The Martha Spong interview about her book and RevGalBlogPals

Theres a Woman in Pulpit cover book edited by Martha Spong

CLICK this cover to visit the book’s page at the publisher’s website: SkyLight Paths.

A HOST of women have led religious movements.

Ancient Jewish heroes Esther and Judith risked their lives to save their people. At the dawn of Christianity, it was a woman (Mary Magdalene) who preached the first Christian message that Jesus was risen from the grave. Through the centuries, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena shaped the Catholic church so profoundly that they now hold the esteemed rank: Doctors of the Church. In colonial America, Lady Deborah Moody established a early community with interfaith freedom and Mother Ann Lee founded the Shakers. A host of church women led campaigns against slavery from the Grimke sisters to Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth.

In May, Americans celebrate the holiday originally envisioned by churchwomen Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna Jarvis as a time for honoring women—and performing community service. In fact, if the elder Ann Reeves Jarvis had her way, spring would be a time for what she liked to call Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. Women led the way, rolling up their sleeves and tackling the toughest problems faced by poor families, especially TB and other life-threatening diseases in her era. When her daughter Anna finally achieved a nationwide holiday, Anna was horrified to see it transformed into a commercial bonanza devoid of its original faith-based mission.

Even conservative popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI each promoted a woman to the rarefied status of Doctor of the Church. John Paul added St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Benedict promoted Hildegard of Bingen. The latter news surprised and pleased theologian Matthew Fox, one of Hildegard’s biggest cheerleaders. Fox admits he was surprised that Benedict let this feminist “Trojan Horse” into the highest ranks of the church.

So, why do most of the world’s 2 billion Christians refused to let ordained women into their pulpits? (That phrase “most of the world’s Christians,” of course refers to the roughly 1.5 billion Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus millions of evangelical Christians as well.)

Entire library shelves groan with books and journals arguing this issue, so we won’t repeat the classic pros and cons. In fact, what’s so delightful about Martha Spong’s new book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, is that she lets a little girl make the case in the book’s opening chapter written by the Rev. Ruth Everhart. Indignant at the injustice of her family’s church leadership refusing to ordain her mother—or any woman—young Hannah Everhart declared to her mother:

“Even a first grader knows you’re a good minister. Stupid-heads!”

In fact, if you buy a copy of Spong’s marvelous collection of nearly 70 true-life stories written by 52 clergywomen from 15 denominations, you may close the book repeating what Hannah’s Mom tells her family after the little girl’s outburst: “Hannah’s right. They’re stupid-heads!”

Lest long-time ReadTheSpirit readers object that we are unfairly criticizing traditionalist churches, we point out that American polling over the past decade by Gallup and Pew and other researchers clearly shows that even a majority of American Catholics support the idea of women’s ordination. Currently, about half of Catholics think the Vatican isn’t likely to make this change in their lifetimes—nevertheless, most Catholics say they like the idea of women in the pulpit. (Pew provides a helpful score card on what denominations are—and aren’t—ordaining women, as of late 2014.)

Whatever your opinion on women’s ordination may be, we guarantee that you’ll enjoy these inspirational, often downright funny and sometimes emotionally stirring stories. Read one a day for a couple of months. Martha Spong has found some terrific storytellers to share their real-life experiences in this volume.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the co-writer and overall editor of this new book. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH THE REV. MARTHA SPONG
ON ‘THERE’S A WOMAN IN THE PULPIT’

DAVID: Help me introduce you to our readers. You have so many talents and projects! How do you typically describe yourself, when you step out to talk to a new audience?

Martha Spong from her website

CLICK this photo of Martha Spong to visit her website and learn more about her many projects, including the Reflectionary columns she writes.

MARTHA: I usually say I’m a United Church of Christ pastor. I’m a Mom. I’m a wife. I grew up Baptist and became United Church of Christ. I’m a writer, an editor—and a rather obsessive knitter, too.

DAVID: You’re best known as the director of the large online community known as RevGalBlogPals, which describes itself as “a supportive community for clergywomen since 2005.” This new book really is a collective creation from network of women writers. First, tell our readers what they’ll find if they visit RevGalBlogPals.

MARTHA: What they’ll find is both a collection of resources aimed at clergy and, as we say on the website, a supportive community for clergywomen. This all started as a group of bloggers but it’s not limited to bloggers anymore. There are many people who visit with us, participate in our preaching discussions and share comments. We’re also very active on Facebook where clergywomen from dozens of denominations all around the world participate. Facebook is a good place place for people to come with questions, prayer requests and stories from ministry and find support from others. We’re also active on Twitter. We’ve even gotten involved in Pinterest—and Tumblr, too. We’re all over the place now, wherever women gather.

DAVID: There’s a wonderful story in the book about ministry in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina by the Rev. Sally-Lodge Teel. In 1978, she was the first Presbyterian woman ordained in the state of Mississippi and, as you point out in the book, she was really the catalyst that got RevGalBlogPals started 10 years ago, right?

MARTHA: That’s right and for a while we mainly had a web ring that allowed us to connect our blogs into an internet circle. People continued to join and we decided to write a devotional book as a fundraiser after Hurricane Katrina. We formed a 501c3 and I was one of the original board members. About two years ago, the board began talking about creating a more professional role in the organization. So, at this point, I’m the part-time director, running our web activities and I organize and administer our continuing education events, which we’ve been doing since 2008. Today, there are about 40 women who contribute directly to our blog and more than 300 bloggers who are in our web ring.

A FAMOUS FAMILY

DAVID: Our readers are also likely to recognize your family name. For about 30 years, I’ve maintained a warm professional friendship with now-retired Bishop “Jack” Spong. I first got to know him when I served as an American newspaper correspondent in the UK in 1988 at the month-long Lambeth Conference where the world’s Anglican leaders debated women’s ordination. He was very active in that campaign. (NOTE: Interested in our past ReadTheSpirit interviews with Bishop Spong? A few of our more popular conversations were in 2009 talking about Eternal Life—A New Vision, in 2012 talking about Reclaiming the Bible, and in 2013 talking about The Gospel of John.)

MARTHA: Yes, we are related. Jack and my Dad are first cousins. We’re happy to claim each other. Jack baptized my oldest child and was at my wedding two years ago.

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?

DAVID: I’ve already described the book, to some extent, but tell us more about what readers will find if they get their own copy.

MARTHA: The book contains stories that each are about 800 words long, so they’re perfect if people want to read one a day. They could be daily devotional readings for a couple of months. All of them are real-life stories by women who are juggling the work of ministry with the work of child rearing. Some of the stories tell what happens when these clergywomen go out into the community to do something not church related.Some of the stories are funny. Some are heart-wrenching. Each story puts the personality of the writer at the forefront.

DAVID: Let me ask you a question that, as a journalist specializing in reporting on religion, I’ve been asking for many decades now: Are women different than men as clergy?

And before you answer, let me tell you: Some famous women have either refused to answer the question or have objected to it. One of them is retired United Methodist Bishop Judith Craig who, for a while back in the 1980s, was the only woman bishop in a mainline denomination in the world.

When I asked Bishop Craig that question, she told me that she thought the question was a trap. If she said that women are different, that would label all women as identical in their talents and personalities. If she said women aren’t different, that would deny that women generally have developed some talents that may give them fresh insights into church growth. She didn’t want to group women as a homogenous gender.

I’m asking it because it’s obviously a common question, especially in churches that still refuse to ordain women. Are clergywomen different than clergymen?

MARTHA: You could say yes to that, because society expects women to have different skills and to fulfill different roles than they expect male clergy to fulfill. And people ask us questions they wouldn’t expect to ask male clergy.

But I agree with what you’re telling me about Bishop Craig. I don’t think the question of our gender or orientation is the significant one in terms of defining how we operate in ministry. If we assume clergywomen are different than clergymen, then that question presumes that we’re alike as women—and that’s not true.

‘A GENERATIONAL SHIFT’

DAVID: I’ll never forget the month I spent in Canterbury covering the Lambeth debates on women’s ordination. The whole world was represented there—even Archbishop Desmond Tutu—and the debates became very emotional. Flash forward 30 years, and I don’t think it’s as a big a deal in American culture to see clergywomen participating as local community leaders. Once it was so rare, it was surprising. What do you think? Are we seeing progress?

MARTHA: I think it is a generational shift. My own childhood denomination was the Southern Baptist Convention. But then, in February of this year, I was invited to come back and preach at the church where I grew up.

The pastor I knew years ago as a young man today is over 80 and he’s still preaching there. He invited me back to preach and he introduced me by saying to the people, “You may have heard that Southern Baptists don’t allow women preachers, but that’s not true.” And then he reeled off the names of a number of women who are serving Southern Baptist congregations—and he complimented their leadership and he finished by saying, “In the Baptist church, there are no absolutes.”

It was wonderful to go home to that church and to stand in the place in that church where I had never stood before. It was a tremendously positive experience.

DAVID: It may seem surprising to our readers that women do preach and serve in at least some Southern Baptist congregations, but I know that’s true. Southern Baptists are so loosely organized that there is more variation nationwide than people may think.

MARTHA: The problem is that, even in churches that ordain women, clergywomen often are limited to smaller churches or to part-time churches, because there’s still a demand for male pastors to serve larger churches. It seems like a no-brainer to me that women have the gifts for ordained pastoral leadership at all levels—but we still see resistance at the local level in a lot of congregations.

‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE’

DAVID: If our readers do get a copy of your book and start reading—what do you hope they’ll find between the covers of this book?

MARTHA: I hope this book will encourage women who are considering ministry to continue on in their dream. I also hope that it will show doubters how faithful women can be in ministry. And, I hope that it will show women in ministry that they have a lot of friends out there who are having similar experiences. I hope clergy women will realize: You’re not alone!

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

The Eileen Flanagan interview about her memoir ‘Renewable’

The Cover of Renewable by Quaker writer Eileen Flanagan

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

“The renewable energy we need most is people power!”
Bill McKibben

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Frederick Buechner

AN EARLY SIGN of spring’s renewing power is the rise of common violets, pushing heart-shaped green leaves through even the thickest thatch of winter-mottled lawns and fields. And just in time for spring, Quaker writer and activist sends us all Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope.

This is a book about time and travel—and much like The Wizard of Oz, which we just wrote about recently, Eileen’s memoir carries us around the world yet brings us inevitably home again with a renewed love for our own back yard. She carries us through time, as well, greeting us in the opening pages at age 50, then looping us back through the decades to her days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. As we travel with her through the times and places that represent milestones in her life—she is inviting us as readers to reflect on the many twists and turns in our own lives.

You’ll walk away from this book less afraid of the future—and you may find yourself swept up in Eileen’s enthusiasm for rediscovering and renewing her life’s vocation in the second half of her life.

Mid-way through the book, she quotes Sue Monk Kidd’s description of this process: “When change-winds swirl through our lives, especially at midlife, they often call us to undertake a new passage of the spiritual journey: that of confronting the lost and counterfeit places within us and releasing our deeper, innermost self—our true self.”

That’s the hope that will rise through the winter-mottled thatch of your own life as you enjoy this new memoir.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH EILEEN FLANAGAN
ON ‘RENEWABLE’

DAVID: Let’s say I was introducing you at one of your public appearances. How should I describe you?

Quaker writer Eileen Flanagan author of RenewableEILEEN: “A Quaker writer and activist.”

DAVID: Quaker first?

EILEEN: My hope is to reach a broader audience but I’ve decided “Quaker” is such an important part of my identity that I want to include it.

DAVID: Your website describes Quakers this way:

Quakers (also known as Friends) often speak of “that of God in everyone” to sum up the idea that each of us is connected to the Divine Spirit and can feel its guidance in our lives directly, without the need of a priest or minister. Quakers have also long held that faith should be expressed in the way we live, not just our words.

I think that’s a helpful description and it positions Quakers, or Friends, among religious groups in America as a very welcoming spiritual community—something lots of Americans are searching these days.

EILEEN: When I talk about being Quaker, I often joke that we’re not Amish because that’s a common misconception.

DAVID: I’m chuckling as you say that, because that’s a telling detail late in your new book. When you’re getting ready to take part in this big protest with Robert Kennedy Jr., the actress Darryl Hannah and the activists Julian Bond and Bill McKibben—you remember to put on mascara. Why? You tell your colleague it’s so they’ll know you’re not Amish.

EILEEN: When people hear the word “Quaker,” they think we’re associated with some bygone day. A lot of people think of the Amish.

To me the exciting thing about Quakerism is that we believe God’s guidance is continuously revealed. And, I think it is a very contemporary faith.

What’s really core about Quakerism? The direct relationship with the divine and that we experience that and test God’s guidance in community. In many religious traditions, if you feel you’re hearing some guidance from God, then you check that guidance with church leaders or with the Bible. In Quaker tradition, the community is really the check and balance with our religious experience.

‘THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING THE MANY’

DAVID: That’s a central theme in this new memoir—community. Again and again, you emphasize that, even though you have experienced a few shining moments with celebrities, this effort of raising awareness and changing our lives is really about—to borrow your phrase—“ordinary people” working in communities.

Here’s a passage I like from late in the book. You’re describing what you discovered in this long, reflective journey you’ve taken:

From Africa, to Appalachia, to Alberta, and right around the world, there were ordinary people stepping up to defend the future. Like the crowd that encircled the White House that February day, we were pouring forth—past the view of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken at the 1963 March on Washington, past the White House gate where Alice Paul had stood for women’s rights, past the wrought iron fence where I had stood a few days before. We were the many, emboldened by the realization we were not alone, and we were moving forward with hope.

And I have to say about that passage: That truth you were glimpsing is powerful stuff. And it’s not a foregone conclusion for most people. Just read James Gustave Speth’s Bridge at the End of the World to see how he prioritizes the most serious questions about the Earth’s future. One of the biggest questions Speth raises is: Do human beings care enough about the planet to act as a global community?

Your book is a resounding message: Yes, ordinary people can act in concert, if we recognize and act on that possibility.

Eileen Flanagan right with George and Ingrid Lakey

Author Eileen Flanagan, right, with George and Ingrid Lakey representing their nonprofit activist group: Earth Quaker Action Team. Eileen’s new book includes the story of their work together.

One of the people who makes this point in your book is the famous activist and teacher George Lakey who says: “We need to have the experience of being the many.” George is a friend and mentor to peacemaker Daniel Buttry, who created the Interfaith Peacemakers project. I know you work regularly with George, Eileen, and I was so pleased to see him in this book.

EILEEN: George is a very strong proponent of the idea of focused, long-term campaigns. You pick a target and then you work on a long-term strategy for your campaign. That’s different than the kind of activism in which people decide to go to one big event a year and then go home.

So, a national march was happening and I said, “Let’s go to the march as a group.” Then I wondered: But, is this the sort of thing we should do? Are we tired of going to marches on the Mall? And, George got behind the idea.

George said, “We’re doing our work on our own, so it’s important to connect with others doing this kind of work.”

I hope readers understand this combination. It’s not just glorifying national marches. I’m writing about this combination of doing very focused work and then also deciding to be with other people doing focused work. When you do that, you realize that your own work is part of a growing movement—a global movement—and that helps us not to get stuck in despair about whatever we’re facing in our own work.

SEEING OUR WORLD THROUGH OTHERS’ EYES

DAVID: One of the central messages of this book is: Age doesn’t matter. We can renew our vocation at any age and find good work, even close to home. The first sentence of your book identifies you as a woman who had reached the age of 50, at that point. This book really is both a summing up of the first half of your life—and a look ahead toward the good work you’re hoping to do in your life’s second half.

EILEEN: My experience is as a woman who put child-rearing first. Timing in life can be different for women and men, in general. A lot of men go full throttle in their careers from their 20s through their 40s and then their 50s is a time when they want to step back. I made choices in my life as a woman to put parenting first and, in those years, I wrote part time, in the cracks of my day. I chose to spend time with my children in the schools, with my congregation and I hit the age at which this book opens. I realized that I wanted to do more work in the world.

For some people, mid-life is a time when we want to let go of external work. For me, it was the opposite. I felt there was something I was meant to do in this world that I hadn’t done yet.

DAVID: Part of that decision, for you, involved travel. Your book encourages people to get out and about—to move around our planet.

EILEEN: It’s not the distance you travel that’s important. What’s most important is experiencing other cultures, and you don’t necessarily have to travel very far to do that. Within a five-mile radius of almost any American city, you can find cultures that you’ve never experienced.

I am a great advocate of travel, but it’s not just the miles you travel that are important. You could travel all the way to Botswana and go on safari there—yet you might never actually experience the lives of the people who live there. We need to see our world from the perspectives of other people who live here on this planet with us.

‘INSPIRED TO TAKE ACTION TOGETHER’

DAVID: Give me an example of a cultural difference you’ve seen that could help us here in America?

EILEEN: One example is the way we think about community. I grew up in the suburbs in an apartment, where we didn’t think about our neighbors in the way people in Botswana think about community. Let’s say you’re cooking dinner in a suburban home and you realize you don’t have an onion you need to finish what you’re making. Most Americans would drive to a store and buy an onion. In Botswana, neighbors walk next door and ask if they can have an onion.

Lots of church people here in the U.S. are willing to share when they know someone is in need. But, we find it hard to ask for help.

DAVID: And you connect this kind of idea with your goals of simplifying life in general—and helping to combat climate change, right?

EILEEN: The connection I make is that, if we’re going to strengthen our communities by living more simply, then we have to find out what we truly need in our neighborhoods. Do we all have to go out and buy every gadget that’s ever been invented for taking care of our homes? Could neighbors share a lawn mower, for example?

This will become more important in the years ahead if we are going to survive climate change. We’re going to see more severe storms. In a hurricane, it becomes very important to know your neighbors and to depend on each other.

I had to go far away to see that value of community sharing in action, but you don’t have to travel that far to rediscover it. Sharing really is a core human value and we find it running through all kinds of cultures around the world. It’s just that in the suburban America of the late 20th century, the place I grew up, that value had been diminished in a lot of ways.

DAVID: So, what’s your hope for readers of this book. What do you hope they’ll experience?

EILEEN: I have two hopes that reflect the two themes of the book. One is that I want to encourage people to live their own purpose to the fullest. I’m telling people: Don’t wait. Whatever it is you want to do—do it now. Use the gifts you have in service to others.

Secondly, I would love to see people doing more on climate change, after reading this book. A growing number of people of faith are already thinking about this. And, in this book, I’m telling readers: I found that I couldn’t do this all by myself. I would love to see more people of faith inspired to take action together.

Care to read more?

VISIT HER ONLINE HOME—You’ll find lots of resources at EileenFlanagan.com, the author’s online home. That includes an “Epilogue” post she wrote shortly after we completed this interview. If you buy her memoir, you’ll want to read that Epilogue after you’ve finished her book. It contains some additional “good news” about her efforts. You can also find out about her public appearances across the U.S.

READ HER EARLIER BOOK—Eileen’s earlier award-winning book The Wisdom to Know the Difference was endorsed by the Dalai Lama. In 2009, ReadTheSpirit interviewed Eileen about that book. You also might want to explore her Amazon author page, where you’ll also find recent updates.

GET INVOLVED—Climate change is a central concern in Eileen’s work. One of the best places to learn about her work on climate change is this 2013 story she wrote for The Christian Century. (Of course, there’s much more about this issue in her new memoir and on her website, as well.)

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsNatural WorldPeacemaking

The Rachel Held Evans Interview on ‘Searching for Sunday’

Rachel Held Evans book cover Searching for Sunday

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

FEELING a bit battered and blue after Easter? Every year, Easter is the single biggest day in churches coast to coast, a celebration of resurrection and new life.

Overall, however, attendance is down in the U.S., fueled by an exodus of younger adults. Yes, “Christians” are on the front pages of newspapers coast to coast, these days, but the news isn’t about inspiring growth. News reporters are covering “Christians” who are playing political hardball to try to maintain traditional bias against LGBT men and women in places like Indiana and Arkansas.

This isn’t shaping up like a hopeful springtime celebration of Christian renewal.

If this describes your attitude today, you should immediately order an antidote to these spiritual blues: Rachel Held Evans’ new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. The book releases on April 14, 2015, but Amazon is taking orders now for delivery next week.

In her book, Rachel uses her considerable talent as one of the nation’s best spiritual storytellers to explore the great treasures people still can discover within the church. At their best, congregations can draw on the ancient tap roots of Christianity: love, compassion and hope for the world. If that doesn’t sound like your version of “church,” at the moment, then give Rachel a chance. You’ll get hooked on her real-life stories from the trenches of congregational life. In some cases, you’ll find yourself smiling broadly—maybe because you recognize your own story in Rachel’s stories.

By the end of the book, if you have given up on “church” until now, you’re likely to nod your head and say: “Hey, I’m going to give it another shot. There are a lot of treasures in this tradition.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RACHEL HELD EVANS
ON ‘SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY’

DAVID: Rachel, you have so many talents—writer, speaker, teacher and you even appear in videos, as well—so, how do you introduce yourself to groups?

Rachel Held Evans author of Searching for SundayRACHEL: Yes, I’m a writer, a blogger, a speaker. But, when I introduce myself, I usually begin by saying that I grew up in the Bible belt and that as a young adult I grew up in a nondenominational evangelical church. Then, as a young adult, I had questions about what I believed. I went through–and I’m still going through–a lot of doubts.

I tell people: You’re not alone if you have doubts and questions. I do, too.

Oh, and I usually say I’m married—and a huge Alabama Crimson Tide fan.

DAVID: That’s a great introduction to this book, which begins with your baptism by full immersion at the age of 12. Readers who grew up in an evangelical church will think of their own early experiences; readers who’ve never stepped into the doors of such a church will be fascinated by the scene you paint. And—the Crimson Tide? You describe, in your home church, the “red-and-white hair bows, neck ties, sports jackets, and blouses—the sacred accouterments of Alabama’s second region.” That was, at the time of your baptism, the University of Alabama football team under Gene Stallings.

And then, toward the end of that chapter, you mention the real doubts that can pop up even in the midst of a perfect moment like your own baptism. After the ritual,  you write: “I remember wondering why I didn’t feel cleaner, why I didn’t feel holier or lighter or closer to God when I’d just been born again.”

Honesty—even about your doubts—is a hallmark of your writing.

RACHEL: My writing seems to attract people who are in some sort of religious transition. They may be going from one kind of Christianity to another kind of Christianity–or they’re moving from Christianity to some other faith entirely or to no faith at all. I seem to attract readers who are on a journey–reflecting on what they once believed and trying to figure out what they now believe.

‘THE CHURCH WELCOMES US’

DAVID: One of the best passages in your book appears right away in the prologue “Dawn.” I think you should ask a graphic designer to blow this up into poster size with the cover of your book—and offer it as a free download for people to print out and hang on a wall. I bet a lot of people would want to hang this poster.

I”m talking about the passage where you summarize the entire book. It goes like this:

“The church tells us we are beloved (baptism).
The church tells us we are broken (confession).
The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders).
The church feeds us (communion).
The church welcomes us (confirmation).
The church anoints us (anointing of the sick).
The church unites us (marriage).”

This new book really is about reminding us of that core power within our religious traditions and communities, right?

RACHEL: I’m glad you like the way I wrote that introduction. Yeah, you’re right. Those lines are a summary of the book. What I’m trying to say about this whole list—who some readers will recognize as a list of sacraments, depending on their Christian tradition—is that you actually don’t have to use sacramental language to describe those seven things. Millions of Christians don’t use the word “sacrament” to describe all of those things. At an evangelical church, for example, people might not acknowledge anointing of the sick as a “sacrament,” but we do see people caring for the sick and praying with the sick every day. The behavior is there even if it’s not described as “sacrament.”

This is important for me to communicate to readers in this book: I’m not saying we all have to use the same language to describe these things we do in the church—but these seven behaviors are there.

Then, I arranged the book around seven sections that correspond to these things: baptism, communion, marriage and so on. When I first decided that I wanted to write a book about “church,” and about my own experiences—experiences that a lot of other people have had as well—I wasn’t sure how to organize the book. Then, I came up with the idea of arranging my thoughts around the sacraments. So, as you’ve said, I start with baptism.

And, as I tell my stories, I also write about the questions we have about these things. So, I was baptized—but what does that mean about my identity now? A lot of people are asking that kind of question, including a lot of people who have left church entirely.

‘YOU’RE THE EXPERTS! DON’T YOU KNOW THIS?’

DAVID: Here’s one reason I love your book: You fully recognize all of the problems church leaders have caused and all of the mistakes they’ve made. But, nevertheless, you flat-out love the church. And if I had to explain one of the central appeals of this book, I only have to look at prime-time TV this spring.

I often meet with community leaders, including religious leaders and media professionals. Among media professionals, everybody’s talking about the explosion of these big-budget biblical-themed productions on TV this spring: “Killing Jesus,” “The Dovekeepers,” “A.D.—The Bible Continues.” In fact, the debut of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus” just set new viewership records for the National Geographic Channel. Secular media professionals are buzzing about how we haven’t seen this many swords-and-sandals epics since the 1950s.

But Christian leaders? They’re still down in the dumps about all the Americans who are turning away from organized religion. Before Easter, when I did meet Christian clergy, I told them: “On Easter morning, just stand up in the pulpit and say: ‘You’re seeing the story on TV every night. Now, you’ve come to the place where we live by those stories you love so much. Welcome home!’ ” Now, that’s one way to preach the Easter message.

I was thinking about your chapter “Wind” in which you talk about the powerful, timeless flowing of the Spirit. And you describe Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus. This is the story where Nicodemus seems confused by what Jesus is preaching and Jesus finally gets fed up with the older man’s stubbornness in refusing to believe what Jesus is saying. As you retell the story, you put Jesus’s response to Nicodemus this way: “You’re supposed to be the expert! Don’t you know this already?”

I feel as though that exchange, deep in your book, is really a strong message to readers who have forgotten the true spiritual power of the church to foster love and compassion and hope and healing in the world. “You’re the experts! Don’t you know this already?”

RACHEL: Yeah, you’re right. Now, I also have to say: Yes, I get people’s discouragement. I get that numbers are down and people aren’t going to church like they used to. But you know what? We follow this God who knows a thing or two about transforming the layout of the grave—and God’s not ready to give up. So, we shouldn’t be ready to give up.

The truth is: People will always be interested in Jesus. Just stop for a moment and think. These days, we fret so much about what clothes we wear in church and what music we use on Sunday mornings and—well, we fret about so many things that distract us from what we need to remember: Jesus is present where two or three gather in his name. We know that Jesus is present in communion in some way—and I know that the words we use to describe communion are different, depending on our Christian tradition—but we know that Jesus is present in it.

In the church, we are supposed to be the people who know how to introduce people to Jesus—and you know what? Millions of people want to meet Jesus. Yeah, Christianity may be losing some of its influence over the culture, but that may be a good thing.

Now, we have to ask ourselves: What does it truly mean to be influential? Does it mean having political battles go our way? I think we need to look back to what’s most important. And I think the most important signs are the fruits of the spirit.

‘NEVER IN MY LIFE HAD I BEEN SO ANGRY’

DAVID: And the truth is that church life—in fact, congregational life whatever your faith might be—is hard! Americans are among the most religious—and also the most outspoken—people in the world, according to the World Values Survey. So, it’s natural that congregations are hotbeds of both wonderfully compassionate spiritual growth—and sometimes big, emotional fights, right?

RACHEL: So many of us have experienced church burnout, and you’re right: It’s not just among evangelicals. If you’re invested in a congregation, then I’m certain that you’ll be disappointed big time at some point. It’s a part of being in a community–people will let you down. I reached a point a while ago when I got burned out because of the culture wars in which so many Christians are invested. This came to a head for me when the World Vision story broke—Christians refusing to give money to World Vision because the non-profit was going to allow people in same-sex marriages to work in its U.S. offices.

DAVID: You recently wrote a column for CNN about that turning point, headlined: “Are Culture War ‘Victories’ Worth the Casualties?” You really poured out your fury in that column, asking how Christians could celebrate a loss in donations to World Vision that cost thousands of children and their families the food, health care and other services they so desperately need. When you saw so-called Christian activists proclaiming victory, you describe your reaction this way: “Never in my life had I been so angry at my own faith tradition.”

RACHEL: I got so burned out at that. Christians battling a culture war were willing to let thousands of children go hungry because they wanted to punish World Vision over welcoming gay and lesbian men and women. It’s hard for me to even understand how people can think like that! Not only were children victims, but so were all the LGBT Christians who got caught in the middle of this culture war.

DAVID: You were angry—and yet you couldn’t abandon Christianity.

RACHEL: Like it or not, I’ve got skin in the church game.

th Sunday headlinesDAVID: I want to stress to readers that your viewpoint on LGBT inclusion isn’t shocking. You’re not even in a prophetic minority on this issue. In fact, most Americans are moving in this direction. You’ve only got to read the latest column by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker to see the dramatic shift in public opinion. In Dr. Baker’s words: “I’ve been following and reporting these trends for quite a while.”

RACHEL: You’re right. Study after study is showing this to be the case. Barna has done research on this, too. For young adults this is a huge reason that they’ve abandoned church. I have beat that drum so many times. It’s so frustrating to go to an evangelical conference and tell pastors straight-up: This is really driving people away from your churches.

And they say, “No, that’s not the problem. We’ll just bring in a better class of band to perform better worship music.”

And I go: “Ohhhhh, yeah. Like that’s going to make a difference.”

DAVID: I am amazed at how many seminaries and universities and other groups are welcoming Dr. David P. Gushee to talk about his book Changing Our Mind. Gushee also is shouldering a backlash from conservatives for his new stance on welcoming LGBT Christians. But, to borrow the headline from the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, Gushee’s on “The Right Side of History.”

RACHEL: What Gushee is doing is such a huge deal. I know so many gay friends who were just thrilled when he spoke out and published that book.

‘CHANGING HOW WE SEE OUR NEIGHBORS’

DAVID: At the end of author interviews, I usually ask a “walking away” question. As an author, envision readers walking away from having read your book. What do you hope they carry with them?

RACHEL: Every author I know has this hope—that their work helps people pay attention to the world around them in new ways. We need to pay better attention to God working in the world and in the church.

I hope that people make new connections. I hope this book changes how we see our neighbors. I hope that I can help readers pay more attention to the Spirit moving in our world.

I hope that readers will see themselves in my stories. I hope they’ll realize: Oh, somebody else has experienced these questions, and these doubts, I’ve experienced. I especially hope that when people finish reading my book, they will feel less alone.

Care to read more?

BUY THE BOOK—Click on the cover photo with this interview to visit the book’s Amazon page. Here’s her Amazon author page.

VISIT RACHEL ONLINE—She’s everywhere. Visit her main website, which is the mother ship for everything Rachel is doing from publications and public appearances to her latest blog posts. You’ll also find her on Twitter, where you can join her more than 60,000 followers, and on Facebook, too.

GET THE VIDEO—Rachel also appears in the very creative Animate Bible-study series. In her portion of that series, Rachel talks about “how the Old Testament and the New Testament relate to each other for Christians.”

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

What stories make a difference? ‘Bambi, a Life in the Forest’

First US edition 1928 of Bambi a Life in the Woods by Felix Salten

This was the first U.S. Edition of Bambi, published in 1928. Click this cover to visit Amazon for a current edition of the book.

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Worldwide, Christians and Jews are celebrating the stories that have defined and directed our lives through the centuries. Easter was Sunday and Passover continues through the evening of April 11 this year.

If you need fresh evidence of the worldwide love for these ancient religious stories—just open your eyes. Director Ridley Scott already has earned about $300 million for his recent Exodus: Gods and Kings. The movie was just released on DVD and millions of Americans are snapping it up. Then, last week, The National Geographic Channel set new viewership records for its TV drama, Killing Jesus. CBS retold the tragedy of the Jewish confrontation with the Roman army at Masada in The Dovekeepers and there’s more: After A.D., which debuted Sunday night on NBC is projected to continue through 12 episodes!

Stories are powerful! We know ourselves by our individual stories. Stories bring us together around tables and connect us with others who have gone before us as well as those who will come after us.

MY STORY; MY CHALLENGE

Recently, I published a challenge related to a prose-poem I wrote, called “The Two of Us.” I asked readers to identify the author and the title of the original book that inspired my contemporary story. I promised to mail a personally dedicated copy of Short Stuff. And, today, we have a winner!

The answer to my first challenge? Bambi, a Life in the Forest. The story first was published as a serial in Vienna’s most influential newspaper and finally was released as a book, in German, in 1923 by the Jewish writer and Zionist activist known by his pen name Felix Salten. Born Siegmund Salzmann in Hungary, Salten became a leading literary figure in Vienna and also devoted his talents to encouraging Zionism.

Felix_Salten_1910

Felix Salten in 1910.

Right now, Ohio State University professor Paul Reitter is working on a book to be titled Bambi’s Jewish Roots. Reitter outlined some of those roots in the Jewish Review of Books this past winter. One theme Salten seems to have been exploring, when he wrote this forest story nearly a century ago, was whether European Jews should try to assimilate into popular culture of their day. In the novel, one question comes up again and again: Could the deer living in a forest ever trust that human hunters would let them live in peace? That echoes a haunting question for Jews in Europe in the 1920s, Reitter argues.

If you love the classic Disney movie, don’t worry. I’m not suggesting you can’t enjoy the beautiful cartoon feature that has caused millions of us to laugh—and to cry. What I am suggesting is: Stories are powerful and they shape lives in many ways, sometimes in ways we never imagined!

When the English translation of Bambi was published in 1928, The New York Times published a lengthy book review, praising the novel as a literary milestone—a deep reflection on the meaning of life. Reviewer John Chamberlain wrote in part:

“Felix Staten, in Bambi, takes you out of yourself. He has the gift of a tender, lucid style. His observation is next door to marvelous, and he invests the fruits of this observation with pure poetry. His comprehension makes his deer, his screech-owls, his butterflies, grasshoppers and hares, far more exciting to read about than hundreds of human beings who crowd the pages of our novels.”

Felix Salten eventually had to flee to Switzerland to escape the rise of Naziism. He died at age 76 in Switzerland just five months after VE Day, the end of the Third Reich.

Chapter 8 of the original Bambi novel is about two oak leaves facing the onset of winter. The entire dialogue in that chapter is from the perspective of those two final leaves, clinging to their branch after the others have already fallen. In that winter scene, the two leaves raise questions of mortality and afterlife: “Why must we fall?” and “What happens to us when we have fallen?”

My prose-poem, “The Two of Us,” which was written to honor Salten and his deeply moving eighth chapter, is rooted in my own life experiences. My story reflects the musings of my wife and me over the recent loss of a friend, the birth of a loved one’s child, and the awareness of our own mortality.

THE WINNER AND A NEW CHALLENGE

And, we have a winner to my first challenge! Many people tried to guess the title and author—but only one person, Andy Britt, correctly identified Bambi as the story I was reading that inspired my own poem. Andy tells me that he instantly recognized my source. He had read Bambi in college, loved and was moved by the story, and wrote two papers as reflections on his reading. He said he recently watched the film version, which is quite different than the novel, because he and his wife are expecting a child. Congratulations, Andy, and Blessings to you and your family. Your signed copy of Short Stuff from a Tall Guy shall arrive soon.

THE NEW CHALLENGE—What stories have made a difference in your life?

These two columns I have written are the start of a series in which we invite readers to tell us, like Andy did in his note to me, about stories they’ve remembered all their lives. Andy continues to be shaped by Bambi. How about you? Perhaps the story that shaped your life was also “a children’s book.” Perhaps you remember enjoying it with a parent. Or, perhaps it’s a book you read as a teen-ager, a college student or a young adult. Maybe it’s a book you read to youngsters as an adult.

It’s your turn. Stories are powerful—and shape our lives in many unexpected ways.

th-Short-Stuff-from-a-Tall-Guy-CoverWhat stories have made a difference in your life?

Email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

BENJAMIN PRATT is the author of three books. The most recent is “Short Stuff from a Tall Guy.”

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Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With Groups

The Bob Alper interview: ‘Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This’

Life-Doesnt-Get-Any-Better-Than-This-front-cover-Bob Alper

CLICK THE COVER … to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Everyday in America, someone chuckles at Bob Alper. Sometimes, hundreds laugh at him.

On purpose.

Alper is the world’s only practicing rabbi who also is a full-time standup comedian. Some of the laughter echos from comedy clubs, universities and other professional stages in the US and the UK where he performs his trademark “100% Clean” comedy routines. Some of his fans laugh in their cars, since Bob is one of the most popular voices on Sirius/XM satellite radio’s “clean comedy” channel.

But, seriously now …

Alper also is a wise teacher, a sought-after rabbi, and this is the time of the year when the vast majority of Americans—millions of Christians and Jews—are marking treasured holidays. Christian Easter and Jewish Passover are vastly different celebrations, but both traditions have kept alive sacred stories handed down through thousands of years. Christians remember, in great detail, Jesus’s final days on earth and Jews remember, in great detail, God leading the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus.

Most Jewish Americans attend a Passover seder each year. And Christians? Pew researchers took a fascinating new look at church activity around Easter. The Pew experts examined online search trends and found “the highest share of searches for ‘church’ (at any time in the year) are on the week of Easter Sunday, followed by the week of Christmas.” The researchers looked back over a decade at this pattern of Americans searching for “church” and found the pattern was nearly identical, year after year.

So, why do some stories hold such sacred power that Americans move in predictable tidal waves each year, especially to retell and celebrate Jesus’s final days—and the story of Exodus?

Because, such ancient holidays are “holy”—and “holiness” is a part of the title of Bob Alper’s new book, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This. If the book’s subtitle were written in Hebrew, the word “holy” would be “kodesh,” which also could be translated as “set apart.” At this time of year, we might say that holiday time—and the stories we retell at these occasions—are “set apart” from the rest of the year.

And, as spring dawns across the Northern Hemisphere, that’s a powerful spiritual idea Bob Alper is unfolding in this book’s more than 200 pages: What makes life sweet is consciously deciding which experiences—which true stories—we will set aside, retell, savor and recognize as defining who we are.

In one chapter of his book, Bob addresses all of us who are somewhere in life’s second half. He says that, as we look at our lives, we may regret that we’re no longer a teen or a 20-something with all of life’s courageous possibilities lying ahead of us. But, Bob writes: We can reclaim some of that power if we carefully remember our life’s best moments, our holy stories. He writes: “I’ll never again rescue the damsel, save the multitude, and charge off into the sunset. But I can dream. And I can recollect. And I can savor. Often, that’s all I need.”

What kinds of stories are in this book? Have you ever taken a challenging hike, perhaps a climb in the mountains, that you never expected to conquer? Have you ever received a hand-made gift—accompanied by a story you didn’t expect? Have you ever rushed to comfort a loved one who has fallen and then found yourself caught up in their difficult recovery?

Do you remember an image of your child on a day so wonderful that you will never forget that moment? Bob remembers just such a day, way back in 1976 with his 4-year-old son Zack—and a snapshot he took of his son Zack, that day, is on the cover of this new book.

“When the first copies of this book arrived, I mailed one to Zack,” Bob says in the following interview. “He called me and he said, ‘Dad, you can tell a book by its cover!'”

And, that is a true story.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BOB ALPER ON
‘LIFE DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS’

DAVID: Let’s start with this word in your sub-title: Holy. The majority of Americans are Christian and, when Christians see that word, they may think this book is like Chicken Soup for the Soul. And it’s not. Your stories, I think, are even more powerful than what readers might find in Chicken Soup. So, tell us: What does “holy” mean to you?

Life-Doesnt-Get-Any-Better-Than-This-back-cover-Bob Alper

CLICK THE BACK COVER … to see it in a larger size that’s easier to read.

BOB: You’re right—when most people hear the word “holy,” they start thinking about old men with long beards, dusty books, big old buildings or maybe Gregorian chants. That kind of thing. But in Hebrew, “holy” is “kodesh,” which means set apart—something that’s set apart because it is so exceptional.

DAVID: And in terms of stories? What are holy stories from everyday life?

BOB: These are the stories we set apart, the stories that we recognize as holy. These are the stories that give meaning to our lives.

And the truth is: We all have them.

For me, this process begins with how we think about our lives. What do we choose to remember? And, then, how do we choose to remember it? I’m talking about a moment that might cause us to say, “Oh, what a nice experience!” Or, “What a great day!” We might say, “Wasn’t that cute.” Or, “Wasn’t that so nice!” But we know that some of these experiences are more than that. They’re not just “nice” or “cute” or “great.”

When we find ourselves saying things like that about an experience, we might be describing something that I would call holy. When I use that word, holy, I’m talking about grabbing these times, recognizing their extraordinary value, setting them apart and hanging onto these stories.

DAVID: There’s such a moment from your own life on the cover of the book, right?.

BOB: The cover was designed by a wonderful artist, Rick Nease. And the photo on Rick’s cover is my son Zack. This is my favorite photograph of my son at age 4. This was back in 1976. We were on Cape Cod on summer vacation and I took that picture as he was getting a drink from a fountain. That was one of the happier moments in our family.

When the first copies of this book arrived, I mailed one to Zack. He called me and he said, “Dad, you can tell a book by its cover!”

GETTING UNSTUCK

Rock Climbing hold

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

DAVID: One of the wisest messages you send to readers in this book is: Life comes in waves. There is an ebb and flow to the good times—and the bad. Sections of your book have titles like “From Weakness to Strength or Strength to Weakness” and “From Health to Sickness and Back, We Pray, to Health Again.”

In fact, we don’t often find a warm bowl of chicken soup at the end of a tough day. Sometimes things get worse. And, sometimes we’re surprised for the good. Without spoiling one of your best stories for readers, I can tell them this: You’ll never look at an ugly, hand-made afghan blanket the same way after you read this book.

Another of my favorites is called “Getting Unstuck” about your fear of heights—and the day you tried to climb a rock cliff as high as a 14-story building. In eight pages, you take us through the kind of outdoor challenge that so many of us, as non-climbers, can appreciate, including: What were you thinking setting out on this challenge!?! You tell the story so well, including the surprises on that cliff like a particularly nasty patch of poison ivy!

The reason that story is worth remembering and retelling? Because it’s about, as your chapter title puts it: “Getting Unstuck.”

BOB: It’s such a common experience!

Like millions of other people, I read Dear Abby every day. It’s a column about people who are stuck. Every question to “Dear Abby” is about someone who’s stuck and needs help. They don’t know what to do. But we do know that, if we go in the wrong direction, things can get worse. And, on that rock cliff, someone did head in a wrong direction, where they found the poison ivy. Much worse!

Of course, I got unstuck. And one reason is that I had a safety harness. I finally got to the top. I think it’s helpful for people to realize that we all get stuck—all the time in life. We’ve got to remember to look for the safety harnesses we may have. Stories like that in my book, or in Dear Abby, give people courage to hang on. Just like we all get stuck all the time—we can get unstuck, too.

CHANGE YOURSELF / CHANGE THE WORLD

Bill W aka Bill Wilson grave in East Dorset Vermont

EAST DORSET, VERMONT. Bill W’s simple grave is visited regularly by recovering men and women who leave AA sobriety medallions and, in a large coffee can, leave cards, photos, prayers and notes. (Photo by David Crumm.)

DAVID: A constant reminder of the possibility of change is right in your small town of East Dorset, Vermont, which is the birthplace of “Bill W,” co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. You tell some of that story in one chapter of this new book. I remember visiting Bill W’s birthplace, and his grave, back in 2010 when I visited you in Vermont, Bob. I think it’s one of the most moving sections of the book.

BOB: Our town is so quiet that, if a car drives up our dirt road, our dog barks. In our back yard, we see deer, moose, even bears. There’s a saying here: “Vermont is what America was.”

One of my daily privileges is going down to the post office. As I do that, I can look across the railroad tracks at the Wilson House, the center where Bill W was born in 1895. His parents ran an inn there and Bill W was born in a room behind the bar.

Every day, people come to Wilson House as a sign of thanks to Bill W. The program he created with Dr. Bob helped them change their lives for the better. It’s a privilege to see them there—people with all kinds of different clothing, in different conditions, clean shaven or with long beards, all kinds of different hair styles. Yet, they’ve all traveled to that place to show that they’ve achieved something that’s very hard to do—to gain sobriety and maintain it.

In my tradition, there’s an old Hassidic story about a young man who set out to change the world. And most of us can guess what happened: He couldn’t change the world. Then, he decided to change his country and that didn’t work, either. The story can go on and on—until finally the young man discovers that what he really needs to do is change himself. And, in changing himself, he is changing the world.

That’s the story of Bill W. and I am reminded of that every day in our town. And when I think about it, it still—(pauses). Well, let me put it this way. Just before this book was published, I had to proof the galleys and because I travel so much, I was working on planes. And it was embarrassing. There I was, the guy crying on the plane.

That’s not to say the stories in this book are all sad. Many of them are happy—but they are tear-enducing to me because they’re true—and because they’re so important.

And I’m not alone.

DAVID: What do you want to tell readers, in the end.

BOB: If you read this book, I hope you’ll find stories from your own life that will help you think about your life in helpful new ways. If you do, then you can start telling your own stories—and discover new meaning in your life.

Care to read more?

BOB’S BOOK—The easiest way to purchase Bob’s new book, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This, is through Amazon or you may want the Kindle edition. For more purchasing options, including Barnes & Noble and iBooks, visit our bookstore page for the new book. You can learn more about Bob’s life, his work—and his earlier book Thanks I Needed That on this author page.

Bob Alper in a Laugh in Peace comedy event

Bob Alper, at right, performing in a Laugh in Peace comedy show.

BOOK BOB—Over the years, Bob has appeared in venues large and small—from individual congregations to major universities, conferences, theaters and comedy clubs. His performances range from his 100% Clean solo standup shows—to a Scholar in Residence Weekend—to his very popular Laugh in Peace shows, which include a Muslim and a Christian comedian as well. You can learn all about him here—and you’ll find his tour schedule here.

CURIOUS ABOUT “KODESH” and “HOLY”? Entire books have been written on these themes, and Wikipedia has some helpful introductory articles. Here is the Judaism section of the overall “Sacred” article. Then, here is Wikipedia’s overview of the Hebrew term that begins ק-ד-ש.

LAUGH ALONG WITH AMERICA—In our opening lines today, we described the typical reaction to Bob Alper: Laughter! Here is a 5-minute clip from one of his shows at the University of Michigan:

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsJewish

The Adam Hamilton interview on ‘Revival’ of John Wesley

Cover of Adam Hamilton Revival Faith as Wesley Lived It

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page. (NOTE: Links to additional “Revival” multi-media resources appear in the interview, below.)

Why are so many people fascinated by a preacher, born more than 300 years ago in a little town 150 miles north of London? For long stretches of American history, John Wesley was all but forgotten. Adam Hamilton, the most famous United Methodist pastor in the U.S. these days, thinks Wesley’s rising popularity stems from the culture into which he was born in 1703.

At that time, the English were exhausted by a tragic and bloody history of religious conflict. The skeptical winds of the Enlightenment had been blowing across Europe, which meant that Wesley faced an era in which many bright people were walking away from the church. Much like today, the mid 1700s was “a perfect seedbed for the revival in which Wesley would play so prominent a part,” Hamilton writes in his new book, Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It.

Wesley’s life parallels many religious trends today:

  • John and his brother Charles understood that popular music was a key to church growth and, together, they unleashed on the world one of the largest bodies of then-contemporary church music.
  • John was a ceaseless pamphleteer and independent publisher who hauled a printing press into his church—a master of his era’s social media.
  • John wasn’t afraid of taking a stand on red-hot issues—condemning slavery long before the rise of the American abolitionist movement and supporting a daring new movement that encouraged compassionate care for the animals around us.
  • Most importantly, the Wesleys proclaimed that their brand of Christianity was a faith for head and heart. Emotion and intellect both were welcomed—faith and skeptical questions as well.

How do we know Wesley is trending? His name keeps popping up. Widely read inspirational writers like Rob Bell and Tony Campolo have been talking about Wesley more in recent years. Google’s N-gram Viewer, which searches phrases in 5 million books published since 1800, provides more evidence: Books about John Wesley peaked in the U.S. in the early 1800s. Then, Wesley buzz rose again for a few years just after World War II. Most recently, Wesley has been trending upwards since 2004.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author.  Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ADAM HAMILTON
ON JOHN WESLEY’S ‘REVIVAL’

Inside Pages of Adam Hamilton book RevivalDAVID: There are many good books about the life of John Wesley. Amazon says there are more than 500. Thousands of other books include a chapter or more on Wesley.

Why do you think he’s so popular today?

ADAM: I agree with you. I think there’s a great resurgence of interest in Wesley today.

He’s being embraced by people across the religious spectrum. Evangelicals continue to claim him as the father of the small group movement with an emphasis on spiritual disciplines and evangelical revival. And progressives in the church look to his teaching of the importance of works that go along with faith and his teaching that your faith doesn’t mean much if you’re not concerned for your neighbor. Almost everyone across the theological spectrum finds something they like and that inspires them in Wesley’s life.

There are people who follow Wesley all around the world. He’s had 300 years of people looking to him and taking what he’s taught and applying it in different ways.

WORLDWIDE WESLEY FAMILY TREE

DAVID: You’re right about the global scope. Today, there are many churches that trace roots back to the teachings of John Wesley. Of course, you’re part of the biggest branch: the United Methodist Church. Wikipedia’s “Wesleyanism” article lists more than a dozen current denominations that trace roots to Wesley.

Adam-Hamilton

Adam Hamilton

ADAM: In traveling and researching and writing this book, my hope was to help people from the entire Wesleyan background to rediscover this powerful inspiration that still is important in our world today. I’m convinced that John Wesley’s approach to the gospel may be one of the best hopes we have of reaching new generations of young people who are not religiously involved at all.

DAVID: You and Abingdon Press make rediscovering Wesley pretty easy. You’ve divided your message into a whole array of multimedia options. There’s a Revival DVD that goes along with the book that shows you talking about Wesley in all of these settings where Wesley lived and worked in the UK. Want to direct a series of group discussions? There’s a Revival Leader Guide, a Revival Youth Study Book, and even a Revival Children’s Leader Guide.

ADAM: I want to teach people—whatever their age—about the life of Wesley by following his life, but not by providing a long biography in this case. There are other in-depth biographies of Wesley out there. I wanted to tell people about his heart and character, by going to places that were important in his life and ask: How does what Wesley did here, or there, affect our lives today? I want people, whatever their age, to ask: How could this affect my life now?

If you get the DVD along with the book, you can use it in your small group and you’ll see me standing in the place where each chapter unfolds, talking about that part of Wesley’s life.

A WESLEYAN PILGRIMAGE

DAVID: That’s one reason I heartily recommend this book. Your aim is to reach young people, especially, and one way to do that is to have a strong video component. More than that, people want to experience religion today. In the Catholic world, pilgrimage has been a huge part of Catholic spirituality for many centuries. Methodists aren’t so big on that idea of traveling as a spiritual discipline, but your book invites people on a Wesleyan pilgrimage. You’ve even got specific travel tips sprinkled throughout the book. You’re saying people should hit the road and rediscover Wesley.

ADAM: That’s exactly what I’m doing this summer. I’m leading two groups of people to places that were important in Wesley’s life. One group will be people from our Church of the Resurrection and a second group will be pastors from other United Methodist churches.

DAVID: Let’s talk about one of the places you take readers—and viewers of the DVD—the famous church in London known as The Foundry. Americans who follow faith-and-politics in the news know another Foundry church in Washington D.C., which is famous for all of the presidents who have worshiped there. For 200 years, the D.C. Foundry has kept the name of Wesley’s Foundry alive in this country.

So, tell us about Wesley’s original Foundry in London. And, remind us: Where are we in his timeline?

ADAM: The Foundry work really begins in the 1740s.

He wound up there because he needed to find a place to meet in London after he experienced breaks with other religious societies. The Foundry was an old cannon factory—an ironworks used for making weaponry. It was a very large building and he saw it as a place where Methodists could meet in London. In the fall of 1739, he takes hold of the building and begins having it renovated. It becomes the home of Methodism in London for the next 38 years.

What the Foundry represents for me is Wesley’s emphasis on works of mercy. That’s what I talk about in that chapter of the book.

DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines: “At the Foundry in the 1740s, the Methodist works of mercy saw new expression. Wesley started a fund to make small loans, akin to today’s microlending, and the fund made loans to 250 people in the first year. On Fridays, the poor who were sick came to be treated and were provided basic medical care. In 1747, Wesley published a book on ‘easy and natural’ methods for ‘curing most diseases.’ Wesley and the Methodists at the Foundry leased two houses for poor and elderly widows and their children. And, they started a school for children who roamed the street.”

ADAM: And at Foundry, they brought in a printing press.

MASTER OF 18TH CENTURY SOCIAL MEDIA

DAVID: Let’s talk about that printing press at Foundry. John Wesley was deeply involved in the major issues of his era and, over time, he became a prophet way out ahead of others. He certainly was in his condemnation of slavery and in his call for compassionate care for animals. Some of Wesley’s critics used to joke that you could tell Wesley followers in a village by how well they treated their horses.

ADAM: That printing press was important! Wesley was constantly printing and publishing his sermons and tracts and responses to debates of the day. He published hundreds of different pamphlets and he published a huge number of books, too. He made these as cheaply as he could and distributed them as widely as he could. He was a major user of the social media of his day. If he were alive today, he would have been a master of social media.

DAVID: And that’s a big part of the reason that Methodism took off like wildfire across America after the Revolution. Of course, the explosion of Methodism in the early 1800s was the work of some other geniuses of religious organization. Historian Martin Marty once called Francis Asbury the George S. Patton of strategic deployment for Methodism for the way he deployed circuit riders across the American frontier—each one toting around with him Methodist books, like Wesley’s sermons.

ORGANIZATIONAL GENIUS

ADAM: Wesley had many talents. He was an effective preacher and we know from so many accounts that people were stirred when they saw or heard him. He was an Energizer Bunny who just kept going and going and going.

We know he traveled 250,000 miles across the British Isles and he did most of that on horseback. He was constantly reading and we know he did a lot of that reading while riding his horse! (Laughs!) Today, he’d be a terrible driver! He’d want to text while he was driving.

And he had this capacity to organize so it would continue after he was gone. His publishing efforts were a big part of this. He equipped the circuit riders—these traveling preachers—in his movement with a number of essential books. Every circuit rider at least had a copy of his notes on the New Testament, plus copies of his sermons. Publishing was a huge part of Wesley’s life. I own a copy of his notes on the New Testament that dates back to three years before he died in 1791. It’s one of the great treasures I have in my library.

DAVID: And you’ve said repeatedly over the years that you model your own ministry on Wesley’s, right?

ADAM: Yes, and I’ve shared this with my church and at many conferences where I’ve spoken. Here at our Church of the Resurrection, we have multiple campuses—and we also have more congregations that partner with us in other ways. We upload the sermons and share them online. Our partnering churches can just take the sermon and use it in that form, or they can preach their own sermon using some of the things they find in our sermons.

When I explain the way we do this, I say: “If Wesley were alive today, he would be uploading his sermons to share them and help other pastors preach. He would actively share his ideas and themes. From the beginning, he was providing so many ways that he knew a movement could flourish and grow.”

DAVID: So, we’re now about three centuries from his birth and roughly two centuries from his death. When readers go through your book, they will learn about parts of Wesley’s life when he was a failure. Early in his life, he had some unfortunate experiences. And they will learn about the faith that shaped his ministry into a movement that now circles the globe. Some of the things I’ve mentioned in our interview—the opposition to slavery and the care for animals, for example, were themes he emphasized much later in his long life.

ADAM: Yes, you’re right. When he was older, Wesley did become a sort of heroic and widely popular figure. In the last 30 years of his life, in particular, he was a folk hero across Great Britain. People wanted to meet him and talk to him in a way that wasn’t true early in his ministry. In that part of his life, he could speak more freely about issues like slavery.

In this book, I tried to capture what I love about Wesley and the most important thing I want to emphasize is that Wesley was able to hold in tension things that often would split communities apart. He taught that we should hold together the intellect and the heart. He didn’t want people to check their brains at the door.

Centuries ago—and still today—he called men and women to trust in Christ and, at the same time, to live out their faith in the world.

(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 InterviewsChristianGreat With Groups

What stories make a difference? ‘The Two of Us’

th-Short-Stuff-from-a-Tall-Guy-Cover“Good media builds good community.” That’s as true today as it has been in our religious traditions for thousands of years. Now, you can play a role—and perhaps win a signed copy of my new book Short Stuff from a Tall Guy in the process. Below is a prose poem, based on a chapter from a classic novel published nearly a century ago. The story has shaped lives around the world.

YOUR CHALLENGE—Name the book and author. Because the following is a prose-poem based on and extending from one famous portion of the book, you can’t use Google to find the source of the following text. But, read the text and think about it! Talk to friends. You’re free to repost or to print out this text and share it in your small group. RESPOND by emailing your thoughts to ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com. From the emails that correctly identify the original book, I will draw a winner and mail out a personally dedicated copy of Short Stuff. Then, I will return online to talk more about how powerful stories shape our lives—and I will tell you the moving story behind the famous novel.

THE TWO OF US

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Oak tree leaves in autumn

OAK LEAVES. (Photo by Pierre Selim, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

We cling to each other
like two oak leaves hanging on
against the chilling blast of
winter’s bitter bite.

It’s an ancient story;
yet only a day has passed since the latest news.
An old friend—
a beautiful, once-vibrant, gracious
breath of life—
fell.
Life’s winter season
racked body and soul.

The storyteller knows our questions:
“Why must we fall?”
And:
“What happens to us when we have fallen?”

We hold gloved hands
and lean into the bitter wind,
determined to complete our daily walk.
We shiver from the bitter news
as sleet begins to bite our faces.
Too cold to talk, our teeth chatter—
we surrender, return home
with heavy hearts and cold parts.

Off come the layers,
out spill the words,
“You never know who’s going to go next.”
For a moment we hold each other,
transferring tender warmth.

The phone rings and a new father bubbles:
“Our child is born!
“Mother and daughter are doing well.”
We laugh.
“Oh, such sweet news. Gentle kisses to
Momma and your new daughter.”

I mumble, “Others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others,
and more
and more.”

She says, “Which one of us will go first?”

“There’s still plenty of time to worry about that,” I say.

There is silence.
Then, she replies, “How kind you are.”

We hold each other and our questions:
Do you remember when we first met?
Do you remember how beautiful it was when…?
Do you remember the warm night on the sand when…?
Do you remember when we were so angry that…?

Finally I say it aloud: “Let’s remember.”

Do you remember?

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN …

Identify the original book and author. Email your thoughts to ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

Good media builds good community. It’s a truth that touches the core of our spiritual traditions.

 

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Categories: Great With GroupsNatural World