiana”

Ari’s story said, in part:

An article about the Bible in a Gary, Ind., newspaper has so enraged some local evangelical churches that their members are planning to publicly burn copies of the paper after Sunday services on the day after Christmas. The churches are protesting the publication by The Post-Tribune of a front page article with the headline: “Biblical Scholars Take Words Out of Jesus’s Mouth—New Book Claims Jesus Didn’t Say 80% of What’s Attributed to Him.” The article … was published on Dec. 12. It reported on a book “The Five Gospels” that is the result of six years of work by a committee of liberal Christian scholars who tried to determine the authenticity of the more than 1,500 sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. …

Jerry Kaifetz, the organizer of the protest, said the decision to publish the article less than two weeks before Christmas was a “calculated attempt” to “insult and injure the faith of Christians at their most sacred and precious time of the year.”

As a religion writer for the Detroit Free Press, I had written that article, which then was carried in other newspapers nationwide. And one the most prominent voices in that “committee of liberal Christian scholars” was Marcus. It should go without saying that Kaifetz’s charge was flat-out wrong. Neither Marcus nor I were trying to “insult and injure” anyone.

Nevertheless, the Indiana Baptists went ahead and carried out their burning. News photos from the incident show angry men in dark suits torching newspapers in oil drums.

Marcus loved the church

What critics failed to understand about Marcus was that he loved the church. No, not the church of the Inquisition or the church of Fundamentalist hellfire condemnation. He saw those as tragic distortions of the truths that were sitting there just waiting to be discovered in the pages of the Bible—and in the compassionate interaction of people that truly, he believed, was the church at its best.

He worked toward this goal in so many ways! Just read this interview about Marcus’s book Speaking Christian and his public campaign to “reclaim” the powerful words of Christian tradition. Or consider his campaign to rethink the way adult education programs should explore the Bible. He even re-envisioned his own teachings in the form of a novel—because he was convinced that some men and women who didn’t like to read non-fiction would understand his ideas in that fictional form of storytelling.

Since 2000, Marcus has largely been lionized by his fans nationwide. He appears forever, now, in so many documentary films about religion, the Bible and the early church that it would be pointless to try to list them all. He and his good friend John Dominic Crossan (and often their wives as well) loved to travel together. In a series of educational tours to “Bible lands,” the two scholars would lead travelers into sun-baked settings that were crucial in the early Christian era. They might get down on their knees to examine an ancient artifact and, in the process, awaken in their travelers a fresh appreciation for the dawn of Christianity. (In 2009, for example, we published an interview with both Marcus and Dom about their collaborations.)

‘Take this with you …’

Through the decades, we crossed paths many times and I also got to know and admire the work of Marcus’s wife, the Rev. Canon Marianne Wells Borg. Certainly my warmest memory of Marcus and Marianne centers on the couple of days we spent together at their home in 2010 as part of the ReadTheSpirit American Journey project. I was traveling for 40 days and 10,000 miles with my son Benjamin, reporting for our online magazine as well as the Detroit Free Press and radio stations.

In their home along the Pacific Ocean, the four of us talked for hours, but we also found time to walk along the booming shoreline. Marcus enjoyed exercising his dogs along the shore and appropriately, the dogs are mentioned by name as part of the family in the official obituary from Marcus’s publishing house, HarperOne.

Marcus announced that he was staffing the kitchen during that visit—and he cooked as an evangelist. He wanted to show off to his visitors from the Midwest the good news of products produced by the Tillamook cheese company, which also is based in Oregon. And of course, the sharp Tillamook cheddar was as terrific as Marcus promised. He served some of the cheese with black-and-white Holstein-patterned knives that he had bought at the Tillamook Creamery.

When my son and I said our goodbyes, Marcus pressed a rectangular, gift-wrapped box into my hands.

“Take this with you as a memory of our time together,” he said.

A Bible perhaps? One of his books? As my son drove our van down the road, I tore off the wrappings. It was a boxed set of the Tillamook knives.

And that was a full circle in Marcus Borg’s remarkable life.

In our interview during that visit, he had told us this story about his feelings for America: “For me the two biggest holidays as I was growing up in the 1940s were Christmas and the Fourth of July. Christmas obviously is a big holiday when you’re a child, but the small community of 1,400 where I grew up was Park River in northeastern North Dakota. In that corner of North Dakota, the 4th of July was huge. There always was a parade with bands and color guards of veterans going back to the Spanish-American War at that time. I can still see in my mind the carnival that would come to town and food booths in the city park. My Dad was a creamery owner and ice cream maker so we always had a big tent in the park selling ice cream. I was too young to have to work in the tent, but I got to eat whatever I wanted all day long.”

Today, our circle of ReadTheSpirit readers diminishes by 1. But please help us remember Marcus Borg by sharing this story with someone you know might enjoy it—and, in doing so, send another little gift down the road to one more traveler.

2010 American Journey Marianne and Marcus Borg in their Oceanside Oregon home

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Bible